Comics/Graphic Novels

First Appearance Flashback: Thor

Superheroes have been around a long time, and most of the characters and genre conventions are pretty well established. But did every character always look and act the way we expect them to today? In this series, I’ll be looking at the first appearances of iconic superheroes to see what’s familiar, what’s fallen by the wayside, and what’s goofy as heck. Today: Thor!

Characters based on the Norse god Thor had been in comics almost from the beginning, but the Marvel character we know as Thor today first debuted in Journey into Mystery #83 (August 1962). Like so many Marvel mainstays, he was co-created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, with Stan’s brother Larry Lieber scripting. Not only does this year mark his 60th birthday (and also, like, his 1500th, but I don’t know what kind of present you get for that), he’ll soon be returning to the big screen in Thor: Love and Thunder, making him only the third superhero character to headline a fourth movie without being rebooted (alongside Batman and Superman), and making Chris Hemsworth the only actor besides Christopher Reeve to headline a fourth superhero movie. So yeah, Mama Frigga’s little boy has done pretty well for himself! But how did he start out?

The cover of Journey into Mystery #83. Thor is swinging his hammer at green aliens with rock-like skin who are leaping down from a spaceship. The cover has various bursts reading "Introducing...the Mighty Thor!" "The most exciting superhero of all time!!" and "Begin the saga of Thor in this issue!"
I know Thor was cleanshaven for a long time but he looks so weird to me here.

There is so much going on on this cover. Absolutely tremendous.

The opening splash page is even better:

A splash page from Journey into Mystery #83, with a large picture of Thor and two inset panels. The story is titled Thor the Mighty and the Stone Men from Saturn!

Main Panel: Thor holds his hammer in the direction of the reader.

Thor: The legend has come true! By the will of the gods, I am alive! I am invincible! I am - Thor!!!

Inset Panel 1: A man in a suit and hat, using a cane, looks out over a mountainous landscape.

Narration Box: Our story opens on the windy coast of Norway, where we see a frail figure silhouetted against the bleak sky! He is Dr. Don Blake, an American vacationing in Europe!

Inset Panel 2: Don turns away from the view. A spaceship flies behind him.

Narration Box: And, as Doctor Blake turns and leaves the site, he doesn't see the strange alien spaceship which silently lands behind him!
The winged T belt buckle is A Look, that’s for sure.

What I love about this story is that we’re one page in and already it’s throwing two absolutely bonkers unrelated concepts at us. The Norse god Thor and what’s presumably an alien invasion, in the same story? You know what, why not?

The next page confirms that, yes, the aliens (who are from Saturn) are here to invade Earth, with their super strength, invulnerability, incredible…um…jumping powers, and fabulous weapons. An “aged fisherman” sees them and hurries to warn the village, but no one believes him — though an eavesdropping Don Blake notes that he seems sane enough.

Six panels from Journey into Mystery #83.

Panel 1: An old man runs through the forest.

Old Man (thinking): "I must run to the village and sound the alarm!"

Panel 2: Two younger men scoff at the old man, while Don watches.

Narration Box: "But, when the old fisherman tells his story..."
Younger Man #1: "Stone creatures from outer space? What nonsense do you speak?!!"
Younger Man #2: "Begone, old man! Do not waste our time with fairy tales!"
Don (thinking): "It sounds fantastic! And yet, the man doesn't appear mad! I wonder...?"

Panel 3: Don climbs over some rocks leading away from a river.

Narration Box: "The following day, Dr. Don Blake decides to explore the coastal area described by the fisherman..."
Don (thinking): "So far I've seen no sign - wait - what's this? Footprints!! They lead around the bend!"

Panel 4: Don peeks out from behind a boulder and sees two green-skinned, rocklike aliens.

Don (thinking): "It's them - the aliens!! They're just as he said they were - men of stone!"
Alien: "Remember...death to any who discover our presence!"

Panel 5: A closeup of Don's foot stepping on a twig.

Don (thinking): "If they find me here, they'll kill me! I'd better leave while - blast it, I stepped on a twig!"
Alien #1: "Lo! An Earthling! He has seen us!!"
Alien #2: "After him! Do not let him escape!"

Panel 6: Don flees towards the rocks while the aliens give chase.

Don: "I - I can't run fast enough! They'll soon catch up to me!"
The Fantastic Four only debuted a year prior, so I guess we can’t blame these be-sweatered Norwegians for their skepticism. Give it a few years and an alien invasion is just another Wednesday.

Don hides in a cave, where he finds a hidden chamber with an ancient cane inside. He tries to use it to pry open a second exit, to no avail:

Three panels from Journey into Mystery #83.

Panel 1: Don, having removed his jacket and loosened his tie, tries to use the cane to lever a massive boulder out of the way.

Don: "Uhhh...I...I still can't budge it! But I must keep trying...mustn't give up...it's my only chance to escape!"

Panel 2: A closeup of Don's frustrated expression.

Don: "No! It's - it's hopeless! Even a bulldozer couldn't move that giant rock!"

Panel 2: Don hits the boulder with the cane and lightning radiates out from the impact.

Narration Box: "In helpless anger, Don Blake strikes the useless cane against the immovable boulder, and, as he does so..."
Don: "Wha - ?!!"
You tell that rock, Don!

Striking the cane has a miraculous result:

A six-panel page from Journey into Mystery #83.

Panel 1: Don stares at the cane, bathed in a golden glow.

Don: "The cave is bathed in blinding light!! Like a fiery bolt of lightning! And the ancient cane - it - it's changing shape!"

Panel 2: Don's silhouette gets larger, with a hint of a cape, and the cane begins to look like a hammer.

Don/Thor: "And - I'm changing too!! Can this be really happening - or am I going mad?!!"

Panel 3: Don, much more clearly silhouetted as Thor, thrusts his fists (and the hammer) upward.

Don/Thor: "No! It isn't mad!! I can feel my body bursting with power - power such as I've never known!!"

Panel 2: We can now clearly see most of Thor's costume but his face and hammer are still shadowed.

Thor: "The cane!! It has become a mighty hammer!! And I have been transformed into - into - wait! There are words inscribed on the hammer!!"

Panel 5: A closeup of the words carved on the hammer head: "Whosoever holds this hammer, if he be worthy, shall possess the power of...THOR."

Panel 6: Thor, clearly seen for the first time, swings the hammer and lightning crackles from it.

Thor: "Thor!! The legendary god of thunder!! The mightiest warrior of all mythology!! This is his hammer!! And I - I am Thor!!!"
…Yeah, Jack Kirby was pretty damn good at drawing funnybooks.

Presumably the lesson to children here is “Whenever you lose your temper, hit things with a stick.”

Don, now possessed of super strength, easily moves aside the troublesome boulder and escapes, then tries to puzzle out what has happened to him:

Three panels from Journey Into Mystery #83.

Panel 1: Thor lifts the boulder that had been blocking the exit as if it weighs nothing.

Thor: "The stone creatures will never suspect that their frail quarry escaped through this rear exit!"

Panel 2: Thor strikes a Thinker pose, looking out over the landscape.

Thor: "But what happens now? Do I walk amidst the civilized world as a - mythological god?? Or - ? It is too bewildering! I must pause...and think this out!"

Panel 3: Thor sits down.

Thor: "Thor...the god of thunder! What do I remember of him from my school days? He was the noblest and strongest of all the Norse gods!"
“As I recall, he was the god of thunder and striking truly hilariously staged poses!”

One of my favorite things about Golden and Silver Age comics is that they’ll just make up whatever they want about various mythological figures — e.g. this Supergirl comic confidently declaring that Neptune was telepathic. Thor is a very fun figure in the myths I’ve read, but I don’t think I would ever use the word “noble” to describe him.

Don proceeds to test his powers and discovers that if he throws the hammer, it will return to him, but if he puts it down for more than a minute, he reverts back to Don Blake. He can create storms by banging the handle on the ground, and fly by throwing the hammer but just…not letting go of it, which has always been my #1 favorite of Thor’s powers. There’s a lot of time spent on exactly how many times he has to bang the handle on the ground to create various weather conditions or revert to Don, which is very Silver Age — they loved extremely specific and arbitrary rules.

Two panels from Journey Into Mystery #83.

Panel 1: Thor swings his hammer around his head.

Thor: "The enemy is a long distance from me! Yet, by using the might of Thor, and whirling my hammer with the speed of lightning, I may yet be able to streak thru the sky, as the thunder god should!"

Panel 2: The hammer flies through the air, trailing Thor, who is holding the thong.

Thor: "There! I release my whirling hammer for a split-second, catching the unbreakable thong, and then - I am pulled along after it like the tail of a rocket!!"
Classic.

Thor flies off to confront the aliens, who have begun publicly terrorizing humans, and he turns out to be more than a match for them:

Two panels from Journey Into Mystery #83.

Panel 1: Thor flies up to confront the aliens.

Alien #1: "Behold! An Earthling! Flying thru the air! To attack us!"
Alien #2: "Do not slay him! He must be captured, and studied!"

Panel 2: Thor swings his hammer in a circle, breaking off pieces of the six rocky aliens surrounding him.

Alien #1: "Capture him? How??"
Alien #2: "His whirling weapon holds us at bay!"
I mean, not to tell you your business, aliens, but you have guns.

The aliens flee, believing that they have been wildly misled about how strong humans are. Don’s pretty pleased with himself. I can’t wait until he realizes he’s the real, actual Thor!

Six panels from Journey Into Mystery #83.

Panel 1: The aliens flee to their spaceship.

Alien: "Back1! Back to the ships at once!! We must flee this accursed planet!!"

Panel 2: Thor holds his hammer aloft as the spaceships depart.

Thor: "I've beaten them! I have proven that the power of a hammer and the might of the thunder-god are invincible! Nothing can conquer Thor! Nothing!!"

Panel 3: The infantry approaches and Thor crouches behind a boulder and strikes the hammer on the ground.

Thor: "Here comes the infantry! If I remain here, they'll question me!! They won't rest till they've learned my secret! I'll become an international curiosity! But, all that can be avoided by one gesture..."

Panel 4: The infantry watches the spaceships depart.

Soldier #1: "Look! The invaders are flying away!"
Soldier #2: "But why?? What could have driven them off??"
Soldier #3: "I don't know! There's no one in sight..."

Panel 4: Don, back to his normal form, walks away down a dirt road.

Soldier #3: "...except that lame passerby, with a gnarled old cane!"
Another soldier: "Well, it's a cinch that skinny gent isn't Earth's secret weapon!"
Don (thinking): "The menace is ended! Now, it's time for me to go back to the States...taking with me the greatest power ever known to mortal man!"

Panel 6: A closeup of the hammer. The text on it now reads: "Editor's Note: Thor the MIghty, the greatest new super hero of all time, will appear regularly in Journey into Mystery! Reserve next month's issue at your newsdealer now! It's sure to be a sellout!"
I hope you like casual ableism because Silver Age Marvel has got you covered. Sigh.

Wait, that’s it?

I had never read this comic before researching this article, and so I was very surprised to discover that there’s not even a hint that Don might actually be the real Thor, and not just possessed of his abilities. I did some digging, and it’s not until Thor #159 (December 1968) that Don learns the origin we’re all familiar with from the movies and modern comics: that he is really and truly Thor, the god of thunder, banished from Asgard by Odin in an effort to teach him humility.

That means that for six and a half years, Thor was…just kind of a regular superhero, with a secret identity and, like, a job and shirts with sleeves and stuff. He even has the usual Silver Age Marvel angsty thought-ballooning over his female employee, nurse Jane Foster, complete with the kind of self-hating ableism we see in Silver Age Iron Man and Daredevil comics (“A girl so lovely would never marry a — a lame man!” Don thinks in Journey into Mystery #84). The green rock aliens in this issue could easily be in a random issue of Fantastic Four or really any other book at the time.

Despite a strong start, this first issue ends up feeling very generic. I’ve only read one issue and I’m already chomping at the bit for the big reveal and the subsequent over-the-top space fantasy I’ve come to expect from the Thor franchise. Even calling him “Don,” as I’ve had to do here because that’s all he was at the time, feels super weird.

But you know, I think there’s a lesson here in the importance of specificity in heroes. Even the most cursory study of the history of comics will tell you that Marvel did phenomenally well in the ’60s by churning out new heroes with a reliable formula: a professional pipe-smoking man with an alliterative name gets extraordinary powers somehow, usually via radiation, and has a crush on his secretary. There are variations on this, obviously, but a strong family resemblance across the board.

But Thor didn’t become a really interesting character until he broke free of that mold. Similarly, the cinematic Thor has often suffered when lumped into the increasingly standardized superhero fare the MCU is churning out, rising to his loftiest heights with the elegantly Shakespearean Thor and the gleefully chaotic Thor: Ragnarok — the movies that differ from the standard superhero story.

The superhero genre has its conventions, to be sure, but it’s flexible, whether we’re talking 1960s comics or 21st century films. Thor is a great example of how the genre is at its best when it elevates what is unique about a given character, rather than faithfully following a formula. Here’s hoping that Thor: Love and Thunder keeps Thor as weird as he should be…and if you’re reading the comics, maybe go ahead and skip to 1968 to start.


Catch previous First Appearance Flashbacks, including SupermanCaptain AmericaHarley QuinnArchie AndrewsWonder Woman, Hawkeye, Spider-Man, and Batman.

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