The Mighty Thor is one of the luckiest characters in comics history. He had the good fortune to be first published at the dawn of the ‘Marvel era’, and has been firmly hitched to Marvel’s starry wagon ever since. Why “good fortune”? Because the character is a pretty typical throwaway 60s goof-off: geeky guy finds magic cane which lets him become the god Thor. It’s last-story-in-the-book stuff – no logic or twists, just an opportunity to draw a guy with a hammer and some monsters.

But luckily for Thor his creators decided this idea had legs, or the readers decided it for them, and Thor has ended up central to Marvel’s universe, all the while remaining a very goofy idea. He never quite fits in. His presence immediately complicates Marvel’s world, turning it into a universe in which every polytheistic pantheon of myth is made living, fighting flesh (monotheistic gods have no such punching power). He remains a reassuring symbol of the capacity for very odd, non-intuitive concepts to succeed in comics.

Except at the moment he doesn’t: Marvel cancelled their Thor comic last year, finishing it with a worthy, narrative-heavy story which queasily mixed Ragnarok myth with cod-Eastern philosophy. Critically acclaimed, but it was a poor way to end things and a six-issue romp called Thor: Blood Oath by the same writer is a much better send-off. The company is left without a version of the character, and news sites have batted around supposed proposals – a Thor comic by Neil Gaiman, perhaps, or a comic where various teenagers get the powers of the Asgardian Gods.

The dithering illuminates Marvel’s dilemma: Thor is one of their marquee characters, and Marvel needs a Thor; Thor is also probably well past his sell-by date. In close to 45 years of publishing his comic has only rarely been any good. It was the strip which boasted the second longest run by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, but their THOR is a very different beast from their FANTASTIC FOUR.

The Lee/Kirby THOR is a curious thing – a comic in which both writer and artist are clearly having a whale of a time but which still manages to be frequently pretty boring. The character might have been designed for Lee to go Shakespeare mental, and each issue is fruity and ripe with thees and thous. Kirby meanwhile gets to draw dazzling cod-medieval architecture, many horrible monsters, and also indulge his experimental side with plenty of splash page collages whenever Thor goes into space.

“Thor goes into space” – this happened quite a lot, actually, and sums up the Lee/Kirby version’s glories and problems. A focused comic about a Norse God might well not have had him tooling around in the Black Galaxy, or fighting the Colonizers of Rigel. THOR’s anything-goes approach meant the character did just this, and plenty more besides, creating a mix of high fantasy, sci-fi, and urban superhero action which no amount of pitching would replicate nowadays. The downside of this was that the mag had no direction at all: Thor spent a great deal of time in New York fighting complete no-marks such as Cobra and the Circus of Crime, presumably because Jack Kirby fancied drawing some gangsters that month.

Such threats were obviously a bit too puny for Thor so the much-repeated stock plot would have Odin the All-Father de-powering his son on a whim, “teaching Thor humility” then resetting his power levels when Kirby thought up a menace more in a God’s league. Stories would end suddenly on a wave of Odin’s omnipotent hand, the creators obviously bored. The Lee/Kirby Thor has some great ideas and some real peaks and it’s hard not to read it with fondness, but it never gets the momentum it needs going. For better or worse though, Lee/Kirby’s grab-bag of clashing approaches set the tone for THOR for 20-odd years.

(Part 2 coming soon)