“Whosoever holds this hammer, if he be worthy, shall possess the power of Thor.” reads the inscription on Mjolnir, the hammer of, you guessed it, true believers, the Mighty Thor. The trick, as any Marvel fan can tell you, only Thor himself can pick said hammer up, no matter how strong they are. Or so we thought for the 21 years between Thor’s (Marvel canon) creation in 1962 and the year of 1983 when… well, somebody else held the hammer and immediately gained the power of Thor.
The key words there are “whosoever” and “worthy” (otherwise Odin would have written “Only Thor, okay? Damn!”). Of course, since 1983, several other characters have picked up the old lump hammer in direct continuity, other universes and even a few retcons (it turns out that Thor’s dad, granddad and great-granddad can all swing that thing like Mickey Mantle with a Louisville Slugger). A few of these include erstwhile Thor replacement Thunderstrike, Thor’s Avenger buddy Captain America, Conan the Barbarian (for Crom’s sake) and even the DC Comics characters Wonder Woman and Superman.
But the first one to hoist Mjolnir, much to everyone’s surprise was an alien by the name of Beta Ray Bill who looks like a cross between an (unbeatable) dead horse and an Austrian weightlifting champion. The guise of Beta Ray Bill is nothing if not monstrous (intentionally) and the concept was originally to surprise the readers by revealing this space demon to not only prove noble and heroic but the first character besides Thor to be worthy of Mjolnir. Of course, the anticipation, along with potential spoilers, was amped up by the cover of Thor #337 which displayed Bill in full on Thor garb, complete with cape and winged helmet, smashing the hell out of the title’s “The Mighty Thor” logo with a blank-eyed snarl.
Sure this revealed that someone else had snagged the hammer of Thor, but the question was “Who and how?” The answer came from the mind of the legendary and excellent writer and artist Walter Simonson who had just been given virtual complete control over the Thor title. Simonson’s idea was to start fresh and with a shocker to the point that Bill’s shattering of Thor’s logo on the cover of Simonson’s first issue could easily be interpreted as an iconoclastic statement on the part of Walt himself.
Simonson deliberately designed Beta Ray Bill as a monster and gave him a backstory to prove this out. As an alien of the Korbinite species, Bill was cybernetically altered and reformed into a bestial, carnivorous horse with a skull-like appearance. The idea was to force the audience to assume this was a new bad guy and nemesis for Thor (one who could do the impossible and steal Thor’s very powers).
However, there is a certain nobility to the face of a horse (and an innate sadness to the look of a skull) and Bill’s backstory further revealed that he had been so augmented to become the protector of the remains of his all-but-extinct Korbinite race. Of course, neither the audience, nor Thor himself could see this at first. As Thor is dispatched into space by special request from none other than Nick Fury, Director of S.H.I.E.L.D. to investigate an passing alien fleet, the Norse god comes across the sentient ship dubbed the Skuttlebutt (yeah, I know) and is immediately deemed a threat. Thus, the sleeping protector Beta Ray Bill is awakened from suspended animation and shouts the Korbinite-language version of “It’s Clobberin’ Time.”
While Thor and Bill prove to be virtually evenly matched, as the Skuttlebutt approaches Earth and Mjolnir’s Earthly enchantments kick in (sometimes Odin’s pranks can be as bad as Loki’s), Thor turns into plain old “Doctor Don Blake” as soon as his hammer leaves his hand for more than a few seconds. Bad for Donnie, great for Bill who casually walks over and picks up the old Crusher for a closer look and is immediately detected to be that rare “whosoever” who proves “worthy” and is granted the powers (and wardrobe) of the Mighty Thor.
Realizing his mistake, Noble Bill gives the hammer right back to its rightful owner, apologizes and catches some more Zs, right? Not even close, bud. After an introduction like that, a quick and easy resolution would be about as appropriate as a cellophane swimsuit at a church lock-in. Bill’s first story arc lasted a full four issues (the longest arc of Simonson’s entire tenure on Thor) with Bill realizing that Mjolnir might just be the weapon he needs to protect the remaining survivors of his endangered race.
To make matters even stranger, Thor’s daddy Odin actually mistakes Bill for Thor. Clearly he doesn’t look his kid in the face very often, or Chris Hemsworth (hardly horse-faced) was horribly miscast. Once the confusion is resolved the question of who gets the hammer (especially if both champions are worthy) remains. Odin’s solution? Wrestle for it. Seriously. Your own son and an alien cyborg beast are fighting over the keepsake you gave your son for Christmas and your solution is “Let’s see who wins in a fight!”? The guy is clearly Asgard’s “Father of the Year”. And before you folks start thinking that Odin was just “that sure” his best boy would win, Spoiler Warning… to Beta Ray Bill went the spoils.
Lucky for Thor (if not the Korbinites), Bill was both too nice a guy to off Odin’s long-locked baby boy and he even felt bad enough about taking Thor’s property that he gave Mjolnir back to him with a horselike sneer. Lucky for Bill (and the Korbinites), Odin thought that was just about the neatest thing he’d ever seen and so he had another mystical hammer made just for the Beta Ray dude and dubbed it “Stormbreaker”.
With Stormbreaker, Beta Ray Bill remains every bit as mighty as Thor and now has the capability to become “Beta Ray Thor” (as Simonson informally refers to him) or revert back to his pre-alteration Korbinite form (in a move I informally refer to as “The Korbinite Maneuver”). Bill continues to appear in the pages of Thor as well as other Marvel titles (including his own occasional mini-series and one-shots) and remains a staunch and trustworthy ally of Thor and Asgard. The character has also appeared on trading cards, as an action figure, in video games and in Marvel animated TV shows and DVDs.
And that’s the story of the hero who broke the Thor mold and changed everything we know about who can and cannot wield Thor’s hammer. Although Beta Ray Bill turns 30 years old this month (Thor #337 first hit stands in November of 1983) there is no “Skuttlebutt” around Hollywood yet that indicates that Beta Ray Bill might appear in the November 2013 film Thor: The Dark World or any other Thor or Avengers sequel. But what the hay? Saddle up… this horse can fly!
NEXT TIME in the pages of “To Be Continued…” we return to pay a special visit to yet another of Marvel’s top brass. Who is it? I’m still ironing that out. “To Be Continued…” is back on PopMatters.com, coming soon!