Meet Moondog (or is it Thor?), the Viking of New York City

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As a young teen, I began exploring downtown with friends, which is how we Bronx denizens referred to Manhattan. During one of these early trips, we encountered an unexpected sight: a six-foot Viking. Thanks to Jack Kirby’s Thor, then appearing in Marvel’s Journey to Mystery as well as films such as “The Vikings,” starring Kirk Douglas, I had been digesting a steady diet of all things Viking and their Norse mythology that I could get my hands on. To my disbelief, here was a living, breathing Viking come to life, standing erect in front of the CBS black tower on Sixth Avenue.

We approached this imposing figure and said hello. It soon dawned on us that he was blind. I don’t recall exactly what transpired—it was 50 years ago, after all. I remember my friend Gerry asking him what he got high on, and he took a bottle of water out from underneath his cloak. He then sold us both a pencil for a few cents (we couldn’t afford his poetry) and we moved on.

His name was Moondog and we found out that he had been a New York fixture for decades. It wasn’t until some time later that we also discovered that he was a world-renowned musician and composer, when in 1969 his eponymously titled Columbia records album was released.

Art Direction: John Berg

Moondog was born Louis Thomas Hardin in 1916 in Marysville, Kansas. He was already playing drums in his high school band when he lost his sight in a farm accident involving dynamite at age 17. Learning music theory by Braille at various schools for the blind, he also taught himself to play by ear. In 1942, he earned a scholarship to study at the Memphis Conservatory of Music.

Moondog then moved to New York City where he met such diverse musical luminaries as Leonard Bernstein, Arturo Toscanini, Charlie Parker and Benny Goodman. His music would reflect both classical and jazz as well as Native American influences.

Taking to the midtown streets of Manhattan, he’d stoically sell his poetry and music, often on Sixth Avenue, between 52nd and 55th Streets, dressing in his Norse-inspired garb of a cloak and horns. He soon became a New York institution, known as “the Viking of 6th Avenue,” remaining in place for over three decades, until he relocated to Germany in the early 1970s.

He had taken the name “Moondog” in honor of a dog “who used to howl at the moon more than any dog.” His name would become a household word thanks to pioneering rock-and-roll disc jockey Alan Freed, who called his radio show “The Moondog Rock and Roll Matinee.” Freed used the first composition Hardin recorded, “Moondog’s Symphony” as his opening theme. Hardin sued Freed and the case went to the Supreme Court, where Moondog won in1954, with the help of the testimony of Goodman and Toscanini.

While some assumed he was homeless, Moondog actually maintained an apartment in upper Manhattan, was in a relationship and fathered a child. In addition, he had a country home in Candor, NY, where he maintained an altar to Thor.

Which brings us to Jack Kirby.

Kirby’s interest in gods and mythology is in evidence throughout his oeuvre, which included three versions of the Norse god of thunder, Thor along the way. As early as 1941 in Captain America Comics Number 2, Kirby introduced in a 10-page back-up story, Hurricane, Master of Speed, who was the son of Thor, God of Thunder. The first full iteration of the Norse God himself, a Simon and Kirby production for DC’s Adventure Comics # 75 the following year, bears a striking resemblance to Moondog. It is possible, of course, that both Kirby and Moondog were simply drawing from the same well.

Hurricane, Thor’s son, 1941

Kirby’s first version on Thor

Detail from The Sandman story, Adventure Comics

Moondog at Herald Square, NYC

Statue of Thunor by John Michael Rysbraeck (circa 1730)

Artist unknown, 19th century

Johannes Gehrts, 1901

Earlier comic book version of Thor, Weird Comics #2 (Fox), 1940, by “Wright Lincoln”. Pencils: Pierce Rice. Inks: Arturo Cazeneuve

While this first Kirby version of “Thor” turns out to be an imposter, Kirby would return to the son of Odin in 1957, for DC’s Tales of the Unexpected “ with his story “The Magic Hammer”, and then of course for Marvel Comics’ Journey Into Mystery #82, from 1962, where he entered the collective pop-culture consciousness.

“The Magic Hammer”, 1957

Was Kirby inspired to bring Thor to the comic pages by Moodog? We will never know, as he never mentioned him in any of his myriad interviews. As a New Yorker working in Manhattan during the same period of time, there is little doubt that he was aware of Moondog’s stature as a New York institution.

Esquire Records, UK, 1956

Prestige Records, 1956

However, Will Eisner, Kirby’s former employer, is on record regarding Moondog, referring to him as “the first visible hippie.” Eisner would see him hanging around 42nd Street and Broadway, selling a paper called the Hobo Times, and was inspired to write The Spirit story “Cromlech was a Nature Boy” in 1979, inspired by the ersatz Viking.1

Kirby died in 1994 and Moondog in 1999. On November 2, the third in the series of Marvel’s blockbuster Thor movies “Thor: Ragnarok” opens in the U.S.

Kirby’s Odin

Columbia Records

Footnote: 1. Schumacher, Michael ,Will Eisner: A Dreamer’s Life in Comics, Bloomsbury, 2010, P. 102

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