To Top

A Conversation with Walt Simonson, Part Two

Longbox Theory

The following is the conclusion of our interview with legendary comic book creator, Walt Simonson:

wsthorWhere do you place Ragnarök in your overall body of work? Is there any personal thematic connection to your earlier work on the Marvel version of the character?
The through-line would be my interest in mythology.
My parents had this book on Norse Mythology, an adult book, and I loved those myths from an early age and I’ve enjoyed playing in those mythological places I’ve done.
I mean, Marvel’s Thor is more contained, in that even though you’re in a giant universe—you’re inside the “Marvel Universe,” you aren’t going to break out of it to do certain things. I mean, I wasn’t going to bump off Thor! When the late Mark Gruenwald, who was my editor, offered me the book, I’d written maybe ten stories! I was just a brand new writer in comics, but he and I had talked—I had come up with a story when I was a Marvel reader in the sixties, and Thor was my favorite Marvel comic. I’d read The Lord of the Rings around the same time, and being a fan of the norse myths, I just thought it was awesome that Thor was in a comic—so I came up with this idea for a big story, which eventually became the “Surtur Saga.”

I’d wanted to tell a story of the origin of the Odinsword—that it was originally Surtur’s. Jack [Kirby] had done this awesome spread where it showed the Odinsword and right near by it was this eternal flame, and I was connecting them to give an explanation for them. In my original story, it was more like the connection between Sauron and the ring, where the sword wasn’t just Surtur’s, it was a piece of him. So Surtur would’ve been building up a magic spell for centuries if not longer, and finally when he tapped that spell—like a supersaturated solution, “bam” it all crystalized, and the sword would wink out of existence on Asgard and “crack” it’d be in his hand but it wouldn’t be aflame. So he’d have to go back to Asgard to light it in that flame. And it’d be where if he had the sword, it’d be bad, but if he managed to light it, it was game over.
So fourteen years later, when Gruenwald gave me the book to do, it was with carte blanche, the book wasn’t selling well, so I could do what I wanted to do. I could kill Thor off and give someone else the hammer.
I didn’t do that, I’m a conservative guy in some ways as far as story-telling, so I kept Thor but I invented Beta Ray Bill. I really wanted a story that would feel like no one had read it before. No one had picked up the hammer before—actually, Loki had once, cuz Jack and Stan had kind of forgotten what they were doing (laughs) and they had him get some extra juice from the Norn Queen and that meant he could pick up the hammer, and I thought, “No you can’t! That’s just a lie!” (laughs) “Lies!” But I was able to use that idea.
I’ve always loved mythology in general, but the Norse in particular, maybe because everybody dies at the end in this fabulous, astounding way—and the Norse gods were more vulnerable in that they weren’t immortal, they had to eat the apples etc. so they more interesting. And I wanted to play there. I do like myths. In a way, in Ragnarök maybe, I’m certainly inspired also by the work Jack [Kirby] did, and the work of all the guys who did the comics I’ve loved, but I’m not inside someone else’s universe anymore. I have to create as I go along, which is difficult in the beginning, but the more I do, the less hard it gets. The world I’m creating gets more complicated but the work I’m doing to create it gets simpler. I have more ideas of what there is in the dark corners of this world of the dusklands, and what it looks like, and I can find more stories that I can tell there… but whether it’s thematically or stylistically connected?
I read this thing someone wrote about the first couple of issues, that it was like an ‘old man superhero comic book’! (laughs) And I thought, “Ok, I’ll cop to that!” (laughs) Yeah- this guy is trying to go around and help people—not the way Superman or Batman, or Thor in Marvel is doing it or would do it, but he is trying to save the people he can save and destroy the enemies he comes against. And maybe sometimes those purposes get mixed up a bit, and they come across as more brutal because this is a more violent or brutal world in this story. So I’m willing to do things in this book that I wouldn’t have been willing to do in those other books I did.

What are your plans, if any, for any other work that isn’t related to Ragnarök?
Yes, I’m setting Ragnarök aside for a bit for a script I just received as part of the Kamandi Challenge DC is doing to commemorate Jack Kirby’s 100th. I’ve got about two months, because it’s meant to be out on-sale right before Thanksgiving—so I’ve really got to put the hammer down on that! (laughs) I’m gathering some reference now, from other stuff—and I have the IDW Artist editions of Kamandi I’ll be looking at well, as well as a couple of the omnibuses I have.
I get asked to do other stuff occasionally—I get asked to do a lot of covers, and charity pieces, I have a couple of charity pieces I have to finish.
wshercBut for example, Titan Books is putting out a miniseries of Hercules, I’m gonna guess it was a series of graphic novels they were doing over in France several years ago, they were doing the twelve labors of Hercules. The artist’s name was Looky—the artwork is fabulous, completely fabulous—unbelievable! I would never have hired me to do the cover! (laughs) But they felt they had to. (laughs) And I was a little stressed about doing it because the stuff inside is so good—but it turned out well. Laura Martin did a great job coloring it. They were doing a science fiction version of the twelve labors, so I did the Nemean Lion—but it’s a robot, lots of sci-fi trappings and stuff I like, so he’s got blades and a desert eagle. That was a lot of fun to do—it was interesting to do, it was just two figures on a white background, and Laura did a really nice job, and it worked out really well. So stuff like that, that appeals to me, I will take occasionally; but right now I’ve got so much to do, that I have to turn everything else down.
And besides all the ongoing Ragnarök stuff, I do have a couple of other Star Slammers stories I’d like to go back and revisit. After I did the last miniseries, what—like twenty years ago now?—I did have another story in mind, and actually with Old Rojas, my hero from that storyline…and if I live long enough (laughs) I hope to get to some of that stuff, I just don’t know how it’s gonna all work out (laughs).

A few years ago I did something for, I think it was for the Indestructible Hulk, which Mark Waid was writing…Mark called me up, he thought of me because they were thinking of taking the Hulk to Jotunheim so he thought of me. And I thought, “that’d be kind of fun,” so I suggested, “well, maybe we could stick Thor in there,” and then I said, “well, maybe we could use the old Thor, before he got his new outfit,” and then I said, “well, maybe one issue seems kind of short—so maybe we could do three issues!” (laughs) And Mark was very accommodating..and I was an idiot, cause I had plenty of other stuff to do (laughs). But it was fun.
So I will do stuff like that occasionally, but now with Ragnarök I’m kind of booked up for the foreseeable future. Well, I’ll do the Kamandi thing, and a cover here and there—like I did a couple of covers for Archie Comics which were a really neat change of pace.

How do you feel you’ve evolved as a penciller or artist?
I do see some development, I do take more time on the art. In some ways, at the same time, if you take a page

Breaking into the bleed to capture the impact

Breaking out of the panels into the bleed to capture the impact in Star Slammers

from my old Thors and you put it against a page from Ragnarök, I’m going in the wrong direction as an artist. (laughs) As an artist—I mean, mostly artists, as they get older, they get simpler—they need fewer lines, they don’t get more complicated. (laughs) And I don’t know why. So I’m really going to have to solve that problem—I’m gonna have to become like Alex Toth, and just put down like five lines instead of fifty and have them come out just right—but I don’t have the courage for that yet! (laughs)
But mostly, what I’m trying to do, I’m trying to do good drawings—drawings that in their own way are attractive. I don’t necessarily mean—I’m not a “good girl” artist or something—but I also want the art, I want the ink drawing to be alive on the page. And that’s always been true—it was true in the old days—I try to get at that in some way.

I’ve worked different ways. Originally, I used to pencil into the page, then I was doing layouts on layout size paper, and then eventually I settled on where I do thumbnails now: One page of thumbnails for a piece of copier paper—I used to say typewriter paper, but now no one would know what I meant by that. (laughs) 8 and half by 11 paper, and I do one page of thumbnails, and it’s very loose, but that’s my story-telling; I’ll break it down that way, I’ll do six or seven panels on that page, with the little squiggles inside that give me the composition and the story.
I blow it up on a xerox machine to a 135% and that is about what comic books are, and then I will trace off of the xerox onto my art board on the lightbox. And then, I will rule off the panels—you know with the triangle and t-square, rule everything out, and then I will just draw the very simple little outlines.
And somewhere there, usually in the thumbnails, I write my script from that, so I can change stuff if I want to. But what it means is, I’ll get the pencils down, but when I tighten the pencils up, it gives me the courage to be very free with the inks—where I do not ink every drawing just the way I pencilled it.
I use a drafting pencil, I’ve used all sorts of pencils, but that lays down a very flat line—so the liveliness of the line comes from the final art, so then the life comes out with the ink.

Because what I would like to happen, is create art work that I like personally—art where, as the viewer, you see the double aspect of a flat piece of art. By that I mean, for example, several years ago we went to a Van Gogh show, and it was unbelievable. There were a couple of pencil drawings, and they were amazing, but as you stepped up to them, really close, they would just dissolve into these lines. But when you stepped back, they would just snap into focus! And that’s the tension I love– the work I respond to the most, is the work where you’re aware of both the surface of the painting and yet the depth within the painting as you see the picture.
In a sense, that’s one of the things I’m trying for. If I just trace it off, I’m afraid I’ll lose the life of what I’m doing…

From what I can see, Walt Simonson has nothing to fear in that regard. I strongly encourage you to pick up Ragnarök and enjoy this masterwork. And here’s hoping he keeps spinning those great sagas for many years to come!

More in Columns