IDW Publishing recently released the collected second story arc of Walt Simonson’s Ragnarök, a great yarn by the master storyteller which unfortunately might be flying under the radar of many readers, lost in the crowded stacks of monthly titles published by the big two.
Although a retrospective of his work would reveal a tremendous diversity and range, Simonson is best known for his definitive run on Marvel’s Thor, which most readers cite as seminal and the worthiest (pun intended) successor to the classic Lee-Kirby work. The amalgamation of his virtuoso, distinctive line as an artist, as well as the care with which he built up his vast plots and themes, introduced new characters and reinvigorated existing ones as a writer, made the book a “must read.”
Simonson forms part of a generation of artists who began as pencilers but evolved into writer/artists and would definitively shape Marvel Comics in particular and lay much of the groundwork for independent creator-owned characters and titles moving forward. Though the likes of Simonson, Jim Starlin, Frank Miller, John Byrne, Howard Chaykin, Bob Layton, Bernie Wrightson et al were always aware of the legacy they inherited from, and therefore paid homage to, their golden and silver age predecessors, they worked for the most part within the confines of the major publishers and their established characters. The work these aforementioned creators generated garnered them a great deal of editorial freedom though, which would eventually plant the seeds of a certain level of rebelliousness in the generation which followed them: When the founders of Image struck out on their own, it was in some ways a reflection and outgrowth of a process Simonson and his peers had initiated.
Now Simonson has returned to the character he is most associated with, Thor—but with a creator-owned version that is unlike anything he has done before.
The word Ragnarök refers to the fall of the Norse Gods and the destruction of the Nine Worlds as it was foretold in the myths of the Scandinavian and Germanic people. Simonson’s story is set in a world were this prophesied apocalypse did not go down as it was meant to, because the great enemies conspired to keep Thor from the climactic battle, therefore tipping the scales in their favor.
As the first arc began, readers were introduced to a world of perpetual dusk, populated by fearful, subjugated humans, wandering destructive gangs of walking dead men, trolls and dwarves just getting by, and terrifying fiefdoms of giants and fire demons under the control of the great enemies… and one awakened hero. However, our protagonist isn’t the mighty Thor of myths or previous comics iterations; this is a terrifying, missing his lower jaw, hair gone white as a ghost, he’s just been awakened after centuries so he doesn’t quite know what’s going on but will still lose his temper and pound you into a stain, zombie-looking, Thor…
If that description doesn’t make you want to pick up the book, check your pulse.
The gorgeous pencils alone are worth the price of admission, but they are in service to a story that is consistently engaging and keeps moving forward with a propulsive, steady rhythm of alternating character and plot development. Though it is in some ways a prototypical picaresque traveling/quest story, the fact that this world is only vaguely familiar, for the most part alien to both the reader and the protagonist, also makes it a mystery. Simonson teases out the reveals a morsel at a time, just as the poets who once recited the original Eddas did, building up the tension and anticipation for us.
Once again, Walt Simonson has produced a “must read” book for us.
When I recently contacted him, Mr.Simonson was gracious enough to take the time to answer some questions about this current project as well as his career in general:
So you’ve recently wrapped up the second story arc of Ragnarök, “The Lord of the Dead” and had it collected in hardcover format. What can you tell us about where the story will be going next?
The third arc is called “The Breaking of Helheim.” In the world of my story, in the Dusklands, when the Nine Worlds collapsed, Helheim is sort of a vast pit—a gigantic area of sunken land. It isn’t like the Hell of Dante, although it is an unpleasant place—dank dark, rainy, crappy—it isn’t one of punishment. Hel [the mistress of Helheim, in Norse mythology she shares a name with her realm] is one of the Great Enemies in my stories because in her realm is the great ship Naglfar, made to carry the dead, the warriors, the bad guys to battle the gods in the final battle, so she clearly wasn’t on the gods’ side in that final battle—she was probably still pissed at Odin for throwing her into Hell in the first place.
But in the poetry, the original Edda, Hel isn’t mentioned again—so I’m going to use that for my story—not that I want to give too much away (laughs). We could say that after the great battle, after the dust settled, Hel probably wasn’t on the best of terms with the other great enemies who had shown up and fought the gods. She was absent from the battle, at least as far as the poetry is concerned, so I can make use of that.
Looking at it as a six issue arc, the first issue is about Thor going back and discovering what’s left of the great battle plain—and in doing so he will access through his own magic, a series of visions, in which I’m going to give the back story for what already happened in Ragnarök in my storyline, in this world. And so when he leaves there he’ll have made a decision to find Helheim, find Hel, and find his brother Baldur—who in the myths of course, has already died. In fact, his death is the beginning of Ragnarök in the ancient myths. In those stories, the gods had sent a ship to retrieve him but ultimately failed, so presumably, he’s still down there. Thor would like to find out what happened to Hel, besides the fact that she built the ship for the enemies, and he’d like to find out what happened to his brother. That’s what the next story arc will deal with, it’s really his descent into Helheim, in search of Hel herself.
There are ways out of Helheim itself, and that’s also one of Thor’s concerns. In the original myths, he is sort of the god of ordinary men, their protector, so it’s a problem in this world where all these dead guys are walking around, Draugr, causing trouble—so another one of his purposes is to stem that flow—he wants to find out where they’re coming from and how to undo that, how to stop it. There’s a lot I want to bring in—a lot about other survivors and stuff like that, which we haven’t seen yet about this world—but I don’t want to give away any more, I don’t want to spoil any more—I’m done saying any more (laughs) so that’s all I’m gonna say.
Do you have an end-game in mind? A set plan as far as number of arcs, or actual end of the story?
In real life, if I were a younger man publishing a monthly comic, I’d be looking at this as a five-year comic, lets say—but that isn’t the case and I’m sort of taking my time. It’s going to take more than five years at this rate to get it done, to finish and publish it, but I’m not looking at cutting it short. As long as IDW is good to publish it—I mean one of these days they might say, “It’s a vanity project for Walt, we love having him working here but we’re not making money on this project and we have to cut it loose,” I’d totally get it – but I do have an ending in mind, I do know where the story is going, though not all of it is completely plotted out and I do have some stuff that is not directly Norse Mythology-related, so not every story and arc would necessarily be about one of the great enemies.
If I cut it short, that’s where I’d be heading—probably if I had an inspiration for that, it’d be like Lone Wolf and Cub, but also a series of books I read years ago and I’d forgotten about until recently after I was already putting Ragnarök together. This series of five novels by Jack Vance about the Demon Princes—five different beings of different races, who got together and destroyed some community somewhere and there was this one boy who survived and raised himself up to be the avenger of his community and his parents etc. so then each of the five books dealt with him going after one of these guys, who were all extremely well-protected etc.
I don’t remember much about them now—I read these in like the sixties, early seventies, other than being a little let-down at the end at the time, though looking back it was probably a more realistic ending—gee, this guy kills the last guy and he just sort of ran out of juice. It wasn’t as cathartic as I’d hoped at the end.
I can’t say how I’ll be able to work out that particular conundrum out in the end, how in my own story—though I have my own ideas that I’m working toward.(laughs) He’s going to encounter the great enemies as he goes along, but it won’t just be one arc will be the death of one great enemy. So for instance, you get other information—like how it’s dusky, because just as it says in the mythology, the sun and the moon have been devoured by wolves—but in my story, I kind of think if you eat the sun and the moon, it’s just not good for your digestion (laughs) so the idea is the wolves died and have fallen, collapsed into the nine worlds. Somewhere in the nine worlds are the sun and the moon glowing in these rotting carcasses—therefore it’s dusky there because there’s no time change.
But then I thought; that means that somewhere in the nine worlds, you’d be far enough away from the sun and moon that it’s dark, and these are the nightlands—and that’d be a great place for vampires. They’d never have to sleep and maybe they could venture out, with some kind of protective covering, into the dusklands, maybe with armor, I don’t know. But I do have some ideas for a Queen of the Nightlands and a Thor adventure there.
I’d have to invent or fudge some vampires or mythological creatures because there aren’t any straight up vampires in the existing mythology. But that’d be in possibly the fourth arc, but I have to get through the third arc before I think too much about that (laughs). Then he’d possibly go up against one of the great enemies, and I have an idea for that, which involves a bit of a more complicated dance, so I do have a lot of ideas to get to.
And I find that this happens with every book I write, where I’ll come up with an idea or something, or I’ll be inspired by something I see or hear about. And even though I like planning things, I always want to be open to serendipity, to things which might just show up. In the past, with Thor, FF, or Orion, with every run I had on all those books, I always had more ideas when I was done with them than I did when I started! I’ve already got reams of ideas for Ragnarök—I could do Ragnarök until I died—there’d be plenty of material left over, though I’d probably try to cut it shorter than that for my wife and my publisher’s sake. (laughs) They’re not all mythologically related and I’m still not sure how far away from the myths I’m going to get—but there are things I want to cover outside the original myths in this world. Other ideas and themes that might be worth exploring, I want to get to.
I do have an ending in mind. I would like to make it a complete unit—make it as long as I can where it’s still interesting.
Look for Part 2 of this interview next Monday, September 11th!