Episode 1: The Ballad of Beta Ray Bill

BEHOLD: Thor #337-340! The arrival of Beta Ray Bill, Thor’s worthiest ally! The valor of Lady Sif, a true warrior born! And the beginning of the greatest run of comics of all – Walter Simonson’s Thor!

27 thoughts on “Episode 1: The Ballad of Beta Ray Bill”

  1. It was so cool to flick backwards and forwards through my tpb of this story whilst listening. Simonson always put story first so it’s easy to skip over the awesome moments on the way to the next page.

    It was interesting to hear Elizabeth compare Simonson’s Thor to Miller’s Daredevil. I still find it amazing that they were sharing a studio at the time (with others including Howard Chaykin and James Sherman). Can you imagine the thrill of walking round seeing the Elektra stories, Beta-Ray Bill and American Flagg all being worked on at once?

    By the way, I think your forth category should be most eighties bystander, which for this episode should go to the black dude with the ghetto blaster and the fuschia vest in 337.

  2. I may have too much to say about these comics, but you started it, after all… I agree wholeheartedly that the cover of #337 is a bold statement, but you have to look at #338 to get the full message. It’s an adaptation of Kirby’s cover to Thor #126, where Thor’s fighting Hercules. Simonson doesn’t do many homage covers, in fact I’m struggling to think of another, I read it as whatever’s being smashed, it’s not what Kirby left. What I think he’s rejecting is Marvel’s re-hashing of Kirby’s stories and plots. It’s telling for me that we don’t see Ulik, or Mangog in this run. Simonson has a story, not the ‘rogues gallery’ and out approach. Bill and Thor’s battle in Skartheim owes a lot to Loki and Thor’s battle in Skornheim in Thor #116. Connoisseurs of the Asgardian spa day can see Odin chill out in that issue as well. Oh and Sif’s costume, with shorts, can be seen first in Thor #137, the scene in #339 is not the first time Thor’s worn goggles in a foundry. Simonson’s inventing, but he riffs on and quotes on the best of what came before.
    l loved what Elizabeth said about the colour in these stories, but it’s different depending on what you read. I’ve compared the original comics, what’s on MU and the recoloured version (from a local library). Steve Oliff has done a decent job on the recolouring, but George Roussos’s almost flat colours seem to serve Simonson’s work here better and the version on Marvel Unlimited has a sharpness and clarity which I find most pleasing.
    We do get a good Odin, possibly the best Odin in these issues, but he still delivers one very questionable pronouncement. When he says ‘Bill has become the second son I never had!’ am I the only person thinking, ‘You already got two sons…’ It isn’t all Loki’s fault, apparently.
    I enjoy all the sturm and drang of the story (and belatedly am wondering how Draaang! wasn’t a sound effect), but it’s the heart Simonson put’s in the tale that makes me excited 30 plus years on. Sif and Scuttlebutt get me every time as well. However, it’s what Simonson does with the hammer’s enchantment that’s just genius. He takes a straight forward power fantasy where a physically limited man can become the strongest of men and turns it into something about men and isolation. Bill’s story is an over the top fantasy version about what a society can do to a man so he could be set up to kill for that society. The competition, the brutalisation and isolation, which leave him feeling monstrous and alone. I wonder if Vulnerability Fantasy could be a trope?
    One question, Agnar confronts Volstagg and Balder in #338… Volstagg doesn’t get off him until #340, how many days was he sitting on him?!

    1. Fascinating historical stuff, that. As Elisabeth and I will be the first to admit, our pre-Simonson Thor-sperience is pretty limited, so it’s cool to hear where a lot of the Simonson-adapted elements first showed up – and which ones don’t.

      I thought the same thing about Odin’s two-sons statement, although that didn’t make it into the episode – hard to blame Loki for being resentful, right?

      B-plot timing is hard to pin down, but I’m pretty sure that if Agnar wasn’t a Vanir, he’d have some lifelong musculoskeletal problems after his conversation with Volstagg.

  3. Really digging the show so far, thanks for the awesome! It’s making me have to read through the whole Simonson run now, instead of just bits and pieces that I’ve picked up over the years!

    Question for Elizabeth, I really thought it was cool you were reading your kid Avengers as bedtime stories, so I started giving it a try tonight starting way back with Avengers #1. Ouch, Wasp’s dialogue is painful! My goblin child is almost 5, so all the word ballons were a little tricky to get past. Where did you all start, any recommendations, other than maybe wait till she’s older?

    1. Ha! Yes, we had a lot of conversations about Wasp’s role in the early Avengers and how female characters were/are portrayed. I read straight through the two Avengers Omnibuses, but here’s a trick: I read the narration OR the word balloons, not both, since they usually restated each other! And I sometimes simplified the dialogue. 🙂

  4. Yeah… this run is certainly kinder to Odin than the current one. And yet he still manages to be an ass sometimes. (There is a panel somewhat later that I dubbed “Odin’s Infinite Wisdom™”.)

  5. Loved the episode. I love Beta Ray Bill but rereading his intro, does he strike you a little like maybe he was a Simonson pet project he couldn’t get published so he popped him in Thor. He just comes off a little like the NPC that shows up and is just so cool and awesome and as interesting as all the player characters that it’s clear the DM is just using his character from a different game he may or may not ever got to use.

    1. Does anyone know if Bill was in the original version of this story Simonson did in college? I don’t remember him from the few pages I’ve seen from it reproduced here and there.

  6. So after this, I have one question:

    Have either of you played Marvel Ultimate Alliance, and do you play as either Thor or Beta Ray Bill?

  7. I was in the middle of rereading these comics when you announced the podcast. Now I’ll be waiting for your podcasts And read along with you. Makes it more Awesome.

  8. Simonson has said that he sees what he did in Thor as quite Kirby, but because his and Kirby’s interests were parallel, not because he was trying to channel Kirby.

    But while their interests are parallel, I think their takes on myth might be different. For me as I read, the (OK, a) difference between Kirby’s* Thor and Simonson’s (disclaimer: I haven’t read all of Simonson’s run yet, although I’ll be following along with the podcast) is as follows.

    Kirby is interested in mythology in general as a category and wants to create original stories that feel like myths. But he’s not as interested in the particularities of Norse mythology as a specific thing. And Kirby’s sense of myths is as much drawn to their reuse in modern media, such as sword-and-sandal movies. It doesn’t privilege the “original” sources.

    Simonson, on the other hand, clearly wants to make Thor much more about specifically Norse mythology in particular (while still staying within the broad Kirby framework). He’s spoken of how he read and reread a book on Norse myths as a child, and (for me, tellingly) commented approvingly that it had quite a lot of the Prose Edda in it.

    One consequence of this is that Simonson’s much more interested in the myths as historical artifacts of a time when people thought differently. He’s said that he deliberately adopted a conservative panel layout (in comparison to his work on the SF-ish Fantastic Four) because he was trying to evoke a pre-philosophical time of traditional “mythological” thinking.

    Kirby, on the other hand, always strikes me as someone who wants to find profound transhistorical points of connection between past and present.

    *Let’s not get into the Lee/Kirby thing too much. I tend to think that Thor is probably more out towards the Kirby end of that spectrum once one gets a little way into it and the things that are distinctive about it start to become clear, because they tend to be things that come up again in Kirby’s later work.

  9. One thing that I’d like to see you discuss is what you make of the shift in secret identities from the generically WASPy and upper-middle class Donald Blake to the identifiably Scandinavian-American* and blue-collar Sigurd Jarlson. There’s something going on there about class and ethnicity, but I’m not sure what.

    *Or is he actually meant to be from one of the Scandinavian countries? I can’t remember if Simonson ever makes that clear.

    1. You know, that’s a really important point I had not thought about! Thor going from a WASPy doctor to a brawny construction worker–I wonder if it was to make him more relatable to ’80s audiences somehow? Good question for Walter Simonson!

  10. Great episode! And man, these comments are SMART!

    Anyway, regarding the comment Elisabeth made about Santa and Odin…there’s actually historical precedent to that! Odin would ride around on one of the nights of Yule (see: late December) riding his eight legged flying horse (instead of eight reindeer), Slepnir, gathering the souls of the dead. Children would leave hay and sugar out for Slepnir and get toys and candy in return. So a lot of the Santa myth starting from good ol’ Odin.

    I’ve been trying for the past week to think of a fourth category (to be fair, this is my first time reading Simonson’s Thor as well, so I’m not as up on all the tropes). Though part of me keeps thinking “Best Circuitous Scheme”…cause there are A LOT of those so far…

    1. I… I had no idea! That’s awesome! Although the soul-gathering / leaving-presents combination makes me immediately think of Terry Pratchett’s The Hogfather.

      1. Hogfather also references That! The hogfather’s shift from blood sacrifice to Santa is a commentary on how myths like Odin get repurposed for the modern age.

    2. Odin Santa! I knew it! Okay, no I did not know that–thanks for the tip! I will likely integrate it into next year’s Christmas celebrations somehow. 😉

  11. So, started listening the podcast yesterday. Got Comixology Unlimited to get access to the first Visionaries collection today. And just now at bedtime read the first two issues to my 8 year-old. (He is very concerned that Odin declared it a fight to the death but no one died.) It was a very natural progression, as last month he listened to Rick Riordan’s Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard books AND Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology.

    I know I’d read the first of the Beta Ray Bill issues before, but I didn’t actually recognize the second issue. Holy crap do I love Simonson’s work here! Besides being awesomely epic and well-crafted in ways too few comics are these days, it also definitely feels like he loves the actual Norse myths.

    Though H did complain that other people had definitely taken Thor’s hammer before! Thinking of the myths, not the previous comics. In fact, that may be the bad news here — these are the first Marvel comics my son has ever seen / had read to him, and I think everything else might be disappointing after Simonson’s run here…

  12. Should I ever meet either Elisabeth or Miles I swear on everything I consider holy and good that I will not assume they are demons despite my history concerning demons going to great lengths to hunt “my people”.

    That having been said, this is a very entertaining and positive bit of speaking on the subject of a comic I am currently ingesting and enjoying tremendously. Thank you for your time and effort.

    I do not have much to add concerning the comic as it is going thus far. One thing is: I think it says something about Beta Ray Bill that he was melancholy regarding his race shunning him based on his appearance after he sacrificed so much to be there for them in their hour of need. I think I would have been bitter, transformation into hero for the sole sake of being a good powerful force or not. I would still want to save them, but I would not be very enthusiastic about seeing them again. I am reminded of Childhood’s End by Arthur C Clarke. If I were the source of so much prosperity among humans and then they judged me based on how I looked I would be slightly miffed. I would still help, but it seems such a shallow reason. A good heart is a good heart no matter what frame it was associated with. Perhaps melancholy is a more ideal response. Who wants to be bitter?

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