The Mighty Thor #272:
Thor flies over New York City, enjoying the freedom of a beautiful day on Earth, but still he spots some real trouble: a bully is beating up a kid in front of other smaller kids! Thor scares the bully away, but Joey, the kid getting beat up, wonders what a Thunder God would know about being bullied and getting picked on. Intriguingly, Thor begins to tell a story from his youth, when he was traveling through Asgard with his brother Loki. The tale he tells is adapted directly from a real Norse myth that can be found in The Prose Edda. (Sturluson, Snorri, transl. Jean I. Young, U Cal Press, Berkeley, 1992, 69-78.)
In the comic, the two brothers are lost and need to find a place to sleep for the night. Luckily, they come across a strange cave. In the morning, they realize they spent the night in the glove of a giant. Skrymir the giant tells them they are in the land of Utgard. Hoping he can show them a way out of this foreign land, Thor and Loki follow him, but have difficulty keeping up with a giant. When Skrymir stops for a rest, Thor and Loki ask for some food. He tells them there is food in his bag, but Thor is unable to untie the rope that seals the bag. His anger at this failure leads him to hit Skrymir with his hammer, but the giant only responds by saying he felt something; a small insect bite perhaps? Thor and Loki are baffled, but continue to follow him. Eventually, at a giant castle they find a giant king named Utgard, who offers them a choice: the dungeon or five tests.
- Test One: Loki competes in an eating contest with skinny Logi. Logi handily wins, eating even the plates and table.
- Test Two: Loki races odd and ungainly little Hugi. Hugi wins with ease.
- Test Three: Thor must drain a horn full of water. He barely brings the water level down a drop.
- Test Four: Thor must pick up a house cat. He fails.
- Test Five: Thor must defeat a surprise challenger, Utgard’s old and frail mother. The mother easily bests Thor.
Even in defeat, Thor and Loki are defiant, remaining confident in their own abilities, which pleases Utgard. So he explains: the bag of food was sealed by magic; Thor struck his hammer into a mountain, not Skrymir’s face; Logi was fire; Hugi was Loki’s own thoughts, faster than anything; the horn’s end was in the ocean, impossible to drain; the cat was the Midgard serpent, entwined around the world, impossible to lift up; the hag was Old Age itself and drained Thor of his power by aging him. Utgard reveals he is Skrymir, and that he did all this through magic to show the young gods they are not so wonderful after all. He disappears.
Through this tale, Thor explains how he learned strength is not enough. Everyone will someday meet someone more talented, somewhere. Back on the streets of New York City, Joey learned his own lesson: “There’ll always be somebody, somewhere, who’s stronger’n me. So I’m just gonna work on takin’ care of myself [a]nd keep on puttin’ one day right after the other.” As Joey leaves, he tells Thor, “The Force be with you!” Thor is puzzled by those words, but glad Joey learned the correct lesson.
As Thor is about to take off, newsman Harry Hobbs flags him down and asks a favor. He wants to film a documentary – in Asgard!
Such a tale functions as a “fill-in” issue. The timetable of making comics every month leads to the inevitable missed deadline, so there were stories kept on hand by editors to slot into issues as needed. The best fill-ins don’t interrupt regular continuity but are never meant to begin a new storyline. For a comic such as Thor, based on the god of Norse mythology, it’s rather efficient and fun to have such an issue be based directly on a myth. That said, however, this issue may not have been a true fill-in, but rather more of an issue around which the creative team changed: from Len Wein and Walter Simonson to a team already known for their work on Thor, Roy Thomas and John Buscema. Though both Wein and Simonson are legendary creators today, in 1978, Thomas and Buscema were living legends. It’s a pleasant transition to use a real Norse myth to set up the new team, with only a nod to the new storyline at the very end.
The use of the real myth and the framing story of the boys and the bully is another good example of how myth works in our lives. Roy Thomas lets Thor tell his own myth, providing a narrative example to help the kids contemplate their own bullies. The myth suggests ways they can act, or not, to get through such problems. By telling them his story, Thor expects them to understand the positive and negative and to keep both in mind when acting in their own lives. This is what myths do, and why I suggest any narrative can be mythical if there is someone contemplating it. This tale demonstrates how even Thor can lose and how his anger was of no use in changing the situation. It also explains to child and adult alike that it is not always your fault when you fail. The giant enchanted the brothers and they had no way of knowing what they were up against. What was important was that they both continued to try.
Thor’s story also portrays the two usual enemies as the brothers they actually are. Loki is constantly unhappy over Thor’s place in Asgard and the low regard the Asgardians hold him in. He did not start out evil though. There was a time he appreciated the Thunder God’s strength and courage, as Thor often recognized the value in Loki’s quick and wily mind. The kids on the streets of New York need to stick together to be able to help each other. Although they will never be free of bullies, they need to understand that who they were and what they did mattered. They should not be so concerned with what others said about / did to them. In the Marvel Universe, Joey and the other kids learned the lesson. The lessons taught at the Catholic school in my real life were actually very similar. In addition to trusting in ourselves and each other, though, we were taught that God would take care of us. My suspicion was always that this was only talk, since God never smacked down any of our bullies.
Instead of the usual letters in “The Hammer Strikes”, there is a note from Roy Thomas, explaining why he returned to script Thor again. The note is a functional history of the comic itself and his eventual reason for returning strikes me: “Suffice it to say that one of my own chief interests for some three decades has been mythology. As Odin or somebody used to say: ‘Nuff said’” Thomas is famous for having written comics as if they were histories, crafting tales of current heroes as if they naturally came after earlier tales, unrelated until the new story. In other words, he was always hard at work developing and connecting the narratives of the comics he wrote – and some he did not write – into one complete mythology. ‘Nuff said, indeed. More about Roy Thomas later.
Finally, as the Marvel Bullpen Bulletins were always the last bit I read in an issue, this one ends on another sad note. Under Stan’s Soapbox, the bulletins were absent and the visual style signals something different and important: yet another death announcement in the Marvel family, this time John Verpoorten’s passing. Verpoorten was the Marvel Production Manager, a behind-the-scenes employee crucial to the business of getting comics physically published every month. For a reader – and most of all, a young reader – there was no reason I should have known who John Verpoorten was. But strangely, I did, and the nearly half page devoted to the announcement suggests other readers knew him as well. He was “Jumbo” John Verpoorten, his physical size as legendary as the size of his heart. I suppose I knew about him from the Bulletins pages, or perhaps from the Marvel fanzine F.O.O.M. But I had an image of a large man looming over the Bullpen and making sure comics got out each month. He was part of the pantheon in the mythology of the real Marvel Bullpen. Narratives about the Bullpen, which was not even real because many artists worked out of their homes by this time, made readers think of the Marvel employees as being as special as the superheroes they wrote and drew.
Why was Verpoorten so well regarded? As the obituary states, “Certainly there are few staffers or freelancers for whom at one time or another he didn’t bend a rule, make an exception, or go out on a limb. This wasn’t a job requirement or any kind of a necessity, but it made Marvel a better place to work and ultimately probably made the work produced by Marvel better as well.” The lesson Thor tried to teach the kids on the streets of New York had already been learned and put into motion every day by the Marvel Production Manager, John Verpoorten. At 37 years of age, he died way too young, but in the mythology of the Marvel Universe, perhaps only for those of a certain age, he remains a vital part of its heart.
Excerpted from “Everything I Needed to Know about Life (I Learned from Marvel Comics” ©2017 Joseph P. Muszynski