Continuing the countdown of my top-five favourite comic book artists (after Stan Sakai and Bill Sienkiewicz), we reach Walter ‘Walt’ Simonson, the man who made Thor awesome, among many other contributions to the world of comic books.
I was a big X-fan starting out in the world of superhero comic books, so it was X-Factor where I first saw Simonson’s art, where the writer was his wife, Louise. His bold, dynamic, angular art wasn’t the normal standard I was used to, the way it escaped the page, the anatomy of his characters, the bold essence of comic book art; even that way he draws the lower lip to make the surly pouty mouth was different. When I was dabbling in trying to draw again, I would base my attempts at anatomy on the books by George Bridgman due to the recommendation by Simonson (and you can see the connection between those life drawing books and his own anatomy) and because Simonson’s art was so inspiring, although I never got any good and didn’t change my biochemistry studies to that of art – Simonson was studying to be a geologist at college before switching to art, for which the world of comic books is extremely grateful.
I didn’t know that Simonson had been around for a while, which was good because I got to discover a lot of great work. He started out in the early 1970s, making his name on the Manhunter storyline with Archie Goodwin, which won several awards; after that, he drew the first Dr Fate mini-series (introducing the ankh symbol to the character) as well as some other characters, before heading to Marvel in the late 1970s, although he would illustrate the wonderful Alien movie adaptation, written by Goodwin in 1979. He wasn’t just an artist – he was a writer as well from early on, writing as well as drawing the likes of Star Wars and Battlestar Galactica. It must have made an impact because he was picked to draw the intercompany crossover of the top-selling Marvel and DC titles: The Uncanny X-Men and The New Teen Titans, written by Chris Claremont, in 1982.
But it would be on Thor that he would make his mark; he had drawn the book for a year back in the late 1970s, but in 1983 he was asked by Mark Gruenwald to write and draw The Mighty Thor, starting with issue #337, with the famous cover of Beta Ray Bill destroying the logo and stamping out Simonson’s intent to do something new with the character.
An aside: I would discover The Mighty Thor series after discovering Simonson’s art on X-Factor – I think it was the Mutant Massacre crossover that first highlighted it to me, because it included two issues of The Mighty Thor, and some time after that I felt the need to get all of Simonson’s run, rummaging through back issue bins long before everything was collected in trade paperbacks. It was the first time I would come across a back issue that was significantly more expensive than the rest of the series – I picked up issue #337 from Gosh!, back when it was across from the British Museum, for the then exorbitant price of £3.50 (I know). I remember the shock of seeing the price on the polybag mixed with the joy of finding a copy of the book; I did debate if I could afford it. The debate did not last long, and I haven’t regretted the decision.
Simonson would write and pencil The Mighty Thor until issue #367, writing it with art by Sal Buscema until #382 (returning for layouts of issue #380, the issues that is all full-page spreads to depict the battle between Thor and the Midgard Serpent, which is destined to lead to Thor’s death as foretold in Ragnorak). The character of Thor would never be the same again – Simonson would change things up and return the Norse mythology to the character, while still retaining the Marvel superheroics, and tell epic stories that exploded on the page. He got rid of the Donald Blake identity, had Beta Ray Bill pick up Mjolnir, have Surtur fight against Thor, Odin and Loki (and let’s not forget Frog Thor), all the while drawing the hell out of the book. It was truly astonishing – this huge artwork for these huge stories – and I became a fan for life.
After working on X-Factor for three years, he would co-write the Havok and Wolverine: Meltdown mini-series with his wife before starting a too-short run on Fantastic Four, writing from issue #334 but also pencilling from #337 onwards (to match the numbering on his Thor run), including the ‘New’ Fantastic Four drawn by Art Adams, and the fabulous issue #352 where Reed and Doctor Doom fight but with time travel so you had to read the pages according to the instructions on the panel to tell you which page to go to next, immersing you in the time-travel fight.
After his Fantastic Four run, he was draw the Robocop Versus The Terminator mini-series at Dark Horse, written by Frank Miller, and it was a delight to see his art on the two franchises. He would write and draw a Superman Special in 1992, and return to his creator-owned series, Star Slammers (which was originally his art degree thesis, and published as Marvel’s fifth graphic novel in 1983), first for a mini-series at Malibu Comics, then a special at Dark Horse. He would return to DC to work on various titles (Michael Moorcock’s Multiverse, Jack Kirby’s Fourth World, a New Gods Secret Files) before launching the Orion ongoing series as writer/artist, with back-up strips drawn by a host of superstar artists. The Orion title would last only two years, but it was in a similar vein as his Thor run, tackling huge mythology and characters, and fantastic art.
After the prestige mini-series Elric: The Making of a Sorcerer, Simonson would work on a variety different books, such as writing Hawkgirl and World of Warcraft, writing and drawing The Judas Coin graphic novel at DC, drawing The Avengers and The Indestructible Hulk at Marvel (as well as various variant covers – people always want him to draw a Thor cover because it still holds such sway on the character; there is a reason why Simonson has a small cameo on the Thor movie). However, he has mostly been working on his own series, Ragnarök, at IDW, taking his love of Norse mythology and imagining what would have happened if Thor had missed the final battle and the bad guys had taken over the nine worlds.
Simonson’s art is fantastic – it’s not only beautiful and dazzling and exciting and energetic and dramatic, but it’s also brilliant storytelling. He knows how to move you through the artwork to take you from huge moments to smaller, quiet moments (“He stood alone at Gjallerbru … and that is answer enough.”) – his combination as a writer/artist is phenomenal and his visuals echo through my memory to this day.