Episode 3: The Casket of Ancient Winters

BEHOLD: Thor #345-348! The tragic duty of Eric and Roger Willis! The wickedness of Malekith the Accursed and his Dark Elves! And – Midgard’s unexpected winter is but a precursor to its fiery doom!

43 thoughts on “Episode 3: The Casket of Ancient Winters”

      1. I know. Also know as the best Thor related book since Gillen’s Journey Into Mystery… fittingly the one Marvel, in its boundless wisdom, choose to stealth cancel for Secret Wars (2015). Why yes. I AM still sour about this.

          1. Yeah, my second biggest problem with Aaron’s Thor (after being too slow, the War of Realms outlived its interestingness 10+ issues ago).

            Hastings’ Vote Loki wasn’t exactly badly written as much as had an unfortunate subject matter and very ugly art. The best Loki appearance after Secret Wars (2015) was the cameo in Ms. Marvel of all things. :/

  1. [Spoilers for issues later than 248, up through about 376]

    Haven’t listened to the podcast yet, but I’ve been reading ahead to prepare, and one thing I really like about what Simonson does is how carefully he edges you by degrees out of the superhero genre, and specifically the Marvel version.

    In hindsight, the science-fiction elements of the Beta Ray Bill arc balance the fantasy/myth stuff, and by implication keep you in the very mashed-up Marvel universe. (After all, Thor began as a character with an alien-invasion story.)

    Fafnir is a return of a character from the past, and the story emphasizes the Sigurd Jarlson secret identity – again, these compensate for the more fantasy elements. (It’s really interesting how, when Simonson comes back to Sigurd Jarlson, he has Thor note how perfunctory and minimal Jarlson’s pretense at a “life” really was.). There’s also a lot of emphasis on Marvel New York as a setting.

    With this arc, you start with that Marvel New York and a prominent role for the Willises, superficially ordinary people. But that space gets invaded and subverted by Malekith (note esp. the device of the food, so that superficially reassuring authority figures such as the police,* are really servants of otherworldly fantasy creatures.

    And then we go to the Cotswolds. Which, like Marvel Britain (especially England), generally is when written by American writers, is basically not anything like actual Britain,** but is – as Simonson pretty much says at the beginning of 348 – Castles-and-King-Arthur-Land.*** So we really are entering the world of fantasy. But it’s covered by the fact that when Marvel does this as a convention when going to England.

    Then we have fantasy armies invade New York. But when Thor goes back to Asgard in the Surtur arc, he basically doesn’t come back and stays in epic fantasy as a genre for a long time. As if to point this up, Simonson has a very conventional (almost to the point of parody) superhero arc featuring Evil Commie Bastards**** – but the hero is Beta Ray Bill, not Thor. And when Thor does come back to earth, he is, of course, turned into a frog.

    Thor isn’t really a superhero again, I think, until he abruptly and appropriately reconnects with the genre via the vehicle of a crossover with the Fall of the Mutants arc, and especially X-Factor (when the story emphasizes how distant and unfamiliar Angel and co. seem to him).

    And there’s something going on about the genre with the “fragile” Thor arc that follows, in which Simonson has Loki reintroduce Thor’s “classic” enemies to the book, but in a context in which it’s self-destroying for Thor to fight them.

    *Especially reassuring in this context. One thing that’s very ’80s about this version of New York is Simonson’s repeated recourse to crime and mugging as the defining feature of the city. (Also, one enters a strange long-ago world in which “coffee-shops” are the antithesis of gentrification.)

    ** One fun exercise is to contrast this version of Britain with the one in Hellblazer, which was only a few years later, and turned “Thatcher’s Britain” up to 11.

    ***This produces pushback from Paul Cornell and Kieron Gillen – the Gillen Manchester Gods arc in Journey into Mystery is particularly relevant to this podcast. Still, could be worse. Could be Marvel Ireland, where every second person is a member of the IRA. Or, when written by Claremont, has leprechauns, Disneyland castles, and people referring to “Lawyer Flaherty” as if (a) people in Ireland called solicitors lawyers and (b) – more weirdly – used people’s job descriptions as titles . “I was talking to Accountant Sullivan the other day, and he was telling me about what he heard from Works-In-IT Johnson….”

    ****I’d really forgotten just how right-wing comics were in the ’80s.

    1. [Spoilers for 363 and 371-372]

      I realized that I forgot about 363 (the contractually obligated Secret Wars II crossover) and 371-372 (the Judge Dredd pseudocrossover). But I don’t think that they really affect my argument significantly.

      Although I would, thinking about it, say that 371-2, not the X-Factor crossover, is when Thor starts to reconnect with the superhero genre (especially in the idea of him having put a stereotypical gangster in prison in his past), and the contrast with the non-superhero “Justice Peace” underlines that reconnection. So I’d modify my argument to that extent.

    2. Awesome points – between this and our earlier episodes’ comments, I’m really enjoying your analysis of Simonson’s run! As someone whose Thor knowledge is definitely incomplete (I’ve mostly read the Simonson, Oeming, Straczynski, Fraction, and Aaron runs, plus Gillen and then Immonen’s Journey Into Mystery), it’s especially cool to hear about how this run differs thematically and structurally from what came before and from its superhero-book contemporaries.

      And you’re totally right about the Manchester Gods arc – I’d forgotten about that!

      1. Thank you for your kind words.

        Since writing all that, I binged the rest of Simonson’s run so…

        [Spoilers up to 382]

        …as you might imagine, I think it’s really interesting that at the end Jormungand (Simonson/Norse myth) poses as Fin Fang Foom (Kirby/Marvel universe) and then Thor poses as the quintessentially Kirby Destroyer to resolve the entire final plot of the whole run. And Simonson really plays up how the Destroyer doesn’t fit with his more mythic, more fantasy Asgard, with references to the likes of “subnuclear blasts” and (a phrase I have to work into conversation more often) “the dread disintegrator beam.”

      1. Assuming that very nice question was meant for me (and I’ll be very red-faced if it’s not): just in comment threads and that sort of thing. I’ve thought about starting a blog, because… I don’t know, I miss 2003?

  2. Dear Miles,

    Have you read any New God’s stuff? It’s my favorite DC property and, if you didn’t know, is a stealth Thor sequel. It’s set in the fourth world after the war of the God’s ended the third world. The nurse sagas were also referred to as bring the third wold. It also has my single favorite comics run, which is the Orion 25 issue series by Walter Simonson. I have always considered it a thematic sequel to his Thor run.

  3. I know it’s kinda wrong of me, but when you described Thor as being like a berserker in his desperation to rescue Melodi/Lorelei, all I could think was “his love for her is like a truck”.

    1. It’s definitely wrong of me that that makes me think of Drakengard (a VERY dark and disturbing Hack and Slash where practically every character is a reprehensible human being) which has “A love that Crushes like a Mace”

  4. It may seem a churlish question, but why is there a casket of ancient winters? The economic thing would have been to have Ymir fill this role as he did in Avengers #61. My speculation is that a solo Surtur is more dramatic than one who has an equal partner, but if anyone knows something Simonson’s said on this, it’d be good to know.
    Also, we have the Norns and a Norn Queen, but no real connection? This could be a place where the faultlines between Kirbygard and Simongard… however Balder’s version of ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ is fantastic and brings home the metaphor of interconnectedness in life’s rich tapestry.
    Thanks again for this fun and thought provoking (look at all these thoughts you’ve provoked!) podcast.

  5. I have to admit, I was a little bothered by the blending of Dark Elves and Fairies since I was fascinated by Captain Britain (particularly more modern stuff) with Otherworld and Celtic mythology. Don’t get me wrong, the Dark Elves themselves were great and I loved the way they worked. I just wished they didn’t try to call them faeries.

    1. That’s a really interesting point. I suppose I kind of like it, because it leavens the Norse myth stuff with a different kind of fantasy, while still maintaining the fantasy tone. But you’re absolutely right that it conflates two things to a significant extent. Could we take it as a retcon that the two are the same, or closely related, in the Marvel universe?

      Some of this may not be utterly un-Scandinavian. One thing that a quick bit of, er, looking on Wikipedia suggests is that when Malekith seduces Willis (the father), he’s very similar to a Norwegian folkloric creature called the huldra. (Thematically, this also connects with Lorelei’s ancestry as a Siren-esque figure who lures men to their deaths.)

      1. I think they were retconned. Certainly, Marvel Wikia says the location of this issue was Svartalfheim, not the Faerie-related name used here. I just don’t like duplicating the mythology. Full disclosure, I dislike the Eternals for the same reason.

        I think the Celtic myths are just so cool (which is why I loved it even as I regretted it), I just want it to be explored on its own, same as the Greek myths are (and Wakanda is exploring right now with traditional African religion, including Egyptian gods).

        1. Agreed about the desirability of more Celtic stuff. It’s a bit of a shame that Marvel wasted Cuchulain on a context in which no-one will ever read about him again. And, from the perspective of the original epic, a hideously inappropriate character design. They couldn’t see the appeal of a teenaged killing machine?

          About the Eternals: didn’t they come up with some kludgy/ridiculous explanation how they could coexist with the “real” Greek myths? I have never read those stories, which I believe were in Thor. Probably I should check them out.

          But, yes, given how marginal the Eternals have proved to be, there was no reason not to stick with Kirby’s original intention that they should be separate from the Marvel universe. Nothing in particular has been gained by integrating them.

          1. The Eternals coexisting is pretty straight forward – “they just do, stop thinking about it.” At least, that’s my takeaway from reading Roy Thomas’s Thor.

            I think Cuchulain can be brought back. I saw that he was used before, but I think he was somewhere else in the multiverse. The 616 Cuchulain is fair game.

          2. Ah, Cuchulain. For people who can look past Marvel, Patrick Brown has done a great version of ‘a teenaged killing machine’ in his ‘Cattle Raid of Cooley’, which generously is still available at paddy brown.co.UK. You can also buy it in print from him. It’s closer to an Eddie Campbell approach to myth than either a Simonson or a Kirby take. On the subject, everytime Miles talks about prog metal concept albums, I think of Horslips album The Tain, it’s Irish music meets 70s rock for a concept album about … the Cattle Raid of Cooley! Try ‘Dearg Doom’ it’s on that youtube.

  6. I noticed during the bit with Baldur and the Norns that Simonson at his trippiest looks a lot like Sandman at its most realistic. Is this just because it approaches Marvel house style, or are you aware of any influences or shared talent there?

    1. There are a lot of artists that have worked on Sandman, in a considerable range of styles. Who were you referring to?

  7. Technically, in Norse myth the Svartalfar (dark elves) are what we would call dwarves. They lived in the depths of Svartalfheim (aka Nidavellir). The alfar (elves) of Alfheim are your typical LotR-style elves.

    Tall, thin, dark-skinned elves seen to be a pretty modern invention, but you could probably ask different Norsemen about it and get different answers. The Eddas also reference dvergar (literally “dwarves”) and dokkalfar (“dark elves”), which may or may not be the same creatures depending on who’s telling the story.
    (Norse distinguishes between “svart”, dark-colored, and “dokk”, the lack of light.)

    And yes, “-heim” means “home” in Norse.

    1. Interesting stuff!

      I spent about a decade playing in a Norse-themed D&D game, and our storyteller thought long and hard about how to handle the dark elf / dwarf connection and which conception of the Nine Realms to use. He ended up having dark elves and dwarves be separate races who both inhabited the single Realm of Svartalfheim, since both individual races are so integral to the game. Since just having one dark Realm was what I was used to, it’s always strange to me that Marvel decided to have Svartalfheim and Nidavellir be distinct.

      1. It feels strange to me, too, having recently read Neil Gaiman’s book on norse mythology where he used the terms interchangeably.

        I also have to keep resetting my brain about which version of events we’re using. That’s not hard when they take place in modern New York, but I almost started yelling at the book when Odin blithely ordered up a second Mjollnir. Then they mentioned Uru metal and I went, “Oh, yeah, right.”

        1. I think the creation of Stormbreaker would have cheapened the rarity of Uru metal for me further if I hadn’t already heard Jay Edidin bring up how often rare metals are conveniently available in the X-Plain the X-Men podcast. Especially since I read Jason Aaron’s “The Secret Origin of Mjolnir” shortly before this podcast started. In the positive column for Uru proliferation, Storm nearly had one of these thunder god hammers and “Ororo’s Uru” would have been fun to say if she kept it.

  8. One more note — Wyrd is not that individual’s name. “Wyrd” is a synonym for “Fate” or “Norn”. He’s simply addressing her by her title.

    Similarly, in the previous episode, you’d noted a valkyrie named Valkyrie, but that’s incorrect.
    “‘Tis Cloud-Rider! The proud steed of the warrior valkyrie, Shield Bearer herself!”
    It’s less clear in all-caps text, but the valkyrie’s name is actually Shield Bearer, or as she appears in the Poetic Edda, Randgrithr.

    1. True – Skuld, Urd, and Verdandi are the individual Norns, at least in Marvel’s version of mythology.

      In the latter case, though, I was referring to the Marvel character and frequent Defenders member Brunnhilde, who generally goes by Valkyrie as her superhero name – see http://marvel.wikia.com/wiki/Brunnhilde_(Earth-616). She’s a great character, but every time I see her I’m amused – she’s like a police officer named Police Officer! You’re likely correct that the line in question wasn’t referring to her, though.

      1. I see, I see! (Because OF COURSE it’s the famous valkyrie from Wagner. I can’t speak for pre-Simonson Thor, but I’m glad Simonson dug deeper than the pop culture icons of Norse myth.)

        As far as Norns go, I’ve never seen any names other than Urd, Skuld, and Verdandi, except insofar as the spellings are kind of loosey-goosey.

        1. Pre-Simonson Thor had Thor be Wagner’s Siegfried. Pretty much directly translated from opera stage to comic page, if I remember correctly. (I was a child when I read the issue in question.)

          I think Simonson intends a reference to that previous story in “Sigurd”* Jarlson.

          *Although, as I strongly suspect you know, while Sigurd is the equivalent of Siegfried, the name Sigurd isn’t actually what the name Siegfried would be in Old Norse.

        2. Oops. Apologies about the triple post. My computer was being weird, and I thought that the first two failed to appear.

      2. Yeah. It felt sort of “Hey, you!” to me too. Then I always remember The Captain.. is he even a real captain? O.o

  9. Listening to the episode, I was struck by something.

    Roger, a veteran of at least one war, enters the scene with a cryptic message from a family member named Eric who he’s had an uncertain relationship with. Dodging pursuit from an uncertain and (at the time) unknown foe, he manages to get into a car chase and a pistol duel with the Wild Hunt, before incapacitating its the Master of the Hunt, who rides a super creepy steed.

    Later on in the issue, he is ceremonially blinded before he regains his sight in a feat of resilience. (Not to mention that a major feature of his seems to be bringing a firearm into a conflict normally associated with more medieval weapons.)

    I can’t help but wonder if aspects of Roger here are intended to be an allusion to Corwin of Amber, written, of course…

    …by *Roger* Zelazny.


    1. I’d never thought of that – but knowing Simonson’s style and interests, it wouldn’t surprise me at all if he was influenced by Zelazny and Amber. Into my personal canon that goes!

    2. Cool theory. One of the things that led me to think Neil Gaiman must be charming and Zelazny must be pretty relaxed was that Zelazny wrote the introduction to the first Sandman collection… a story which had a plot Zelazny had used several times in his novels. Trapped and reduced superbeing escapes, gets his stuff back and gets vengeance.

  10. So, on the subject of the Norns, they’re an interesting lot. Mythology more or less agrees to disagree on whether there are JUST the three Norn sisters, whether there are sisters for everyone, or there are Norn for everyone and above them sit the Trio.

    Also Skuld is mentioned as a Valkyrie in a few texts as well as a Norn.

    (In a tangent, MCU’s repeated insistence that magic is just sufficiently advanced science reminds me of the Oh My Goddess (Which if you aren’t familiar with it is a long running romantic comedy about a guy that makes a sarcastic wish for a goddess to be his girlfiend, gets Verdandi/ Belldandy in the deal, and her sisters Urd and Skuld come to live with them and they deal with mundane and mythological wackiness) trope that magic is reality level programming language, and now I want to see MCU Thor and Dr. Strange cross over with that series. It would be silly and fun.)

    1. It might fit the structure better if, rather than Doctor Strange, you also had Loki pulled along with Thor to live with Angela and her Midgard partner for mundane and mythological wackiness. You could also get away from the Oh My Goddess structure and just have Doctor Strange be the guy who starts hanging out at Thor’s apartment with Darryl Jacobson from those Team Thor videos.

  11. Thank you Miles!
    The Bombastic Crack-a-Dooms is now the name of my all male, 4 part, a cappella do-woo group.

    (you 2 are awesome together. Keep up the outstanding work.)

  12. I will begin work on an epic prog metal song about Balder. My initial beginnings of chorus work leaves me with thus:

    Balder the Brave // teach us how we ought to behave
    Balder the Wise // what resides in your deep eyes
    Balder the Brave // the whole universe you might save
    Balder the Wise // no one wants to see your demise!

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