By Caitlin Rosberg
Pop culture consciousness changes faster than ever thanks to the internet, and it can be both fascinating and frustrating to see just how different our collective and individual understanding of fictional characters is from each other, let alone from the source material. When it comes to less recognizable characters, the weird ones that exist on the fringes of canon and pop up occasionally to remind us that superpowers are just the start of where comics deviate from normalcy, the differences become even more profound.
Thanks in no small part to his truly goofy appearance and belonging to an era of Thor canon that has been largely abandoned post-MCU, Beta Ray Bill is exactly the type of character that tends to be deeply misunderstood and misconstrued. His brief cameo in Thor: Ragnarok had fondness and a little good natured ribbing bubbling up, but Bill hasn’t gotten enough exposure to the broader audience for folks to really understand where he came from – which is to say, Walt Simonson.
Simonson is the man behind some of the most recognizable and memorable moments in Thor’s publishing history. As writer and artist for three years and writer for an additional one, Simonson helped to usher Thor through the awkward 1980s while embracing just how wild an alien god’s story can be. Issue #337 was his first, and it starts with a bang. From the first page it’s clear that Simonson intends to tell a story that’s massive in scale and scope, operatic and wild. Thor has always been suited to these kinds of theatrics, with the faux Shakespearean speech patterns and the evocation of ancient gods and monsters. This is a Thor that manages to feel both old fashioned and beyond our time at once, the sort of retro-futurism that Tomorrowland promised with a healthy gloss of ancient Nordic traditions.
It’s worth pointing out that almost every version of Thor #337 you can get your hands on how has been recolored. The book is easily available digitally, for free as part of Comixology Unlimited, but a quick image search online will show you just how different it looks now from when it was published in November of 1983. In a lot of ways this is a real shame, particularly because some of Simonson’s original intent and choices have been lost to modern readers. Shading gives the characters a new dimension that doesn’t do anything to enhance Simonson’s character designs, previously blank backgrounds are replaced by odd gradients that are unnecessary, some of the vibrant neon has been stripped from the book entirely and replaced with more muted, realistic colors.
The best of the recolored pages are the first few, where vibrant yellows and oranges show a shadowed figure forging molten metal with traditional tools. Though the values are more pigmented and vibrant, the overall design is much closer to Simonson’s original than many of the other panels. It’s a deepening and brightening of the pages as they were first printed, and a powerful opening to a book that quickly picks up steam.
If there were ever an issue of a comic book that was designed specifically to target me, though, it might be this one. After a bold, dramatic opening with intergalactic blacksmithing, the book shifts to Chicago’s Grant Park – and as a lifelong Chicagoan I’m pretty sick of comics set in New York. Dr. Donald Blake signals the first of many deviations from modern Thor; once Thor’s alter ego, Blake is a disabled man who relies on Thor’s presence to grant him strength and power, a mechanic that has more in common with Jane Foster as Thor than the Odinson, these days.
Blake is whisked off by a version of Nick Fury that looks nothing like Samuel L. Jackson, is shown a powerful alien vessel fast approaching Earth, and whisks himself off to space so fast no one would blame readers for getting a little whiplash… and the story’s just getting started. The visual gag of Blake transforming into Thor in the close confines of Fury’s flying car, followed closely by a dramatically shadowed Thor scowling into empty air, is exactly the kind of thing that can and should expect from Simonson. Simonson draws a Thor that’s just as grand and theatrical as his speech is, with massive wings on his helmet, a broad and perfectly aligned cape, and boots that are capped in a spray of material that would definitely trip anyone unfortunate enough not to have the same grace as a god.
On top of being a petty Chicagoan, I am also the sort of person that’s worn a Thor’s hammer pendant for a significant chunk of my life and a not at all recovering horse girl. I could not be more primed for Beta Ray Bill, the duty-driven warrior that looks terrifyingly like a skinned horse with way too many muscles. Bill’s ship, or maybe the AI that powers it, is called Skuttlebutt, which is silly and charming and taps into my affection for Tony and JARVIS and his girl FRIDAY. The whole premise of the character and his backstory feel particularly targeted at all of my needs and wants for my entertainment, and I’m far from complaining.
When Thor arrives on Bill’s ship, the two lock in a battle of strength and prowess that’s anything but refined. It’s a lot of yelling at each other about who’s more righteous while they swing fists, and if you tried to choreograph it with real people it wouldn’t work. But in print it’s glorious and bombastic. Bill and Thor are equally matched, and when Thor falters and Blake returns, Bill’s totally justified defense of his ship from this blond demon that just showed up and started ripping holes in things is complete. A moment later he picks up Mjolnir, disguised as Blake’s walking stick, and suddenly is swathed in the billowing fabric of Thor’s own uniform, modified to encompass his own armor, too. Bill is then whisked off to Asgard by Odin, while Blake is abandoned on Earth, shouting for his father.
There’s a whole B plot about Lady Sif and Balder and Loki and Lorelei in Thor #337, but it’s never captured my attention the way Bill does. Sif is bored and lonely, Balder is bored and boring, Loki is bored and chaotic, and Lorelei is bored and horny or maybe indignant. It’s hard to tell. There’s a fat joke for Volstagg, the lovely ladies are barely wearing anything, and Loki magicks himself to look like Thor at one point. Asgard is Asgard. But Bill picking up Mjolnir is far more interesting and compelling.
It’s a monumental shift that might seem small out of context. The whole point of Mjolnir, as Odin explains in the next issue, is that only those who are worthy of the hammer are able to wield it. How to define worthiness is of course a point of contention that each writer tackles differently, but the fact that Bill is granted the right to lift Mjolnir and then almost immediately whisked off to Asgard at Odin’s bidding indicates there is a real hero in him, a righteousness that is not always proceeded by “self” and a real care for the safety of others.
The idea that this monstrous creature with technology beyond even Thor’s understanding could be found worthy of Mjolnir is always going to be the coolest thing about this issue, and the fact that it’s the first one in Simonson’s lengthly run really gives insight into what he was aiming for. Bill is weird, his appearance is off-putting, especially in contrast with the Asgardians and Midgardians on all the other pages; even Loki is drawn as a muscular, handsome man clothes tight enough to leave little to the imagination. The only other character that is as inhuman as Bill is a troll, fleeing from hunters on Loki’s land. The rest are all beautiful. The idea that Bill, of all the other people on the pages, is strong enough morally and physically to wield the same weapon as Thor is a remarkable one, running contrary to the deep rooted idea that goodness and beauty go hand in hand, especially in a world as allegorical and simplified as comics.
Bill looks weird, but he is forthright and strong and driven by good things, and he helped pave the way for adventures like Frog Thor and even the creation of the MCU. The idea that even Odin himself could confuse this terrifying alien for his own son, worthy and powerful, set the stage for so many fascinating Thor stories, and it’s well past time Bill got some of that spotlight to share.
The Mighty Thor #337: DOOM
Writer and artist: Walt Simonson
Colourist: George Roussos
Letterer: John Workman Jr
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