Life & Culture

Norse god – or nice Jewish boy? The surprising origins of superhero Thor

New York-based writer Stan Lee and artist Jack Kirby were behind the famous superhero


This year marks the 60th anniversary of Marvel’s Thor, a figure well-known thanks to his appearance in multiple Marvel movies played by Chris Hemsworth. But like many of the comic company’s iconic titles, Thor was created by two Jews from New York City, writer Stan Lee and artist Jack Kirby — which make the Norse deity just a little bit Jewish.

Thor was first written by Lee’s brother Larry Lieber and Lee described his reasons for bringing Thor into the Marvel comics universe in an interview he did with the Washington Post back in 2011: “I dreamed up Thor years ago because I wanted to create the biggest, most powerful superhero of all and I figured who can be bigger than a god?”

He also went for the Norse pantheon rather than the others because they seemed fresher to readers: “I chose the Norse gods because I felt people were less familiar with them than with the Greek and Roman gods.”

Many years earlier, in a radio interview on New York’s WBAI-FM radio in 1967, Kirby revealed what the appeal was for him of drawing the blond Norse mythical deity and his fellow beings:

“All through the years, certainly, I’ve had a kind of affection for any mythological type of character, and my conception of what they should look like.

"And here Stan gave me the opportunity to draw one, and I wasn’t going to draw back from really letting myself go. So I did…I gave the Norse characters twists that they never had in anybody’s imagination. And somehow it turned out to be a lot of fun, and I really enjoyed doing it.”

Kirby had worked on another version of the character at Marvel’s rival DC back in the 1950s as he recalled in an interview in March 1985 with magazine Comics Feature: “He had a red beard, but he was a legendary figure, which I liked. I liked the figure of Thor at DC and I created Thor at Marvel because I was forever enamoured of legends. I knew all about these legends which is why I knew about Balder, Heimdall, and Odin. I tried to update Thor and put him in a super-hero costume. He looked great in it and everybody loved him, but he was still Thor.”

Thor was a mainstay of the Marvel line from when Lee and Kirby created the title in 1962 but it went through the doldrums in the 1970s and first part of the 1980s.

In 1983, established writer-artist Walter Simonson who had pencilled the book in the late 1970s was brought on board to revamp the character, which he did with great success. New approaches were being introduced across the Marvel stable at the time, Simonson commented on his approach to the book in an interview he did with Comic Book Artist back in 2000: “When I was reading Marvels toward the end of the Sixties, they mostly didn’t feel like they were going new places.

"And that felt true for me for much of the Seventies as well. Then Len Wein, Chris Claremont, Dave Cockrum, and John Byrne reinvented The X-Men anew from the old characters Jack and Werner Roth and other guys had done. They introduced new characters and new situations. …That was at the end of the Seventies, and it took off. The title felt new.

"Same with Frank’s Daredevil afterwards. It felt like new possibilities were in the air. Which is what I really wanted to do with Thor; stories that didn’t feel like you’d read them a thousand times. That’s all. That’s what I’m trying to do in comics generally.

“I don’t expect you to read every story I do, and think, ‘Wow, this is better than sliced bread!’ But I really don’t want you to think, ‘Gee, this is the same stuff I’ve read a million times.’”

Simonson’s approach brought in new readers for Marvel and Thor.
Thor’s next big milestone came years later with the release of the first Thor movie in 2011. Starring Chris Hemsworth as Lee and Kirby’s creation, the film made a fairly respectably $450m at the box office.

But the character also appeared in Marvel’s Avengers films so that the sequel, Thor: The Dark Earth grossed a more respectable $650m.

The third Thor film, Ragnarok, which was acclaimed for its touch of comedy, directed by Jewish New Zealander director Taika Waititi, topped that with an impressive $854m.

At the same time, writer Jason Aaron was writing a series of stories featuring the character including one, The Mighty Thor, which saw the God Of Thunder replaced by his longtime girlfriend Jane Foster. This was the inspiration for this year’s Thor Love And Thunder movie, with Waititi back at the helm, and co-starring Jewish actress Natalie Portman.

Aaron played around with the character in much the same way that Simonson did with his run and the writer felt that stories with the character required vast epics as he said in an interview back in 2012: “Thor, by definition, demands stories of a grand scale.

“This story spans millennia — from the Viking Age to the far-flung future. And it takes us all across the Marvel Universe as well. From Earth to the far corners of space, and from all new otherworldly cities of gods to an Asgard like we’ve never seen before, we definitely cover a lot of ground in our initial arc.”

Sixty years on, Thor definitely isn’t the same character he was when he was created by two young Jewish men from New York but thanks to the work of creators like Walt Simonson and Jason Aaron and films like Thor, Thor Ragnarok and Thor Love and Thunder, he’s more prominent than ever before.

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