Monday, June 3, 2019

This Cave... My Tomb!

In the fall of 1984, Marvel's first volume of What If stories would come to an end after what could be seen as a successful 7½-year run of forty-seven double-sized issues, each published bi-monthly*. For Marvel to have expended the resources and the time to publish what was essentially the equivalent of six annuals per year, it stands to reason that What If must have been turning in quite a profit (in contrast to, for example, Silver Surfer, which ceased its double-sized format after just seven issues)--nor did its bi-monthly schedule appear to be a hindrance to its sales, since each story was a one-shot and no single concept needed to be promoted on a timely basis (unless you count its main theme of providing alternate outcomes to previous Marvel stories).

*For the most part. On occasion, you would see a brief shift to monthly publication, usually in response to what had been a three-month lag between issues.

There came a time, however, when even a two-month window (still considered a "back-breaking" schedule, according to Editor Ralph Macchio) wasn't enough for staff to throw together a story and line up a writer/artist team to produce it. And so the dreaded letters page box (appropriately tinged in pink) that heralds a book's end appeared in the series' final issue to deliver the sad news--though this time with a twist, as Macchio explains:

Basically, What If would take on the status of work by writers or other artists who aren't necessarily bound by a publishing or record company to submit X number of books or albums within a specific period of time--the important difference, of course, being that those products remain in circulation well after the initial release and aren't quickly relegated to back-issue outlets which funnel no profits back to the source company. For this new distribution of What If to be literally worth the wait, Marvel would have to release a much larger amount of issue copies when the time came and gamble that most if not all of them would sell--quite a leap to take for a product that will be even less visible in stores from this point on.

As it happened, whatever "unbelievable things" Macchio had planned for the book failed to materialize, as did the book itself. What If wouldn't be seen in stores again until five years later when the series re-launched, this time with a lower page count and a monthly schedule, eventually finishing with a run of just short of nine years and totaling 114 issues--perhaps as good an indication as any that no buyer really expects a masterpiece or perfection, and that only an eye-catching concept and a (hopefully) well-told, well-rendered story are essentials to a comics reader.

As for its final tale in '84, we have the eye-catching concept in the form of a cover by Bill Sienkiewicz, and, depending on how you felt about Loki as a motivating factor in getting you to hand over a dollar of your hard-earned cash, a title that implied that the story of Thor would end in tragedy or worse before it could even begin.

Though it's an ambitious tale by writer Peter Gillis--which would come to involve the coming of Ragnarok, no less--there are really only a few takeaways that looked to be necessary to get it on its feet, and Gillis covers those bases well enough. For everything to truly work, however, the story would have been better served with a two- or three-issue presentation that would more extensively explore it and give each character their due and thus avoid dispensing the entire tale to the reader as lightly-detailed snapshots of events--something like the approach to Ragnarok that Roy Thomas presents us with in a Thor story from 1978. In Gillis's tale, we're told mostly in narrative (along with some sparse imagery that requires our mind's eye to fill in the blanks) that the events of Ragnarok are occurring, given that the goal of the story lies in another direction; though to be fair, both stories employ a reset button that, for a What If story, could actually be considered almost unconventional.

To begin with, we'll need to deal in this story's protagonist, Loki, almost immediately. At this point in time, he was imprisoned within a tree by Odin for past transgressions--while Odin has had to address Thor's headstrong nature by sending him to Earth in mortal form in order to learn a much-needed lesson in humility. In our world, Loki had gained his freedom** some time after Donald Blake had discovered the hammer Mjolnir (in cane form) in a cave in Norway and reassumed his true form as Thor. But in this alternate reality, Heimdall appears to be early in taking his constitutional toward the glade where Loki's tree stands, and Loki's release precedes that of his half-brother.

**Due to an unforeseen technicality in Odin's spell, which provided that Loki would be set free if someone shed a single tear over his plight (in this case, Heimdall), which Odin naturally considered to be unlikely. Unfortunately, Odin didn't reckon with Loki's ability to find a loophole in the spell's one condition.

Loki, of course, immediately sets to scheming a plan of revenge against Odin and, by extension, all he holds dear. First on that list would be Thor, who at that moment is in the form of Dr. Donald Blake and on the run (as best as his injured leg would allow) after coming across the Stone Men of Saturn and discovering their plans to conquer Earth. In moments, Blake will discover the cave where Odin has left the gnarled cane to be found--but Loki's powers of deduction are faster still, and Donald Blake's fate is sealed.

To keep himself from being implicated in what will surely be a death sentence to be decreed by Odin, Loki "camouflages" the wooden stick by hurling it into a forest thick with trees, where it will respond to a spell to give it life and growth and thus prevent it from being found.

Meanwhile, in Asgard, Odin hears Blake's death scream from his two ravens which keep him abreast of events that need his attention--after which he quickly looks in on the scene itself and receives the confirmation that he feared. As a result, the Stone Men can count the moments of life left to them in the seconds it takes for a storm of pure rage to gather above them; but it is far too late for Odin to regret his role in Thor's demise.

As for Thor, who is indeed dead, he finds himself within view of Valhalla, the destination for all honored dead and a paradise for the warrior who craves eternal battle and glory (i.e., tailor-made for any Asgardian). And it seems the nature of Valhalla to cause new arrivals to leave behind their prior concerns and thus have no misgivings about entering--and so Thor does not question what circumstances led him to this point, as he eagerly races in the direction of the excitement and valor that beckon.

Odin, however, isn't ready to let the matter drop, as he prepares to petition Hela for the release of his son. Yet while the cream of his guard insist on accompanying him, Balder the Brave declines to do so, fearing that facing Hela with anger and insistence is the wrong approach. The rest of Thor's circle of friends--Hogun, Fandral, and Volstagg, who were ready to join Odin on his mission--instead decide to follow Balder's lead; and as Odin and Hela trade words, we see that Balder's instincts have been right on the money.

While it admittedly defies belief that four of Asgard's most elite warriors would choose to stay behind while their king rides off to battle with death itself, bear in mind that Gillis must defy or otherwise sidestep precedent and even logic if he's to gather the pieces to build a hopeless scenario. And so it is that the most despicable god in the realm has an opening to eliminate the one person whose death is foretold by prophecy to bring on the cataclysm of Ragnarok, by which he will achieve the vengeance he has long craved.

Consequently, Balder's death immediately triggers the gathering of the enemies of Asgard, as well as a numbing cold and the rising of the Midgard Serpent--while within a narrow area between the planes of life and death, the latest tidings reach Odin, who is now officially having his worst day EVER. Yet these developments don't prevent Hela from twisting the knife and reminding the lord of Asgard that she's only acting in response to events set in motion through his own devices, as well as those under his wing.

Regardless, his priorities now must change, and he must ride in defense of Asgard--but at last, he realizes who is responsible for the plight of both Balder and Thor.

And speaking of the two men who preoccupy the All-Father's thoughts, Balder's gambit begins to bear fruit--for when he meets with Thor, he joins with his brother in arms when Hela seeks to prevent Thor from rejecting her power over him by sending her endless legions forward in order to tighten her grip.

As the pair gird themselves for a fight against incredible odds, one might wonder how far such a battle can truly progress, given that the dead are neither afflicted by weariness nor vulnerable to... well, death. Strength of numbers should bring down Thor and Balder--though this wouldn't be a Thor tale if it was that "easy" to dampen Thor's indomitable spirit.  And speaking of dampening someone's spirit--why wouldn't Balder immediately have embraced Valhalla, as Thor did?

In the interim, Heimdall has drafted the Warriors Three to accompany him to Earth, where he conducts a search for Mjolnir in order to make it available to Odin to use as he sees fit.

Yet elsewhere in the realm, a bargain of sorts is being struck for the lives of Thor and Balder--with the fate of Asgard still in question from the continuing onslaught of Ragnarok. (Though much of that onslaught is taking place off-panel.)

Whatever the details of their conversation, Odin is understandably pleased when Heimdall arrives and presents him with Mjolnir, which is then restored to its true form. Curiously, however, Odin informs all assembled that he will take it and return to Hela, and thereafter propose a trade: the lives of Thor, Balder, and all in Asgard, in exchange for his own. It's something of a Hail Mary gambit on Odin's part--but other than restoring Thor and Mjolnir to Asgard in the hope of stemming the tide of Ragnarok, what would be the point? With Ragnarok knocking on Asgard's door, Hela is going to gain everyone's death without lifting a finger (or agreeing to any terms)--and we already know through prophecy that Thor's efforts to halt it will fail.

Regardless, there is one who offers to make the journey in Odin's place, so that Asgard's ruler will not be sacrificed.

The deed done, even Loki has to drop his jaw along with the rest of us at the sudden turn of events.

With Balder restored to life, the prophecy of Ragnarok is apparently thrown for a loop, and the forces of evil retreat. Yet while it's clear by the issue's single wrap-up page that Asgard considers this crisis just another day at the office, and that Gillis considers this story concluded for all intents and purposes, the reader might still be left with a few afterthoughts to ponder. For instance, keeping Sif under wraps until the story's climax doesn't seem to have the desired effect of heightening the impact of her death on Thor or ourselves (though Heimdall of course would be a different story), since this reality's Thor hadn't yet developed any romantic interest in Sif; it's fair to presume that any other female warrior of Asgard who might have died in her place would have likely evinced the same reaction from him. (I'd even go so far as to assert that the character of Sif didn't really click for Thor readers until Walt Simonson began writing her, though your mileage may vary.)

There's also the business of Odin's little tête-à-tête with Hela, where Hela offers to restore the lives of both Thor and Balder for a price. When Odin later informs his warriors of his plan to offer his life in exchange for the two dead warriors, that price appears to have been revealed; but then there's this final scene, which makes the prior one (as well as Sif's sacrifice) superfluous:

At any rate, this reality's Odin has himself a better, less rebellious Thor for the experience, not to mention a Thor whose allegiance remains totally with Asgard since he's never established any ties to Earth. Unfortunately, Loki can likely look forward to an eternity trapped within another tree--with maybe a few termites sprinkled around it for good measure.

What If #47

Script: Peter Gillis
Pencils: Kelley Jones
Inks: Sam DeLaRosa
Letterer: Jack "Squid" Morelli


Big Murr said...

Of all in the inconsistencies tales with Thor and the Asgardians suffer, what always chafed my chaps was Valhalla. Sometimes it follows the Norse myths and is a hall that Odin provides for fallen worthies. Then, like this story, it is the "high rent" district in Hel, fully under Hela's control. And every variation in-between. And valkyries doing their collection duties are very much an optional extra.

I can sympathize with writers. For there to be a dramatic gasp if Thor or Balder dies, a Hall of Odin is a nuisance. "Thor is dead? Damnable boy. I'll just walk down the street to the Hall of Valhalla and give him a piece of my mind!"

In Walt Simonson's run, Thor rages in grief for Eilif the Last Viking. This intense mourning seems pretty silly to we mortals when, a few issues later, there is Eilif fighting with the Heroes of Valhalla against Surtur's invasion.

In so many instances, I can only puzzle so very hard at why comics never lay out a "rulebook" for the mythologies they created. But, "comics are for kids" and anyone who reads them for more than four or five years in a row is a weirdo.

Colin Jones said...

Looking at that final panel I can only assume that the doors in Asgard are very wide :D

Tiboldt said...

"Squid" Morelli - Letterer? Or Stan Lee-era crime boss?

Comicsfan said...

Tiboldt, as I understand it, Morelli was known by that nickname at Marvel due to the fact that he used to work on a fishing boat, which I thought was molto cool. :)

Murray, if I'm not mistaken, Valhalla's warriors are hand-picked with the understanding that they await the coming of Ragnarok just as the "living" Asgardians do, and will be tapped to fight the forces of evil along with all of Asgard's armies when that final battle begins. That said, I felt that their presence during the battle with Surtur was technically premature; the presence of Surtur, who indeed plays an important role during Ragnarok, is not accompanied by any of the other harbingers of doom that the prophecies of Volla foretell. That said, he intended to destroy Asgard as well as the entire universe by igniting his sword within the eternal flame--which certainly sounds like the end of all there is to me, and perhaps was the way the Einherjar saw it as well.

Anonymous said...

Interesting comic. This one's new to me. Odin always did have a penchant for getting himself into trouble, didn't he? Always playing fast and loose with, well, everybody else. Then when it goes kablooey he has to scheme and scheme again to get himself out the mess he created.
This is not at all unlike the mythological Odin. And as far as Valhalla goes, the place always struck me as an even darker destination than Niffelheim or Hel. Valhalla is a place of endless killing and dying, and what is Hell, after all, if not endless repetition? Why, it's the very definition. It seems to me more like an ironic "reward" for the violence done here in Midgard.


Comicsfan said...

M.P., Valhalla, and the circumstances in which it slipped through the cracks as far as Odin was concerned, will be getting a little more exposure shortly--though the true focus will be on a certain chooser of the slain in particular. ;)

Big Murr said...

M.P.! Well, I can only theorize the Norse/Vikings would consider that a very namby-pamby philosophy! Too much mother's milk in your blood and not enough mead!

While your interpretation of Valhalla isn't actually wrong, it is a specialized spin on what I've read in the mythologies. A hero in Valhalla spent the day in combat, true, but it was in the nature of an especially intense rugby tournament. "X-Treme" sport action involving maiming and death, but all the wounds were wiped away and health restored in time for a no-holds-barred, all-the-boar-you-can-eat buffet.

Not my idea of a good time, but different (sword) strokes for different folks.

And as has been stated earlier, the Einherjar aren't just there to enjoy themselves. They are the designated elite shock troops for Ragnarok, so this endless violence is actually training and honing skills.

I've always wished we knew more of Freya's hall "Folkvang". Some of the dead were apparently invited there, but nothing else is known.

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