It isn’t easy, in these jaded comic book times, for a superhero relaunch to make fans sit up and take notice. But Marvel’s announcement last month that writer Al Ewing, alongside artist Martin Cóccolo, would be spearheading a fresh start for the publisher’s God of Thunder as The Immortal Thor this August was that rarest of exceptions: a new superhero series that feels like a genuine event.
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Since arriving at Marvel in 2013 (after making his bones on British titles including the venerable 2000 AD and Judge Dredd Megazine), Ewing has steadily and impressively built a reputation as one of the most creatively robust and original writers in mainstream superhero fiction. Like his most obvious forebears Jack Kirby and Grant Morrison, he specializes in packing his series with the maximum possible quantity of rapid-fire and unexpected concepts. But perhaps more than either of those influences, Ewing balances his broad strokes with character beats and emotional sensitivity. He is, at this point in his career, the whole package (at least where the written word is concerned).
After turning out well-regarded runs on various Avengers titles during the mid-2010s, Ewing had his breakout moment with 2018’s Immortal Hulk: a 50-issue odyssey that was one part Cronenbergian body horror, one-part tour through Kabbalistic theology, and thoroughly original in its reimagining of venerable Marvel continuity. That makes Immortal Thor’s title both a promise of intriguing things to come, and a daunting challenge to match the towering reputation of Ewing’s magnum opus. io9 recently chatted with Ewing about what his book’s August launch has in store, and learned why it’s a challenge he seems fully prepared to meet.
Zach Rabiroff, io9: You’ve mentioned that while you aren’t much of a religious person, you have a broad-ranging interest in religion and mythology. So what was your background in Norse mythology before taking on this assignment? Are there other mythologies that you found yourself drawing from as you thought about your approach to Thor?
Al Ewing: I’ve read a few of the tales, some the eddas, others with the flavor of folk-tales that have had the Norse Gods sprinkled into them where maybe originally it was more of a Celtic pantheon or whoever. There is one particular edda that grabbed me – one that I recognized from comics, because I’ve seen it retold and repurposed a lot, by various people – and it’s not one of the best-known ones: it’s got more the flavor of a fairytale, where Thor ventures into another land where the rules aren’t the same as the ones he knows. And that really dovetailed with some of the other things I was thinking about.
io9: What was your background in Thor comics coming into this? I imagine that as a British reader, you would have come at him from a different angle than most U.S. comic buyers.
Ewing: I first encountered Thor in the pages of the U.K. Secret Wars reprints, so the first Thor I ever saw was from Jim Shooter and Mike Zeck. Shooter had a couple of interesting perspectives on Thor that stuck with me—in his hands, Thor had a kind of otherworldly tone to him. When a gigantic superstorm was battering the heroes in their HQ, Thor was outside enjoying it, and at one point he broke Enchantress out of the heroes’ jail so they could have a proper Asgardian-to-Asgardian conversation. Jim Shooter put a lot of care into things like that—I remember the X-Men immediately broke off into a third faction to emphasize that they weren’t like the other heroes, the Hulk (with Bruce Banner’s brain at the time) was growing more aggressive every issue… it was no real surprise that Thor should come off as a little strange and even alien. And Mike Zeck did a great job of delineating this big, beefy guy in a way that felt different from any other heroes, too.
io9: What are the previous Thor stories, and Thor creators, that stand out to you, personally, as highlights?
Ewing: I was very lucky in that coming off Secret Wars, right when U.S. comics were starting to make their way into newsagents over here, it was the middle of the [legendary Thor writer/artist Walt] Simonson era. So Thor comics at the time were really something special. I think Simonson really grokked the fantasy, [and] mythological element: everything had the cadence of myth, and drew from the Norse myths. Kirby did the same, but with a slightly different ratio of fantasy and science fiction—a much more crackling, bombastic energy that tied in with the Marvel mythology he was building in general. And of course, Kirby’s Thor was the first telling of the origin of Galactus, so that has some special meaning for me.
Aside from that, there are runs I need to go back and re-read, and one of them is the recent Matt Fraction run. I remember a particular sequence illustrated by Pascual Ferry that involves Odin gaining the wisdom of the World-Tree [Thor #621 from 2011]—reading that back for research really struck a chord. There was a real sense of it as communing with an unknowable force.
io9: Writers often find Thor a difficult character to approach in the context of Marvel comics, because his unapproachable divinity and staggeringly godly power put him on a different plane from your typical Marvel character: he’s all the trouble Superman tends to give to writers, but multiplied exponentially, and with the added complication of a supporting cast full of literal deities. So how do you ground a character like Thor enough to make him believable as part of the Marvel Universe?
Ewing: There are a few stories in Thor’s very early days when he’s acting as a Superman analogue, and there’s one panel in particular where the entire world is radioing for Thor to stop a missile or something, that’s extremely Silver Age Superman. With Marvel, the natural thing is to ground a hero by giving him problems, and we’re definitely doing tha—god-size problems, naturally, especially since he’s now the King of Asgard. But one thing we won’t do this time is show him having doubts and fears about his worthiness for the role of the Thunder God and the All-Father: the last couple of runs addressed those issues very well and over a long period, so I think those stories have been excellently told already. Instead, the main way we ground Thor is by getting inside his head, in a way we haven’t for a while. You’ll see how we do that when the time comes, but it does feel like a long-lost secret recipe for a fully relatable Thor. One weird trick, as they say.
io9: From the beginning, there has always been a tricky balance in Thor stories between the earthbound world and its supporting cast of alter ego Donald Blake and co., and the larger-than-life eddas-by-way-of-Kirby of the Asgard cast and setting. How have you been trying to walk the tightrope? Do you find yourself favoring one half of the balance over the other?
Ewing: Right from the start, we establish Thor as having one foot in Asgard and one in Midgard. I think you can have a Thor run that’s entirely one or entirely the other, and that’d be a great Thor run, but whoever was following you would have to swing that pendulum back. We’re going to be going back and forth between the two. If there’s a secret sauce to that, I think it’s that in both places, he’s approachable: in Asgard, he’s the ruler, but he’s also been one of the gang since small times. The Warriors Four, and Sif, and Loki won’t treat him any differently—he’s still Thor. And on Earth, he might be a literal god, but he’s also a superhero, and one of the friendlier ones. So you’ve got the same balance in both worlds between Thor’s power and his personality.
io9: Come to mention it, what about Donald Blake? Writers have had a startlingly wide range of takes on the character over the years—from his initial introduction as a kind of ersatz Billy Batson, to the early retcon that he was merely a false persona meant to humble an arrogant god, to his seemingly-final abandonment under Walt Simonson, to his surprise reintroduction (this time in real-flesh form) under J. Michael Straczynski. How important is Blake to your conception of Thor?
Ewing: Donald Blake continued to have adventures under Matt Fraction and most recently in the Donny Cates run, so he’s another element we have dealt with very recently—in fact, I helped out with his arc, following Donny’s instructions to leave him in a certain place and augmented a certain way. So he’s sort of simmering on the stove at the moment. I have a place in the larger story where I think he’ll come in very handy if he’s still available, but at the same time, I want to make issue #1 a fresh start for this run. So he’s going to stay buried in his tomb for the time being.
io9: Immortal Thor is a pretty portentous title for the series – not only because it evokes your previous run on Immortal Hulk, but because it calls up memories of the role that immortality and resurrection have played in both Norse mythology and previous Thor stories. As far back as the first Kirby/Lee Ragnarok storyline, and certainly during its more recent recapitulation by Oeming and Di Vito, Thor stories have explicitly been built around the notion that the life of the Asgardians moves in cycles of destruction and rebirth. Can you talk about how this fits into your own schema of Marvel life and death: the Green Door, Kirbons, the One Above All, and all the rest?
Ewing: We’re definitely going to touch on those things—the “Immortal” adjective was meant as a challenge to myself to do better, but it’s also a way to communicate to the reader that this is a book that’s going to touch on those themes, and hopefully do so in a new way. Thor’s immortality is a major part of the story I have planned out, and we’re going to be dealing with his relationship to forces much larger than himself. At the same time, I’m hoping this will stand on its own, so we might be coming at things in a different direction that’s based on the eddas as much as on more biblical elements.
io9: I suppose that raises another interesting point: what on earth does Thor’s identity as a god mean to the religious “truth” of the Marvel Universe? Is he really a god in the same sense that the One Above All is a god? What does it mean for faith if a god can, and frequently does, die?
Ewing: I class myself as an agnostic rather than an atheist—I’m not of any particular religion, but I don’t see the need to close myself off to the numinous either. A lot of these explorations in my work are attempts to find some understanding, but at the same time, what resonates strongly with me is that basic unknowability of God. I don’t believe that journey towards understanding, whether that’s understanding of higher forces or of ourselves, is one that can end. If I have any faith at all, it’s faith that that journey to higher understanding still has meaning, even though we all die with the journey unfinished.
So where does Thor fit into that worldview? Well, Thor is a god in the Marvel sense that he’s a big probably-an-alien with certain inborn powers, who’s been around for thousands of years and is the Same Guy From Some Myths. Is he God in the same way the One Above All is? Clearly not. They’re both fictional, but one is a metaphor for the creative force, a signifier for that unknowable higher force that may or may not exist, a mouthpiece for discussion about such forces—and the other is a big probably-an-alien. They’re obviously on different levels.
That said: the fact that Thor is any kind of god confers a level of the unknowable upon him. There are things Thor can do that can’t be fully explained, that work on a magical and metaphorical level. So in that way, yes, he’s a god. And he’s a god you can tell superhero stories about, because you can say exactly the same thing about Superman.
io9: What sort of tone are you hoping to strike in this run? If Immortal Hulk was the hero as divine horror, and your Avengers was the hero as rollicking action serial, what’s the approach you’re taking to Immortal Thor?
Ewing: If Hulk was divine horror, Thor is divine fantasy—a mythological book about gods walking the earth, looking at hopefully interesting questions, but playing much more towards big epic elements than those big horror beats. We’re lucky to have Martin Cóccolo on art chores: he’s done an amazing job getting those epic myth-sized moments across, and Matt Wilson on colors is really heightening the great work he’s doing. And, of course, we have Alex Ross on covers, and he also did some fantastic design work for us on a couple of characters who are going to be making big entrances in that first issue, as well as offering a reimagining of the classic design for Thor himself.
io9: What’s been surprising you the most as you’ve started writing this character and his cast? Has Thor, as a personality, been as you expected him to be, or have you found things changing in execution compared to what you anticipated?
Ewing: I wasn’t expecting to find it so easy to write Thor—he’s not a character I’ve written beyond guest roles, or as part of a much larger team in a much larger event—but it is very easy to slip into his mode of speech. It’s almost too enjoyable: you can get lost in the poetry of Thor’s voice. But so far, when it comes to the lettering draft, I’ve been able to cut my original ramblings down to size without sacrificing his essential tone.
io9: Are there members of the supporting cast who (expectedly or unexpectedly) you’ve found yourself particularly enjoying? For that matter, will you be relying heavily on past characters who have surrounded Thor, or introducing new ones of your own design?
Ewing: We’re introducing a new villain in #1, as well as a couple of other bad guys not seen in a long time—one not seen since the Roy Thomas years—and I’ve got plans for supporting characters new and old, too. To mention one in particular: I’m writing Loki again, and I’m enjoying making them a little unpredictable, in ways that are completely new to the character but should hopefully fit perfectly with where they’ve been and who they’ve become. Loki’s the God of Stories now, Skald of the Realms, and settling into that role might have made them more dangerous than ever—after all, a storyteller’s first allegiance is to the tale. What does that mean for Thor? You’ll see.
io9: You’ve developed a bit of a reputation as a continuity guy—someone who’s a sure hand at acknowledging and often recontextualizing stories that have come before, and using them to build out your own runs. Thor, for his part, has been through quite a wild set of transformations over the past decade. Do you intend to use that in the story you’re telling, or are you seeking to start as fresh as you can?
Ewing: It’s a little bit of all possible worlds. We start with Thor as King of Asgard, so that’s a story we’re very much continuing. I’ve got no desire to take that level of growth away from Thor: having him be the All-Father is a big part of the book and how the story plays out. There are elements we’re taking a step back on, others we’re pushing forward, all in service of making a start that feels fresh and new while still feeling like Thor—it’s an issue #1, so the idea is to plant our feet, introduce ourselves, and then come out swinging when the bell rings. Laying out a familiar hand of cards before revealing the card that’s been up our sleeves the whole time.
io9: It’s been said that the most enduring superheroes can be boiled down to a simple, enduring archetype that accounts for their success. What do you see as Thor’s? What makes him unique and powerful in a way that readers can connect to?
Ewing: The God Who Could Be You? I think Thor is the most successful example so far of the “Hercules In New York” archetype, the mythological figure who has to balance the modern world and the world of myth, with one foot in both. If Hulk is where humanity connects with the monster inside, Thor—originally a human with a god inside them—is where humanity connects with myth. Thor is our guide to a world of wonders, and in turn we get to see our own world made wondrous through his eyes. In that way, he’s very much Hulk’s opposite number, which is what makes this a sequel of sorts.
io9: Last question. Let’s say readers wanted to do some advance reading (either of comics or prose) that would help give them a grounding in the story you’re about to tell. What syllabus would you recommend?
Ewing: The Eddas are available on Project Gutenberg and worth a quick look through—you might find a few familiar tales there. As for Loki, my Agent of Asgard series and Defenders Beyond are relevant recent appearances, as is the series Dan Watters is doing just before we start. And in terms of Thor himself: well, there’s a bridging sequence in the upcoming Thor Annual that will ease readers into our run, but we do mean #1 of the main book to be a fully fresh start that readers can pick up and immediately dive into. Although if you did want to go to Marvel Unlimited and read Jason Aaron’s epic run, and what Donny Cates and Torunn Gronbekk have done since, I certainly wouldn’t stop you. They’re good comics.
The Immortal Thor #1 will be released in August from Marvel Comics.
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