“I Thought It Was Worth Doing, and That Was Enough”: The Walter Simonson Interview

ROGERS: My experience of the book in these facsimile reproductions is that it makes the work read very differently for me, than reading it in the color versions. I’m wondering if that’s something that you were aware of when you were working on the originals. I’m thinking especially of the pages where Surtur is forging the sword—those seem a lot more dramatic to me in the black and white than in color.

Surtur at his anvil - more dramatic in black and white?

SIMONSON: It’s odd for me, because I know the work both in black and white and in color.

One of the things that Joe Kubert is able to do that remains mysterious to me, even though I’ve looked at his work for years, is that somehow Joe in his drawing and his design was able to create work that is impossible to destroy in color. I couldn’t figure it out. I never have figured it out entirely.

In the old days, you only had about 35 or 40 effective colors. That was all your hues, it was all your saturations, it was all your values. And so it was harder back then for color to destroy art, but bad coloring still looked pretty bad. I basically tried to make work that was as strong in black and white as I could manage, so that it would be a good ground for the color.

Of course, in black and white what you have is the extreme contrast of values. And because color adds an entire range of values that’s not in the original drawing, it does change the way the work looks. I think that seeing it in black and white, it’s starker. To some extent, it’s more powerful. I’m not a bad black and white designer, so I think the work does have a lot of strength to it just in black and white.

And in a facsimile edition you get to read it original size as well, which is going to be bigger and stronger than an ordinary comic. If the comic were on really good paper and printed ten inches by fifteen inches with really good color, that would be a different experience too. But I do think the work holds up very well,  seen full size. It’s one of the reasons, when Scott and I were going over which issues we would put in the book, I thought that printing a couple of complete stories would be nice, rather than two issues of this, or an issue of that. It’s not like buying the omnibus, where you get everything. But I thought it would still be kind of cool to be able to read the book, so there are two complete stories in the facsimile edition.

ROGERS: So it wasn’t something where you thought to maybe just select individual pages or individual images?

Original vs. reproduction: the iconic and iconoclastic cover to the first issue of Simonson's Thor run. Click for larger view.

SIMONSON: Really, I wanted to do stuff that I had inked myself all the way through, and to have complete stories, so that even though it’s not exactly a reading book, in a way it would be. And I chose stories I liked a lot. I did the Beta Ray Bill story, which is my only four-issue story arc in my entire run, and then I did a story where Thor goes to Hel because it has a nice climax to it that’s one of my favorite bits in my Thor run.

ROGERS: Those two stories do set off your art well. But I also noticed that those two stories were very mythologically based—based almost entirely in Asgard or mythological realms. I was wondering if that also played into the decision to select those stories.

SIMONSON: Never crossed my mind. [Laughter.] I didn’t think about that at all when I was doing it. I chose Beta Ray Bill because, in some ways, that’s the kick-off for my entire run.

ROGERS: Right, that’s the story.

SIMONSON: And in the Beta Ray Bill story, although there’s a lot of mythological stuff, there’s also a lot of pulp science fiction. One of the models I was emulating when I was doing Thor were the Stan Lee and Jack Kirby issues. Their run from Journey into Mystery from about 114 or 115 up through about 139, 140—for me that’s the seminal run. Part of what they did that I loved was they had kind of a wonderful mix of not only mythologically inspired stories but science fiction as well, pulp science fiction, with Tana Nile, the Colonizers of Rigel, and Ego the living planet, and all that kind of stuff. I really liked the tension between the mythological stuff and the science fiction stuff.

Tension between mythology and science fiction, from the Artist's Edition.

The myths for me looked backwards in time to a beginning, to the beginning of everything, and grappled with questions of, you know, why are we here? And the science fiction looks forward to the future—back then, we perhaps had a more optimistic view of what science would do for us and how the future was going to work out. But I thought that introduced a cool tension between the character and the milieu in which he operated. The Beta Ray Bill story encompasses both those threads. That has the things in it that I was most interested in, in the beginning when I was getting my feet under me. And then the story with Thor and the Executioner is really just a story I like a lot, and I thought it worked out very well.

ROGERS: I’ve got to ask you: why no frog story?

SIMONSON: Well, because we couldn’t do nine issues. [Laughter.] It was too long. It was very tempting because I did like the frog story a lot. It's funny because, in books where I wrote and drew the comic, I also read all the letters, and wrote the letter columns in Marvel’s editorial voice. And that story, the frog story, of all the stories I did, had the most ambivalent mail. By that I mean,  most of the mail—that I got, anyway, and I think most comics got—was really positive. On the frog story I got a few negative letters, but probably half were pro and almost half of them were, “Gee, is this supposed to be funny?” [Rogers laughs.] I got a lot of letters from people who weren’t quite sure what their reaction was supposed to be to the story.

The frog of thunder, from Thor #365.

The irony of that, in the long run, of all the stories I did in Thor over the years, the two that I hear most about from fans, a million years later, are either Beta Ray Bill or the frog story. The fact that the frog has come back to Marvel in a form thanks to Chris Eliopoulos—I’m just mind-boggled. It’s kind of cool to create stuff in a shared universe that other people pick up and use. But boy, I wouldn’t have given a plugged nickel for the frog’s chances to come back as a continuing character in the Marvel universe, let alone inspire Randy Bowen sculptures or whatever the heck they’ve done for it since.

At the same time, in two of those issues out of the three, Thor is a frog for the entire comic. For a facsimile edition where it’s only going to be seven issues, I thought I probably needed more Thor in there than, say, two out of seven issues being frogs. But I like that story. [Laughs.]

ROGERS: I also felt that it was a showcase for some of your stronger drawing. All the wildlife...

SIMONSON: It was fun to do. I dug out a lot of animal reference, and this was before Google search.

I did reference one of my favorite Marvel stories in that series, but only readers who really know the old Marvel stuff would have gotten it.  The first issues of Spider-Man that I ever read were right toward the end of Steve Ditko’s run with Stan Lee, and they involved the Master Planner who turned out to be Doctor Octopus. In the climax of that story [#33] there’s a really wonderful scene where Spidey is trapped under tons of machinery in an underwater laboratory that’s collapsing around him. He’s alone, and if he doesn’t get out of there, Aunt May is going to die. It’s all the stuff that made Spider-Man fun. He’s been fighting and he’s beat and worn out and he has to lift this gigantic chunk of machinery that’s pinning him to the ground, and at first he’s not able to do it. Finally, after a very long haul of pages, in a great Ditko interior splash page, he throws the machinery off. It’s a wonderful scene.

So if you go back and look at the frog story, the scene where Thor as a frog gets under Mjolnir and tries to lift his hammer in the hopes that it will restore his power, a lot of what he’s saying is really a parody of what Spider-Man said under the machinery in the Stan Lee-Steve Ditko issue. It was a tip of the hat to stuff I thought was a brilliant sequence from a number of years earlier. It would’ve been fun to run that story, but again, I thought it would be maybe a little too many animals for only seven issues of facsimile Thor. [Laughs.]

ROGERS: The other story I was going to ask about was “Mjolnir’s Song”. Was that ever under consideration for inclusion in the book?

SIMONSON: You know, if we had eight issues in the book I probably would have included that, even though it was inked by Sal [Buscema], very beautifully. My initial consideration was to try to put [in] issues I’d done all the work on, just to have it all come out as art of my own. But if I’d had one more issue, I think I would’ve included that one.