At Breaking Point?
Legendary writer-artist Walter Simonson has spent the last three years creating his own Norse epic for IDW, Ragnarök. Its third volume, The Breaking Of Helheim, started in July and Tripwire’s editor-in-chief Joel Meadows spoke to him about it this summer…
Even before Ragnarök started at IDW back in 2016, Walter Simonson was no stranger to the Norse myths. Thanks to a very well-received run on Marvel’s Thor back in the 1980s, readers have known this is a subject close to his heart. 2019 sees a third Ragnarök series, which began in July, and he sets the scene for what we can expect when we chatted to him earlier this summer:
“The first issue is almost a standalone issue where it’s really Thor having a vision that actually allows me to draw the actual events of Ragnarok. These are pretty much the events in the myth except for Thor’s lack of participation.
So at the end of it the bad guys have won, the gods are dead and Thor having had this vision decides that he needs to go to Helheim which is the realm of the dead to do one thing and find out two things,” he explains, then draws a breath and continues to explain what is happening.
“One thing he wants to do is stop the dead, the draugar, from coming out into what’s left of the nine worlds into the Dusklands. He also wants to know what happened to Hel herself, Loki’s daughter who was a ruler of Helheim. In the mythic poetry it describes all of these events, but Hel herself is not really mentioned again after the beginning of Ragnarok. So we don’t know what happened to her or what her fate was. That gave me plenty of room to answer loads of questions. So he wants to find out what happened to her. After all, she was responsible for allowing the great ship Naglfar to be built which brought the dead, so many enemies of the gods, into the final battle. He also wants to find out what happened to his brother Baldur. Baldur’s death was engineered by Loki although it wasn’t actually Loki’s hand that killed him. And that’s really the beginning of the event of Ragnarok.”
Baldur has bad dreams, these are investigated but ultimately set aside. And then not long after that, he’s killed. So he’s not killed in battle which means he doesn’t get to go to Valhalla. So he goes down to Helheim and Hel herself is reluctant to give Baldur up. But this means he isn’t present in the final battle and Thor would like to find out what happened to his brother and he’d like to know what happened to Hel herself and he wants to stop the dead from coming into the Dusklands. So that’s really what the next five issues are about. Thor departs for Helheim at the end of the first issue of the new arc and then the next five issues are entering the different parts of Hel. I haven’t quite designed it like Dante’s hell. It is a giant vast pit, but I don’t have the circles of sinners and stuff like that. I may have been a little influenced by Dante because there’s a great pit there, and there’s a mystery or mysteries at the bottom of the pit which are not easily solved. The story is Thor’s journey into Helheim, into the realm of the dead,” Simonson explains.
He has drawn the ruler of Hell before, for Marvel, but the depiction in Ragnarok is pretty different to his work on that, he is keen to emphasise:“I had a story in the Marvel version where Hela herself, the Marvel version of Hel, had kidnapped a bunch of mortal souls and Thor went down. He took a bunch of the Einherjar, the warriors of Valhalla and some of the folks including Baldur into Hel itself to try and save the mortal souls. In the myths generally the goddess is referred to as Hel and the realm is also called Hel. So rather than keep that, in my comic I have called it Helheim which is used rarely but it is used as the name of the realm and Hel as the goddess of it. In the Marvel comics, they went with Hela as the goddess and Hel as the realm. So I’ve tried to separate this out a bit by renaming my character and the realm itself from what the Marvel version was.”
Visually, Simonson took his cue for Hel from the Norse myths mostly, he admits:”I drew her about as grim as I could make her, not quite armoured but elaborately costumed. In fact, in the myths she’s half alive and half dead and it’s not entirely clear which half is alive and which half is dead so there are different visual interpretations of that. With some of them, she’s divided in the middle horizontally so one half of her is live, usually the top half is alive while the bottom half is dead. In some versions, in fact in most versions, she’s split right down the middle symmetrically, vertically. So one half of her face is alive and one half of her face is dead and there are any number of visual interpretations of what that means. In the Marvel universe she was always good looking, a very tall woman when Jack drew her and all the subsequent appearances after that had minor variations in a green and black costume with these big spiky things sticking out of her cowl. Then in a story that I did, I did a bit where Thor grabs her cloak and it turns out her cloak was the thing that enables her to maintain a beautiful appearance all the way through. With it taken away from her, she is split down the middle, skull half on one half,” he explains to us.
Thor will be fighting the undead when he enters Helheim and the creator has drawn on myths and legends from a number of different sources to populate the god of Thunder’s threats this time around: ”There’s a whole mix. There’s a variety of creatures, not as many as in the Greek and Roman myths but there are a dozen or more various occupants of Helheim itself and I’m inventing a few. I’m borrowing from the paleontological history of Great Britain for some of my creatures. There’s a scene in the beginning of issue five where Thor is confronted by several giant presumably guardians of Helheim and what I did was I based those on very early reconstructions of a fossil carnivorous dinosaur from England. It was one of the first named fossils from England called Megalosaurus. There were early reproductions and restorations of it which were really goofy and really interesting and are nothing like they think it looks like with the restorations being done now. Last time I read up on that stuff it sounds like they still don’t have a lot of fossil evidence of the Megalosaurus. They have some but not really a complete skeleton. This may have changed if I was paying attention. Even in the old days, they really didn’t understand the comparative anatomy they were working with and they had these really preconceived ideas,” he says.
They always appealed to him, he admits: “I always thought the early restorations were great so I put several of those guys at the beginning of the Helway, which is the road that leads down into Helheim itself, or more properly it leads out of Helheim,” he explains.
Thor seems to be the only Norse god still standing but it is possible that his brother Loki might still be around. He is deliberately vague about his fate.
“The ideas down the road are not fixed in stone yet. I fix them as I tell the stories. In the myths Loki and Heimdall kill each other. They are opposite ends and antagonists in a way that we don’t really understand, we don’t have a lot of the Norse myths. There are some short versions and there are some myths that refer to other stories, clearly other elaborate stories and yet these are stories of which we know nothing. All we have are these allusions to them in the poetry. So when Heimdall and Loki go up against each other and kill each other we don’t really know quite why Loki and Heimdall pair off because mostly the gods pair off against either their opposite number or their great foe. So Thor pairs off against the Midgard serpent, Odin pairs off against Fenrir the great wolf so why Loki and Heimdall? Who can truly say? But Heimdall is definitely dead and in Loki’s case they don’t find a body which can mean pretty much anything I want it to mean really. That’s all I’m going to say about that,” he says evasively.
Squirrel Ratatosk is Thor’s companion on his journey currently but he wasn’t even designed as a long-term character, the creator elaborates: “He wasn’t going to be a regular character in it. He is in the Norse myths. There is as far as I know one story about him but it’s not even really a story. In the myths, the great centre of the nine worlds is Yggdrasil, a giant ash tree. In the ash tree, up in the leaves in the top of it, in the crown of the tree, there’s a great eagle; at the bottom of the tree among the roots, there’s a great serpent. And The serpent constantly gnaws on the roots, trying to kill the ash tree. And Ratatosk is a squirrel who runs up and down the trunk of the tree and the story about him is he runs up to the eagle and the eagle trash talks to him about the serpent. In Norse literature, mostly in the poetry, there are passages called Flytings and it’s basically trash talking your opponents. There’s a very funny poem where Thor comes to a river to ford and there’s a ferryman on the other side and he asks the ferryman to pick him up. And the ferryman just starts trash talking him. So they have this verbal duel where the ferryman’s just incredibly insulting. So Thor’s insulting the guy back and finally Thor gives up and he has to go somewhere else to get across the river. The ferryman never does come across. And it turns out that the ferryman was Odin who was having fun with Thor. So that kind of trash talking was in some of the stories. Apparently the eagle trash talks the serpent and Ratatosk runs down the trunk and relates to the serpent all the trash talk the eagle said about him and then the serpent trash talks the eagle and Ratatosk runs back up the trunk and tells the eagle all the trash talk the serpent said about him and that’s the story. Ratatosk runs up and down the tree carrying the trash talk. That’s the whole thing. So I knew about the squirrel before I began the book Ragnarök. I used the squirrel to bring the dried slices of Idunn’s apples to keep Thor alive for hundreds of years until my story started after Ragnarok was over. He speaks in slightly broken English because he doesn’t have as big a brain as people but he’s plenty smart. He’s learnt trash talking from a couple of masters. I haven’t had to do a lot of trash talking in the comic but he does give Thor a hard time. He’s not in awe of Thor, after all he ran errands for gigantic supernatural beings for centuries if not longer. He did Thor an enormous favour by keeping him alive all these years so what does he care? So a couple of things happened: it made a character who could leaven Thor. Thor is slightly grim, he’s certainly grimmer now than he was back in the Marvel version with good reason. The times are grimmer and I’m doing a much grimmer world than the Marvel universe. But Ratatosk has turned out to be pretty funny to me with his insults and smart arse attitude and I thought a good nice bit of leavening for Thor’s seriousness. I liked that and it developed naturally. The other thing it does also is as he’s a companion for Thor; it gives Thor somebody to talk to. One of the problems you have when you have a solo character walking around is that either you have lots of thought balloons or you have the guy talking to himself in order to explain things occasionally to get that exposition layered in while not seeming like expositions. Alternatively you can have a companion and the two of them can banter back and forth. It’s the old Watson Holmes or anybody you want to name, like maybe Doc Savage and his five guys. So again that developed really organically out of the direction of the character himself. He’s also a blast to write. I am using as a model for the character Scandinavian squirrels who look like our squirrels in the US but they have hair sticking out from their ears which also make them look a bit like rabbits and it gives the ears and the whole height of the head a little different look to it. So I’ve done that with the character in the comic because I want him to be a Nordic squirrel.”
His two other travelling companions from the first two series, a young dark elf and a troll, will play a part going forward, as part of this third run and beyond, Simonson informs us, with the girl’s role becoming more and more pivotal.
“At the moment they’re still a supporting cast but they do have a thread running through the third arc and it ends in a way that implies that there will be another thread running through the fourth arc which I think is exactly right. So the little girl, Drifa, who’s going to get a little older as we go along, in Greece she’d be a Sybil, a seeress in other words. One of the Scandinavian words for a sybil not used very often is Vala. Drifa’s a sensitive. She does have a sense of precognition. She doesn’t see the fates of the gods or the Great Enemies so clearly because at their level of power, I’m guessing that prediction is difficult, perhaps impossible. I am not sure yet.”
He takes a breath and continues.
“Drifa is able to pick up a lot of small stuff and have some sense of the danger he’s going to be in without being able to say what the danger is or how that’s going to work out when Thor’s going off to Helheim. I hope to use her not only as an interesting character as a I hesitate to say a weapon for Thor but because of her knowledge and mystical knowledge, she will help him on his quest in the long run in the way a mere mortal would not be able to. So I did create her with the idea that she would become a Vala all along,” he states.
This is the third Ragnarok series he has drawn but he has maintained a visual consistency with each one, he tells us.
“I’m just trying to draw them so they look good (he laughs). I would hesitate to say that I’ve done anything deliberately different from series to series. What does happen is and I can’t tell, it all just looks like my stuff to me, is when I was young and practicing comics I can remember thinking that ‘it will take me at least an issue to get a visual feeling for this character’, like the Metal Men or whatever I was doing. And then as time went by I began thinking ‘OK, it’ll take me about three issues to get it figured out, how I was going to treat certain problems’ and then eventually I thought ‘well maybe six issues’ and now I just think ‘I’ll be lucky if by the time I’m done I will have figured it all out.’”
Artists do alter and adapt their approaches to the characters that they draw. As we wrap up our chat, he recalls his work on the seminal Manhunter for DC at the beginning of his career back in the early seventies.
“My depiction of Thor in Ragnarok may well evolve over the course of the book in one way or another. When I did Manhunter which was the first continuity character I did, I drew seven stories. They were short stories but I did them over a year and if you go back and look at the very first drawing of Manhunter, the first splash page where he’s standing in an alleyway in India or wherever he was and you look at the tunic he’s wearing with those wings over his shoulders, they’re really tiny. They’re very small and over a few issues they get broader. They’re like wings now. And that wasn’t a deliberate choice because I didn’t think ‘Oh I’m going to make these things bigger. That’s just the way it worked. As you draw, the work evolves.”
Ragnarök: The Breaking Of Helheim is out now published by IDW Publishing. Issue two comes out this month, September. The book is bi-monthly.