The secret history of the greatest Thor stories ever written

At Comic-Con, io9 had a nice long talk with Walt Simonson, the man responsible for the defining run on The Mighty Thor in the 1980s (indeed, Simonson's tenure on the comic was a big influence on this summer's Thor movie).

Simonson gave us a behind-the-scenes look at fan-favorite moments, like the first appearance of Thor's extraterrestrial comrade-in-arms Beta Ray Bill and that time Loki transformed Thor into a frog in Central Park.

On the origin of Beta Ray Bill

"When I began doing Thor as a writer and artist in 1983, I tried to do stories that had never been done before. One of the tenets of the Thor book is the enchantment on the hammer which says, 'Whosoever holds this hammer, if he be worthy, shall possess the power of Thor.'

And really — except for the off issue in which Loki picked up the hammer and Stan Lee and Jack Kirby kind of forgot what they were doing (like, 'Oh there's an extra enchantment! I think I'll pick it up!') –- nobody really picked up the hammer.

The book had been running for 20 years at that time. I thought that suggested that nobody in the Marvel Universe could pick it up. The Hulk had tried, he couldn't do it. So I thought, 'Well, if I'm going to do that, I need to invent a character from the ground up who's going to have the worthy means.'

I wanted to invent a character who would be worthy of the hammer, so I gave Bill a selfless background. At that time in comics, there were no graphic novels or reprints of story arcs that we have now. Comics came out, you read them, and threw them away or stored them in a box. You could buy back issues, but that was it. Comics were month-to-month.

Every month was your chapter, so writers took a number of shortcuts to get their stories across as quickly as possible. One of those shortcuts was simple –- mostly, 'bad guys are ugly and bad girls don't wear a lot of clothing.'

I thought it would be kind of fun to put this on its head. When I designed Bill, I made him look like a monster. Even though Thor readers would know the enchantment on the hammer, they would be worried that I was screwing it up. They'd have to come back each month to see how I was going to destroy all this stuff!"

The secret history of the greatest Thor stories ever written

On Beta Ray Bill's "horse" head

"Before I ever talked about Bill's design, nobody ever said, 'Bill's a horse.' Back in the day, nobody knew. I did this for two reasons. One, the monster quality –- in many cultures, skulls are an emblem of death.

At the same time, Bill's head is very roughly based on a horse's skull. I was a geology student when I was younger, and I was familiar with skulls. Skulls have this quality of horror, but at the same time, horses are beautiful animals. The skull is the structure under the skin that gives the horse its look. In a way, the skull was representative of Bill's true nature."

The secret history of the greatest Thor stories ever written

On editorial and fan reaction to Bill

"Editorially, it was not a problem at all. My editor, the late Mark Gruenwald, was a good guy and offered Thor without conditions. The book wasn't selling very well — I heard it was in danger of cancellation, but I don't know if that was true. The good part about that was that Mark said, 'Do whatever you want. We'll support it. Just go for it.'

It was a great place to be in a way because if the book tanked, no one holds it against you. If it does well, everyone says, 'What a genius!' We got a lot of letters back in the snail mail days when I wrote the letters column. I read the letters and answered them all in the Marvel editorial voice, so I saw everything. A lot of letters were, 'Is this possible? This is terrible! I can't believe what you're doing! I have to buy the next issue!' This was my secret plan.

By the time I was done that story, we were selling a lot more comics. On that first issue, back in those days, the print run of a comic would sell maybe 30-40% of its actual total run. The rest would be pulped or returned or whatever. For that comic, we sold better than 90%.

I went to a comic shop in New York City three days after the book came out because I wanted to buy a couple extra copies for my files. I walked in and they said, 'Oh! We're sold out of Thor #337.' It sold like crazy in comic shops completely out of the blue, so all the dealers ran out to the spinner racks in 7-11s and mom-and-pop grocery stores, and they bought all the copies off the racks to resell in the comic shops.

The newsstand sales –- which sold 25-30% back in the day –- those comics all sold. As a result, the newsstand market sold an enormous percentage of the entire print run because all the dealers resold them for $5 at comic shops. It stabilized from there. It was a surprise for me!"

The secret history of the greatest Thor stories ever written

On the origins of Frog Thor

"One of the lessons I got from Stan and Jack when I was a reader in the 1960s was that if you keep a straight face, you could do anything. I didn't want to do camp, but with Frog Thor, there were several things going on. I'm an enormous Carl Barks fan. When I was a kid, one of the only comics we had a subscription to was Walt Disney's Comics and Stories. My brother and I loved the Donald Duck stories. I wanted to do something as a tribute to Carl Barks. Those were funny animals, but they were straight, smart stories that were accessible to adults and kids.

I initially thought about using ducks, but Carl did ducks, and in fairy tales, the handsome prince turns into a frog. They're the standard measure for handsome princes. At the time, I was living in New York City, right off of Central Park (where that story took place), and [park officials] were always leaving out poison for rats. Somewhere in there, all the stuff came together. It's kind of a parody of my own epic storytelling. I did a lot of research into northern European (Norse, Celtic) mythology, so it seemed really appropriate even as goofy as it was.

Over the years, the two stories I've probably heard the most about are Beta Ray Bill and Frog Thor. At the time the frog story came out, 95% of the mail was positive, but I would publish at least one crabby letter, because a lot of those criticisms were smart. For the frog story, we got about half positive, three or four crabby letters, and half saying, 'Is this a funny story? Is this a joke?' They were confused! They weren't cranky, but they weren't sure what to think. 25 years later, people have figured it out."

The secret history of the greatest Thor stories ever written

On the death (and non-return) of Skurge

"Doing shared universe comics is like working in a big sandbox. When you get a book to write and draw, you get a corner of the sandbox, and you can do whatever you want to do with it. I'm not sure what my editor Ralph Macchio thought of that story, but he let me do it and it worked out well.

Someone gets the same privilege you had — to come in, knock those sand castles down and build some of their own. I've never had the conversation with anybody saying, 'Leave Skurge dead!' Comic characters can die and come back, but you don't have control over it. You want to give someone else the privilege.

I did the best I could do with Skurge, and after that it‘s in other people's hands. He's stayed dead for a pretty long time. Same thing happened at DC when Archie Goodwin and I did Manhunter — [the character] stayed dead for a long time, which I think is a tribute to the death."

The secret history of the greatest Thor stories ever written

On The Mighty Thor's thunderous sound effects

"I always liked lettering and letter form as art. I liked them in college, I'd letter my own logos. When I went to art school at the Rhode Island School of Design, RISD really emphasized typography as a design element. In the early days, I would ink my work and the letterer would letter the word balloons and all the captions. I would do all the panel borders, the word balloon borders, and all the sound effects myself. I was able to play with typography in a way I found very satisfying.

I tried to find typefaces or calligraphy that would match the sound effects. In 1979, I began doing a graphic novel adaptation of the movie Alien for Heavy Metal. John Workman hired me, and he was the art director and letterer for Heavy Metal at the time. John would re-letter everything in English for the translations of the Heavy Metal books. And I discovered that John Workman did all of my sound effects better than I could! His sound effects had a great formal quality. So we did Alien together. Once John was out of Heavy Metal, I really wanted him for Thor.

Normally what I would do it indicate on the overlay where I wanted all the word balloons, and I would draw a long rectangle where I wanted all the sound effects. I would write up a full of script, and I would type in a lot of letters like 'CRACKADOOOOOOOM!' And John would try to fit in as many letters as he could in that space! I was never quite sure what letters I was going to get!

But essentially, the sound effects were the combination of the two of us. His sense of graphics complemented what I did so well that — with very few exceptions — I've asked to John to letter almost everything I've done since then."

Walter Simonson's The Mighty Thor: Artist's Edition — which reprints Walt's original Thor artwork and layouts — is in stores now.