Bringing The Hammer Down Again
♦ Walter Simonson is a comics creator with a career than spans over five decades. With a CV that includes The Mighty Thor and Fantastic Four at Marvel and Manhunter, Elric and Orion at DC, in recent years he has focused on his creator-owned Norse epic Ragnarok at IDW. Portsmouth Comic Con starts this Saturday 5 May, and Simonson is one of the show’s special guests so we thought we would represent Tripwire’s editor-in-chief JOEL MEADOWS chatting to Simonson about the second story arc and what we might expect in the third series of Ragnarok…
TW: Did it get a little bit easier because you were more familiar with the characters when you worked on the second series than you were with when you created the first Ragnarok story arc?
WS: I think the exploratory problems were different. I understand the characters and the supporting cast Drifn and Regn because I had introduced them in the first series. I knew that stuff so characterwise it was easier to do and I still had a lot of stuff just to figure out. I had the idea of the meeting of the hammer and the sword as the climax for that particular series. So I had been working towards that for a while to get there. So that part I had figured out. But a lot of the intermediate stuff to try to get them there was stuff I had to work on. This is true of many of my plots in general, not just on Ragnarok, where I’ll have a goal in mind. I’ll figure out where I want to go so at least I know where the journey is supposed to end in a sense. However I like to leave myself open for improvisation as I go along because I feel that it keeps the stories alive that in a way that if I try and plot out everything it might not happen. The story in that sequence where Thor finds that village with all the little hammers was really something that came completely out of the blue. I hadn’t thought about it but I was rummaging around the web one day and I found this fabulous little video, 2 minute video of a location, one of the Baltic states. I am going to say Lithuania but I hope I am not wrong about that, where they have a couple of hills that are covered in crosses. Pilgrims go and leave crucifixes. And the camera was just moving through them and there were thousands of them, little ones and big ones. They had some kind of eerie music and it was really quite spooky and beautiful and strange and unsettling. And that’s where the idea of a village with all these little hammers came from. So I do try to think about stuff in advance but I also want to allow myself to introduce new ideas as I go along.
TW: So Thor in Ragnarok is obviously very different to the Thor from the mighty Thor. He’s a much darker, much more mythical character. How close is he to the depictions of him in Norse mythology?
WS: I sort of feel that the Thor in mythology is seen as the greatest warrior among the gods especially when he has the hammer but one has the impression, he’s not always the sharpest tool in the shed. But he’s quite a fighter. Odin is sharper. There is a poem in the Elder Edda when he is heading home and he comes to a river he has to cross and there’s a ferryman on the other side. And he gestures to the ferryman to pick him up. And the ferryman doesn’t. He insults him. And the poem is basically insults back and forth. I think it’s called flyting, which is Viking trash talk. And the old guy who’s the ferryman gives him a hard time and in the end he doesn’t pick Thor up. He laughs at him and presumably Thor has to go some other way around to get to a ford to get across. It turns out that the ferryman was in fact Odin who was giving Thor a hard time but Thor hadn’t figured it out. So I think the Thor in my book is probably a little sharper than the Thor that’s in the Norse myths. But no better a warrior. Thor in the Norse myths is quite a warrior and the chief defender of the gods. So you could say that I’ve smartened him up a little bit for my stories. But I am not trying to do a religious tract, I am just using the poetry especially and some of the writing as the basis for the character. But then I am telling a lot of other stories so I kind of go off in another direction here and there.
TW: I guess it has a Western feel of sorts to it and I suppose that is inevitable because it’s a revenge epic?
WS: It’s an old story, and a story that a lot of different writers have told. I don’t know what my first introduction to it would have been but that was probably the Demon Princes stories that Jack Vance wrote. There were five novels in the series, it was science fiction, and basically it was a story about a guy whose family were slaughtered. There were five demon princes of different races, different cultures and different backgrounds. But they united at this one time, so they were all very wealthy creatures. They destroyed this entire village. I don’t remember exactly the reasons for all that stuff as I read it about a million years ago. But the boy grew up and essentially became a revenge machine and sought out each of the demon princes each of whom was very well protected, seeking his revenge on a different one in each book. The princes were well known and guarded quite carefully. It was interesting at the end because at the end of the last one, it seemed almost anti climactic. I think it probably felt that way for the character too where once he’d accomplished all of his goals, then it was like ‘So what do I do now?’ It was just an odd ending. I am not sure it was as carthartic as it needed to be but maybe that was probably more the way it would be in real life. But it was an interesting revenge epic. There have been a lot of them. Lone Wolf and Cub is one of them too. So this is a story that many, many people have told and I am just one in a long line and not necessarily the best.
TW: But you have made him an isolated figure again at the end of the second story because he was accompanied by the dark elf and the daughter. Now the dark elf is gone and the daughter is in the other village. So you have set him up as a lone avenging figure again for the third series presumably?
WS: He is although I am still working this out. I’ve actually got the plot for the third series pretty well done. I still have to work on the last one to completely hammer it out but it’s pretty well there and what I have to do is mostly more choreography rather than trying to decide what to do with the characters. But he will have a companion in the third volume because Ratatosk will be coming with him. I find Ratatosk really funny because in the myth he’s the squirrel who runs up and down the world tree. At the top of the tree there’s a great eagle and at the bottom of the tree there’s a great serpent. And they trash talk with each other in the Viking myths and Ratatosk runs up and down and carries these insulting messages back and forth from the eagle to the serpent. And I’m not entirely sure what that’s about except it’s really funny. So I have tried to make Ratatosk kind of a smart ass in the storyline so far and it makes him a lot of fun to write. He’s also very smart and he’s been around a long time so he knows a great deal. And he knows a great deal about what’s left of the nine worlds, the dustlands that Thor so far does not. Thor was not present for all this stuff. He was non compos mentos as it were at the time. So Ratatosk is an information provider because I basically needed one. He can also be a foil for Thor although in a sense Thor is more his foil. But I was originally trying to figure out whether or not to take him along with Thor. The next arc is the breaking of Helheim where he finally goes up against one of the great enemies. In the stories and the myths, Hel herself was not present at Ragnarok or at least there was no mention of her. The poems aren’t like comics where you have a lot of continuity that you have to stick with. And so Hel rules the realm of the dead and it’s there that the great ship is built that will carry the dead and the enemies of the gods to the battle plain where the gods and the enemies will fight. So she was responsible for essentially allowing this great vessel that will carry the killers of the gods out. But she was not there herself. And so I’ve developed the reason as to why she wasn’t there. In a sense in this post-Ragnarok dustlands that I have invented, I explore what the other great enemies like Surtur and Jormungand have thought about this and the consequences of it before Thor goes down into Hell and tries to find her. And that will have an impact on what he actually finds when he gets down into Hell. Without being specific at all I am modeling Hell after Dante’s Inferno. I don’t have circles of Hell, but it is going to be a series of locations descending where you find the sinners. The Viking Hell wasn’t that sort of place. But I do like the idea of the great valley or the great depth you have to descend further and further and at the very bottom you find the core of Hell itself.
TW: But going back to your work on the Mighty Thor, in a perverse way Hela was actually quite an attractive character?
WS: They didn’t do the half living half dead figure there.
TW: Are we going to have zombie Hel in Ragnarok?
WS: Oh sure. It’s a more traditional Hela or Hel I should say. In Norse myths generally she’s referred to as Hel which is the same name as the ninth world which is referred to as Hel as well.
TW: Isn’t it a similar principle as Hades in Greek mythology? Hades is the place and also the man who rules the place
WS: Possibly and so to avoid potential confusion, I am using a lesser used name for Hell which is Helheim. It has been used and it is the vein of other names like Jotunheim too. I think Heim means home in old Norse and so I’m using that in the comic as a way of separating Hel herself out from the realm she rules. And I used Hell because I don’t want to be any closer to the Marvel stuff than I have to be.
TW: So without giving anything away, are we going to see other Norse gods in the third series of Ragnarok?
WS: In a way we will but I don’t want to explain how that’s going to work. In the first issue of the new series , we are going to encounter something of that nature. But that’s all I want to say.
TW: So you have started prep work on the new series?
WS: Yes I have. This time because of the way that it has been going, this time I wanted to essentially plot all six issues before I began doing any drawing. The plot is virtually done. I know what I want to do with the climax but there are different ways to elucidate what’s happening. And I am trying to work that out. I’ve gone through about two or three different configurations with the same result but a different dance for each one. But I have a dance now that I am happy with so I just have to sit down and write it so it’s more thorough and more complete. Normally it only takes a couple of days but at the moment it’s the run-up to San Diego Comic Con and I have drawn a beer label which will be launched at the show. So I am a bit busier than usual.
Here’s a few pages from Ragnarok Vol.Two showing off Simonson’s pencils
Ragnarok Vol.Two is out now from IDW Publishing. Ragnarok Volume Three is currently unscheduled.
Here’s our review of Ragnarok Vol. Two: The Lord Of The Dead
And here’s the Portsmouth Comic Con website for further information on the show