By Luis Tuscano
In the world of comic-books, it’s very easy to remember the main characters. After all, they get to have their names printed on big letters right on the cover: The Amazing Spider-Man! The Fantastic Four! Wolverine!
But every once in a while, a defining story is made by a creator or creative team, tying their names to that of the main character forever. That is the case with Walt Simonson, whose run in the Thor comic-book was nothing short of perfect.
Simonson is a longtime comic-book fan, reading them since he was just a little kid. But it wasn’t until the 60’s, when he was in college studying Geology, that he discovered the then brand new Marvel Comics, and started reading the adventures of a certain God of Thunder.
He finished his studies in geology, then studied art in the Rhode Island School of Design, where he created a graphic novel called The Star Slammers. Shortly after graduating, he went to New York, but no to work for Marvel, but for the Distinguished Competence!
In his time there he did mostly short stories, but his collaboration with legendary creator Archie Goodwin (Batman, Star Wars) on Manhunter gained him fame and recognition, moving on to do other series like Metal Men, and even a comic-book adaptation of Alien for Heavy Metal magazine.
Simonson also collaborated with his wife, writer Louise Simonson (Power Pack, Superman: The Man of Steel) on the X-Factor series, and they wrote the Havok and Wolverine: Meltdown limited series.
There’s not much I can say about his run on Thor (#337-382) that wasn’t covered already in the podcast. His stories and art brought a sense of the epic and cosmic that has defined the character since then, so you should really read it all.
But in case you still have some doubts, allow me to present some choice, shorter Marvel stories that might give you a taste of Walt Simonson’s work is like.
The Fantastic Four can’t catch a break. Just after coming back home from one of their time-traveling cosmic adventures, they find out that they ended up on the wrong Earth!
In this reality, Dan Quayle is president of the U.S.A., while Joseph Stalin, piloting a giant robot, is still leading the U.S.S.R.!
What is worse, total nuclear war is slated to start tomorrow! That is, unless the Fantastic Four can stop the nukes from hitting their targets, and then solve the mistery behind Stalin’s longevity and erratic behavior.
It’s a real good reading, going from the normalcy of settling back after a long journey, to how each member of the team (plus Sharon Ventura, filling in as She-Thing, since Ben Grimm went back to normal) finds out that they’re not in their real home.
And despite the seriousness of having to deal with World War Three and a nuclear apocalypse, somehow there’s still a lot of humor, even more at the end.
But then we get a more adventurous history in the next arc, where the Fantastic Four go back to their own world, but end up in a strange island inhabited by dinosaurs!
And if that’s not enough, they have to deal with the loss of their powers, and a lost U.S. Army squad whose commander doesn’t trust them, since they’re no longer fantastic.
Simonson’s studies of Geology and Paleonthology shine through in this story. He even included feathered disnosaurs, even though at the time it was a new theory, along with a nicely drawn island jungle as the backdrop.
His art is great overall in these two arcs, from the mundane of people just talking, to the mechanical designs of the stuff the Fantastic Four have to deal with, and all the dinosaurs are rendered with great form.
If you liked these Fantastic Four stories, you migh want to go back a bit until the start of this run in issue #337. It would be the start of an adventure where the team would deal with time travellers, a character from Marvel U.K., the Shi’ar, and even a Celestial (Remember the big head/space station in Guardians of the Galaxy? That’s one of them).
Remember back in the first Panel x Panel blog I said that there was another bit more to the Dark Phoenix Saga? Well, here it is!
While the credits say that Simonson just provided the art, writer Chris Claremont says in the foreword that both Walt and his wife Louise had some input for the story during two all-nighters at their home.
And what a story! Darkseid, ruler of the hellish planet Apokolips, wants to break hrough the Source Wall, to get at the incredible power beyond it. And that’s because he plans to revive the Dark Phoenix, by collecting various residues of her energy all around Earth and mixing them with the Source.
But both the X-Men and the Teen Titans are warned by apparitions of Phoenix, and go on to investigate in their own ways: The X-Men go looking around the various places Phoenix used her powers, while the Teen Titans go to Charles Xavier’s mansion.
The New Teen Titans were at this time equal in popularity to the Uncanny X-Men, thanks to writer Marv Wolfman(Daredevil, The Amazing Spider-Man) and artist George Pérez (Avengers, JLA/Avengers).
They were a group of teen heroes, leaded by Robin, Batman’s sidekick. Other members were Starfire, an alien princess from planet Tamaran; Raven, an empath and daughter of a demon; Changeling, who could transform into any animal; Wonder Girl, an orphaned girl rescued by Wonder Woman and adopted by the Amazons; Kid Flash, sidekick to the Flash; and Victor Stone, a young african-american athlete who lost most of his body in an accident and got robotic replacements attached to him.
After dealing with Professor X, the Teen Titans get ambushed by a squad of Parademons, minions of Darkseid, who think they’re fighting the X-Men. The Teen Titans are kidnapped, and taken to Darkseid’s base.
Meanwhile, the X-Men find another group of Parademons, trying to gather the final energy residue of Phoenix. Thye’re led by Slade Wilson, a.k.a. Deathstroke the Terminator. He’s an enemy of the Teen Titans, a mercenary who has enhanced physical and mental abilities, and has appeared on the Arrow TV show. Even though the X-Men destroy the machine, they too are defeated.
Both groups of heroes are taken back to the Source Wall, where Darkseid explains his plan: with the help of the Dark Phoenix, he will turn Earth into a second Apokolips, where his march of universal conquest will begin. By mixing the energy residues, the Source’s energy and the X-Men’s memories, he manages to revive the Dark Phoenix.
Darkseid then goes on to start his evil plan, leaving the X-Men and the Teen Titans stranded at the edge of the universe. The heroes then decide to collaborate with each other to prevent the destruction of Earth.
Since you’ve probably read the Dark Phoenix Saga, then you can just jump right in into this story. Not only it has good art from Walt Simonson, including a great page of Dark Phoenix and Darkseid together, but also great writing from Chris Claremont, who nails the voices of the Teen Titans as well as the X-Men.
It is a great read, and what I consider the true end to the Dark Phoenix Saga, even if it happened in a Marvel/DC crossover.
Like I was going to leave out this one, the story that started Simonson’s great Thor run!
It starts with Thor being warned that an unknown alien ship is racing towards Earth at great speed. Since SHIELD don’t want it getting too close without knowing if it’s friendly or not, they ask Thor to board the ship and investigate it.
After dealing with the ship’s defense systems, the onboard computer wakes up Beta Ray Bill, a warrior whose power rivals the mighty Thor. During the battle, Thor lets go of his hammer Mjolnir, which is picked up by Bill.
And just like it was engraved on the hammer, Bill obtains all of Thor’s powers, which he then uses against SHIELD troops after his ship crashes on Earth. Fortunately for the soldiers, Odin then calls Thor back to Asgard, but the one who gets summoned is the hammer’s current owner, Bill.
After a brief scuffle, we learn that Bill is from the planet Korbin, which was destroyed by powerful demonic beings. His ship, Skuttlebutt, carries onboard the last survivors of his people. To better guard them, Bill underwent genetic and technological upgrades, and is the only volunteer to survive the process.
Both Bill and Thor claim ownership of Mjolnir, but Odin decrees that the matter will be solved by a one-on-one battle to the death, one whose result will surprise you!
This story was adapted for the second season of Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes. It skips some details, but it’s still a pretty good adaptation.
And if you end up liking the way that Walt Simonson did this story, then you can go on and keep reading the rest of his run, where Thor goes from the streets of New York to the edge of creation, while weaving a tale full of winks to mythology, cosmic adventures, tragedy, and with a lot of humor too.
Simonson’s influence is felt not only on Thor: The Dark World, where his creation Malekith the Dark Elf is the main antagonist, but it seems it will be even greater for Thor: Ragnarok, with many people hoping that God of Thunder will be aided in his battle against the demon Surtur by his oathbrother, Beta Ray Bill.