Monday, May 15, 2023

Heimdall, the World Tree, and All of Us

A voice from long ago sounds in my head, colored blue with memory and longing.
Laying on my back
In the newly mown grass
Rain is coming down
But I know the clouds will pass
The clouds will indeed pass. The sun will fall below the horizon and cede the darkening sky to night and to its own cousin stars across the cosmos.

As the night moves, one star will not. It will remain fixed, showing the way northward. Between dusk and dawn, the other stars will spin around it in concentric circles of light. In long-exposure photographs, these circles around the pole star look like rings of an ancient tree.

“Photograph of the Stars in their Diurnal Motion round the Pole”
from In the High Heavens by Sir Robert S. Ball (1910)

The earth rotates around an axis drawn from the south pole, through the planet, out the north pole, and up to the pole star. With a bit of imagination, diagrams of this world axis show a trunk with roots in the earth and the pole star at the top of the leader.

Old Icelandic poetry tells us of the mighty measuring tree. The growth and life of this tree parallel the growth and life of this world, and none know where to find the beginning point of its roots.

The poetry’s great unnamed prophetess tells the god Odin of her ancient memories of nine giant women of the tree under the ground. The giant prophetess Hyndla tells the goddess Freyja of a mighty one born long ago to nine giant women at the edge of the earth. The god Heimdall himself speaks of being born of nine sisters who are his nine mothers.

Heimdall makes his home atop Himinbjörg, the “mountain of heaven.” From that vantage point, he sees and hears all that happens on the earth. As the great watchman of the world, he needs less sleep than a bird does.

One way to translate Heimdall’s name is “world tree.” It’s a translation that makes sense of these multiple elusive allusions.

The connection of trees to personhood is fundamental in Norse mythology. The gods create the first humans from two trees and name them Ash and Elm. At the other end of the time cycle, two humans named Life and Life-Eager survive the cataclysm of Ragnarök by hiding within the World Tree. Both at the beginning and at the end of mythic time, human life emerges from trees.

If the nine giant women of the tree under the ground are the nine mothers of Heimdall, then they are the roots from which the tree grows at the edge of the earth and stands atop the mountain of heaven. This poetic imagery is reflected in the scientific diagram of the axis that begins at the south pole, runs through the earth, then bursts out of the top of the world to grow up to the pole star in the heavens.

The World Tree branches out over our world, the world watched over by Heimdall as guardian. In this way, he-as-tree functions as the world’s warden tree, echoing on a cosmic scale the northern European belief in a homestead’s greatest tree as watcher over the generations of inhabitants. As the earthly tree sees far and wide from its high vantage point, as the earthly tree never sleeps in its unceasing watchfulness, so does Heimdall as the World Tree.

If we accept that the Old Icelandic poem Rígsþula (“List of Ríg”) is indeed about Heimdall and follow tradition by linking it to the opening of the great prophecy, then he is the father of all the tribes and all the classes of humanity. Not just Icelanders. Not just northern Europeans. All of us.

The World Tree isn’t the Scandinavia Tree or the White People Tree. It’s the tree of the entire world with roots deep inside the planet and branches that spread over and connect all living beings.

Under growing branches, not set in stone

In the second episode of Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, Neil deGrasse Tyson presents a powerful vision of the Tree of Life that illustrates the interconnectedness of all that live on earth. As if to underscore the imagery of the Norse myths, he makes a particular point of showing the similarities of an oak tree’s DNA with his own. “This tree and me,” he says, “we’re long-lost cousins.”

“The Oak and the Reed” by Gustave Doré from The Fables of La Fountaine (1867)

The film Dark Universe, also narrated by Tyson, presents visualizations of the dark matter flowing throughout the universe that look like the cells of a tree or of a human being. Everything that is, is intrinsically connected. The macroscopic mirrors the microscopic, as the World Tree is an enlargement of the warden tree and Heimdall-as-tree magnifies humans-as-trees.

In the third decade of the twenty-first century, when we’re still weighted down with translations of the Eddas by baby boomer academics who resolutely translate terms for families, kindreds, and generations as “race,” it’s good to remember that the poems and myths tell us of all humanity being descended from and watched over by Heimdall-as-World-Tree. We can counter the racialist baggage that living scholars still carry forward from 19th-century scholarship by refreshing ourselves in the well of myth.

No, the corpus of Norse mythology is not some pure and beautiful lore of warm hugs. It is also not the corpus of “white religion” that so many practitioners of modern paganism today make it out to be, whether they overtly promote racist ideology or more carefully couch their language in terms of ancestry, heritage, and rhetoric referring to Vikings and Germanic tribes as “our glorious forefathers.”

In the ancient poetry and mythology, the World Tree grows from roots deep in the earth and watches over the entire world, and we humans are made from trees. In modern scientific theory, the world axis sprouts from roots in the earth below to reach up to the stars above, the cell-like structures of dark matter hold the cosmos together, and we are related to trees at a genetic level. There is no fundamental conflict between embracing the myths in our hearts and following the science with our minds.

There is also no fundamental conflict between loving Norse mythology and celebrating the diversity of the human family. We are all related to each other, and we all live together beneath the branches of the World Tree – whether conceived as spiritual symbol, mystical manifestation, or astronomical actuality.

It is indeed possible to have a theology of today that seeks inspiration from the old tales. There’s a lot of work to be done, but we can embrace the poetry and mythology without falling into the quicksand of fundamentalism or promoting the tired old racialism of outdated scholarship.

Ásatrú and Heathenry are extremely young new religious movements. There’s no reason to assume that our theology is so set in stone that it cannot engage with the complex lives we lead now, or that it’s impossible to both honor the old worldviews and be true to our own diverse experiences and the scientific teachings of today. A lot of work is still to be done by those open to possibility and growth.

An earlier version of this article appeared at The Wild Hunt.

Monday, January 23, 2023

A 4th Grader Asks About Norse Mythology and Norse Religion

It’s been a minute since I posted a set of answers, but I’ve long received emails from students in a wide range of levels who want to interview me about Norse mythology and Norse religion for their school projects.

I first answered questions that were sent by a high school student in 2011, followed by ones from a middle school student in 2012. One sixth grader interviewed me in 2013, then another one did in 2014. A college student sent a series of questions in 2016, and a second high school student sent more in 2018. All my sets of answers can be found in the For Students section of this website’s Archive of Articles and Interviews.

Hawthorne Elementary School in Salt Lake City, Utah

Eliza L. is a fourth-grade student in Ms. Amanda Ladia’s class at Hawthorne Elementary School in Salt Lake City, Utah. Her father explains the “Passion Project” assignment:
Each student is allowed to pick any topic they want that they are interested in and passionate about to explore throughout the year and deepen their knowledge on, and then present their research and knowledge on the topic at the end of the year.

Eliza selected Norse mythology. She has been reading and learning a lot over the past four months and is getting more and more excited about the subject. We have read some of your blog posts and other interviews, and we love the way you explain everything about Norse mythology.
The questions Eliza sent are excellent and actually cover topics that I discuss with my students who are a decade older. Most impressive! Everyone involved gave their permission for her questions and my answers to be posted here, and I hope that what I wrote will be helpful to those of any age who are interested in learning more about the Norse myths.

What is a myth and why does Norse mythology exist?

We discuss this very complicated issue in the college course that I teach on Norse mythology and religion. One way to break it down simply is to define mythology as “a set of stories that is connected to a religion” and religion as “a set of beliefs and practices.” There’s much more to these things, but those two mini-definitions are a good place to start.

Myths can be told in many ways. Long ago, they were often performed in the form of poems or songs. They can be self-contained (like a movie) or linked together in a cycle of stories (like a chapter book). They can be understood in many ways, and you may understand a given myth very differently when you read it now and when you return to it at different stages of your life.

Norse myths are linked to the old religion that existed in various forms at various times and in various places in northern Europe. Before the new religion of Christianity spread throughout these lands, there was a variety of beliefs and practices (remember the religion definition) that included things like exchanging gifts with many gods, goddesses, ancestors, and land spirits.

As in other religions, stories were told about the figures that people who practiced these religions considered important. The stories explain ideas about how the world began, why it is the way it is now, and how it will end. The Norse myths are sometimes funny, sometimes sad, sometimes exciting, and sometimes scary – just like our own lives are.

What is unique about Norse mythology compared to other mythology from different parts of the world?

One thing is the characters of the characters – how the personalities of each of the main figures is shown through their words and deeds. There are other thundering gods who charge through the sky and throw lightning in other mythologies, but there is only one Thor. When you read about him in the myths, you feel that you really get to know him as a special and unique fellow.

Another thing is the imagery of the myths. They tell of mystical women warriors who ride onto battlefields to choose who will fall. They tell of wise giants and dwarfs who get involved in deadly riddle contests with gods. They tell of mystical weapons that can pass on a god’s blessing or a dwarf’s curse. The unique characters and objects can inspire you to imagine fantastic scenes – no illustrations needed!

What does Norse Mythology have in common with Greek mythology?

This is a good follow-up to your previous question. There are several things, including a god who throws lightning from on high, a trio of mystical female figures connected to fate, a group of gods who fights a rival group of gods, a failed attempt to bring someone beloved back from the land of the dead, and a figure who steals from the gods and is eventually bound and tortured by a single animal.

There are many more similarities, but there are also commonalities with myths from what we now call Ireland, Wales, Iran, India, and elsewhere. Why would similar characters and stories show up in so many different places? The languages from these places are related to each other as part of the Indo-European family of languages. The myths from these places are also related.

The modern understanding of the Indo-European theory of language, mythology, religion, and other cultural elements suggests that, very long ago, ideas about life and ways of living spread out over a wide geographic range. These things – all foundational to the life of a community – changed as they traveled and evolved as they were developed in different places.

It’s surprising to find similar characters and situations in myths composed around 1000 BCE in India and myths written down in Iceland around 1220 CE. That’s over 2,000 years apart, and the distance between the two nation’s capitals is nearly 5,000 miles. Amazing! Learning about Hindu mythology from India has deepened my understanding of Norse mythology and my appreciation of human connectedness.

Who is your favorite Norse god and why?

Can I choose three? When I first read the myths of Thor, he reminded me of my Opa – my grandfather on my German side who grew up a farmer in eastern Europe before becoming a bricklayer in Wisconsin. Thor is the god of the farmers and other regular people who work for a living. He’s as quick to forgiveness as he is to anger, he loves good food and drink, and he takes kids on adventures.

At age four in 1977, Star Wars was the first film I saw in a theater. I loved the space wizard Obi-Wan Kenobi. The same year, a cartoon of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit was on TV, and I loved the wandering wizard Gandalf. I read T.W. White’s The Sword in the Stone as a kid and loved the wise wizard Merlin. I was predisposed to love Odin, the wizardly god who inspired the creation of so many later characters.

Skaði by Tokubi Ka, Adult Third Place Winner, 2013 Midwinter Art Contest

I’ve always loved strong female characters like Pippi Longstocking, Eilonwy, Supergirl, Dakota North, Merida, Mirabel Madrigal, and Ms. Marvel. So, I immediately fell in love with Skadi, a frost giantess from the mountains whose father is killed by the gods. She goes alone to Asgard, challenges all the gods, and becomes goddess of skiing and hunting (like a Norse Artemis or Diana). She’s definitely cool!

What are a couple examples of the most interesting powers that the gods have, good or evil, in Norse mythology?

If you sit down and think about it, you may discover that powers in mythology aren’t always easily categorized as good or evil in and of themselves. What makes them good or evil is how they’re used. The ability to throw a lightning weapon is good when it’s used to protect us but evil if it’s used to harm us. This idea of power’s goodness or evilness via usage is also true about human power today.

You may have noticed that I wrote “ability to throw a lightning weapon,” not “ability to throw lightning.” Gods aren’t superheroes; they don’t each have a unique superpower. They have magical objects like Odin’s spear that can’t be stopped, Freyr’s glowing metal boar that runs over sky and sea, and Idunn’s apples that prevent the gods aging. If frost giants get these things, they may become gods themselves.

Why do you think gods can die in Norse mythology?

If you’re used to the God of the Bible, reading about the gods of Norse mythology can be a bit of a shock. I went the other way as a little kid. I read the Greek myths (as retold by Ingri and Edgar Parin d'Aulaire) before I read Bible stories (in various kiddie versions). Given the big family of Greek gods, I thought God must be lonely. I cracked my dad up when I asked him, “Why isn’t God married?”

In Indo-European mythologies, gods and goddesses are much more like human men and women than like sthe Biblical God. God exists outside of time and space while being everywhere all at once, but the gods are of the world around us and live in time like us. They’re born, they live, they love, they experience emotions, they have adventures, and they die – just on a much bigger scale than we do.

Wondering about the nature of death is one of the most fundamental and most difficult things about being human. You could even make an argument that thinking about death is what defines humanity (probably not for a fourth-grade assignment). Humans composed the myths, so it makes sense that this most basic of all truths – that death is part of life – is included in the stories of the gods and goddesses.

Why do Norse gods have kids with more than one partner?

The first answer is again that the deities of Norse myth are like us, but on a grander scale. In the days before modern medicine, childbirth could be fatal to mothers, and fathers would sometimes remarry and have more children. It’s also an unfortunate fact that people sometimes stray from their committed relationships and marriages to have children with others. Gods, like humans, can make poor decisions.

The second answer is that those who wrote down the Norse myths two hundred years or so after Iceland’s conversion to Christianity tried to turn what were sometimes contradictory myths into a logical system. If one myth says a god has kids with one goddess and another myth says he has kids with a different goddess, later writers would merge the conflicting stories and say he had kids with both.

Can all or most of the Norse gods shapeshift?

Some of what at first seems like shape-changing may really just be disguise and cross-dressing. Thor disguises himself as a young boy and as a bride (!) when he travels to the land of the giants, but that’s not quite shapeshifting. Odin also disguises himself as a woman and uses sorcery to change his appearance.

Loki actually changes into a woman and bares babies, including as a female horse. Freyja and Frigg both have falcon cloaks that Loki uses to turn into a bird, but he uses his own abilities to turn into an insect, fish, and horse. Freyja also has the power to change one of her human followers into a boar. So, there’s a mixture of disguise, sorcery, magic objects, and shape-changing powers.

“Odin the Wanderer” by Willy Pogany from The Children of Odin (1920) by Padraic Colum

One thing to remember is that the gods are not literally what they appear to be in the myths. Loki says that Odin wanders the world in the guise of a wizard, which suggests that Odin isn’t really an old man with a long beard who walks in the forest. That’s either a disguise he wears when he visits our world or a way for tellers of myths to spin stories about mystical deities in forms that we can comprehend.

Are myths still being created in Scandinavia and being added to Norse mythology?

If we accept the definition I gave earlier – mythology is “a set of stories that is connected to a religion” – then new myths would have to be written by practitioners of Norse religion. Since the beginnings of Ásatrú (modern Icelandic for “Æsir faith,” belief in or being true to the main group of Norse deities) in 1972 in Iceland, there has been an ever-increasing number of modern practitioners around the world.

Nearly a decade ago, I posted the results of my Worldwide Heathen Census. They showed practitioners of Ásatrú (and variations under names such as Heathenry and Germanic Paganism) in ninety-eight countries. I’m not sure about practitioners in Scandinavia writing new myths, but I’ve read several by Americans that seemed weirdly focused on promoting gun ownership and militarism. Such is life.

If we broaden the definition of mythology to include stories about mythological figures written by non-practitioners, then there’s an enormous amount being created around the world. So many writers of comic books, novels, cartoons, movies, TV shows, video games, role-playing games, and songs are writing new adventures of the old gods and goddesses. There’s always something new being released.

How does Norse mythology influence today’s society?

The most obvious influence is in the forms of entertainment I just mentioned. We shouldn’t brush these aside and say that they’re just for fun. The stories we engage with across forms of media can have profound effects on our lives. They can bring us comfort in dark times, they can change how we see the world, and they can hopefully be a force for positive change.

Less obvious – or at least less visible – is the fact that, as I alluded to above, Norse mythology is once again connected to living religious practice. For today’s practitioners of Ásatrú, the myths can be as deeply meaningful as stories of Christ are for Christians and tales of Muhammad are for Muslims. At some point in your life, you may meet someone devoted to the figures you know from Norse myth!

I’m very glad that you chose Norse mythology for your project subject, and I’m really impressed by the seriousness and depth of your questions. I hope my answers help your understanding and encourage you to do more reading and research. Best wishes for your future studies!


After reading my answers to her questions, Eliza sent me an email with this message.
Thank you for doing my interview. I am very grateful you could do this for me. I liked learning about the comparison to other mythologies throughout the world. I learned many things. One thing I learned is that not all the gods can shapeshift, which I didn't understand before. I learned and understand better what I have been studying. Thank you so much for taking time to answer my questions.
She also made this amazing postcard with illustrations of Thor’s hammer Mjölnir and Odin’s spear Gungnir plus another thank you note that she also wrote out in runes. Very cool!

The art of the thank-you note isn’t dead! There is still hope for humanity.

This has been a wonderful experience all around, and I send kudos out to Eliza, her parents, and her teachers. Hail!

Wednesday, December 21, 2022

To Odin at Midwinter

The following text is an enormously expanded version of the opening hail I presented at Midwinter Blót as goði (priest) of Thor’s Oak Kindred, our diverse organization dedicated to the practice of the Ásatrú religion in Chicago.

Odin, all-father, wanderer, wise one, bringer of breath, giver of the gift of creativity, thank you for inspiring us to see all human beings as part of the same world family, to open ourselves to new experiences, to seek wisdom and follow the path of learning wherever it leads, to welcome the magical gift of life, and to celebrate the creativity that you inspire in the human spirit.

For all of this, we are grateful.

Wanderer in the Storm (1835) by Julius von Leypold

When we meet someone new and begin a new friendship, you are with us.

As the father of all, you have taught us that human connection is paramount.

In Hávamál (“Sayings of the High One”), you say:
I was young once,
I walked all on my own.
Then I was lost on the ways.
I thought I’d found wealth
when I found another man.
Man’s joy is man.

A young fir-tree shrivels
that stands on stony ground,
no bark nor pine-needle protects it.
A man is like that
whom nobody loves–
how is he to live long?

One does not need to give a man
only a big gift:
often one purchases praises for oneself with little.
With half a loaf
and a leaning cup
I acquired for myself a comrade.
This is not a message of conflict and conquering but of companionship and generosity. Human connection is a key to happiness, and connection can be made with the smallest of kind gestures.

You watch over all of us with your lone eye, and you send your ravens over all of our world to report on humanity’s doings. The neighbor, the fellow citizen, the visitor, the immigrant, and those who live far away from us – all are under your gaze and all are part of the same wider family.

When we open our hearts, all people bring opportunities for friendship.

When we feel the urge to leave our homes and travel the world, you are with us.

As the great way-walker of Norse mythology and the model for myriad wandering wizards, you have shown us that there is always more out there to experience.

Especially now, with plague continuing to darken our doorsteps and further flare-ups threatening on the horizon, the urge to get out of our normal spaces and dive into the diversity of experience beyond our doorsteps can be both overwhelming and frustrating.

Some of us are required by our professions to venture into dangerous situations. Some of us are required by our health conditions to remain at home. Whatever our situation, whenever the opportunity for adventure returns, the wanderlust that we feel in our hearts finds its divine form in you.

When we embrace the mystery and possibility of new experiences, we follow in your footsteps.

When we thrill with the discovery of knowledge and the learning of wisdom, you are with us.

As the devoted seeker who risks much to gain new insight, you have modeled for us the way to wisdom.

It is not easy to educate ourselves, and it is the simple answer to the difficult question that is the most dangerous.

We don’t need to hang on a windswept tree nine entire nights, but we do need to put in the hard work to find solid information and diverse perspectives on the problems that we face as individuals, as communities, as nations, and as a world.

The difficulties before us are legion, and they are serious. From racist violence to the ongoing pandemic to the enormity of climate change, needful answers will not be found in the droppings of corporate media pundits or the offal of social media chain letters.

To find positive ways forward, we must follow your lead and put in the strenuous effort required to find real answers and true paths forward.

When we are amazed at the wonderful diversity of life on earth, you are with us.

As the one who brought breath to the first humans, you have bound us to all life on this beautiful planet.

As we breathe, we continually connect ourselves to each other and to every living creature around us. We share the air with beasts on the ground and birds on the wing, with rooted plants and crawling creatures. The constant exchange of breath out for breath in makes us part of an ongoing gifting cycle with all life on earth.

There are so many forms of life around us, with so many more still unknown to us. Yet there are also forms of life that have disappeared in our own lifetimes, never to return in any human lifetime.

As we poison the air with filth from our burning fuels and industrial waste, we dishonor the breath that you brought us and, indeed, make it harder for our future descendants to themselves breathe.

To show our gratitude for the breath you instilled within us and to respect all the teeming life around us, we must make real changes in how we live.

When we are moved to creativity or embrace the creativity of others, you are with us.

As the inspirer of creativity, you have given us the gift that so often brings us comfort in the darkness.

The great tenth-century Icelandic poet Egill Skallagrímsson was grateful for your providing him with the power of poetry, even as he lamented your taking of his son’s lives. In his poem Sonatorrek (“Loss of Sons”), he writes:
…in good ways too
the friend of wisdom
has granted me
redress for affliction.

He who does battle
and tackles the hell-wolf
gave me the craft
that is beyond reproach…
In the depths of sorrow and anger, he acknowledges that his Odin-inspired poetic ability enables him to express that same sorrow and anger. That artistic work brought some level of catharsis to both Egill then and to those of us who now read his words a thousand and more years later.

Whether we create poetry or prose, song or symphony, collage or construction, the creative act enables us to express our innermost selves and address our deepest concerns. When we immerse ourselves in the creations of others, we can simultaneously lose and find ourselves.

As Egill showed us, your gift of creativity can comfort us in the darkest depths even as it challenges us to rise up and face what the world throws at us.

We ask you to be with us on these darkest nights of the annual cycle.

The darkness can be frightening, and the uncertainty of the days to come can be oppressive.

But the dark can also be comforting, as we gather together with friends and family to celebrate the season in good cheer. The uncertain future can also be exciting, as we dream of days to come and all the adventures and learning that they will surely bring.

As we celebrate these long nights of midwinter, we ask you to bring the light that will grow around us and within us as we turn towards the unknown future of a new year beginning.

We ask you to continue to inspire us with love of community, to keep our hearts open to new experiences, to walk with us on the path to wisdom, to remind us to venerate life as the greatest gift, and to inspire us with the gift of creativity as it both comforts us and challenges us.

Hail, Odin!

Hávamál text is from The Poetic Edda, Volume II: Mythological Poems II (2011) by Ursula Dronke. Sonatorrek text is from The Sagas of Icelanders: A Selection (2000) by Penguin Books. An earlier version of this article appeared at The Wild Hunt.

Friday, November 18, 2022

Interview with Jason Aaron (Thor: God of Thunder), Part Two

Click here for Part One of the interview.

Politics and religion

KS – Some of us who teach and write about Norse mythology have to deal with the dark side of growing interest in this material being connected to the resurgence of white nationalist fixation on these myths and religions.

You were writing the most well-known figure from Norse mythology while far-right mass shooters were name-checking Valhalla in their manifestos. Was the connection between white nationalism and Norse symbols such as Thor’s hammer and the runes ever something you considered as a writer, when communicating with visual artists, or in discussions with editors?

JA – Yeah, somewhat. That’s certainly a thing I became aware of as I was working on the book. I don’t think I really understood that connection coming into it. I became very aware of it.

Part of it is, some of those guys were among the people yelling at me when we announced the Jane Foster story. They really didn’t like it.

Russell Dauterman cover art for Jason Aaron’s Thor

It’s certainly something we’re aware of. You have to be aware of all sorts of stuff when you’re dealing with images today, but I wouldn’t say it ever stopped me from telling the story I was going to tell, in any way.

KS – Stan Lee and Jack Kirby already had the Norse gods interacting with the Greek gods back in the 1960s, and later Marvel writers introduced Thor to the Hindu deities.

You moved from interfaith to intergalactic, introducing concepts such as Omnipotence City, where gods from throughout the universe meet and interact, but you grounded your new gods with worshipers and living religions on other planets. They really do seem to be gods – the gods of alien cultures, not the space-aliens-as-gods of Erich von Däniken and arguably Jack Kirby.

You had big, confrontational meetings with the Shi’ar gods, but there’s also a small moment from very early on in your run that you bring back at the very end of King Thor, when he helps a planet that has no gods by bringing in gods who have lost their own planets.

It’s a way of portraying deities within the Marvel universe that is structurally and fundamentally different from the somewhat basic 1960s scenes of big buff Thor wrestling with big buff Hercules, then going off together to get drunk afterwards.

How would you describe your approach to portraying the new gods you’ve created in the Marvel universe?

JA – I think a lot went into that. Like you said, that reference to the very first Thor story I did, where the little girl prays, and Thor ends up bringing new gods – I always kind of meant to come back to that.

My original idea was that those new gods – brand new gods that we make up and design – would be a big part of the book going forward, just to give Thor a different cast. So, some of it was about trying to inject new characters into his supporting cast, because we had seen so much of the usual crew for so long – to bring some new gods into the mix.

It didn’t really work out that way. I still ended up using a lot of those same characters, because I really liked them.

I did want to expand the cast of gods we’d seen in the Marvel universe. Some of that maybe just for selfish reasons. You like to carve out your own little corner of the sandbox, and if I’m making up new gods, I don’t have to share those as much with everybody else. I could do whatever I want to do with them.

The Shi’ar gods, I did not make up. Those existed. We just had rarely ever seen them in person. They’re always just called to by Shi’ar characters. I wanted to make them a big part of the story.

Again, a lot of what I was doing with those gods that I was bringing in was to show how petty and vain and horrible they were, which only reinforces what Thor is learning about gods and worthiness over the course of his journey – and making him question his own worthiness, which all goes back to that first story I did with the God Butcher.

I mean, he’s called the God Butcher, so you can tell he’s not a nice guy. He is a serial killer of gods and goes beyond that to where he’s wiping people out, left and right. But there are times when he’s talking that he’s saying things that I believe, the way I feel personally.

His son, at one point, gives this speech about “wouldn’t it be better if none of you guys existed, and we weren’t all fighting over you?” Like a lot of good villains, I think Gorr has got a good idea. His heart’s in the right place, in some way. He just goes to really horrible lengths to make that happen.

Everything I’m showing with the gods after that is going back to that idea.

Creativity and continuity

KS – I’d like to talk about the idea of creating your own niche in a long-running and ongoing series.

Comics in the U.S. work fundamentally differently than they do in the U.K. Over there, Judge Dredd is a character made of marble. No matter how many writers and artists come and go, no matter what trials the character goes through, no matter how much things in his series have developed and changed, someone in the UK who last read Dredd comics in 1980 could be handed a new comic this week and basically know what is going on.

On the other hand, when Marvel and DC regularly reboot their titles with new writer-artist teams, character designs change radically, and the continuity painstakingly built up by the last team is thrown out by the next team, who then begins building their own continuity.

Your run on Thor seems to have very little relationship to the character’s immediately preceding twenty-first century storylines. You give him a new past and a new future as you create an entirely new history of the character from the dawn of time to the end of time.

How much did you feel honor bound – or even contractually bound – to retain elements of Thor comics from the distant or recent past?

JA – I think this is one of the challenges of telling stories with these characters. How do you honor all that stuff from the past but do something different?

You can’t honor all of it. You can read the Wikipedia page for any Marvel character in existence, and all this stuff can’t exist at the same time. It doesn’t make sense.

Try reading Spider-Man’s Wikipedia page and tell me how you fit all that together. You can’t, so you’re always going to have to pick and choose, somewhat.

KS – I’m a Superman fanatic, but I still can’t understand the latest DC concept of their iconic characters now remembering everything that has happened in all comics eras as if it’s from past lives. That seems like such a mess, to have today’s Superman remember the 1930s and the 1970s.

JA – Yeah, it pains me to say, I grew up as a DC kid, and I can’t always keep up with where DC is at, continuity-wise.

With Marvel, I like that it’s a little more shifting sands, where we’re like what year did Peter Parker get bit by the radioactive spider? It did not happen in the 1960s, even though that’s when it happened, publishing-wise. It probably happened vaguely seven years ago, ten years ago.

What war did Frank Castle fight in before he became the Punisher? Originally, that was Vietnam. What was it now? Maybe, at some point, it was the first Iraq War. Then it becomes the second Iraq War. What will it be ten years from now? I don’t know.

So, you always have to dance between the raindrops. I think there’s an argument to be made that you’d like to see these characters grow up as you grow up, but that’s kind of selfish for you, because what about all those readers who are coming into them for the first time?

I think there’s an argument that Peter Parker should never be married, should never grow up and have kids, probably should still be in high school, in the same way that Bart Simpson is never going to graduate from grade school.

It does become a weird thing where you’re always having to ignore some parts. Tony Stark became Iron Man in Vietnam, so that’s [now] not part of Tony Stark’s origin. You’re always having to refresh the origins.

Me, I like that. I like making these characters relevant. I’m fascinated by any sort of characters we talk about that get rebooted or re-looked at over the course of many, many years. Judge Dredd is one of the few ones where, like you said, they stay the same.

Look at the way James Bond gets reinterpreted over the course of different decades. I like that kind of stuff, so I like that challenge of my job. How do you take the cool part of this stuff, how do you take who Thor is, what makes cool Thor stories exist, how do you take that and show it to somebody who has never read a Thor story? That’s how I always think of it.

Don’t assume everybody comes to the table already invested in these characters and knowing what’s cool about these characters. If you know that as a creator, you have to show everybody. Every issue, you have to show them this is what’s cool about this character, this is why you should want to read that story.

To do that, I think you pick and choose what’s cool before, and then you add new stuff to the mix.

With Marvel, I’ve never been given strict instructions of it’s got to be like this. We figure that stuff out as we go.

With Thor, when I was first pitching it and figuring it out, I knew I wanted to do those young Thor stories. It’s a question of when would Thor have become worthy for the first time and picked up that hammer? We’d seen him wielding the hammer in the past, before, but…

Tom Brevoort – who was not my editor on this book, he’s my editor on Avengers – more than anybody is the bastion of knowledge of Marvel continuity. He’s the one who said, “just give him an axe or something.”

Okay, well, Tom says I can, then Viking Age Thor has an axe. He can’t pick up the hammer yet. I don’t think that fit with all of the Thor history we’d seen before, but that’s why we went with it.

KS – I like it, because it makes sense with the four-thousand-year timeline that we start my Norse mythology and religion course with. In the northern world, before the thunder god was represented with a hammer, he was portrayed with an axe.

The earliest representations show an axe, and that’s what lines up with even more ancient, pre-Nordic materials. The hammer actually historically developed from an axe to a hammer.

JA – Yeah, that’s exactly what we had in mind. Ha!

KS – After having spent nearly a decade building a Jason Aaron mythology of Thor that’s different from the past versions but retains elements of them, how do you feel about what has been retained of your own constructed creation – or not retained – in the new Thor run by the new creative team?

JA – I could give you a very specific, direct answer to that.

I did deal with some of the things from the Thor runs before me, from the J. Michael Straczynski run, from Matt Fraction’s run, Kieron Gillen’s. Asgard was still in Broxton, Oklahoma for the longest time when I was writing Thor, until I set fire to Broxton, Oklahoma.

Donny Cates is the guy who’s writing Thor now. He’s a big fan of mine, a big fan of what I did on Thor. I told him, before he ever started writing it, “it’s yours now, so feel free to take anything I did and set it on fire, if that’s what you need to do to tell your story.”

I think that’s how you always have to look at it. Don’t feel you’re beholden to what I did. I did what I did. I told my story. No matter what you do, it will still exist. As long as it’s in print, it’s still there. People can go read it. You’re not going back and taking anything away. Do whatever you need to do to tell the stories that you gotta tell.

Yet Donnie has touched on things I’ve done, and still his and my stories interact in different ways. What he’s done [with Thor and] Venom goes back to my God Butcher story in a huge way.

You can take those things and use them as you see fit. What you don’t need, throw it out or set it on fire and just keep pushing forward.

As someone who grew up reading comics and loves comics and has a pretty healthy knowledge of continuity, I still don’t want to read stories that are beholden to continuity. Not everybody feels the same.

I wrote Star Wars comics, which was a lot of fun, but Star Wars and Lucasfilm have a very different attitude towards continuity. If George Lucas scribbled it on a notepad back in 1978, you cannot change it. That is written in stone, like it was brought down like the Ten Commandments. They are militant in the way they stick to continuity.

I think that can be a hindrance, at times, to telling cool stories. I’d rather have a continuity that is flexible. It doesn’t mean you throw everything out, but there’s got to be some flexibility there, just to do some new shit with these characters.

Talking to Taika

KS – UK comics writers and artists have long and openly discussed the downside of being a creator within a system that you don’t own, a system that actually owns everything you create for them. Thor: Love and Thunder features the God Butcher and shows Jane Foster becoming Thor, so your writing is at the core of the film.

Do you have any say over how your original creations are used in the movie? Do you have any relationship at all with the production?

JA – No. No formal relationship. Marvel publishing and Marvel Studios are under the same umbrella, in one sense, but nobody from Marvel Studios has ever called me up to tell me what to do in a story. I’ll know what’s coming up in the movies, just so we’re aware of it.

With this [movie], I’ve talked to Taika Waititi, who’s the director, about some things. I’m a little more in the loop on that.

KS – Was he asking you to expound on things?

JA – Yeah. We just talked about different parts of it, but it felt more like a personal thing. Again, the relationship’s not a formal one between Marvel Studios and publishing.

But that’s not a surprise. If you do work-for-hire in comics, you know that’s the deal. I’ve been very happy with my relationship with Marvel and have no complaints about that, but I don’t spend all my time doing work-for-hire comics.

I think for anyone who works in comics, it makes sense financially, it makes sense for the long-term health of your career, and for me creatively to do stuff that’s yours, to do stuff that you own and control and that’s original, which has its own headaches and challenges, too.

I enjoy, for pretty much my entire career, being able to do both. I broke into comics doing original work and doing work-for-hire superhero stuff. I still enjoy doing both. I don’t know that I want to be writing monthly, ongoing comics forever, because that can be a bit of a grind. I think I’ll always want to do work-for-hire stuff at the same time that I’m doing my own stuff.

KS – I’ve read that you now have an exclusive Marvel contract. Is it still work-for-hire, even with that?

JA – I’ve been exclusive to Marvel for ten years or so. Longer. Quite a while.

It guarantees you a certain amount of work, probably gets you more money than you would get without it. It basically just means you can’t go write Superman or Batman.

KS – But it doesn’t mean that you get a cut of the movie using the characters you developed?

JA – I can’t speak to what it’s like at DC, but at Marvel there are character creation participation agreements. It has to be judged by whether or not that character is derivative or not.

I have those agreements for a lot of different characters I’ve created, so it means you get something. It doesn’t mean you’re going to get rich, necessarily, off of them making statues and toys and TV shows of your characters, but you do get something as opposed to nothing.

Questions from college students

At this point, students in attendance were invited to ask questions.

Student 1 – Going back to what you said about how sometimes there’s a line that you hold for a better moment or some conversations that you know may not fit where you are currently. Was there ever a character story that, for whatever reason, didn’t really fully come to fruition that you kind of wish had?

JA – The Mighty Valkyries #1 came out this week. As part of that, for my newsletter, I went back into some of my old notes and outlines for old Thor stories and pulled some stuff out from of the beginning of the Jane Foster story.

Mattia De Iulis cover art for Jason Aaron and Torunn Grønbekk’s The Mighty Valkyries

Looking back through those, most everything I saw was stuff I eventually did. It might have been six years after I wrote that note that I got to the story, but eventually I did.

There’s always going to be stuff that winds up on the cutting room floor. To me, it’s always good to leave with a little bit of gas still in your tank.

I wrote Thor for seven years, over the course of a lot of different series. In my mind, it’s still one long story, but you sort of have to Google to figure out in what order do I read these books, because there’s Thor: God of Thunder and Thor and Mighty Thor and Unworthy Thor.

It’s a lot of different books, so it’s a challenge to stay on a character that long and keep writing as the book changes and gets relaunched and whatnot.

When I started writing Thor was the first time I’d been at Marvel long enough and had enough confidence to say this is going to be mine, and I’m going to stay here until I’m done or the sales tank, and you guys take it away from me.

I had plenty of opportunities along the way to leave Thor, and I said no. So, I was able to write with the sort of confidence of all right, I have this idea. It’s going to take me five years to get there, but I’m just going to assume I’m going to have those five years and write with that confidence.

I’m sure, by the time I was done, there were still a couple of things in there that I didn’t get to. Nothing big that I can think of, but…

I’d say that, on my original outline, there was at least one arc on there that I never did that I had originally planned. So, maybe that’s something I’ll get to, somewhere else down the line.

But there have been plenty of cases where I’ll have a character, an idea that I don’t use that I’ll use [later], maybe even in another book. I had a John Constantine, Hellblazer story that I never did that I ended up doing as a Wolverine story years later, so that happens a lot.

Student 2 – Obviously, you spend all this time writing and developing all these characters. It takes years to get from one end to the other, and then they’re translated into movies that have two hours to get this really well-developed character into a film.

How do you feel like all these characters are depicted? Do you think they do a good job at getting that all into the films, or do you think there’s still a lot more than they could do to depict these characters?

JA – If you’re talking specifically in terms of Marvel movies, they’re not all created equal, right? Some of them I like more than others, so it’s a challenge.

I’ve adapted some of my own stuff before, so when you’re when you’re working within the constraints of a TV show or a movie, it’s a different ball of wax. You gotta serve a lot of different masters there.

Even in times when they get something really right… I don’t think that first Captain America movie is my favorite, by any stretch. It’s probably my least favorite of all the captain America movies, but the early stuff with Steve before he becomes Cap, when you see this is who this guy is before we get some muscles and the shield. This is who Cap is. That, I think, is some of the best character stuff in any of the Marvel movies, even though once he becomes Cap, maybe the movie’s not quite as good.

I think it’s hard to do all that stuff. I like that first Thor movie. I think there’s some good stuff in that. It bothers me that we never see him pick up the hammer, when you make a point of showing that he can’t pick up the hammer. Nobody can pick up the hammer. We don’t ever see him pick it up. It flies to him, which is not the same thing as showing him pick it up.

That bothers me, and I’m sure there’s a reason why that happened. I’m sure that was probably in some version of the story. At some point it got changed for different reasons.

For the most part, I think the Marvel films have a lot of the good character stuff that makes you… You gotta like these characters and be invested in them, before you give a shit when Thanos snaps his fingers and makes them disappear. I think they, for the most part, do a really, really good job.

It’s because they’re doing exactly what I talked about, what people who do my job do. They’re going back and picking and choosing all the good stuff from all the best versions, all the best stories from these characters over the course of decades.

Look at the Falcon and the Winter Soldier show and the number of different stories they’re taking things from, a huge long list. That’s what you’re able to do when you have this wealth of material to choose from.

Student 3 – I’m writing a high fantasy novel right now, and I’ve found that world-building can be super fun when you really get into the weeds and start getting down into this guild, this association, the city, all of the different inner workings of it. But then you eventually get to the point where every single thing has a thousand-year backstory, and you get too deep into it.

So, I’m curious what your process of world-building is and where you get to be like this is enough, this is where I have all the information I need to tell the story.

JA – For me, it’s exactly that. It’s more about telling the story, and what adds to telling that story and what doesn’t.

I love all that stuff, too. I love the Song of Ice and Fire books. I love the all the Game of Thrones books. I love that he spent so much time talking about what they eat.

Every time they sit down for a meal, you’re going to get a list of what they had for the eight different courses. I like that. That does help inform you that what they eat in King’s Landing is different than what they eat in Winterfell and wherever else, so it is world building, in that sense. It doesn’t mean you have to do that, every time they sit down for a meal.

With Thor, when I first took over the book, I couldn’t name the Nine Realms. I didn’t know which one’s the fire one, which one’s the ice one. I didn’t know any of that. So part of it, I wanted to learn that, and I wanted people reading the book to know, because it also hadn’t been consistent in terms of how those realms were shown in the years leading up to that.

I wanted to nail down, this is the dead setting for Thor stories, these are the realms he goes to, this what they look like, so that people know are they good, are they allies, are they enemies.

To do that, in a way, was world-building but also telling a story. I had the idea of building towards a big war. There’s going to be a war. The realms that are going to war, they will move from one realm to another and, eventually, make their way to earth.

So, that pretty much became world-building, just in service of that story – or story in service of world-building. What I really did is, over the course of years and multiple different stories, just sprinkle that stuff in there, just to drive the story along.

I agree, not falling down that hole and getting lost and just the world-building. I think it’s good to just use whatever you need to do to tell the story, to propel the story along.

KS – As you were building those worlds over the years, I liked that you didn’t have heavy exposition. We got a little taste of how the Vanir were different, but it didn’t feel like information being vomited to the audience. Instead, we read it, and we wonder why this guy is wearing this giant animal skin.

I like it when it’s not explained, when there’s mystery left to it. Sometimes, it’s positive to not only not get lost in the weeds, but just to let the audience see the weeds over there and wonder.

JA – Some of that goes back to me feeling confident enough to say I’m going to do this over the course of years. I couldn’t have done world-building for nine realms – we ended up with ten realms, because we made up another one – I couldn’t do world-building for ten realms in one arc or two arcs.

But to be able to sprinkle it here and there, over the course of twenty arcs or however many, that’s feasible. So, some of it is just taking the space to do that.

We made up symbols for the different realms when we did War of the Realms, and I ended up getting a tattoo for one of them, of Muspelheim. So, I went from not knowing what the hell Muspelheim was to getting our symbol for it tattooed on my body.

Arthur Adams cover art for Jason Aaron’s The War of the Realms

It’s the one promotional tattoo I have. Marvel Comics paid for me to get the tattoo.

KS – What, really?

JA – Yeah, just to promote War of the Realms, but it’s the one and only time they’ve ever done that and ever will do.

Student 4 – I saw that you were involved with Heroes Reborn, and I wanted some insight on how that project works. I know that you’ve written for the Avengers, so what is it like to over-write the Avengers, basically?

JA – It’s something that sort of grew out of my Avengers run.

The Squadron Supreme are Marvel characters that have been around for a long, long time. You might say they’re analogs of some other characters you might know. I’ll let you figure out for yourself who that is. They’ve been a part of my Avengers run in a big way.

This was, basically, doing one of those What If? or alternate timeline stories. What would this Marvel universe look like if the Avengers never existed, if Captain America was never pulled out of the ice? The Squadron Supreme are now and have always been the heroes at the center.

It changes stories from Marvel’s past and a lot of the other characters. There’s no Spider-Man. There’s no Fantastic Four.

Heroes Reborn is eight issues. Each one gives us a different look at what this universe looks like. Each issue focuses on a different member of the Squadron. There’s a Hyperion issue, and Nighthawk and Blur and Power Princess.

It’s hard to talk about it. I don’t think people will even really get it or understand what it is, until you read it. I will just say I’ve had tremendous fun with this. It’s eight issues over the course of two months, so I had to write all of it in advance. A lot of it, I wrote last year. It was one source of joy in the midst of last year. I had a crazy amount of fun with it.

They’re all going to print now, so I’ve been doing the lettering corrections these last few weeks and having a lot of fun, all over again. I’m excited for people to see it. I’ll say that. Let’s see what people make of it.

KS – How long does your Marvel contract go? Are you near the end, or will it go for a while, yet?

JA – Not near the end. I’ve got over a year left, at this point. So, I’ll be around for at least a bit longer.

KS – Thank you for really getting into this stuff and explaining how you work with all this great material. We all appreciate it.

JA – It always helps when people ask good questions. I’m a quiet guy, but I can talk about nerd shit all day. Thanks for asking good questions. Thanks for everything. You guys all had good questions. Thanks, everybody.

Friday, August 5, 2022

Interview with Jason Aaron (Thor: God of Thunder), Part One

Jason Aaron’s historic run as writer of Marvel’s Thor comics began with Thor: God of Thunder #1 in 2012 and concluded over a hundred issues later with King Thor #4 in 2019, but continued in another form through ten issues of Valkyrie: Jane Foster, four issues of Return of the Valkyries, and five issues of The Mighty Valkryies.

His seven-year tenure writing Thor is nearly twice as long as Walt Simonson’s legendary run in the 1980s and just shy of creator Jack Kirby’s record on the character. Elements from Jason’s many years of Thor stories were adapted in the 2022 Marvel Cinematic Universe film Thor: Love and Thunder.

Esad Ribić cover art for Jason Aaron’s Thor: God of Thunder

Jason’s other work for Marvel Comics has included Doctor Strange, Ghost Rider, Hulk, Punisher, Wolverine, Conan the Barbarian, and Star Wars. He currently writes writes The Avengers. Outside of these legacy series, he has written The Goddamned, Men of Wrath, The Other Side, Scalped, Sea of Stars, and Southern Bastards.

In my roles as Adjunct Professor in Humanities and Faculty Advisor for Pagan Forum at Illinois Institute of Technology, I interviewed Jason via Zoom on April 22, 2021. Students from my courses and Pagan Forum participated and were joined by others who were simply interested in Marvel comics and movies.

Jason was a wonderful interviewee – both incredibly open about himself and wonderfully thoughtful in explaining his work. The students and I are very grateful for his generosity in spending this time with us, and we hope you enjoy this two-part interview transcript.

Faith and transformation

KS – In the 2019 epitaph you wrote for your Thor run, you state that you “haven’t believed in God, in any gods, for a long time,” but also that the Marvel version of Thor – the one centered on worthiness, not really something the Norse original cares much about – is the sort of god you “would like to believe in.”

Although writers like Walt Simonson and Matt Fraction had already dug into the mythological side of Thor, you really get deeply into the religious side of the character in a way that, I think, is a first for how this character has been approached at Marvel.

Faith in oneself and faith in gods are key issues throughout your run. How did your own relationship to religion affect how you approached writing Thor?

JA – In a huge way. I think everything that you just said became the key to me figuring out the character to begin with.

I didn’t grow up a huge Thor fan. I read some of the Simonson stuff when that was coming out, but it wasn’t a character where I was going around with a briefcase full of Thor ideas, like I was really chomping at the bit to pitch Thor.

Writer Jason Aaron

I think the first time I read Matt Fraction’s Ages of Thunder one-shots – I think there were three or four one-shots he did – they were really, really good and were very much like a heavy metal kind of Thor, the kind of Thor you can see spray-painted on a van. That was the first time I thought, “Oh, yeah. I could see having some fun doing Thor.”

Then there was a point called “Marvel NOW!” – this initiative where really every book Marvel had was up for grabs. All creators were switching around on everything, so everybody was faced with a question of “what do you want to do right now?” That moment was really the first time I thought, “You know, I want to do Thor.”

Esad Ribić was really quickly attached to draw the book. Esad has a style very much in that same kind of vein as what Matt Fraction had done on those Ages of Thunder books, so I kind of knew right off that was the vibe I was going for -– this sort of dark, weird Kirby-ish vibe.

I had all that in place really before I had a story, so I went back and started reading those original Stan Lee and Jack Kirby Thor stories – which I’d never read before – which are really, really good and some of my favorite Kirby stuff from Marvel.

Thor at the time, kind of led by the movies, was being pushed in a direction of “well, this guy is not really a god. His people are these aliens who live a long time, and they were perceived by primitive humans as gods, but they’re not really gods.”

I didn’t really like that idea. I love what they’ve done in the movies, but that part of the idea didn’t appeal to me as much, especially when I went back and read those original issues.

Stan talked about when they first decided to do Thor. That was the idea of “how do we do somebody who’s different than the Fantastic Four and Spider-Man? Well, what if we did somebody who’s actually a god? What is that like?”

I knew I wanted to lean hard into that idea of it. That’s why that book is called Thor: God of Thunder, and the first arc is the God Butcher, and the next arc is the Godbomb.

We lean hard into that idea of Thor being a god. In the first issue, he answers a prayer, which I don’t think is something we’d really seen him do much of in the past. Knowing that I wanted all that to be a key part of it, it brought those issues of faith and worthiness to the forefront.

For me, I grew up in the South. I grew up in the Southern Baptist church, so I grew up very religious. That was a big part of who I was, up until I went off to college, and – in terms of my faith – things started to kind of fall apart. Little by little, cracks started to form – “I don’t believe this part of it anymore. I don’t believe that part.”

I literally had kind of an epiphany one time, having an argument with my dad about things, and he got frustrated with me and said, “If you don’t believe any of this stuff, I don’t understand why you believe any of it,” and this light bulb went off over my head, and I was like, “You know what? I think you’re right. I think I don’t believe this anymore.”

I’ve identified as an atheist since that point, which was my early twenties.

That said, you can look at a lot of the work I’ve done, and a lot of it has been about issues of faith, questions of faith.

I broke into comics in 2001 with this Marvel Comics talent search contest, where I submitted a synopsis for a Wolverine story. That was my first published comics work. It’s a little short story inspired by Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.”

[Wolverine] stumbles out of the woods and has this encounter with this woman on a dirt road winding through the woods of the South. They’re talking about faith, and she’s asking Wolverine about his faith.

So, from the very beginning of me working in comics, that was a subject I was attracted to. I think it makes sense I’d wind up doing Thor, even though I never would have seen that coming when I first got into comics.

Wrapping all that stuff up, I think you can see so much of my Thor run goes back to those original Lee and Kirby stories, probably in a bigger way once I got to the Jane Foster part of it, because that goes back to that idea of transformation, where they put an inscription on the hammer [“Whosoever holds this hammer, if he be worthy, shall possess the power of... Thor”].

That very first story is this guy Donald Blake goes into this cave and finds this hammer, and it transforms him into Thor, though Stan and Jack later retconned their own story, and you found out that, well, that was Thor all the time, and his dad had sent him to Earth to teach him humility.

To go back and reread those stories now, like a lot of that early Marvel stuff, they’re figuring things out as they go. The X-Men, it took them a long time to figure that out.

You can see in Thor, they pretty quickly got bored of the idea of this guy who transforms into Thor. Donald Blake would just disappear for long stretches, so it made sense eventually that they threw all that away.

But that inscription was still there, and then Walt Simonson brought that back in a huge way, right out of the gate with his run.

So, with the Jane stuff, it’s very much going back to that idea of you could pick up this hammer, if you’re worthy enough, and become Thor.

The key character motivation for me writing Thor Odinson – Thor the god – was that every day, he would wake up, that hammer sitting next to his bedside. He looks at it, he doesn’t know if he’s going to be able to pick it up today. He knows he picked it up yesterday, and he flew around the universe, and he punched people in the face, and he saved the day, but when he wakes up the next day, he’s like, “Am I going to be worthy today?”

That idea that he would always question that, and that’s the lesson that he learned from that is to not wake up every day and assume “oh, yeah, I’m totally gonna be super worthy today.”

I liked that idea, and as part of that, I knew at some point I’d do a story where he wasn’t worthy, where he couldn’t pick it up.

Jane Foster wields the hammer

KS – I’ve read that the creation of Marvel’s Thor was a conscious attempt to get a Superman for Marvel, because superheroes were having a resurgence in the 1960s. The red cape and the flying but also the love triangle, where you had Lois, Clark, and Superman – and two people in the triangle were the same person. They replicated this in their Marvel romance comics way.

JA – Exact same thing, yeah.

KS – You don’t have so much of the romance thing in your run, but you have the triangle where it’s the two women and Thor, where she’s the goddess, and she’s the person. It’s again a sort of three-way relationship. Especially when you first introduce her, Thor is totally threatened by this new female Thor and doesn’t realize that she’s his nurse from the old days.

JA – Yeah, I had tremendous fun with all that part of it. By the time I’d started that Jane Foster story, I’d been writing Thor for a few years. I’d been at Marvel for ten years, at least.

That Jane stuff still feels like the biggest, most “Marvel” story I’ve ever done, and it’s very much like an old school Marvel story.

Russell Dauterman cover art for Jason Aaron’s The Mighty Thor

She’s got a secret identity. She doesn’t want people to know that she’s secretly Thor. She’s dealing with very real-world problems in her life as Jane, and she’s going through breast cancer treatment, and the fact that she is Thor is making all that worse. It’s making her life worse and harder.

It’s literally killing her, because every time she transforms, it’s neutralizing the effects of the chemotherapy she just went through. Every time she comes back as Jane, she’s sicker than she was before.

All that stuff to me felt like classic, old-school Marvel Comics and, at the same time, I wanted to show this is someone who loves and relishes what she’s getting to do.

She’s been a part of this Thor universe since the very beginning. Her first appearance was the second issue of Journey into Mystery, the second Thor comic in Journey into Mystery, so she’s always been there.

Back then, she was – like you said – a love interest, and she was a damsel in distress a lot. Loki would show up and take her hostage to try to get at Thor, but she’s always been around.

Now, she’s getting to be at the center of that universe and getting to fly around and punch gods in the face for the first time, and she’s loving it. I liked writing that.

Her life really sucks in a lot of ways. It’s incredibly difficult. She’s getting closer to death, as it goes, but she’s enjoying every second of what she’s getting to do and enjoying exploring her powers and her relationship with the hammer.

Getting to write somebody who is experiencing all that stuff for the first time is really fun, and how her relationship with the hammer is different than Thor Odinson’s relationship with it had been, making the hammer more of a sentient, living being.

We see right off that even Odin can’t pick up the hammer, and he’s supposedly the one who put the enchantment on it in the first place – the worthiness enchantment. The fact that he can’t pick it up tells you this has grown beyond what was initially.

All that Jane stuff was tremendous fun.

You know, there was a backlash about her story from the moment it was announced, before it even existed. There was some backlash of “well, why is this other character coming in and taking Thor’s name? Why couldn’t you just make her a new character? Why does she have to be Thor?”

I would take all those comments and criticism and put them in the actual book. Odin many times says things people would yell at me on Twitter. We would answer those questions in the book.

I didn’t create the idea of Odin being a jerk. He has been Thor’s greatest enemy, going back to those Lee and Kirby stories. That exists. Most especially his relationship with Jane.

When you go back and Thor says, “Hey, this is my girlfriend, Jane,” Odin was not very happy about that. I didn’t make all that stuff up. I bring it to a head in a big way.

There was always that backlash of “well, why couldn’t she just be someone else?” which I think completely misses the mark of this idea of taking this character who had been a supporting character in this universe for so long and making her the center of it.

No, she’s not Thunderstrike. She’s not Thor Girl. She is Thor. It’s the difference between doing a Nightwing story and having Dick Grayson become Batman. Those are two different stories, and I didn’t want to do a Nightwing story. This was about her being Thor and being at the center of that universe.

To me, the people who would say it was a different kind of Thor story than I’d been doing or was somehow not a Thor story – to me, it was again the most Thor of any of the Thor stories I did, because it went back to his first appearance, to how things were established right out of the gate with that character and that idea of transformation and worthiness.

It brought all those things back in a big way and took all that to its next big step. I wasn’t trying to do exactly what Walt [Simonson] did with Beta Ray Bill or what had been done when other people had picked up the hammer. I think it’s the next evolution of that.

KS – In your tales of Jane Foster as Thor, you engage with the early Marvel Thor mythology in a way that writers in this century have not. The idea of having a human with a deep physical challenge who can temporarily transform into a god of old, of the dual consciousness between her human mind and her Asgardian one, even of her worry that she will turn back into her weak human form if separated too long from her hammer in battle – these all hearken back to the very beginnings of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s creation.

When Marvel first went public about the new female Thor, editor Wil Moss said, “This new Thor isn’t a temporary female substitute – she’s now the one and only Thor.” At the time, you said she was “the Thor of the Marvel universe for the foreseeable future.” As a lifelong comics reader, I’ve seen so many character redesigns, reboots, transformations, and deaths that eventually snapped back to a more traditional portrayal, so I was a bit skeptical.

Now that Jane Foster is the Valkyrie and Thor is back as the god of thunder, can you tell us how this went down at Marvel? Were you, Marvel editors. and Marvel administrators committed to Jane Foster permanently being the Thor that Marvel’s own website said was designed “to speak directly to an audience that long was not the target for super hero comic books in America: women and girls”? Or was she planned from the beginning to step aside for the return of the male Thor once he’d found his worthiness?

JA – I will say, nothing is permanent in comics. None of us who are making the comics are permanent.

These characters have been in publication for sixty-plus years, at this point. They change, they shift, they come back to center. That will always be the case.

This change came about in different stages. Like I said, I always had the idea of getting to a point where Thor Odinson couldn’t pick up the hammer anymore and wasn’t worthy for a bit.

Ryan Sook cover art for Jason Aaron’s The Unworthy Thor

That was initially an arc. I was going to do an arc called “Unworthy” where he couldn’t pick up the hammer. The Mangog shows up, who’s this great old Kirby villain. He shows up to raise hell, and that was an arc.

Then I expanded a little bit. I thought, “Well, that would be cool, while he can’t pick up the hammer, to have somebody else come and pick it up.”

I initially thought that might be his mom, Freyja, that she would pick it up and wield it for a bit.

Then that grew again as things went on. I did this event called “Original Sin,” which is where something happens so that Thor Odinson becomes unworthy, and coming out of that – it wasn’t really planned to begin with that Sam Wilson was going to become the new Captain America at that same time.

So, it became a chance to relaunch both of those titles at once, and having somebody else pick up the hammer will be its own new series. It was sort of fortuitous timing that turned into an initiative.

Coming into that, to say that it’s permanent – you don’t have any idea. If sales tank and nobody buys it, then permanent becomes six issues. You’ve got to wrap up that story of move on, and maybe I’m fired from Thor at that point. Who knows?

Yes, the idea was going to be that she was the Thor of the Marvel Universe. Once she took over, she was Thor. Thankfully, sales went up. Sales were really great.

I got to tell that story the way I wanted to tell it. She was in the Avengers with Sam Wilson Cap for a while, so, for that period of time, she was Thor.

That said, from the get-go, I was always telling a very specific story with Jane, so I knew from the beginning. She came into this with cancer. She was dealing with cancer. I was never going to “magic away” her cancer.

From the beginning, from the first issue where we find out she has cancer, Thor tells her, “Let me take you to some wizards I know, and we’ll have that taken care of,” and she says, “Nope, not going to do that sort of thing. That stuff comes with a price.”

She’s a doctor. She’s gonna beat this the good old-fashioned way. I was never going to magic that away.

I didn’t want to take that lightly. If I’m going to go into this huge story, where the main character is struggling with breast cancer, that’s the story. Her getting to fly around with the hammer is the cool part, but this is Jane’s story that we’re going to play out.

I always knew, from the beginning, how that story was going to go and what that final story would be, which turns into the Mangog story. That original one arc of unworthiness and the Mangog turned into however many arcs it ended up being at the end, a few years’ worth of stories.

KS – There really is an amazing conflict in that period of the stories between this liberation as Thor, where she’s poking Thor in the chest with his hammer and just living it up and having these great adventures that comic readers all dream of having, and this very serious, grim tale of the woman who’s dying of breast cancer.

This is something I talk about in my classes – the stories that we consume are not necessarily fun or entertaining. The stuff that lasts and has meaning is not stuff that’s fun, like throwaway summer comedies. I can’t even remember some movies I saw five years ago, but these kinds of stories are the ones that stick with you, bother you, and go on to live inside of the readers for a long time.

But there’s that contrast that you had between very broad and hilarious comedy and real human tragedy. Not mystical fantasy tragedy, but real human stories.

JA – I think that’s the challenge with all this sort of stuff.

Everything I do at Marvel – in particular something like Thor, where the scope of it is so grand and epic, there are other realms that Thor goes to, and they fly through space and all these things that are hard for us to relate to – to do all that and have the fun of all that but also in some way make it grounded and have a real emotional connection to it.

Jane’s story is one of the things I’m most proud of from my entire career in comics, because I think it’s where I got a good mix of that right. It is fun, it’s exciting, but there were parts of it that I cried while writing. People cry when I have comics signings for it.

To have all that wadded up in the same stories – that’s what I’m striving for, I think, with everything I do.

Relating to the god of thunder

KS – Many times, while reading your Thor run over the last decade, I got flashbacks to when I was a teenager in the late 1980s, and I found a giant box of an almost complete run of 1970s and early 1980s Heavy Metal comics. Part of it was the visual style of your artistic partners, but the other part was how you wrote this mixture of deeply intense personal interactions and amazingly enormous cosmic events with this way of storytelling that is both focused and expansive, at the same time.

It makes the gods seem both very much like like us and immensely different from us, and it plants narrative seeds that slowly grow underground and sometimes don’t explode into view until much later. The reader has to understand it retroactively, and some of it was like reading Mœbius and those guys, where you’re not quite sure what’s going on. You know it’s important, but you don’t understand it until later on.

To what extent have non-US, non-Marvel, non-DC writers and artists like those that used to be featured in Heavy Metal influenced your approach to storytelling?

JA – Not to a huge degree. I read more of that stuff these days than I ever did growing up.

When I was first getting into comics back in the 1980s, there wasn’t a whole lot of that European stuff that was available here, or Japanese manga. I remember the first time Lone Wolf and Cub started to be printed here. It was a huge deal.

I didn’t grow up with a lot of that stuff. I’ve read more Mœbius and Jodorowski stuff, but I certainly wasn’t reading it in my formative years.

Jason Aaron and Esad Ribić’s Thor: God of Thunder

With Thor, a lot of what you’re talking about speaks to the challenge of writing a character like that.

When I first started talking about doing it and pitching it, Tom Brevoort – who’s my editor on Avengers, who has been at Marvel pretty much longer than anybody, at this point, one of the best editors I’ve worked with and a guy with a library of Marvel comics in his head – he was talking about how he never got into Thor growing up, because when Thor would spend so much time in Asgard or flying around in these other realms, he would lose interest and lose connection to it.

I get that. At times, I felt like that, reading Green Lantern or Legion of Super-Heroes, where you just feel like this is so disconnected from the world I know. I don’t relate to it. I don’t connect to it.

So, how do you do that? How do you have Thor fly out there and lean into the fact that he is a god, lean into the fact that he’s got this unique setting where he’s got these other realms he goes to?

Captain America is not going to Jotunheim, and Spider-Man’s not going to Alfheim – the realm of the elves – but Thor does that all the time.

So how do you do that and make all that cool without losing any kind of emotional resonance to the story?

That was the challenge. I wanted to go big and grand and epic but to really make you feel and relate to Thor. I was always trying to get that balance right.

KS – In several of my courses, we talk about the immense tradition of Indo-European storytelling from ancient India and ancient Greece to Viking Iceland and nineteenth-century Germany and on to our own American popular culture. We work to identify what Wendy Doniger calls “Indo-European building blocks” – ancient bits of story that are continually combined in new forms.

You’ve been working at a unique historical nexus, creating original work where ancient mythology and modern commercial culture smash into each other. What is it like to sit at that particular spot and produce new stories with ancient elements on a regular deadline?

JA – It’s really cool. I mean, it sounds great, when you put it that way.

From the get-go, from when I first learned how to read, I was a huge comic fan. Loved to read. I think, like anybody who goes on to write for a living, the first step was that I was just a voracious reader.

I read everything I could get my hands on. I particularly loved comics. Loved fantasy. Loved Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories.

Once I went to college, I knew I wanted to write but didn’t really know what form that would take. I didn’t have any idea how to break into the comic business, and it was a lot harder to do back in those days, anyways.

One of the smart things I did when I went to college is I took a lot of literature courses that were outside things I’d been interested in before.

I took a Mark Twain class that I really, really loved, and I’d never really been much of a Twain fan. I’d read Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer, and that was about it. But going past that, I became a huge Twain fan. I became a huge William Faulkner fan, when I took a class about him.

I read Beowulf in college and really loved it. A thing I’d read before, and it didn’t stick with me, didn’t touch me or affect me, and read it in college and really loved it.

I think breaking outside my limited sphere of reading influence was a big deal for me, to open me up to other stuff. I still try to do that. It’s harder, these days, just being busy.

I don’t know about everybody else, but a year ago, I felt like “we’re not going anywhere [because of coronavirus lockdowns], so at least there’ll be more time for reading.”

It didn’t really work out that way. It was harder to work, harder to read, at times last year. Kind of getting back to that now.

I still try to read things that are not for work, because I think my work has always been the best when it’s pulling from a lot of different sources.

My cousin Gus [Hasford] was a writer. He was a Vietnam vet and wrote the book The Short-Timers, which is what Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket was based on. He was a big influence on me, the first guy I ever knew who wrote for a living. I’ve got a bunch of his old letters and stuff.

He died back in the 1990s, but I’ve got a letter he wrote to the customs department at one point, when he was living somewhere overseas and was having a shitload of books shipped to him. He wrote, “You know I need all these books, because I’m a writer, and the secret to a good writer is stealing your ideas from as wide a variety of sources as possible.”

I think it’s true, in some sense, that it helps to just read a lot of different stuff and pull things from a lot of different sources, especially when you’re talking about what I do for a living.

On the one hand, I get to stand on the shoulders of giants like Jack Kirby and all these creators who have worked on these characters for many years, and you get to pick and choose the cool stuff from what they’ve done in the past, but it also makes it more challenging to bring something new to the table.

How do you tell a Thor story that hasn’t been told before, a hundred times? How do you tell a new Spider-Man story?

I think the challenge is always to bring something from somewhere else, bring something that isn’t already there and bring something of yourself. What can you say with Thor that hasn’t been said before?

I think that’s the challenge I face every day, when I sit down to write whatever it is I have to write for the day.

“The kind of god I would like to believe in”

KS – Thor and the Norse gods are, of course, fundamentally not creations of Marvel – but there are now nearly sixty years of history and mythology of Marvel’s own Asgardians that so many writers and artists have built, and this mythology often diverges widely from the original Norse mythology. When writing Marvel’s Thor, how much was the Norse Thor on your mind, if at all?

JA – Not a whole lot. I didn’t have much of a background in Norse mythology.

I hadn’t read a whole lot, so once started working on it, I bought a bunch of books and read more and thought to maybe use some of it but pretty quickly realized – like you said – this is not the same.

I think Walt Simonson did a great job injecting more Norse mythology into the book, but I wouldn’t say it was a huge driving force in what I was doing.

Russell Dauterman cover art for Jason Aaron and Torunn Grønbekk's The Mighty Valkyries

You can see more of it in the Valkyrie book that I co-write right now, because my co-writer Torunn Grønbekk is Norwegian, and literally her entire family’s named after Thor.

She shows me pictures of her childhood, where they’re straight up dressing like Vikings and running around the fjords, so she has a very intimate relationship with all that stuff. She injects more of it into the Valkyrie stuff she and I have been doing together.

KS – Long before that series, you were notably doing what Walt Simonson had done by not only creating original characters of your own around Thor but also bringing in several figures from Norse mythology – such as Bor and the Disir – even while radically changing them from their portrayal in the myths. What was the process you went through for transforming characters, objects, and concepts from the mythology into the Marvel universe?

JA – I’d have to know specifically which ones we’re talking about. I don’t know that I’ve got a process for that, beyond just whatever seems right.

KS – For example, the Dísir. In your version, they’re like undead Valkyries of ancient times. I wonder if you have a character, then you go looking for a name to fit it – or do you read something and say, “Oh, wow. I can use that and transform it”?

JA – To me, it’s all of those.

Literally, I’ve got my Thor notebook there that’s a few hundred pages of ideas jotted down – thoughts I had, words from stuff as I was reading, going back and reading old Thor comics, as I was doing research. Just jot this down, jot that down.

Some of it never turned into anything. Some of it, you can see the first kernels of what became five or six years worth of stories. So, it depends.

Sometimes, you’re looking for something to serve a function within the stories. Sometimes, it’s just about “I like this cool thing, and where do I work it in?” Sometimes you might have to hold on to that for issues and issues before it’s the right time.

One secret to writing, I think you have to learn pretty quickly, is just because you have a cool idea at the time doesn’t mean it needs to go into what you’re working on, which sucks.

There are times you’re like, “Man, this is a really good page” or “This is a really good three lines of dialogue,” but it doesn’t belong here, so it doesn’t need to be here, so you hang on to it until the time is right.

Again, I think it helps that I love to read comics. I always have. I never had that period where I stopped reading, got out of comics.

I’ve always been reading, so in some sense I’ve always been doing work-related research. It helps to give you inspiration and things to pull stuff from.

KS – The Norse gods you write about are not only part of Marvel myth and Norse myth but also part of Ásatrú and Heathenry, modern iterations of Norse and Germanic religion. Back in 2013, the months-long Worldwide Heathen Census I ran estimated that there were nearly 40,000 practitioners around the world at that time, with the largest number living in the United States. Anecdotally, the population seems to have greatly grown since then, possibly driven by the popularity of the Vikings TV series, the Thor movies, and your own run on the comics.

You several times show Thor directly interacting with his worshipers – even responding to prayers. Did the fact that these Marvel characters are alternate versions of deities actively venerated today play into your work?

JA – No, not really. As someone who grew up with faith and lost that faith along the way and became an atheist but still remained fascinated by the ideas of faith and of all different religions, I looked at all of it as story fodder.

I do a book called The Goddamned which is a really dark and brutal version of the pre-flood Biblical world. The first story arc was the story of Noah, where it turns out Noah was not a very nice guy. He’s the guy who’d come to town and chop down all the trees and steal a bunch of people as slave labor to go build this giant boat he was building.

I’m very indiscriminate in terms of the religions I choose to make stories from. So, no, I never really thought of it that way.

To me, with Thor, I was trying to write as an atheist, to write the kind of god I would like to believe in.

The first issue I did after that first big arc about the God Butcher, the serial killer of gods, and building this Godbomb to kill all the gods. Right after that, it’s eleven issues of big, cosmic craziness.

Right after that, I did a standalone issue where Thor came back to Midgard – came back to Earth – for the first time in almost a year, at that point. It was about what does Thor do when he when he comes back to Midgard? Who does he go see? Who does he hang out with?

We see him do things like show up to spend time with this guy who’s on death row and is about to go be executed, and he brings him some rare fruit from some faraway planet. We see him hanging out with nuns and old vets. We see him make it rain on the Westboro Baptist Church protesters. We just see how does Thor interact with real people.

I was very interested in that. That’s another one of my favorite issues of the stories I’ve done – just a day in the life of Thor on Midgard.

He also goes and gets drunk on mead at some point, but a lot of it is to show the very real human interactions between this god and the people he connects with – people of different faiths and religions, not all people who are worshiping Thor.

So again, that was very much me saying I’d like to believe in this kind of guy, and I hope that if one exists, I hope he’s like this guy.

KS – There was a story that I loved where Thor’s in love with a human woman – I think it’s in Viking times – and he goes on some space adventure. By the time he comes back, for him it’s just a moment, but she’s already dead and gone after waiting for him for her entire life.

JA – That was in the last Thor series I did.

Through my whole ride, I’d flash back and do young Thor stories, stories of Thor before he could lift the hammer. That was one of them. I don’t remember exactly what issue it was.

He references her. She’s brought up a few times. That was a first lesson to him of “oh, these [human] lives are really fleeting.”

It’s the first time he has that godly perspective when it comes to interacting with life on Midgard.

To be continued in Part Two.
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