How the Mighty Thor Busted Into Comic Books and the Big Screen

Thor's magical and mighty hammer, Mjolnir
Thor's magical and mighty hammer, Mjolnir, appears at the Paris premiere of "Thor: Ragnarok" on Oct. 22, 2017. Edward Berthelot/Getty Images Entertainment

When DC Comics released the "Justice League" in 1960, it became one of the best-selling comics to that point. Their competitor, Marvel Comics — who would be known for one more year as Atlas Comics — needed a shot in the arm to catch up.

Under the direction of Stan Lee, Marvel came up with something new. In 1961, with the creation of the "Fantastic Four," Lee hit upon the formula he'd use to create a string of some of the most popular heroes ever; essentially the formula was that humans could do wondrous things and have dramatic soap-opera lives laden with tragedy. In August 1962, Marvel's Thor debuted in the same month as Spider-Man. Though often overshadowed by characters like Spidey, Thor was an instant success.


But what made Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, the creators of Thor, turn to the Norse god of thunder, rather than another, more well-known god from a more recognized pantheon? In the book "Excelsior!: The Amazing Life of Stan Lee," Lee explained, "Readers were already pretty familiar with the Greek and Roman gods. It might be fun to delve into the old Norse legends. Besides, I pictured Norse gods looking like Vikings of old, with the flowing beards, horned helmets, and battle clubs."

Wood engraving of Thor
Thor, the Norse god of thunder, wields his hammer in a wood engraving from 1754.
Universal History Archive/Getty Images

Brian O'Camb, is an associate professor at Indiana University Northwest who specializes in Old English and Old Icelandic literature. The Thor comics inspired O'Camb to study Norse mythology. In an email exchange, O'Camb offered another reason for Marvel choosing a Norse god.

"Norse gods were much more human and vulnerable compared to other pantheons. Where the Roman and Greek gods could transform mortals and dabbled in the lives of humans as if they were playthings, the Norse gods await their inevitable doom," O'Camb explains. They were more relatable, and the key thing that made Marvel's comics different and competitive in those days was that the characters felt more human than a god like, say, Superman.

Artist Jack Kirby already was hooked on Norse mythology and wanted to introduce Thor to comics. He'd previously brought a version of Thor to DC Comics in the '50s alongside Captain America co-creator Joe Simon. This version, though, was a mobster dressed in a metal suit with a technological marvel of a hammer who is revealed to be a crook. In a 1992 interview, Jack Kirby said, "[I] knew the Thor legends very well, but I wanted to modernize them. I felt that might be a new thing for comics, taking the old legends and modernizing them."

With ideas for how the new legends of Asgard, the home of the Norse gods, would work, Stan Lee outlined the stories and turned the scripting duties over to his brother, Larry Lieber, who helped establish Thor's alter ego, Dr. Donald Blake, and a modern version of the Norse myths. Just over a year later, in September 1963, Thor made his debut with "The Avengers," and, with his third big-screen film coming out, the rest was history.

In modernizing that mythology, many things changed. For example, O'Camb notes that Thor was originally the recipient of three magical items that gave him his powers, rather than just his hammer, Mjolnir. In the original stories, Thor also had a belt that conferred great strength to him and gloves that allowed him to handle the enchanted hammer. In the new movie "Thor: Ragnarok," Thor loses his hammer and has to learn that there's a power inside himself. Hela, played in the film by Cate Blanchett, is a modernization of Hel. In "Thor: Ragnarok," she is bent on taking over Asgard as the daughter of Odin, but in the Norse myths, she's actually a daughter of Loki and presides over the underworld of the same name. Fan favorite villain Loki, played in the Marvel movies by Tom Hiddleston, is much less of a villain in the original myths and more akin to a trickster like the Native American character Coyote.

Thor exhibition
A more modern rendition of Thor, courtesy of the Marvel Avengers S.T.A.T.I.O.N exhibition on April 12, 2016, in Paris.
Thierry Chesnot/Getty Images

This modernization has inspired fresh interest in the old myths over the years. Take O'Camb, who says that was the beginning of his career path: "I grew to love (and study) Norse mythology as a kid because a friend that I played Dungeons and Dragons with introduced me to the Thor comics."

"The Mighty Thor" has been a vital part of the Marvel universe since his creation. Today, aside from the new movie, he's still appearing in monthly comics. Since his debut more than 50 years ago, he's appeared in thousands of comics, graphic novels, cartoons and films. In fact, according to O'Camb, Marvel's Thor has been the subject of even more stories than the original myths that inspired the character.