Comics

Thor WHO? It's Beta Ray Bill!

Last time “To Be Continued...” Captain America's first replacement was explored... But nobody can replace Thor, the god in Marvel's Avengers pantheon, because nobody can pick up that hammer right? Right?

"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!



Music


Books


Film


Television


Recent
Music

Kristin Hersh Discusses Her Gutsy New Throwing Muses Album

Kristin Hersh thinks influences are a crutch, and chops are a barrier between artists and their truest expressions. We talk about life, music, the pandemic, dissociation, and the energy that courses not from her but through her when she's at her best.

Music

The 10 Best Fleetwood Mac Solo Albums

Fleetwood Mac are the rare group that feature both a fine discography and a successful series of solo LPs from their many members. Here are ten examples of the latter.

Music

Jamila Woods' "SULA (Paperback)" and Creative Ancestry and Self-Love in the Age of "List" Activism

In Jamila Woods' latest single "SULA (Paperback)", Toni Morrison and her 1973 novel of the same name are not static literary phenomena. They are an artist and artwork as galvanizing and alive as Woods herself.

Film

The Erotic Disruption of the Self in Paul Schrader's 'The Comfort of Strangers'

Paul Schrader's The Comfort of Strangers presents the discomfiting encounter with another —someone like you—and yet entirely unlike you, mysterious to you, unknown and unknowable.

Music

'Can You Spell Urusei Yatsura' Is a Much Needed Burst of Hopefulness in a Desultory Summer

A new compilation online pulls together a generous helping of B-side action from a band deserving of remembrance, Scotland's Urusei Yatsura.

Music

Jess Cornelius Creates Tautly Constructed Snapshots of Life

Former Teeth & Tongue singer-songwriter Jess Cornelius' Distance is an enrapturing collection of punchy garage-rock, delicate folk, and arty synthpop anthems which examine liminal spaces between us.

Books

Sikoryak's 'Constitution Illustrated' Pays Homage to Comics and the Constitution

R. Sikoryak's satirical pairings of comics characters with famous and infamous American historical figures breathes new and sometimes uncomfortable life into the United States' most living document.

Music

South African Folk Master Vusi Mahlasela Honors Home on 'Shebeen Queen'

South African folk master Vusi Mahlasela pays tribute to his home and family with township music on live album, Shebeen Queen.

Music

Planningtorock Is Queering Sound, Challenging Binaries, and Making Infectious Dance Music

Planningtorock emphasizes "queering sound and vision". The music industry has its hierarchies of style, of equipment, of identities. For Jam Rostron, queering music means taking those conventions and deliberately manipulating and subverting them.

Music

'History Gets Ahead of the Story' for Jazz's Cosgrove, Medeski, and Lederer

Jazz drummer Jeff Cosgrove leads brilliant organ player John Medeski and multi-reed master Jeff Lederer through a revelatory recording of songs by William Parker and some just-as-good originals.

Books

A Fresh Look at Free Will and Determinism in Terry Gilliam's '12 Monkeys'

Susanne Kord gets to the heart of the philosophical issues in Terry Gilliam's 1995 time-travel dystopia, 12 Monkeys.

Music

The Devonns' Debut Is a Love Letter to Chicago Soul

Chicago's the Devonns pay tribute the soul heritage of their city with enough personality to not sound just like a replica.

Music

Jaye Jayle's 'Prisyn' Is a Dark Ride Into Electric Night

Jaye Jayle salvage the best materials from Iggy Pop and David Bowie's Berlin-era on Prisyn to construct a powerful and impressive engine all their own.

Music

Kathleen Edwards Finds 'Total Freedom'

Kathleen Edwards is back making music after a five-year break, and it was worth the wait. The songs on Total Freedom are lyrically delightful and melodically charming.

Television

HBO's 'Lovecraft Country' Is Heady, Poetic, and Mangled

Laying the everyday experience of Black life in 1950s America against Cthulhuian nightmares, Misha Green and Jordan Peele's Lovecraft Country suggests intriguing parallels that are often lost in its narrative dead-ends.

Music

Jaga Jazzist's 'Pyramid' Is an Earthy, Complex, Jazz-Fusion Throwback

On their first album in five years, Norway's Jaga Jazzist create a smooth but intricate pastiche of styles with Pyramid.

Music

Finding the Light: An Interview with Kathy Sledge

With a timeless voice that's made her the "Queen of Club Quarantine", Grammy-nominated vocalist Kathy Sledge opens up her "Family Room" and delivers new grooves with Horse Meat Disco.

Books

'Bigger Than History: Why Archaeology Matters'

On everything from climate change to gender identity, archaeologists offer vital insight into contemporary issues.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews

Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.