Monday, July 4, 2011

Retrospective: The Mighty Thor #342-343

(as it turns out, I didn't pick up any new comics this week, so I thought I might try something a little different here)

I believe that if one considers themselves a serious fan of comic books, with an appreciation of the skill and craft required to produce a superior work of art in this particular medium, then there are certain runs of various comics that should probably be in your personal library somewhere. Comics that you can not only appreciate as fine stories in and of themselves, but that also showcase the craftsmanship and artistry of those men and women who through their efforts produce something extraordinary.

Walter Simonson's landmark run on The Mighty Thor certainly belongs in such a comic book library.

(as always, click on the image to expand to full size)

Simonson's run on Thor lasted just a little under four years, from issues 337 to 382 (along with the four-issue Balder The Brave mini-series), but in many ways is the high mark of that title's long and storied history. In my opinion it even exceeds the classic original Lee/Kirby run back in the 60's, and still surpasses to this day what has followed, where even otherwise talented creators have missed the mark.  It is the benchmark that all other Thor stories are compared to.

There are so many wonderful elements that Simonson handles with skill and care throughout his run on the book: the truly terrifying Surtur and his apocalyptic plans, the introduction of Beta Ray Bill, Skurge's last stand at the bridge, Balder's story arc, the war of Rats and Frogs, the enigma that was Kurse... it is sometimes easy to forget the smaller elements, the less grandiose stories, that Simonson dealt with with no less ability.

Such a story ran through issues 342 and 342, giving us the tale of the Last Viking:

In the aftermath of the battle with the dragon Fafnir, Thor, in his new mortal guise of Sigurd Jarlson, senses his name being invoked in the old language of the vikings. This is important, for Simonson recognizes that Thor is a god, not just another superhero, and not even just an extra-dimensional being with super strength and an array of other nifty super powers. Long ago, Thor heard the calls of his worshipers, as any deity would, and answered them if it pleased him to do so. But it has been centuries since he last heard such a call, and so, intrigued, he follows... leading him, to all places, Antarctica.

Thor is surprised to find a temperate valley nestled in the icy wastes, heated by a nearby volcano. He is even more surprised to find what appears to be an empty viking village, looking much like the viking settlements of an earlier millennium. Although he can see no signs of life, there are indications of recent activity. He eventually finds a large cave, which quickly proves to be a trap.

Thor survives the spears, of course, and as he advances sees signs that others were not as successful in facing the cave's many dangers. He advances onward, successfully navigating his way past the many myriad dangers. Finally, he sees a menacing figure in armor, who challenges our hero.

Evading the hurled spear, Thor closes in and strikes the armored figure, knocking the foe's helmet loose. Thor is surprised to see the true nature of his adversary.

The old man pleads with Thor not to spare him but to finish him off. Thor refuses, and noting the still hazardous nature of the tunnels, frees both himself and the old man, taking them to the surface. Thor then asks him who he is, and the old man, Eilif the Lost, tells the tale of how when the vikings were defeated in England back in 1066 AD, one band of scattered vikings eventually found their way into the hidden Antarctic valley, where they and their descendants lived to the modern day, with Eilif being the last of his people. Knowing that they could only ascend to Valhalla if they dies a warrior's death, but lacking any enemies to fight, they constructed the deadly traps in the caves to test their mettle, to become warriors, and to be able to die a warrior's death, avoiding a lesser straw death which would consign them not to Valhalla but instead to the gloomy confines of Hel.

It's a fascinating premise, in part because it runs counter to our Western, Christian-influenced way of thinking. It just seems so unfair, after all. Why should Eilif, who was skilled enough to survive where other did not, face the rather dismal prospect of spending eternity in Hel? Why should he be punished for his skill and ability, when his brethren should be rewarded into Valhalla by dint of not being quite as good as Eilif was? Couldn't some sort of exception be made? It just seems so terribly unfair.

Fairness, of course, has nothing to do with it. The rules are the rules, and they are not for mere mortals to bend or break. It is in part this seeming cruel twist of fate that gives the story the power it has(1). A lesser writer would no doubt have given us such a 'cheat', a way for Eilif to reach Valhalla in an easier manner, but that would have been a cop-out(2).

Fortunately, Simonson respects the myths that the comics were based upon, and refuses to follow the easy way out. It's one of the important distinctions of his tenure on Thor, that it feels less like a superhero book that has the trappings of mythology, and more like the stuff of myth that just happens to take place in a superhero world.

Back to the story, Eilif, now with no one left to fight, sought to trap Thor in the deadly labyrinth, hoping to provoke the thunder god into slaying him in battle, so that he might avoid the straw death of old age, and make his way into Valhalla. Having failed to do so, he accepts that his fate is instead to die in bed.

Yeah, right.

Thor isn't putting up with any of that crap.

Impressed with Eilif's boldness, and sensing that a powerful foe awaits him shortly, Thor bids the elderly warrior to don his armor and follow him. The god of thunder summons forth Cloudrider, the winged steed of the heroine Valkyrie, as well as his own flying steeds Toothgnasher and Toothgrinder, so that they may face the upcoming battle together. But before they leave, Eilif is wracked by doubt.

Strengthened by Thor's words, Eilif overcomes his doubts and stands ready to assist Thor however he can. Thor grants, through the touch of his hammer Mjolnir, a portion of his own power to Eilif, giving him the strength and vigor of his youth. Before they leave the valley, a mysterious old man (actually Odin in disguise) gives Eilif's spear a blessing; as they leave the valley, the old man is suddenly nowhere to be seen.

Arriving back in New York, the duo battle against a re-awakened Fafnir. Even Thor's mightiest of blows are unable to hurt Fafnir.  During the battle, Eilif is unhorsed from Cloudrider, and plunges to the wreckage of a nearby building. Thor's concern for Eilif allows Fafnir to gain the advantage, putting the thunder god in peril. Eilif notes that his strength is fading, which can only mean that Thor is badly hurt. Vowing that Thor should not perish because Eilif failed in his duty as shield-bearer, he leaps from the wreckage of the building, aiming the blessed spear at the heart of the great beast Fafnir.

The blow actually manages to wound Fafnir, who strike Eilif away as he might a gnat. Thor then uses his hammer to drive the spear deep into the dragon's body, killing him. Upon finding the fallen Eilif, he sees that the old man is no longer alive.

The grief of a god can be a terrifying thing to behold...

Thor uses the nearby wreckage to build a funeral pyre for Eilif, and then lays the now-dead Fafnir at the foot of the pyre, for in the past it was customary to lay a dog at a viking's feet when they were to be buried. Summoning lightning from the skies, Thor then brings down the lightning onto the pyre, lighting it, so that his soul may be properly claimed.

And so the Valkyries, under the watchful eye of Odin, welcomes the Last Viking into the halls of Valhalla. Although we do not get to see it, in my mind's eye, a truly grand feast and celebration occurs for the days to follow, as Eilif joins their honored ranks.

There's much more in these two issues that what I have described. Multiple subplots, which would all play out in their own time, are interspersed throughout the main narrative. Simonson handles the balance between the main story and the various secondary elements with ease, and his art wonderfully compliments and completes the story he tells. There is a lot of ground that is covered (in more modern times such a story might be stretched out for four or even six issues), yet it never feels rushed.

If you've never had the pleasure of reading Simonson's Thor before, well, what are you waiting for? Besides an Omnibus that collects the entire run under one set of covers, there's also a series of four standard TPB collections that also collect the breadth of Simonson's work. In whatever format you get them - individual issues, collections, or digital media - they're well worth getting.

(1) Of course, to an outside observer, it's not just the old faiths that might seem unfair in this aspect. After all, in Christian thought, one can engage in a lifetime of sins and evils, only to convert on the deathbed in one's final moments, and still be allowed into Heaven - where's the fairness in that?

(2) Assuming they were willing to approach the topic at all - earlier writers would have most likely avoided the topic completely, and more modern scribes would perhaps treat Eilif as a source of derision, an old warrior who can't let go of his martial ways.

1 comment:

  1. Although we do not get to see it, in my mind's eye, a truly grand feast and celebration occurs for the days to follow, as Eilif joins their honored ranks.

    As I recall we do see Eilif later on among the heroes of Valhalla -- I think he's among the troops who follow Bill against Surtur's army -- even if we don't see his welcome.