For superheroes to stay alive, they have to change with the times. It’s a dilemma the comics industry has struggled with for decades, here and there resisting and elsewhere confronting head on. It's also one of the best parts about loving comics. When I was a kid, few of the characters I loved looked much like me. The few that did weren’t exactly marquee characters, the icons like Spider-Man and Wonder Woman that fans could rally behind outside their local comic book shops. Today, however, there's a black Spider-Man out there, one that’s not only valid but beloved. Changes like that come in waves. As creators slowly but surely create characters that reflect their audience in toto — readers from different backgrounds, races, genders, and sexual orientations — comics as a whole get better for everyone.
More change is on the way and the latest wave hits tomorrow, as Thor, one of Marvel’s core characters, becomes a woman. The hammer Mjolnir, for reasons that are still unclear at the beginning of this new series, has judged the Odinson unworthy, leaving the God of Thunder weakened. Now a mystery woman has taken up not only his famous weapon, but his role and even his name. It’s easily one of the biggest changes Marvel has ever made — and, according to series writer Jason Aaron, that's exactly how he wanted it.
Evolving the story first told by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby
"It goes back really to Thor’s first appearance," Aaron told me. "To have somebody else come in and pick up that hammer and be changed by it, to me, is an evolution of that idea started by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby back in 1962."
Aaron has served as steward for Thor’s mythology since 2012, when he launched Thor: God of Thunder, throwing readers back eons to see the god’s earliest adventures while also sending them into the far future when an aged Thor sits the throne in Asgard. All in the same book. The question of worthiness has always served as a through line in Aaron's work. His Thor is the kind of character that can face off against threats like the God Butcher and the Phoenix Force, but he’s well aware his strength isn’t a given. "I’ve always written him as a god who wakes up everyday and looks at that hammer and doesn’t know if he’s gonna be able to pick it up," said Aaron. "So he’s always sort of worrying and praying about if he’s a good enough god and is he truly worthy in the grand scheme of things. I love the idea of taking that away from him." This is a dark time in the character’s life, he says, and it’s his greatest test grappling with the loss of his greatest weapon.
Meanwhile, Thor’s whole world has also changed around him, particularly because women now play increasingly central roles in his existence. Asgardia itself, the renewed home of the gods in Marvel continuity, is now ruled by goddesses collectively known as the All-Mothers. He has a newfound sister in Angela, a powerful lost Asgardian from the Tenth Realm who is strong enough to defeat him at his best. And in the future, Thor has three super-powerful granddaughters, Frigg, Ellisiv, and Atli, who are known as the Girls of Thunder and are warriors of the same stripe as the Odinson himself. With all this already written, that even the name Thor should pass to a woman was an obvious, if not immediate, decision Aaron was more than ready to make, a reaction to all the changes that have already begun to take root in his corner of the Marvel universe.
"The plan was always to get to the point where the Thor that we knew had become unworthy," he said. "But at some point I got to the story of somebody new carrying the hammer. I didn’t know who initially, but once I started thinking about it, I knew that I wanted it to be a woman. Thor has been in publication since ’62, and in all those years we’ve rarely seen a woman pick up the hammer. And if you look at Thor’s supporting cast — especially with the stuff I’ve been doing — Thor’s surrounded by a lot of female characters. So when you start to look around in this world and say, 'Well, if he can’t pick up the hammer, who can?' it seemed natural that it’d be one of these women."
Thor #1 takes place right on the cusp of that transition, and merely sets the stage for the action ahead. War is coming — as ever — but Mjolnir has abandoned its owner. What’s telling about this story, even in the midst of Frost Giants rampaging left and right, is that there's a palpable tension between the sexes, especially between Odin the All-Father and Freyja the All-Mother. Women had a set place on Asgard. They were warriors but not rulers. But on Asgardia, those old roles have already begun to change. So when we see the inscription on the hammer change and the new Thor finally appear, it’s expected and even necessary that the story move in this direction. It's a changing of the guard. Readers won’t know who this character is (no one does yet), but Aaron promises that it’s a character Thor fans have already encountered and is mighty in her own right.
"If he can't pick up the hammer, who can?"
When Marvel announced the shift back in July — on The View no less — fans reacted in an uproar, many positively and some less so:
Thor is a lady and nerds are upset. Thor used to be a frog who fought elves using mind control French fries and it was the title's best run.— Leonard Pierce (@leonardpierce) July 18, 2014
Aaron, for his part, took the reactions in stride, saying, "I think the response has been great. For the most part it’s been positive. It has been a little bit disappointing to see people not down with the idea of it simply being a woman who picks up the hammer… but to me that part is all washed out by the positive response we’ve gotten."
And it’s far from the only change the industry has seen recently. Sam Wilson, otherwise known as the Falcon, will inherit the role of Captain America later next month and become the first African-American to hold the title full-time. Kamala Khan became the new Ms. Marvel last year and the first Muslim character to headline her own comic book series. Life with Archie ended last summer with Archie Andrews’ death after he saved his gay best friend from an assassin’s bullet. Batgirl recently welcomed its first trans-identified character, the first of her kind in all of mainstream comics. The list goes on. That this has become a trend in mainstream comics has left some fans wondering if this was all just a cynical publicity stunt, but Aaron sees the changes as not only necessary, but as happening organically. Ultimately, Marvel and the industry at large better serves its fans by making characters that look like them.
"You can't ignore the zeitgeist."
"Nothing about this was premeditated," he said. "This wasn’t Marvel coming down and telling those of us who write these books that you must change Cap to be like this, you must change Thor to be like this. It was all very story-driven. But at the same time, you can’t ignore the type of zeitgeist these days. For too many years we catered story-wise and marketing- and delivery-wise to the same audience, so I think everybody these days is more aware of wanting to appeal to everybody."
Going forward, the question then becomes, how long can this new status quo last? Superheroes have a funny way of coming back from whatever trial they face — even death itself — and given that Old King Thor still wields Mjolnir in the far future, it stands to reason Thor will get his hammer back at some point. So what happens to the new Thor? According to Aaron, we won't know for a long while. Thor Odinson isn't going anywhere, and he still has plenty of adventures ahead. But enough track has been laid bringing this new take on the character in that it'll be some time before the God of Thunder proves himself worthy again. Whoever is under the helm, it's her show from here on out — even if Avengers: Age of Ultron is right around the corner.
"I don’t think you can dismiss trying to tell a new story."
"I mean, these characters will outlast us all," he said. "Someday I’ll be done at Marvel, and these characters will be passed on to someone else. But I don’t think you can dismiss trying to tell a new story because these characters have such long lifespans. All I can say is I’m not short-changing the story I’m trying to tell. And Marvel isn’t either. She’ll be a part of the Marvel universe for the foreseeable future."
Whatever happens next, comics fans can at least be assured that change is coming. And change is good.
Thor #1 goes on sale October 1st. Images courtesy Marvel Entertainment.