Episode 5: Surtwar, Part II

BEHOLD: Thor #352-354! Heroes and demons clash across Midgard! Odin and his sons stand against the destruction of the Nine Worlds themselves! And amid sorrow and rage arrives Death herself!

17 thoughts on “Episode 5: Surtwar, Part II”

  1. As you make clear this has to be one of the best plotted climaxes in superhero comics. There’s such control of the elements, but Simonson keeps it all vivid, this is a story he had been thinking about since he was a student, but it feels fresh. His displays of emotion, whether rage, despair, grief, fear for a loved one, all connect so well that it’s never a sterile display of technique.
    I really liked what you said about Volstagg. Looking at his wisdom and command when Bill seems like he’s losing it, makes me wonder how much of his buffoonish bluster is a pose. Is he deliberately setting himself up as a target for weaker men (like Fandral), so they can boost their egos in the face of despair, by being contemptuous of him? If he was as vain as his boasting suggests, the contempt of others would sting, but there’s no sign it ever bothering him. Compare that to say, Hercules, whose vanity leaves him prickly to any perceived slights. Fandral’s double-standard comments on Karnilla just cement the notion I have that Simonson has views on this warrior..

    Oh and I let the re-coloured version of these stories go back to the library, so I’m curious about the splash-page of Thor #352. It’s a gorgeous image, but in the comic and on Marvel Unlimited Surtur’s legs end halfway up his shins. I think Simonson’s intention was for him to be standing in a sea of flame, but the colourist, or the printing plant went another way. How was handled later?

    With Hela taking the stage, I took a look back at her early appearances to see what Simonson took and what he discarded from them. There are four Kirby/Lee appearances. Kirby creates a different costume each time. Simonson uses the costume from her second appearance in Thor #133 and her default look in the Marvel universe comes from her third appearance in Thor # 150. Apart from how she looks, her character is very different, she is originally dignified, open to argument and touched by courage and love. She’s in charge of the courageous getting to Valhalla. She’s not plotting to get more people dead. The closest she gets to this is in Thor #154 when she turns up to show Thor a short, magical promo vision about how great being dead would be, but this was very much a ‘no pressure, just think about it’ deal. It’s after Kirby leaves, in Thor # 186 onwards, under John Buscema and Stan, that Hela starts to scheme and plot peoples deaths. This seems the basis for the Simonson version and it may fit Norse mythology better for all I know. You’ve really led me to notice that women are not one of Simonson’s strengths as a writer, so it’s unfortunate he chose a version of a character, originally presented as awesome, that’s rather scheming and petty, who Thor will condescend to ultimately. She’s pretty much just a powerful supervillain in this take, who’ll try to kill you just so she hasn’t had a wasted trip… While I regret the loss of the grandeur Kirby invested the character with, knowing that Simonson’s road leads to Gallerbru means I’m happy enough to go that way. Also, because of your discussion of plot and Simonson, I can now see how really the rest of his time with Thor is driven by the conflict with Hela. I’m not just enjoying Simonson’s run more because of your show, I’m also getting clearer on aspects of my beloved Kirby/Lee run, too. Thanks!

    Marvel Unlimited has the Kirby/Lee ‘Tales of Asgard’ completely collected in six issues. The early stories are mostly one-offs and contain amazing under-used characters, such as ‘Niorda- normal size queen of the giants!’, but there are later more extended stories such as ‘The Hordes of Harokin!’ and many, many wonderful hats.

    1. I think Volstagg is one of the best examples in the Marvel Universe of a minor character developing past his initial conception* and becoming someone much more compelling.

      Having basically become accustomed to more recent depictions of Volstagg, it was a bit of a surprise to me to go back to the original Lee/Kirby material and see just what a thorough coward and braggart he originally was – even though I vaguely remembered that version from reading reprints of all that when I was a child. Somehow, I thought there would be hints of the later character in those early stories, but no: he really is useless, cowardly, and constantly boasting about how great he is.

      One interesting thing about original model Volstagg, though, is that he bears a marked resemblance (in behavior, if not in appearance) to Kirby’s later Funky Flashman. And, well…

      I would definitely second the Tales of Asgard recommendation. You can really feel Kirby trying to break free of superheroes and do something different.

      *Note: I’ve never gotten Falstaff-worship. Quite why so many people have fixed on this particular character in Shakespeare as such a marvelous creation escapes me.

    2. It’s interesting to read how different both Hela and Volstagg were in pre-Simonson Thor.

      It sounds like Hela’s was the more complete transformation: while we do see hints of nobility and compassion in her dealings with Skurge at the very end of this run, for the most part she’s defined by hunger for power and vengeance. I do enjoy that she’s more a straight-up villain than yet another female manipulator, though – it works, and if this is the Hela we see on the big screen later this year, I’m fine with that. Still, I’m definitely interested to read more of her prior portrayal.

      As for Volstagg, I agree that Simonson’s characterization seems less transformation and more expansion: maybe he’s come off like a blowhard and fool in the past, Simonson seems to be saying, but that’s just part of the persona he puts forth to help his buddies (and his Realm) out. Volstagg’s one of my favorite Asgardians, and his portrayal in this run is much of why.

  2. If memory serves Verity’s relationship with her parents was mostly average as far as being a child of divorced parents go. I mean there is only one Loki:AoA issue where they really come up but still. ^^;

  3. The “For Asgard! For Midgard! For Myself” panel is to The Mighty Thor what John 3:16 is to Christianity. It’s everything you need to know about the comic in six words and a perfect image.

    1. It’s a bit fanciful, but I think that panel and the overall sequence might be one of the seeds for the new, more morally complicated, Loki that’s emerged in the last decade. Obviously, Simonson’s overall characterization of Loki is basically the classic Lee/Kirby villain (although Simonson finds interesting things to do with him), but if one ignores that and just looks at the art, it’s so fun to see Loki beside Thor as a sort of ally that it creates the desire to see more of that.

      On another note about this section, it contains a somewhat surprising (to me, anyway) literary allusion. Odin’s words about a god being unable to die better “than facing fearful odds” echo “Horatius at the Bridge” from Macaulay’s Lays of Ancient Rome:

      And how can man die better,
      Than facing fearful odds
      For the ashes of his fathers
      And the temples of his gods.

      I’m struck by this, because I wouldn’t have thought that particular poem would be a familiar one in America. It might be an unconscious reminiscence on Simonson’s part, but I think it’s definitely too close to be accidental. And the fact that it’s followed by the panel in question, in which Thor and Loki fight on either side of Odin exactly as Lartius and Herminius fight on either side of Horatius in the poem (and the original Roman story on which it’s based), suggests that it may well be a consciously-intended reference.

      But I really liked our hosts’ observation that it mirrors Odin, Vili, and Ve in the earlier issue. It’s that kind of recurrence that makes all this feel like myth.

      1. Oh, I trace Loki’s transformation from here, as well. The big pivot point, though is Robert Rodi and Esad Ribic’s four part ‘Loki’ series from 2004, where a triumphant Loki sees how he’s trapped in a cycle of conflict and destruction with Thor. After some delay, that perspective seems to inform his story.

  4. Hey Miles,

    I hope you won’t mind looking ahead for a second, but I have what I feel is an important question. I have a bottle of mead that I’ve been saving for an important occasion. I feel like this episode would have been a good time to have used it, so I missed my chance. Given this, what story coming up would you say is the most mead-worthy?

    1. Without talking in too much detail about the plotlines ahead (30+ years old these comics may be, but apparently some folks are experiencing them for the first time along with this show!):

      Thor and Balder promise to have a drink for a fallen friend a bit ahead of where we are. When that drink finally happens (off-panel, but still) – that might be a good time to join them to toast that friend, and all heroes. I know I’ll be raising a glass.

  5. Having listened to the podcast, some vague scattered thoughts:

    – Since I was binging my way through these issues on Marvel Unlimited, it didn’t really register on me that Thor was absent from an entire issue until our hosts pointed it out on the podcast. That’s probably a big difference between reading it then, and having to wait for a month between installments, and now, when you just keep reading what seems like one continuous story.

    – The prominence of Reed Richards and the Human Torch in this seems very of its era. Late ’70s – ’80s comics often seem like they’re trying to hang on to that sense that the Fantastic Four are the center of the Marvel Universe at a time when the characters had really lost the unchallenged centrality that they’d had in the ’60s.

    (There’s a Claremont caption fairly early in his X-Men where he describes them as something like “The world’s premiere superhero team,” which nowadays would be reserved for the Avengers. And Byrne’s entire run on the FF seems to me to be saying “They are the most important people in the world. They are, they are, they *are*!” quite a lot of the time.)

    Obviously, it also reflects Simonson’s own interest in the characters – I intend to read through his FF run the moment the Wait, What? podcast gets that far.

    – Finally, Loki pointing out that Odin must still be alive (because Odin Force) is interesting to me, because it seems to foreshadow an eventual return of Odin that Simonson never writes himself and leaves for a future creative team. Maybe Balder turned out to be too interesting as king of Asgard? Or maybe he just wanted to leave the toy back in the box so that someone else could play with it if they wanted to?

    1. While I’ll admit I’ve read barely any Fantastic Four, I miss them being in the role you describe – the bedrock of the Marvel Universe, respected and widely-known by pretty much every character. Maybe it was the writers trying to make it so by saying, but for a young and funding-limited Miles, I totally believed that they were that important. It made my X- and Thor-centric corners of the MU seem more unique by contrast.

      1. I loved the Fantastic Four when I was a child, in the way that only a child can love his or her favorite superheroes. This was because of these things Marvel UK put out for a couple of years in the early ’80s called Marvel Pocket Books, which reprinted two issues of ’60s material each in half-size black-and-white things – and (since British comics are weeklies as a rule) came out *every week.* I mainlined Lee/Kirby FF at an impressionable age, discovering it pretty much as if I had been alive in the ’60s when it came out.

        But I think the characters were always doomed to drift away from the center. I think the FF worked best when the comic could be a creative explosion of new ideas, matching the characters’ identity as explorer-heroes – and that means that they worked best when the Marvel universe was young, open, without a whole trammeling history to hem them in.

        For obvious reasons, Fantastic Four stories tend to have a big ingredient of nostalgia and have since at least the ’80s. But arguably, nostalgia should be the antithesis of what an FF story should do.

        In contrast, the Avengers and X-Men, although very different from one another, share with one another that their own long histories are a big part of their appeal. So it’s not so surprising that, as the Marvel universe aged, they were more suited than the FF to seem “central.”

        1. Pedantic correction: the Pocket Books can’t have come out weekly, because they’d have burned through the material faster than they did. Must be my childhood memory betraying me.

    2. Reading the letters page of #357 there’s a reply which says ‘In panel 3, page 15 of Thor 352, if you inspect the Rainbow Bridge right in front of Father Odin carefully, you’ll see a small object that looks like two boxes on either side of a small circle. That’s the top of Thor’s helmet flanked by his cape as he lies stretched out on the bridge.’ Mr S enjoys his work.
      Also, that letters page refers to the influence of George Bridgman on Simonson. Given the quality of the answers, I wonder if Simonson did his own letters page. It might explain the number of very negative letters that saw print, certainly more than usual for a Marvel comic.

  6. Concerning Bill’s laconic comment in #354 that he had been involved in a ‘skirmish’ while Sif was away, I had a look at Rom #64 and #65. It was the climax of the Wraith War, there was another planet in the sky which caused extreme weather, volcanoes and global destruction. Forge finally uses the technology that cost Storm her powers to save the Earth and all the superguys fight the Wraiths. Bill is shown, but unfortunately he and Rom don’t get a moment, which is a shame as they’re both space guys, who got cyborgised to protect their people.
    Over the last 20 or so years these would surely have been line-wide events and not happened concurrently. While you mention the good use of continuity in The Surtur over the Marvel line, I don’t get the impression that the apocalyptic events of the Wraith War really play much outside Rom, which is one the ways continuity strains stories. I suspect Bill’s comment is an example of Simonson’s dry wit on the complications of a shared universe.

    1. It’s a tremendous shame that there is no real chance of any of that being reprinted. Rom is something that I found fragments of here and there as a child, but could never access in a coherent stream.

      But on the comparative in-their-own-continuity-ness of Comics Then vs. Comics Now, one small irony is that while Marvel comics no longer work that way, the MCU basically does.

  7. On the next episode: “But what do mortals know of the sorrows of the gods?” -Thor
    “Everyone is entitled to their own sorrow. Hearts are not comparable, nor metric, with no form of measure because all of it is irreplaceable.” -Monty Oum

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