Mighty Marvel Masterworks Thor volume 3: The Trial of The Gods

By Stan Lee & Jack Kirby, with Vince Colletta, Chic Stone, Frank Giacoia, Art Simek, Sam Rosen & various (MARVEL)
ISBN: 978-1-3029-4893-1 (TPB/Digital edition)

These stories are timeless and have been gathered many times before, but today I’m once again focussing on format. The Mighty Marvel Masterworks line launched with economy in mind: classic tales of Marvel’s key creators and characters re-presented in chronological publishing order. It’s been a staple since the 1990s, but always in lavish, hardback collectors editions. These editions are cheaper, on lower quality paper and – crucially – smaller, about the dimensions of a paperback book. Your eyesight might be failing and your hands too big and shaky, but at 152 x 227mm, they’re perfect for kids. If you opt for digital editions, that’s no issue at all…

Even more than The Fantastic Four, The Mighty Thor was the arena in which Jack Kirby’s boundless fascination with all things Cosmic was honed and refined through his dazzling graphics and captivating concepts. The King’s plethora of power-packed signature pantheons began in a modest little fantasy/monster title called Journey into Mystery where – in the summer of 1962 – a tried-&-true comic book concept (feeble mortal transformed into god-like hero) was revived by the rapidly resurgent company who were not yet Marvel Comics: adding a Superman analogue to their growing roster of costumed adventurers.

Cover-dated August 1962, JiM #83 saw a bold costumed Adonis jostling aside the regular fare of monsters, aliens and sinister scientists in a brash, vivid explosion of verve and vigour. The initial exploit followed disabled American doctor Donald Blake who took a vacation in Norway and encountered the vanguard of an alien invasion. Fleeing, he was trapped in a cave where he found an old, gnarled walking stick. When, in frustration, he smashed the stick into the huge boulder blocking his escape, his puny frame was transformed into the Norse God of Thunder!

Plotted by Stan Lee, scripted by his brother Larry Lieber and illustrated by Kirby and inker Joe Sinnott (at this juncture a full illustrator, Sinnott would become Kirby’s primary inker for most of his Marvel career), that introduction was pure primal Marvel: bombastic, fast-paced, gloriously illogical and captivatingly action-packed. It was the start of a new kind of legend and style of comics’ storytelling…

Spanning February to October 1964, this third titanic tome reprints the godly exploits from Journey into Mystery #101-109 in a blur of innovation, seat-of-the-pants myth-revising and universe-building. By this time, the ever-expanding world of Asgard was fully established: a mesmerising milieu for Thor’s earlier adventures and exotic setting for fresh wonders hinting at an imminent era of cosmic fantasy to run parallel with the company’s signature Manhattan-based superhero sagas. ‘Every Hand Against Him!’ (by Lee, Kirby & Stone) combines both, as sinister step-brother Loki compels earthly miscreants Cobra and Mr. Hyde to kidnap and wound nigh unto death Thor’s forbidden beloved Jane Foster, even as Odin again overreacts to Thor’s affections for the mortal.

Following a stunning Kirby & Stone Thor Pin-up, and balancing that tension-drenched clash of Good and Evil, is a crafty vignette of Young Thor describing ‘The Defeat of Odin!’ in an old and silly plot sweetened by breathtaking battle scenes. It’s followed by the concluding clash with Cobra & Hyde, redefining ‘The Power of the Thunder God!’ With a major role for Balder the Brave and further integrating “historical” and contemporary Asgard in a spellbinding epic of triumph and near-tragedy, it’s complimented by a Loki Pin-up preceding a fable co-opting a Greek myth (Antaeus if you’re asking) as ‘The Secret of Sigurd!’ (inked by Vince Colletta) is ferreted out by youthful godlings Thor, Balder & Loki.

Journey into Mystery #112 gave readers what they had been clamouring for with ‘The Mighty Thor Battles the Incredible Hulk!’: a glorious gift to all those fans who perpetually ask “who’s stronger…”? Arguably Kirby & Stone’s finest collaborative moment, it details a private duel that apparently appeared off-camera during a free-for-all in The Avengers #3 when the heroes battled Sub-Mariner and the Green Goliath. The raw aggressive power of that clash is balanced by an eagerly anticipated origin yarn in ‘The Coming of Loki!’ (Colletta inks): a retelling of how Odin adopts the baby son of Laufey, the Giant King.

In #113’s ‘A World Gone Mad!’ the Thunderer – right after saving the Shining Realm from invasion – again defies Odin to court Jane: a task made more hazardous by the return of the Grey Gargoyle. A long-running plot strand – almost interminably so – was the soap-opera tangle caused by Don Blake’s love for his nurse: a passion his alter ego shared. Sadly, the Overlord of Asgard could not countenance his son with a mortal, resulting in another heavy-handed example of an acrimonious triangle.

The mythic moment at the back shared ‘The Boyhood of Loki!’ (inked by Colletta), a pensive, brooding foretaste of the villain to be, before JiM #114 began a 2-part tale starring a new villain of the kind Kirby gloried in: a vicious thug who lucks into overwhelming power.

‘The Stronger I Am, The Sooner I Die!’ sees Loki imbue hardened felon Crusher Creel with the ability to duplicate the strength and attributes of anything he touches, but before Creel endures ‘The Vengeance of the Thunder God’ (inked by Frank Giacoia as “Frankie Ray”) we’re graced with another Asgardian parable: ‘The Golden Apples!’

Issue #115’s back-up micro-myth ‘A Viper in our Midst!’ sees young Loki clandestinely cementing relations with the sinister Storm Giants, before a longer Thor saga began in #116, with Colletta becoming regular inker for both lead and support features. ‘The Trial of the Gods’ disclosed more aspects of Asgard as Thor and Loki undertake a brutal ritualised trial by combat, with the latter cheating at every step, after which ‘Into the Blaze of Battle!’ finds Balder protecting Jane even as her godly paramour travels to war-torn Vietnam seeking proof of his step-brother’s infamy.

These yarns are supplemented by stellar novellas ‘The Challenge!’ and ‘The Sword in the Scabbard!’, wherein Asgardian cabin-fever informs an official Quest instituted to expose a threat to the mighty Odinsword, the unsheathing of which will destroy the universe…

Journey into Mystery #118’s ‘To Kill a Thunder God!’ ramps up the otherworldly drama as Loki, to cover his tracks, unleashes ancient Asgardian WMD The Destroyer. When it wrecks Thor’s mystic hammer and nearly kills The Thunderer in ‘The Day of the Destroyer!’, the God of Mischief is forced to save his step-brother or bear the brunt of Odin’s anger.

Meanwhile in Tales of Asgard the Quest further unfolds with verity-testing talisman ‘The Crimson Hand!’ and ‘Gather, Warriors!’ as a band of literally hand-picked “Argonauts” join Thor’s flying longship in a bold but misguided attempt to forestall Ragnarok…

To Be Continued…

There’s a relative paucity of bonus material here but it’s all first rate: two pages of original artwork, and Kirby & Stones 1965 design for a tee-shirt.

These early tales of the God of Thunder show the development not only of one of Marvel’s core narrative concepts but, more importantly, the creative evolution of perhaps the greatest imagination in comics. Set your common sense on pause and simply wallow in the glorious imagery and power of these classic adventures and revel in what makes comic book superheroes such a unique experience.
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