We’ve seen first three adventures for Marvel’s Thor; now it’s time for the next two storiea of 1962: “On the Trail of the Tomorrow Man!” and “Prisoner of the Reds!” As it happens, both of these use the Cold War arms race as a plot element…
“On the Trail of the Tomorrow Man!” in Journey Into Mystery #86 opens in the twenty-third century, an era of world peace where no weapons exist and people instead spend their times flying around on hover-scooter thingies.
Well, except for one person: an evil inventor named Zarrko has built a time machine and intends to take it back to the twentieth century, so he can make off with some weapons and take over his own era.
Back in 1962, the US military has developed some new weapons and – in a brilliantly surreal sequence – is trying them out on the Norse god of thunder. Thor, it transpires, has agreed to help out America’s military R&D by racing missiles and subjecting himself to the full blast of a cobalt bomb.
“Thor believes he can survive it”, remarks one man; “if he does, he’ll provide us with invaluable information”, replies another. They seem unsure as to whether or not their bomb will kill Thor, so that must be some pretty dang handy information they hope to glean.
But this test is rudely interrupted by the time traveller, who pinches the bomb and vanishes into the future before Thor can stop him. Thor’s only hope is to call upon Odin for help.
This is the first proper appearance of Odin in the comic (the previous issue’s panel showing the back of his head hardly counts). It’s also more evidence that the Marvel bullpen hadn’t actually decided who the main character of the comic was. He was introduced as Don Blake, a mortal man who’d found Thor’s hammer – but this sequence only makes sense if he is the literal god Thor: “Oh, mighty Odin – behold the plight of thy eldest son, Thor!”
Here, Jack Kirby depicts Odin with two eyes. This is contrary to the myth that Odin gave one of his eyes to drink from the well of Mimir, as described in the Prose Edda:
[U]nder the second root [of the world-tree Yggdrasil], which extends to the frost=giants, is the well of Mimer, wherein knowledge and wisdom are concealed The owner of the well hight Mimer. He is full of wisdom, for he drinks from the well with the Gjallarhorn. Alfather [Odin] once came there and asked for a drink from the well, but he did not get it before he left one of his eyes as a ledge. So it is said in the Vala’s Prophecy:
Well know I Odin,
Where you hid your eye:
In the crystal-clear
Well of Mimer.
Historical depictions of Odin show him with one eye closed, and later Marvel comics would give him an eyepatch.
Odin grants Thor a new power: by attaching a fragment of metal left by the time-traveller to his hammer, Thor can travel three centuries forward to the era of Zarrko. This done, he meets the denizens of the twenty-third century, who tell him that Zarrko has taken over the world by using the cobalt bomb as a threat.
Naturally, the ensuing battle is drawn along the questionable (but nonetheless entertaining) lines of silver age comic book sci-fi. Thor, accompanied by a mysterious robed figure, sets off to confront Zarrko – only to end up trapped in a “room of magnetic mirrors”. But all is not lost: it turns out that this Thor is merely a decoy, and the robed figure was the real God of Thunder.
Zarrko’s next move is to zap Thor into another dimension using his delta-electron gun, but Thor escapes by emitting a breath so strong that it takes him back into the third dimension.
After this, Zarrko sends some “giant robots, the laborers of the 23rd century” to nick Thor’s hammer; but our hero vanquishes them by smashing a water pipe and flooding the room (the comic turns this into a ticking-clock scenario, with an in-panel countdown reminding us that Thor has only sixty seconds of power when separated from his hammer).
In desperation, Zarrko flies off in a small spaceship, aiming to drop the cobalt bomb in an attempt to destroy the world he can no longer rule. Having got his hammer back, Thor defeats Zarrko by causing a storm – the ancient thunder god triumphing over futuristic science.
Zarrko survives, but has conveniently lost his memories; meanwhile, Thor returns to 1963 with the cobalt bomb. The story wraps up with Thor’s alter ego John Blake exchanging words with nurse Jane, who pines for the handsome deity – unaware that she works alongside him.
“Prisoner of the Reds!” in Journey Into Mystery #87 begins with a woman finding that her scientist husband is missing, and has left a note with a stark announcement: “Farewell! I no longer believe in our American way of life! I’m going behind the iron curtain to serve the Reds!” This man, it turns out, is the fifth American scientist to turn commie in the past month. What is behind this flurry of defections?
Dr. Don Blake (still aching over his love for Jane) decides to investigate. He announces that he has developed a new virus for germ warfare, and thereby attracts the attention of the communist plot.
A shady figure masquerading as a reporter arrives at Don’s laboratory and places him in a trance with an unspecified gas, forcing him to leave a farewell note and head off to Russia.
Our hero ends up in a cell with the other captured scientists, who are being forced to carry out research for the Soviets. When no-one is looking, Blake turns into Thor and carries out a rescue mission. He shatters the walls of the cell with shock waves from his spinning hammer; when confronted by guards, he rubs his hammer until the villains are blinded by sparks.
The commies deploy a series of standard-issue comic book traps. First is a trapdoor leading to a pool of man-eating sharks, which Thor routs by creating a whirlpool…
Next are electronically-treated chains to bind our godly protagonist, which Thor escapes simply by turning back into Dr. Blake.
He then breaks the other captives out by digging a tunnel with his spinning hammer. “His power comes from a source beyond science” says one of the scientists; “it is the power of a Norse god!”
Finally, Thor destroys the entire Soviet fortress with a well-placed storm. After this, he and the other captives are able to make it back to the Land of the Free.
Thor’s double life as Dr. Don Blake, which had not been a particularly significant part of these stories since he found his hammer in the first instalment, plays a bigger role than usual in this outing. Thor’s whole plan hinges on using his secret identity to get to the bottom of the Communist scheme, by creating – or at least pretending to create – a weaponised virus. As an aside, Dr. Blake’s involvement with biological warfare is the first time he’s been shown to be anything other than a medical doctor; as the US would formally abandon biological warfare by the end of the decade, it was a side to his character that would not last long.
Later on, Thor escapes from captivity by changing back into his mortal frame. But as well as helping him, Thor/Blake’s double identity can be a hindrance, as when he is forced to wait until the other scientists’ backs are turned before he can turn into Thor.
The final scene has Dr. Blake reunited with Jane, and we see the ultimate drawback to the secret identity: it turns the potential romance between the two into a love triangle, Blake being afraid to admit his love to Jane, and Jane loving Thor without realising that he and Blake are the same man (this is, of course, a variation of the Clark/Lois/Superman triangle, familiar to fans of the genre).
As with Thor’s first two outings, these are stock superhero stories that could easily have been rewritten with many other protagonists. But with the next issue, the creative team would return to the well of Norse mythology (hopefully without any optical organs left behind) and re-introduce the slippery Loki…