Cover artwork for Thor #337, November 1983, cover by Walter Simonson, written and interior art also by Walter Simonson. Lettering by John Workman, Jr., Colors by George Roussos. Marvel’s version of Thor created by Stan Lee, Larry Lieber, and Jack Kirby. This cover features Beta Ray Bill, an alien from another galaxy who is worthy to carry Mjölnir; as you can see, Bill is striking right through the trade dress of the cover with Mjölnir to break traditions from two decades of Thor comics.
Thor #337 was the first issue both for Beta Ray Bill and for writer/artist Walt Simonson on the title, and it was a beginning for the ages.
In that issue, Colonel Nick Fury, director of SHIELD, jolts Dr. Donald Blake out of the idyllic reverie or an afternoon spent walking through Grant Park in Chicago. The cause is a spectacular emergency – a massive alien ship, capable of literally destroying a star, is on a direct course for Earth, and only Thor can save the day!
This terrible ship was an automated defense system designed to destroy hordes of demons chasing after a fleet of ships full of billions of survivors of the destruction of a galaxy. One survivor stood tall among the rest, a genetically enhanced cyborg warrior: Beta Ray Bill. Thor flew out into space to investigate this mysterious ship; while SHIELD had sent Thor because it deemed the ship a threat, the ship awakened its protector, Beta Ray Bill, because it recognized Thor as a threat.
Their battle was epic and quite destructive, to the warriors and to the ship. At one point in the battle, Thor lost his grip on Mjölnir but did not call it back to him, as he was well-trained in unarmed combat. But as the ship came into range of Earth, one of his hammer’s enchantments activated, and the battle found its clear victor.
Because as Dr. Donald Blake learned in Journey Into Mystery #83, Thor’s very first appearance, if Thor is parted from Mjölnir for more than around 60 seconds, Thor transforms back into the form of Dr. Blake. After all, if one is to “possess the power of Thor,” he first must be the one who “holds this hammer”.
So as the ship neared Earth, and Thor was separated from Mjölnir… Thor transformed into Blake, and Mjölnir disguised itself as Blake’s cane.
Beta Ray Bill saw this take place, and was confused by it. But he was aware enough to realize that something strange was happening with the cane. So he picked it up, and in the hope that the hammer he had seen might be able to call down Thor’s lightning, he tapped it against the wall. His guess was correct – the cane became Mjölnir.
And Bill became Thor.
Or at least, a Korbinite version of Thor, with slightly different armor, but with a design quite similar to that employed by Thor.
And as Bill emerged from the ship, now crashed on Earth, he saw a massive figure call down to him from the clouds, asking for him to return to Asgard – Odin calling his son home, of course. But Bill answered the call anyway, both out of curiosity and, if necessary, to kill whatever beings might be behind Thor’s attack on his ship.
Thor, in the form of Donald Blake, was left behind on the crashed ship, with only the hope that Odin or Heimdall, keeper of the rainbow bridge Bifrost, would be able to send for him after they realized what had happened.
This isn’t the whole story, but I’ll leave you with that introduction to Beta Ray Bill, the first non-Asgardian to life Mjölnir.
How could such a being be worthy? I anticipate answering that in more detail in the future, but the short version is that Bill was a great warrior who showed selfless devotion to his people, to the point that he was alienated from them. In order to serve in his role as defender, Bill not only had to pass tests and train for this role; he was also fundamentally physically altered, and many other candidates for his role died during this arduous process. Bill was the very best his people had to offer, in all respects.
Bill’s story is exciting on many levels. Simonson’s art was electric, filled with action and energy in almost every panel. Bill himself was a character completely new to Thor’s world, an alien from another galaxy who was both threatening and yet worthy to carry Mjölnir at the same time. And over the course of a couple dozen issues, Bill became integrated as a part of Thor’s legend, led the Avengers in an epic battle for the fate of humanity, respected and honored in the councils of Asgard, and even found love in the heart of a woman of Asgard.
And he and Thor kicked lots of demons’ asses, which was really awesome, too.