Thor #166 (July, 1969)

There’s a case to be made that the God of Thunder’s adversary in the issue of his comic we’re discussing today — the being known at this point only as “Him”, though he’d later pick up the less confusing appellation “Adam Warlock” — was the last major character creation of artist/storyteller Jack Kirby during his most important and productive stint at Marvel Comics.  As recalled by comics writer and historian — and longtime Kirby associate — Mark Evanier (and reported by numerous writers, including Mike Gartland in The Jack Kirby Collector #24), the story that Kirby plotted and drew for Fantastic Four #66 – 67 was a tale of well-intentioned scientists who create an ultimate human being, an entity who’s not only physically perfect but also possesses godlike powers, only to have this being, once it’s emerged from gestation within its cocoon, turn on them and destroy them, simply because they don’t meet his standards of perfection.  However, when it came time to script the story, Kirby’s collaborator (and editor), Stan Lee, jettisoned this theme — intended as Kirby’s ironic commentary on Ayn Rand’s Objectivist philosophy — possibly because it didn’t present a clear-cut “bad guy”.  In Lee’s version of the story — which was the one that saw print, of course — the scientists wanted to use their creation to dominate the world; “Him” realized this, and destroyed the would-be despots before taking his leave of humanity.  Already disgruntled with Lee (and with Marvel Comics, generally) over a number of matters — including the way that Lee had appropriated and reinterpreted an earlier Kirby creation for FF, the Silver Surfer —  Kirby may have seen this latest alteration of his creative vision to be, in Gartland’s words, “the last straw”.  From this time on, the theory goes, the “King” would refrain from bringing his full creative powers to bear on the work he did for Marvel, with the result that he would introduce few, if any, truly significant new characters in his last couple of years before jumping ship for DC Comics. 

It is, of course, a subjective judgement as to which Kirby characters should be counted as “major”, or “truly significant”.  Yet, I suspect most fans and critics would agree that in a comparison of the characters who debuted in Kirby-drawn comics in the three years prior to the July, 1967 publication of Fantastic Four #68, and those introduced in the three years following, the latter group doesn’t come off nearly as well.*  But if one accepts the idea that Kirby was so deeply invested in the creation of Him (whom he seems to have only ever referred to as “Cocoon-Man” in his art page margin notes to Stan Lee, by the way), and so disappointed by the way Lee re-worked this creation’s personality and motivations, that the artist began henceforth to “phone it in”, as it were — why did he bring the character back for a two-issue stand in Thor?  Wouldn’t that have been like rubbing salt into his own wounds?

At least two possible answers come to mind.  The first is that Lee actually requested the character’s inclusion.  While there’s a general consensus that, by this period of their collaboration, Lee wasn’t contributing much, if anything, to the plotting of “Lee-Kirby” stories prior to receiving Kirby’s pencilled pages, that doesn’t necessarily mean that he never made any suggestions, or requests; and since Lee was the book’s editor, his request would amount to a directive.  Another possibility is that Kirby, having decided to not put much effort into the creation of new characters for Marvel, but still needing to produce stories, simply shrugged and figured that since this character was already there, he might as well use him.  And, perhaps, the true answer lies somewhere else entirely.  At this late stage of the game, unless new documentary evidence comes to light, we’ll probably never know for sure.

Of course, back in May, 1969, my eleven-year-old self wasn’t aware of any of this.  I didn’t start reading Fantastic Four until June, 1968, so I had no idea who the golden-skinned guy throwing down with the Thunder God on the cover of Thor #166 was supposed to be.  Thor was, at this time, still just an occasional purchase for me, so I may not have realized I was coming in at the middle of a two-part story tha had begun with issue #165 — though I probably did, since, as I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I was reading Marvel’s monthly Bullpen Bulletins / Mighty Marvel Checklist text pages religiously.  If so, I likely still didn’t have too many worries about being lost, because I had enough experience with Marvel to know that the storytellers would probably give enough background information to figure out what was going on — but even if they didn’t, I was still in for a good time.

The “Him” plotline had actually first cropped up as far back as #163, functioning as a sort of MacGuffin in another two-part adventure — this one centering on Pluto, the Olympian God of the Underworld, and his attempt to destroy a mysterious being held in secret within a New York City research facility.  After dispatching Pluto at the conclusion of #164, Thor and his two Asgardian companions — the lady Sif and Balder the Brave — enter the facility in #165 and find that this being has emerged from his holding cell.

Readers of FF #67 hadn’t actually known what became of Him after he blew up his makers’ base, but we now learn (as do Thor and company) that the golden humanoid had subsequently left Earth to seek his destiny in the stars, only to soon fall into a “space trap”, where he feared he’d be pounded to death by meteoroids.  He’d recreated his protective cocoon around himself then, just as a starship came into view; and though Him has no memory of how he ended up back on Earth, the story’s narrator helpfully explains that the cocoon was picked up by the Watcher, who’d set the space trap not realizing it might ensnare a fellow living being.  Trying to put things right, the Watcher sent the cocoon back to Earth, where it was discovered and taken to the Atomic Research Center in NYC for study.

Now, Him wants nothing more than to leave Earth once more, and so, he — no, that’s not quite right; Him also wants a mate to accompany him on his journey, this time.  “She is pleasant to my eyes!” he announces, indicating Sif.  “Thus do I choose her!”  The Asgardians attempt to dissuade him with words; after that works out about as well as you’d expect, they follow up with physical action.  But Him quickly repels Thor and Balder by pure force of mind, grabs Sif, and teleports away.  Through the enchantment of Thor’s hammer Mjolnir, however, the Thunder God and his faithful friend are able to immediately follow, and the conflict resumes on an unknown other world.  But no sooner has the battle begun when it’s interrupted by the appearance of a malicious, sorcerous hag, name of Haag, a servant of the Norn Queen Karnilla (more of her anon), who attempts to capture Balder for her mistress.  Thor is able to drive Haag back across the dimensional barrier and rescue Balder — but in the meantime, Him absconds once more with Sif, leaving Thor behind to rail in godly wrath.

The closing “next” blurb promised #165’s readers “A God Berserk!” in the following month’s issue — and that’s exactly what they (as well as late-to-the-party fans like yours truly) would get, in May, 1969.

And it would become evident within the book’s first few pages that scripter Lee wasn’t just employing the word “berserk” here as a hyperbolic equivalent of “really, really angry”:

Thor’s terse, declarative dialogue on the opening splash page provided virtually all the recap I would receive over the course of the issue; but while I might have liked to know a little bit more about who Him was and where he came from, I don’t recall that I worried very much about it.  Frankly, Kirby and Lee had no intention of allowing their readers much, if any time for head-scratching.

“Of what use be sanity, when naught but power will prevail??!”  Kirby’s use of a four-panel grid layout on pages 2 and 3, while pretty standard procedure for the artist at this point in his career, proves especially effective in conveying the awesome scope, and concomitant dangerousness, of Thor’s literally thunderous rage.  Our titular protagonist actually becomes a frightening figure here — a way of framing a comic-book superhero that was novel for my eleven-year-old self in 1969, and even a bit unsettling.

Balder’s reference to “the dreaded Warrior Madness” is our first clear indication that what’s come over Thor is no ordinary fit of rage, even after allowing for godly proportions.  Kirby and Lee are of course drawing here on the concept of the berserker, as found in sagas and other Old Norse literary texts.  The berserkers of the Viking Age are supposed to have been warriors who fought in a state of frenzied rage, possibly induced by the use of hallucinogenic mushrooms or henbane.  The main difference between the traditional “berserk” state and Kirby and Lee’s fictional “Warrior Madness” is that the former seems to have been willingly sought after, while the latter is clearly viewed as a malady.

As Thor once again uses his hammer to create a vortex, allowing him and Balder to pursue Sif and her captor, the story shifts scenes to the land of the Norns, to join Queen Karnilla and her servant Haag:

As with the four-panel grid page layout, Kirby made liberal use of interior full-page splash panels in his late-Sixties Marvel work.  Occasionally, the scenes depicted didn’t seem to merit the full-page treatment; but that’s hardly the case here, where only the presence of Haag prevents this from coming across as a pure glamour-girl style pin-up portrait of the sultry Queen of Norns, surely one of Kirby’s most alluring femme fatales.

Karnilla had debuted in 1964, in Journey Into Mystery #107’s installment of the “Tales of Asgard” feature that backed up the lead “Thor” tale [see left].  Though this particular episode was (very) loosely based on the Norse myth of Baldr’s death, Karnilla wasn’t originally presented as having any particular interest in the Brave one; in fact, she wasn’t even an “authentic” mythological figure, but rather an original creation of Lee and Kirby (though obviously inspired by the mythical Norns).  Brought into the present-day Asgardian continuity in JIM #117, she made only one additional appearance prior to Thor #148; that issue launched her first major plotline, in which she both got her proper name (before this, she’d been referred to only as “the Norn Queen”) and also fell for Balder.  While I don’t know this for a fact, I’ve always assumed that her new prominence in the Thor series was an attempt on the storytellers’ part to add a little interest to the character of Balder, who, though both brave and stalwart, was also a bit colorless (especially when compared to his battling buddies, the Warriors Three).

Once her connection with Balder had been established, Karnilla would continue to appear as a regularly recurring supporting character not only through the rest of the Lee & Kirby run on Thor, but also through Lee’s collaboration with Kirby’s artistic successor John Buscema, and on into Buscema’s collaboration with Lee’s successor as the title’s writer, Gerry Conway.  (During those years, which coincided with my adolescence, I recall being disappointed by Buscema’s consistently costuming the Norn Queen in the same modest, tasteful, entirely appropriate red outfit seen at right [panel from Thor #202 by Buscema and Vince Colletta, dialogue by Conway], rather than having her rock something a bit more, um, provocative, along the lines of the little number she wore in Thor #166.  Never mind that Kirby himself garbed Karnilla in drapey, head-to-toe gowns most of the time; page 5 of #166 is where I first saw the character, and the impression made by that page would prove indelible.)

In subsequent decades, Karnllla’s status as a supporting character/villain in Thor would rise and fall, depending on the interests and priorities of whoever was writing the series.  As of this writing, she’s actually dead, technically speaking — but don’t worry, that’s hardly slowed her down.  (In fact, since shuffling off the immortal coil, she’s even gone and gotten herself married — to Hela, Goddess of Death, no less.  Long story, but one well worth your time and coin, trust me. [Panel shown at left from Thor (2018) #4; art by Mike del Mundo, dialogue by Jason Aaron.])

But, I digress, I suppose.  To return to our main order of business in this blog post…

Haag’s sculpting of her Balder effigy won’t pay off until the next issue — and, in fact, neither she nor her regal mistress will appear again over the course of “A God Berserk!”.  But don’t worry, gentle reader — all that Karnilla background information I just made you sit through will serve you in good stead for future Thor-centric posts.**

Attempting to prevent his friend from falling further into Warrior Madness, Balder attempts to convince Thor to let him make the first assay against Him, since it was the Thunder God’s need to rescue Balder that allowed Sif’s captor to elude them before.  Thor says him nay; but then the whole business is rendered moot, as Him uses his mental powers to cause roots to emerge from the ground and ensnare Balder:

Him seems pretty damn sure of Him-self, doesn’t he?  But pride goeth before a fall, as they say, and Thor has his opponent on the proverbial ropes in little more than a page:

The smackdown continues until Him realizes that he’ll have to dispense with his “equal terms” approach to fighting Thor — if he wants to survive, that is:

Odin’s personal project to find Galactus, uncover the secret of his origin, and end the threat he poses to Asgard (and the rest of the universe) once and for all has been an ongoing storyline in Thor for the last half-dozen issues or so.  Having begun with a trilogy of issues in which Thor more-or-less fought the Big G to a draw, the Galactus thread has since served as a subplot to the main action — though, as will become evident before the end of this post, it’ll be moving back to center stage before very long.

Up until this point, the story’s  references to Warrior Madness — all made by Balder — have indicated that it’s something that can come upon Asgardians suddenly, like an illness.  As such, while it might be possible to stave off the worst of its effects through timely intervention (hence Balder’s earlier efforts to distract or divert the Thunder God from his pursuit of Him), whether or not a god contracts it in the first place would seem to be out of that god’s hands.  In contemporary, human terms, it’s a mental health issue, not a moral one.  But that doesn’t seem to be the way the All-Father sees it:

It’s a little unclear from Lee’s script whether Thor’s real transgression, in Odin’s eyes, is the failure to allow a defeated enemy to surrender — an obvious offense against a warrior’s code of ethics, a la chivalry, or indeed against the modern understanding of the “law of war” — or his prior succumbing to Warrior Madness in the first place.  (On this score, it would be very interesting to see Kirby’s margin notes to Lee for this page.)  Either way, however, the Lord of Asgard’s judgement is clear:  “Any who be guilty of Warrior Madness must pay the penalty!

Vince Colletta takes a lot of grief for his inking, some (perhaps much) of it deserved; but I’ve always enjoyed his work on Thor.  I think he’s particularly effective in the next-to-last panel shown above, in helping Kirby’s pencils convey the both the Thunder God’s weariness and his dawning dismay over what has just happened.

As Thor self-recriminates, the “aero-space” bubble in which Him has kept Sif imprisoned descends gently to earth:

Well, at least Sif doesn’t think her lover’s temporary insanity was his own fault. But, as Balder (who’s finally manged to hack his way free of Him’s root-trap) glumly reminds them, it doesn’t matter to Odin whose fault it was:  “The God of Thunder to Warrior Madness hath succumbed!  Now, naught remains but the learning of the All-Father’s dread sentence!

As Thor prepares to whisk them all back to Asgard via Mjolnir so that he can face the music, the story shifts scenes to the Golden Realm just ahead of them, to rejoin the All-Father:

Yep, it’s Thor who’s going to get the job of search the heavens for Galactus, to the end of time and beyond, if need be.  Which comes as no surprise — though one wonders what poor Asgardian sap would’ve gotten stuck with the gig if Odin didn’t have a sentence for Warrior Madness he needed to administer.  (Timing is everything, I guess.)

And the “Cosmos-Craft” is a pretty sweet-looking ride — though whether or not it really deserves its own full-page splash probably depends on how much you love Kirby-tech.

The story will obviously continue in the next month’s issue, as the God of Thunder discovers the fate we readers already know lies in store for him… but we won’t be talking about Thor #167 here on the blog next month, primarily because my eleven-year-old self didn’t buy it.  Perhaps that’s due to my thinking that the book’s John Romita-drawn cover, depicting Loki menacing Thor’s mortal self, Dr. Donald Blake, didn’t seem to have a lot to do with the events being set up by #166 — but, in any case, I wouldn’t read that comic until I picked it up as a back issue, several years later.  But don’t worry — I did get back on board with Thor before the Cosmos-Craft reached its final destination (Galactus, that is), and you’ll be reading all about that here in just a few months.

I’ll close out this post today with a few last reflections on our friend Him, whom we last saw on page 16 — once more ensconced within his cocoon, floating away, alone, into the cosmic void.

Back in 1969, I can’t recall that I was particularly eager to find out what would happen next to the golden one.  As best as I can remember, I’d found Him only mildly interesting as a character — not evil enough to be a compelling villain, but too obtuse and self-centered to meet my criteria for a hero.  (Honestly, no matter how often Sif or Balder proclaimed his childlike innocence, he still seemed like something of a jerk.)  Besides that, Kirby’s visual design was pretty stripped-down, if you’ll pardon the expression, consisting of little more than golden skin and a pair of crimson trunks; and Lee’s scripting hadn’t provides him with much of a personality, either.

Luckily, someone — namely, writer Roy Thomas — saw more potential in the character than my eleven-year-old self did, or we wouldn’t be having discussions over whether or not Him should be counted as the last of Jack Kirby’s great character creations for Marvel in the Sixties in the first place.  Without Thomas, we never would have seen Him return just a few years later to be reborn as Adam Warlock, at the hands of Thomas and artist Gil Kane; or, a few years after that, seen Adam Warlock go on to find his place near the center of a particularly fertile branch of the Marvel Universe mythos, courtesy of artist-writer Jim Starlin; or, a few decades after that, seen that branch itself go on to provide the basis for a Marvel Cinematic Universe story arc whose final chapter, released April 26, 2019, would make box-office history.  Who could have imagined?

If this blog — and its author — can mange to hang in long enough, we’ll eventually get around to chronicling some of those milestones right here.  Here’s hoping you’ll still be hanging in as well, and will join me then.

 

 

 

*Just in case you need a memory refresher — the former group, in addition to the Silver Surfer and Him, also includes the Inhumans, Galactus, the Black Panther, Ego the Living Planet, and the High Evolutionary… and the list goes on.  The latter group can boast Annihilus, Doctor Faustus, and the Mangog — but after that, you’re mostly dealing with the likes of Tomazooma, the Monocle, Crypto-Man, Thermal Man, and Kronin Krask; plus a whole mess of forgettable robots and androids.

**But if the preceding merely whetted your appetite to learn more of the Norn Queen’s history, I heartily recommend “Back Issue Ben” Smith’s highly enjoyable 13-part “Karnilla Retrospective”, over at The Comics Cube.

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4 comments

  1. Don Goodrum · May 5

    I actually owned this one! And I remember being particularly fascinated by the deceptive simplicity of the character and his motivations, so when Thomas brought him back and turned him into Adam Warlock, along with art by my hero, the magnificent Gil Kane, I was all over that book and then some. I was also a huge fan of Starlin’s take on Adam, tho I found it, at times, hard to tell the difference between what Starlin was doing with Adam Warlock and what he was doing with Captain Marvel, though that may be the fault of my own youth and innocence and not any authorial wrong-doing on Starlin’s part.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Alan Stewart · May 5

      Don, yeah, I remember being surprised when Thanos first showed up in “Warlock”, which up until that point was telling what seemed to be a completely different story — because, after all, Thanos had died in “Captain Marvel” and that story was over (and had ended perfectly). Then, after the Thanos story ended again — and even more perfectly — with the “ends” of both Thanos and Warlock in “Marvel Two-In_one Annual” #2, I was surprised when Starlin brought back Thanos (and Warlock) yet again for “Infinity Gauntlet”. After that, I finally figured out that Jim Starlin was telling one big story at Marvel, and that regardless of how many times Thanos or Warlock “died” on his watch, neither of them was going anywhere, at least not for long.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. jafmark2 · May 5

    This is a great post! I love your analysis of the whole story and its underpinnings in prior Marvel comics and Viking history. This issue is one I’ll always remember for another reason. It was with this issue and the other Marvel mags released that week that Marvel’s cover price jumped from twelve to fifteen cents! I think this is the only comic book that ever gave me a case of “sticker shock!”

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Alan Stewart · May 5

    Glad you liked it, jafmark2! Hope you caught last week’s “Aquaman” #46 post with my own tale of sticker shock; if not, there’s a link around here some place.

    Like

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