One of Thor’s biggest problems in the first few years of his publication as a comic at Marvel wasn’t with popularity, with characters, or with story, even. Readers loved Journey Into Mystery the comic book series (1962-1966) and Thor the character. As the comic slowly added more and more elements of Asgard and other mythological elements into the book, the possibilities for new conflicts grew each month, particularly centered around the dysfunctional family at the center of the book, Thor, his father Odin, and his scheming adopted brother Loki. The book managed to keep itself with a foot on Earth by maintaining Thor’s connection to his alter ego Donald Blake and nurse Jane Foster, with the occasional visit from an Avenger or two.
The problem was with the villains. Loki did bad stuff, but he was always pulling the strings, rarely directly confronting Thor or Odin. And this is a comic book, after all – you need some sort of visually compelling action, and that’s just not Loki’s strong suit.
A couple of early recurring villains put up some good efforts – the Cobra, the Grey Gargoyle, Mr. Hyde, and the Absorbing Man – that last one in particular. Each had a special power that allowed them to stay in the fight against Thor longer than most foes. And the Absorbing Man, who could take on the properties of any material he touched, including Thor’s Hammer (not yet named in these early issues), could keep the fight going for days. Eventually Thor’s battle experience won out even against him.
So, the problem becomes, if you have a character so powerful that no one can stop him, how do you maintain an ongoing comic book series where you know the outcome of every battle, every time? What’s Thor’s kryptonite?
Rather than introduce too many limits on a character who is being openly acknowledged as a god, why not give him foes with similar power levels? One obvious solution might be gods and monsters of the Norse mythology – but since so many of them are associated with Ragnarok, maybe better to stage them out over the years to come.
Let’s try heroes and villains from other pantheons instead?
That’s the approximate reasoning behind Lee and Kirby’s initial introduction of Hercules to Thor comics in Journey Into Mystery Annual #1, published in October 1965. He would end up being not only a recurring character for Thor, but in Marvel Comics more broadly, with his own self-titled series published as recently as 2016.
In their first meeting, Thor and Hercules are like two forces of nature trying to push past one another. It doesn’t go so well, but luckily, they’re in a setting where their mutual attempts at destruction don’t risk thousands of lives.
The story begins with Thor and Loki on a journey to Jotunheim, perhaps the most frequent and ancient of all templates for Thor stories. They encounter two storm giants attempting to access an ancient passageway to Olympus, a place their ancestors had once attacked, but which had been long lost to them. Thor attacks, but falls through the magical passageway himself.
Thor doesn’t recognize his destination at first, and attempts to learn more about where he is. He encounters a warrior, who bars his path across a bridge. The warrior is Hercules. The two become instantly belligerent, trading boasts and insults back and forth – here mythological Thor’s tempestuous nature is explored in a way it typically hadn’t been in the comics up to this point.
Then more battle.
Like seriously, lots more battle. With more boasts and insults, of course.
Finally, the hot-headed god and demigod are stopped by the ruler of Olympus, Zeus. A deus ex machina?
Zeus is perhaps a more appropriate match for Thor from a comparative religion perspective (though the resemblance between Thor’s hammer and Hercules’ iconic club has been pointed out); however, given how Lee and Kirby have developed Thor’s story as centered around the father-son relationship between Odin and Thor, of course Zeus and his son Hercules would be shown as a similar relationship, which can be contrasted in different lights as necessary for different situations. It’s a good match even if it does seem silly at times that Hercules would be in the same room as Thor (says the Thor aficionado).
In the end, this is all just setup. While Zeus sends Thor safely home this day, this issue was just a taste of plans for Hercules to cross paths with Thor again soon, and for their battle in those issues (it’s a really big battle) to have much bigger implications for both characters.
SO BE IT!!!