I figure with a big fancy movie coming up, y'all might have some questions on who this blonde, hammer wielding hero is, what his deal is, and just generally if he's the hero for you. Well, here I am to answer some of your questions with this:
Hold on to your butts, it's about to get real.
Thor is unassumingly complicated. While at his core he's a dude who smashes trolls with a hammer, in practice he gets mired in psuedo-mythology VERY quickly. Call me crazy, but once characters' names have a string of 5 or more consonants, I kinda fall out of the story. But before we get to all that craziness, let's talk fundamentals.
The Basic Origin:
Thor, as presented in the Marvel Comics, is the blond, blue eyed, hammer slinging son of Odin. At his best, Thor wields his mighty hammer Mjolnir to bring the pain (and plenty of lightning) on those that would dare threaten his Godly home of Asgard. Alas, troll smiting is a rare affair which results in Thor's other attributes to reveal themselves and get the God of Thunder in trouble.
That is to say, he pisses his dad off... a lot.
Left without options, the angry Odin does what most pissed dads would do and kicks Thor out of the house, but you know, with a godly twist. Not trusting that Thor could learn his lesson by being cut off, Odin goes the extra mile by sending the young god to Earth (or Midgard) to be humbled by people like us.
Not helping matters any is Thor's adopted brother, and master mischief maker, Loki influencing said punishable offenses. Throughout the years, Loki's manipulations have resulted in everything from Thor becoming a frog to causing Ragnarok and everywhere in between. He is as cunning as Thor is brash, with a silver tongue that allows him to get away with everything... at least for a while.
Since his creation at the hands of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in 1962, this has been Thor's general state of being. Sure, sometimes he's returned to Asgard - Hell, he's even taken over Odin's throne once or twice - but ultimately he always does something to end up being punished and forced to live his life on Earth.
Got all that? Good. Let's go dig a bit deeper.
Things to Remember:
In my experience, Thor fans are among the more fanatical side of fandom. If you find yourself in a conversation with one of these fine, overly impassioned people, it's best to remember these three thing:
Thor is a Hero of Many Faces,
Most of the time, when Thor is being humiliated by his father, he becomes bonded to a human host. In a relationship that's much more Captain Marvel (the Shazam one, not the starry faced one) than a Venomous one, of course.
Over the course of his history Thor has been bonded to: Dr. Don Blake, an unassuming slightly crippled doctor; Eric Masterson, a blue collar living architect; and Jake Olson (kind of), a New York EMT. And if anyone asks, you favorite is Don Blake. He's the original alter ego, the current alter ego, and in my experience, the less you mention Dan Jurgens or Tom Defalco, the better. It just makes it easier on everyone.
Only Thor is Worth to Wield Mjolnir
"Whosoever holds this hammer, if he be worthy, shall possess the power of Thor," reads the inscription on Mjolnir. Thor is Thor because he wields that crazy uru hammer and if he were to do something totally dishonorable, he wouldn't be able to lift it. You could argue that this is why Odin's favorite warrior son doesn't make a habit of punting babies into adjoining zipcodes and why he's dedicated his life to being a hero. Occasionally though, he loses his hammer or someone else is forced to pick it up and big Thor fans tend to freak out a bit.
Other heroes have been able to pick up the hammer (Captain America, Storm, Superman [best not to mention that one though...]), but typically only for a short time and not without a strong examining from the fans. Thor fans don't like it when their man isn't holding his hammer, so be prepared for that if you ever get in a conversation with a Thorite and want to argue why it'd be awesome for Iron Fist to pick up the hammer.
Uncle Walt is the Greatest Thor Writer Ever
Walt Simonson was one of the finest, and craziest, writers from the 80s and 90s, with some of his finest working coming on Thor. Talk to any fan that's been around for a while and they'll tell you how amazing Walt's stuff was, and why everything else pales in comparison. I can not confirm, nor deny, the veracity of this statement, but I'm always a little suspect of calls for a classic creator to come back to his (or her) signature book. I'd much rather they move on, but that's just me.
Everything still making sense? Fantastic. Let's put that knowledge to work.
Where To Start
When it comes to the big man, finding a place to start is kind of rough. I mean, there are boatloads of one off stories with this guy, but rare are the one's of any great significance or general mainstream appeal. With that in mind, I've really tried to craft a list of Thor recommendations that appeal to a wide swath of tastes. Let's see which book is for you:
General: Thor: The Mighty Avenger (2010; Roger Langridge and Chris Samnee)
Hands down, this is the greatest version of Thor that I've read. As told in it's own continuity (that is to say, you can just read this and nothing else and not miss a thing), this book tells the quintessential Thor story. From his arrival to his journey to discover what he did wrong, this book finally made Thor a real person for me. Fantastic writing combined with whimsical art make this one a must for anyone interested in just getting a taste of what Thor's like.
Classic: Thor Visionaries - Walter Simonson Vol. 1 (1983; Walter Simonson)
If whimsy and non-canonical tales aren't your fancy, then perhaps you should turn to the aforementioned greatest Thor writer and his classic run. Ol' Uncle Walt wastes no time, leaping into an adventure of epic proportions with plenty of troll-brawling, God-Fighting, and even a few aliens for good measure. If you're looking for something to show you how huge in scope Thor can be, this book is for you.
Modern: Thor Vol 1 (2007; J. Michael Straczynski and Oliver Coipel)
Of course, some of us prefer quiet introspection to violent noise, and for you I would suggest the start of J. Michael Straczynski's run. Changing the focus from a distant Asgard and it's denizens, JMS brings about Thor's rebirth in the most unexpected of places: Broxton, Oklahoma. What follows is a tale of discovery as Thor rediscovers his place in the world, as he helps to rebuild his hometown. If some of this sounds familiar, it's because this was the basis of the movie. It's a great place to start if you want to see Thor's place in the larger context of the modern Marvel Universe.
Current: Thor: The World Eaters (2010; Matt Fraction and Pasqual Ferry)
Finally, we have the most current trade as of May 2011 to help usher you into the books. Here, Modern Awesomist Matt Fraction takes the reigns and infuses Thor with a bit of science fiction as he brings back the epic storytelling Uncle Walt was so fond of. I don't know too much about this one, except that it involves other worlds like Asgard that were previously unknown. However, as the start of a new creative team, it's the perfect place for someone who wants to read the book for the long term to start.
In the end, Thor can overly confusing or incredibly satisfying, depending on the story you read of his. My advice on Thor is to start small. If you haven't read comics before, test the waters a bit with Thor: The MIghty Avenger where the excess is stripped away, before attempting to leap into The World Eaters.
Whatever you do, just remember one last thing: Leave what you know about Norse Mythology at the door. Stan used all those old stories as a jumping off point, and created his own little pantheon free of the original's continuity.
Now, get out there and start reading!
Come back to let me know what you think, and in the meantime I'll start cooking up my next Primer.