Thor, the archetype of the epic hero in comics.
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“Thor, Odin’s son, protector of mankind, rise to meet your fate.
Your destiny awaits
Thor, Hlôdyn’s son, protector of mankind, rise to meet your fate.
Ragnarök awaits”Amon Amarth – Twilight of the Thunder God.
“You said it yourself, Jormungand! The trouble with godhood is that it robs you of your finer judgment! And that is why we will never be the same. You are a mighty fighter, but in the end, you are only a selfish creature while heroes…heroes have an infinite capacity for stupidity! Thus are legends born!”Thor
I have said it multiple times in this blog in many different ways, but I will be upfront in this occasion: heroes are necessary. For thousands of years, heroism, whether it’s through mythology, works of fiction or even real life actions fuels the human spirit and shows the best and brightest side of humanity–it serves as an example of what we can do and what we should aspire to. A lot of people, especially artists, tend to downplay this notion these days and that is one of fiction that has a lot of shine and value in recent times–you cannot write heroes if you honestly don’t believe in them as a concept or as examples to society.
But instead of focusing on how heroic characters can be mishandled or how heroic characters can be wasted, I would like to use one of the all-time great comic book characters to explain the literary archetype of the epic hero in fiction and how it helps to understand him a lot better: Thor, the God of Thunder.
Now, we all know Thor, especially now that he is more popular than ever due to Chris Hemsworth’s portrayal in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But I often feel that the vast majority of readers and viewers have a somewhat rudimentary knowledge of Thor and what makes his character tick, which is why I wanted to address why he is quite likely the clearest example of an epic hero in pop culture nowadays.
When writers talk about heroes in fiction and how they should be written, the name of Joseph Campbell is inevitably going to be mentioned because the forefather of the hero’s journey (in fact, he named it as such) and established that heroes need to go through a certain path and course of action in order to grow, evolve and resonate with the audience. Campbell argued that there was a logic to how a hero should evolve and, if done correctly, it could create that connection with the audience in order for the character to resonate–that there was no random approach, but rather a determined set of stages that one needs to go through with his or her character in order to get that reaction.
The hero’s journey is deeply rooted in human experience and it’s something we could all relate in a deeper level: the character (the hero) goes through adversity in life and he has to grow and learn from his past mistakes in order to overcome such challenging odds. We have seen that story in all kinds of works of fiction, such as Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, the Rocky franchise or even in the original Star Wars trilogy (in fact, Campbell worked with George Lucas to develop Luke Skywalker’s hero’s journey), thus elevating the main character from someone most likely inexperienced to a season hero that has gone through a lot and has grown because of the challenges of said actions.
We can even see this journey go the other way around, with the character declining and falling into darkness, rage, insanity or hatred, as we saw in the film Joker or with Edward Norton’s character in Fight Club: they started out as normal people with a few problems and they descend into insanity and become unstable individuals because they were not capable of overcoming the odds. But the principle stands in both cases: the main character needs to go through something challenging and complicated (it can vary greatly, like a huge war, a disease, someone trying to kill him/her or simply trying to pass a Chemistry test), which makes him/her grow and evolve or get worse in the process.
The epic hero goes step further and represents the qualities of the archetypical hero, amped up to eleven. These are your mythological figures like Hercules or Gilgamesh; these powerful men that were capable of deeds beyond human’s reach and did so actions for the greater good. In a way, even a religious figure as Jesus Christ can be viewed from that angle, but I’m not going to dwell too much on that.
Jack Kirby clearly understood that and built Thor’s character from that notion in the Journey into Mystery comic book series, later renamed as The Mighty Thor: him and Stan Lee used Thor as Marvel’s epic hero, applying all the defining traits that this archetype and did so properly, which is why when this character works (like in their run or in Walt Simonson’s, which we’re going to address later), the results are so good: because you’re reading Thor as the epic fantasy comic book series that it should be.
Jack Kirby understood Thor’s nature as an epic hero.
Like any other archetype, the epic hero has traits that define what he or she is. One of the most classic traits is that the epic hero comes from royalty: there is a sense of responsibility and duty and they tend to be in the highest echelons of society, which in return pushes them to great quests and missions. King Arthur is definitely the grand example of that in mythology, but we can also see the likes of Tolkien’s Aragorn or Michael Moorcock’s Elric of Melniboné, with both of them having to fulfill their destinies as kings (although Aragorn and Elric go through very different directions once they do that).
Thor is obviously the same as these examples, as he is the son of Odin and he is poised to become the ruler of Asgard once his father passes away, which has happened a couple of times in the comics, showing the different challenges the God of Thunder has to deal with in that scenario. This is meant to represent the coming of age: the young man that has turned into an adult and who now has new responsibilities and a duty to protect others. This is a rite of passage we all go through in life, even if it’s not as great in scale as Thor’s case: we grow older, we turned into adults and we now have people to take care of, just like others took care of us in our youth.
Thor becoming the ruler of Asgard is fulfilling his destiny and reaching absolute manhood: he is now in charge of his people and, just like the archetype of the epic hero he is, he is willing to do whatever it takes to protect them. J. Michael Straczynski’s Thor run, which I strongly recommend, addresses this topic extremely well and shows the natural progression of his character.
Being of royal blood and ascending to the throne is essential in an epic hero’s journey.
The most obvious trait of an epic hero that we see through multiple works of fiction is that he/she is a warrior and a tremendous one, at that. The epic hero has achieved greatness in the battlefield and he/she can do things that very few individuals (or perhaps no one else) can accomplish. Robert Howard’s Conan the Barbarian is one great example of that, him being one of the deadliest and strongest warriors to ever grace that world.
This is one of Thor’s strongest qualities, of course: regardless of the version you watch or read, Thor is one of the most heroes of the Marvel Universe and his deeds are usually great feats that the likes of Captain America or Spider-Man cannot accomplish. Whether it’s fighting a demon of Sulfur’s ilk or the Frost Giants, Thor is meant for great missions and even more epic challenges.
I don’t think I’m saying anything shocking by stating that artist and writer Walt Simonson was the one that understood this most about Thor and that is why his seminal run is so beloved, even to this day. His run is an epic fantasy where we see Thor at his absolute best and we also see him going through multiple feats reminiscent to the character’s roots in Norse mythology, which is something Simonson has always been a fan of.
A trait that falls like a sub-category of sorts in this section is the fact that the epic hero usually fights against supernatural forces, like characters like Conan or Howard’s other creation, Solomon Kane, have done. Stephen King’s Roland Deschain, from The Dark Tower series, is another great epic hero that goes against great supernatural entities like the Man in Black and the Crimson King.
In Thor’s case, this is pretty clear as well and one of the best examples that we can find is in Simonson’s run when the God of Thunder fights against the serpent Jormungand, which is obviously a callback to Thor’s destiny of fighting that creature during Ragnarök in Norse mythology.
These great feats lead to the epic hero becoming a legend, an almost-mythological figure among his people and all across the lands (or in this case, the galaxies), which is pretty fitting with the character of Thor.
Thor fighting Jormungand is an example of his great feats.
One of the traits that the epic hero has that I find most interesting regarding Thor is the fact that they usually display humility. Now, humility when it comes to the epic hero not only means that they are willing to give their lives and well-being for the sake of others (which is a trait that Thor has, of course), but they are also very humble people and they don’t usually tend to be arrogant because they were taught from an early age that they were meant to serve their people and protect them at all costs.
Thor is not like Superman or Captain America that had the value of humility instilled from a very early age and thus came naturally for them as they grew older (which makes them aspirational archetypes); he had to learn to be humble through Odin’s punishment of sending him to Earth and engage with humanity as one of us. In fact, one of the classic tropes of epic fantasy is that arrogance or hubris must be punished, which is exactly what Odin did, once again showing that Jack and Stan knew exactly the kind of material and archetype they were working with.
This taught Thor to value humans and Midgard (Earth) as a whole, which in return made him humbler and much more committed to fight for us–that is a huge part of his hero’s journey and that is something that was addressed during the first Thor film in a good way, with Thor willing to destroy the Bifrost in order to save the Frost Giants he initially wanted to kill in the beginning of the film. I would say it’s the one thing the film got extremely right.
I find this very interesting in Thor’s case because it shows that an epic hero is not inherently aspirational; he can and should be virtuous, but that is after a process of growth and development. We can also see this with Aragorn in Lord of the Rings, who has to come to terms with his own destiny and lead his people to victory against Sauron. One has to overcome his own arrogance and ego (Thor) while the other has to overcome his own insecurities (Aragorn), but both have to do it to fulfill their destinies as leaders and to save those they care about against a great evil.
An example of dignity is Thor’s return to Earth after his death in Ragnarok (it’s comics, it’s complicated) during Straczynski’s run, where he faces Tony Stark after the latter used his DNA to create a clone of Thor to win his conflict against Captain America in Civil War. Thor is not only angry at Iron Man for the fact he used his DNA without his consent, but also because he used to wage war against his brothers in arms and to force his will upon others, showcasing the same kind of arrogance that Thor has come to despise. It’s a great example of how far the character evolved until that point and the values he has developed.
Thor’s morality is something he developed through his own hero’s journey.
Another important trait that is often forgotten or downplayed in this archetype is that the epic hero is a traveler; he must go through a journey that is also physical and sets him off to incredible and wondrous lands that make him wiser and more knowledgeable of his own surroundings. This also connects to the element of humility; as the hero discovers more, he becomes much more conscious of his own shortcomings and grows because of said discovery, understanding that he still has much to learn.
If you have read classic epic fantasy or even classic science fiction from decades ago, you will find places like that in Lord of the Rings, Dune, The Dark Tower or Moorcock’s Elric novels, and that is exactly the case with Thor’s comics, with the God of Thunder usually travelling all over the universe and all across reality, dealing with gods, aliens, magic hordes, demons and a lot more. It is deeply rooted in that particular trait and I would argue that Thor works best as a comic book character when those fantasy and sci-fi settings take a hold of the story.
With characters of this nature, the grander the scale, the better they work. Thor is a big character in every sense of the world, so it makes sense that his best stories don’t tend to happen in urban settings; he is made for the epic quests and events of great scope. Guys like Kirby and Simonson understood that perfectly and it shows in their runs with those characters, much like Dan Jurgens and Straczynski did as well.
Travelling grand places defines an epic hero and Thor knows a lot about this.
Thor is a character that can be easily misinterpreted because he belongs to a superhero universe, but the reality is that he is heavily rooted in fantasy and that’s where he works best. As we have seen in this article, he has all the different traits that define an epic hero and he is quite likely the most popular in this day and age, which his deeds and feats often representing the best of human capacity amped up to eleven. That is the whole point of an epic hero: to show our potential and what we can achieve through these grand examples of heroism.
Joseph Campbell defined the hero’s journey as a journey of discovery and growth. Even though it has been mostly applied to heroes, it should be really called the human’s journey because it represents the very essence of going through multiple experiences in life that mold you as you’re getting older. All the great works of fiction are based on this maxim and it connects with us on an even subconscious level, which is why when it’s ignored or when a character is steered away from his/her established archetype it stops resonating with us. The natural progression has been stopped.
The epic hero is a character that is heavily rooted in our culture as far as fantasy stories go and I think it represents the closest that modern society has to mythology. By understanding that we can see the value that heroism has in our culture.
I would like to end this article with perhaps my favorite moment of the Thor comics, when Surtur corners Thor, Loki and Odin and the three of them have to fight against this powerful entity with very little odds on their favor. This page, beautifully drawn and written by Walt Simonson, is one of the best and most inspirational that I have read in all of comics and it deserves a lot more credit: