When I started this series, I intended it to be a comparison between Marvel’s Thor comics and Norse mythology. That turned out to be a bit of a mug’s game because, well, the earliest issues had almost nothing in common with the myths. But now we come to the October 1963 issue, where all that changes thanks to the new back-up feature: “Tales of Asgard”.
For context, Journey Into Mystery had always been an anthology comic. It started out as a pre-code horror title in the EC mould, running stories like “Death of a Puppet” and “The Bewitched Bike”, and later adapted to the censorious post-code climate by running stories about giant monsters like Zog, Spragg and Shagg, with a new kaiju-alike in each issue. Even when Thor was established as the main feature, the comic had continued to run short, self-contained stories with titles like “I Know the Secret of the Sea Monster” and “Frederick Fenton’s Future” as back-up material.
Starting with issue #97, both the main feature and back-up in Journey Into Mystery were based around Thor – but they took two very different approaches.
First, let’s take a look at the main story. It’s called “The Mighty Thor Battles the Lava Man” and it’s a typical example of a 1960s superhero yarn. Thor is introduced going about his daily business, saving a jet fighter from a flying mishap and being hounded by paparazzi . In his alter ego of Dr. Don Blake, he returns to work alongside nurse Jane Foster, and the story recaps their relationship and Don’s frustration at having to keep his true identity a secret. Thor calls upon his father Odin for permission to marry her, only to be turned down.
While this melodrama has been unfolding, bystanders are reading newspapers with headlines like “Menace from Volcano Identified as Lava Man” and “Rally Troops to Stop Lava Man”; Loki, watching from above, takes credit for this development: “It was I who brought him to the surface as a sinister prank when I mentally caused a long-dead volcano to erupt”, he gloats. “I shall watch in amusement as he defeats the heartsick Thor!”
The Lava Man goes on the rampage. “I claim all the dry surface of Earth for the lava people! Too long have we dwelled below, while you piny humans enjoyed the fruits of the surface! Your weapons are distasteful to me! I shall destroy them—so!” The army is swiftly overwhelmed, their ammunition melting before it gets anywhere near him.
Thor comes up with some inventive tricks to chase down the steamy villain, and even attempts reasoning with him – it’s not all punch-first, questions-later with our god of thunder. The Lava Man’s last move is to turn himself into a giant pillar of stone and topple over onto Thor, but our hero is able to defeat him by whipping up a whirlwind and sending him back into a volcano.
Despite this victory for the forces of good, the story has a melancholy ending. Don Blake returns to work only to be snapped at by Jane for failing to help her during the Lava Man’s attack. As threatened, she goes off with Dr. Andrews, leaving Don/Thor alone.
“The Mighty Thor Battles the Lava Man” is a textbook example of a superhero story that runs along lines established by Siegel and Shuster in the 1930s. It’s built around a done-in-one structure that pits the hero against a new villain with a new power, and is bookended with scenes relating to the wider narrative of his romantic relationship. The super-battle is the main draw, something that Thor’s dialogue tacitly acknowledges (“This is what I needed!! Action! Combat! A foe to lash out at! Not for me are the romantic pursuits of human beings! I was born for battle! My limbs ache to smash and shatter!”) but the romantic subplot adds a little emotional depth – particularly for adolescent boys in the readership who have, just like Don Blake, struggled to articulate themselves to girls. It’s a strong formula, and a formula that had already been used time and time again at Marvel.
Now we move on to the first Tale of Asgard. Stan Lee introduces the subject in the mighty Marvel manner:
Before man could read or write, he had his legends! And no legends were more thrilling, more colourful, more filled with fantasy and high adventure than the legends of Asgard, home of the gods! Thus, with great pride, we present this new, trend-setting series, based upon highlights of Norse mythology – tales of Asgard, birthplace of the mighty Thor!!
We’re told that “heroic legends can only originate from a heroic people… and none were more heroic than the ancient Norsemen who struggled valiantly against wild beasts and wilder weather!” Indeed, Lee notes that battle was a way of life for both sexes, as “the hardy farmers and their womenfolk were forced to take up arms against savage raiders from the mountains”.
This romanticised vision of history segues into an overview of Norse cosmology. “To the Norsemen, their legendary characters were either all good or all bad! Their good gods were called the Aesir – and they fought for ages against the totally evil frost giants!” After this, we are introduced in turn to the land of fire and land of mist that border the home of the Aesir, to “Sutur, the demon of fire” who sits at the world’s end waiting for the time when he might “go forth to destroy gods and men alike”, and to the well of life from which all rivers flow.
The lands of fire and mist would be Muspelheim and Niflheim, which play significant roles in the Norse creation myth (I’ll come to that shortly). The comic’s brief portrayal of Surtur, whose name is more commonly rendered Surtr, tallies up pretty well with the Prose Edda’s description of him as he “stands on [Muspelheim’s] border guarding it” with “a flaming sword in his hand, and at the end of the world, he will come and harry, conquer all the gods, and burn up the whole world with fire.” The comic’s “well of life”, meanwhile, appears to be based on Hvergelmir, which is described by the Prose Edda thus:
Many ages before the earth was made, Niflheim had existed, in the midst of which is the well called Hvergelmir, whence flow the following streams: Svol, Gunnthro, Form, Fimbul, Thul, Slid and Hrid, Sylg and Ylg, Vid, Leipt and Gjoll, the last of which is nearest the gate of Hel.
Incidentally, all quotations I’m posting are from Rasmus B Anderson’s 1901 translation of the Prose Edda, although I’ve talen the liberty of inserting some more widely-used name spellings.
The comic then shows us the frost giant Ymir, who emerges from the ice alongside the cow Audhumbla (this beast is not identified by name, and is referred to simply as “the magic cow”). Here’s how the Prose Edda describes Ymir’s creation in Ginungagap, the space between fiery Muspelheim and icy Niflheim:
As cold and all things grim proceeded from Niflheim, so that which bordered on Muspelheim was hot and bright, and Ginungagap was as warm and mild as windless air. And when the heated blasts from Muspelheim met the rime, so that it melted into drops, then, by the might of him who sent the heat, the drops quickened into life and took the likeness of a man, who got the name Ymir. But the Frost giants call him Aurgelmer.
The Marvel version takes a number of liberties with this story. Ymir is described as being shaped from “the tons of ice which had been forming above the well of life” rather than the mingling of ice and fire in Ginungagap. The fact that we’re introduced to Ymir after the frost giants and Aesir also complicates things, as none of those should have existed at this time: presumably we’re in a flashback, but it’s not clear where the flashback started). On a more subtle level, note that the illustrations portray Ymir as a figure made up of living ice: it would be reasonable to interpret the mythic narrative as describing a transformation, in the same way that Genesis describes clay being transformed into the living flesh of Adam, but Marvel has gone with the more literalistic conception of Ymir is a giant snow-goon.
The comic also removes the part of the myth in which Ymir begets fellow giants from his sweaty limbs:
It is said that when he slept he fell into a sweat, and then there grew under his left arm a man and a woman, and one of his feet begat with the other a son. From these come the races that are called frost-giants. The old frost-giant we call Ymir.
Marvel’s retelling describes Ymir as the “greatest of all the evil frost giants”, but we never learn where the other members of his race came from. The comic is more accurate in its portrayal of the cow, Audhumbla, who is describd thus in the Prose Edda:
The next thing was that when the rime melted into drops, there was made thereof a cow, which hight Audhumbla. Four milk-streams ran from her teats, and she fed Ymir.
I love the fact that Lee and Kirby, in retelling the Norse myths for an audience of superhero-loving kids, felt that the big magic cow was more important than a race of frost giants.
Next, the first got Buri is born from the ice. Marvel sadly downplay the role of the primal bovine in this story: the comic has her merely observing the god’s birth, but in the Prose Edda, Audhumbla is responsible for licking Buri out of the ice:
She licked the salt-stones that were covered with rime, and the first day that she licked the stones there came out of them in the evening a man’s hair, the second day a man’s head, and the third day the whole man was there. This man’s name was Buri; he was fair of face, great and mighty…
Eighteenth-century Icelandic depiction of Audhumbla licking Butri from the ice.
We are told that Buri married and had a son named Borr. The identity of Buri’s wife is unclear in the Prose Edda, but she is presumably one of the female frost-giants; indeed, Borr himself goes on to marry a woman named Bestla, who is identified as the daughter of a giant named Bolthorn. The comic makes no attempt to explain where these women came from and simply shows Borr and his unnamed wife alongside their three kids in a stone hovel that has, apparently, been build in this icy wasteland.
The Prose Edda describes Bor’s sons Odin, Vili and Ve slaying Ymir, wiping out almost all of the frost-giants in the process:
The sons of Bor slew the giant Ymer, but when he fell, there flowed so much blood from his wounds that they drowned therein the whole race of frost giants; excepting one, who escaped with his household. Him the giants call Bergelmer. He and his wife went on board his ark and saved themselves in it. From them are come new races of frost-giants
After which, they use Ymir’s remains to build the Earth:
They took the body of Ymir, carried it into the midst of Ginungagap and made of him the earth. Of his blood they made the seas and lakes; of his flesh the earth was made, but of his bones the rocks; of his teeth and jaws, and of the bones that were broken, they made stones and pebbles… Of the blood that flowed from the wounds, and was free, they made the ocean; they fastened the earth together and around it they laid this ocean in a ring without, and it must seem to most men impossible to cross it… They took his skull and made thereof the sky, and raised it over the earth with four sides. Under each corner they set a dwarf, and the four dwarfs were called Austre (east), Vestre (West), Nordre (North), Sudre (South). Then they took glowing sparks, that were loose and had been cast out from Muspelheim, and placed them in the midst of the boundless heaven, both above and below, to light up heaven and earth. They gave resting-places to all fires, and set some in heaven; some were made to go free under heaven, but they gave them a place and shaped their course.
Here, the comic loses the plot. The remainder of the creation myth is confined to two: in the first, the adult Odin is then shown slaying “the last of the ice giants, thus bringing about the first triumph of good over evil”. The final panel depicts Odin and his two silhouetted brothers (unnamed in the comic) looking at Earth, presented as a globe dominated by the giant tree Yggdrasil. “Odin and his two brothers soon turned their attention to Earth! For there was much about Earth that was beautiful—much about Earth that they loved!”
I can’t help but wonder if this sequences arose from a lack of communication within the creative team. I suspect that Kirby intended these two panels to portray Odin slaying Ymir and then looking proudly upon the Earth he has built from the giant’s remains – but Lee was unfamiliar with the details of the myth and simply made up his own version of events when writing the captions.
So, the series is now carrying on along two lines, with the main stories following Thor’s superheroic antics in the present day and the backup feature examining his mythic heritage. But notably, there’s no attempt to connect the two. For example, the rampaging Lava Man could easily have been established as an offspring of Sutur, thereby giving him a mythological origin – but instead he’s passed off as just one of a race of lava men living underground, presumably originating as some sort of evolutionary fluke as per the science fantasy of superhero comics.
Plus, we still have the question of exactly why Thor is bothering to masquerade as Dr. Don Blake in the first place – a question that longtime readers would have been asking ever since it was decided that Marvel’s Thor was the Thor, rather than a mortal man who’d found Thor’s hammer. The comic was making more of an effort to integrate Norse myths, but it was struggling to make them cohere with the superheroic stuff.