Review: Ragnarök #1-3

So I don’t think anyone picks up a Walt Simonson comic in the year of our lord 2014 and thinks “this comic probably won’t be good.” That’s because Simonson is the man, and as far as I’ve read, when he’s writing and illustrating, he’s never turned in a bad story. Ragnarök continues that proud tradition of Simonson totally ruling, while facing perhaps more obstacles than any of his past work has. The first three issues of Ragnarök take place many years after the Norse Ragnarök of legend. The gods are dead, Yggdrasil is shattered and broken, and the realms are ruled in perpetual twilight by trolls and walking shades who keep the remaining humans corralled. The story gives us a couple really gorgeous flashback pages to the final moments of Ragnarök and the defeat of the Serpent of Midgard at Thor’s hands, but it really begins when the new god of death (probably not a god, but still more powerful than your everyday creepy dude) hires a Black Elf to kill the dead Stone God. As you’ve probably guessed from all the covers and whatnot, the chained god she was sent to kill is the Odinson, who has been kept barely alive by Rattatosk for untold years on the orders of the All-Father. When the Black Elf and her assassin compatriots fail to kill Thor, he lets her die with honor, destroys his fortress and goes out to wander the realms. There are many surprises for him (not the least of which being that he is a desiccated ruin of a god with no lower jaw), and he presents many surprises to those who believe they rule the realms that used to be his.

Ragnarok01_cvr copySo let’s deal with the giant, Odin-sized elephant in the room. Thirty years ago, Simonson wrote and drew (for the most part, with the help of Sal Buscema), probably the greatest Thor comics of all time at Marvel. We got Beta Ray Bill, the Surtur War, Thor vs. Hela for all the marbles, Balder the Brave vs. the Frost Giants, Thor vs. the Serpent of Midgard (followed by a few issues where Thor was literally beaten to a soup inside a suit of armor), and last but certainly not least, Throg the Thunder Frog. It was a run that changed not only the way Thor comics worked, shifting from the Celestial-y focused comics of the 70s into a very strongly defined character work that brought in heaping portions of Norse mythology.

In short, it totally ruled.

Now, unrestricted by Marvel editorial, and free to follow (or not follow) the Norse Eddas that describe Ragnarök as he sees fit, Simonson’s dipping his toe back into that pool. At first blush, it seems like a terrible idea; he’s already done so much with the characters, why go back to them? Why not build something new? But the secret here is that that’s exactly what he’s doing. There’s maybe four pages of this comic that take place before Ragnarök itself; those are the only ones that overlap his Marvel work in any real way. This is a sequel series, set well after everyone should be dead and gone, left behind only because they’re too weak to die. His Thor is not a noble god in the prime of his life, one who can be scarred on the face and just grow a beard to hide it. This Stone God is not what he used to be in any way, dropped into a world where the Bifrost has melted, his entire family is gone, and the World Tree is no more. I don’t know where Simonson is taking it, but I kind of hope it ends up being a Kung Fu riff, with Thor wandering the new realms, trying to find some sort of meaning in his existence (or possibly, triumphantly bring back all the gods at the end? JMS kind of pulled that off in his Thor run at Marvel, but it always seemed kind of clunky).

Now that we’ve talked about Simonson the storyteller, let’s talk about Simonson the artist. I’m sure that in this day and age, this book is coming out bimonthly because 1) Simonson is getting a little older and writing/drawing a book a month is rough stuff. Kirby could do it, but by all accounts, Kirby was an actual being from another dimension where he could think things into reality. 2) The level of detail and love going into this story is incredible. I mean, look at Kliffborg in the first issue. Look at the ruins Thor is left standing amidst in the second issue. The man’s linework is still on point on every page, and his panel layouts are still just as innovative as ever. To go off on a tangent, it seemed to me when I read his Thor run that if these comics were coming out today, recolored as they were for the collections, they would be able to run right up there with the best books on the shelves. With Ragnarök, that’s basically what I’m getting, and I’m sticking with that analysis.

As always, my only issue with a bimonthly schedule is that it gives the reader a lot of time to forget about your book. I mean, put it on a pull list and you’re set, but if they come in every Wednesday to buy books, they’ve got eight or ten weeks worth of other books to read before they remember yours. I hope that’s not the case for Ragnarök. It’s a trap I myself fall into pretty easily, and this book deserves better.

Ragnarok03_cvrAAs an added bonus, Simonson brought Laura Martin in as his colorist on Ragnarök, and her instincts are truly inspired. Where this world could fade into drab black and white flashbacks, or eternal dullness in the twilight of the world, she makes it vibrant. She brings dead things to life, and when the ghost of Bifrost is in the picture, you almost remember how majestic Asgard was, even though you’ve never seen it.

Last but not least of course, John Workman, Simonson’s forever partner-in-crime, returns to letter this joint. Just as he did thirty years ago, he brings things to life as words on the page that you would never expect to carry so much weight. When Thor is awakened from his deep sleep and calls for Mjolnir, the way that Workman builds that is a one page lesson in how tone of voice can be conveyed by lettering, and how that can serve the story in a visible way, being an additive force to the good of the comic, rather than a spotlight grabbing subtractive force.

This book is a rarity. It’s the sequel to a legend told by three people who are acknowledged masters of the medium. Sure, there might be colorists or artists or writers or letterers you like better than these three, but listen; when’s the last time you saw any of these three do a bad job? When’s the last time you didn’t love their work on a comic? I’d bet the answer is never, and with Ragnarök, they’re keeping their streak going.

Now I just have to wait until February to read more, and that’s gonna kill me.

Score: 5/5

Writer/Artist: Walter Simonson Colorist: Laura Martin Publisher: IDW Publishing Price: $3.99