Walt Simonson returns to the character that made him a comic book superstar this July for his latest creator-owned project from IDW Publishing. In “RagnarÃ¶k,” the award-winning writer/artist tells his own version of the Norse apocalypse, one where Thor sits out the final battle with the Midgard Serpent, allowing the dark gods to destroy Asgard and take over the nine worlds — until the God of Thunder returns.
Simonson, who had a career-defining run on Marvel Comics’ “Thor” in the ’80s, spoke with CBR News about his return to the realm of Asgard, revealing what makes the book an “epic mystery,” which character his wife Louise Simonson, a legendary creator in her own right, helped him create, and why he calls “RagnarÃ¶k” some of the “grimmest work” of his storied career.
CBR News: “RagnarÃ¶k” is Walt Simonson returning to Thor after 30 years. What’s it all about?
Walt Simonson: [Laughs] I’ll try to keep it short! [Editor] Scott Dunbier, my muse, came to me about 15 years ago and talked to me about doing a book based on the Norse myths. I thought that sounded great. 15 years later, I finished up the work I was doing and came up with an idea I thought didn’t feel like any of the comics I’ve read or written, or any of the stories I’ve read or written. The idea I came up with was to start at the end and then go forward. And the end, of course, is RagnarÃ¶k.
In the Norse myths, RagnarÃ¶k is the twilight of the gods. When the gods themselves and their enemies all gather together on a great battle-plane, engage in a great battle and kill each other. In the end, everyone’s dead. All the gods, all their friends, all their enemies. They’re all dead. The Earth catches fire. The stars fall from the sky. The land sinks beneath the sea. Everything is over. Then there’s a little bit at the end of the prophecy that describes how the Earth eventually rises from the sea and two individuals survive, a man and a woman. It turns out that the highest halls of the gods were not burned, so some of the children of the gods survived. Things begin again. I thought about that. And my thought was, what if Thor wasn’t at RagnarÃ¶k — then that means the Midgard Serpent survives. And because he survives, the enemies win the day and the gods get destroyed. But the enemies survive, so things do not go as they do in the poetry.
Because the enemies are around and the gods are gone, everything is out of balance. My little tip of the hat to Michael Moorcock, an old friend. The nine worlds collide together and become one vast land that stretches out as far as they can. It means you could walk between any two places. You could walk into Hell. The world is a very different place. After a few hundred years, the enemies carve out their fiefdoms. They’ve made their kingdoms and more or less settled down. I envisioned a medieval world, agrarian societies for the men and women who survived. Small villages. Many slaves and serfs to the enemies. And I’ll be inventing a lot more enemies than just the ones named in the poetries. I’ll need a lot more guys.
The sun and the moon have been destroyed. They were pursued by giant wolves, and just as RagnarÃ¶k happens, the giant wolves catch up with the sun and the moon and devour them. So everything goes dark. That’s what happens in the mythology, but I wanted to take it a little further. The wolves die after consuming these great, flaming balls of fire, the moon still being lit by its own light, unlike real life, and they fall to the land. So the son and the moon are inside these giant wolf carcasses, lying somewhere on the land. They’re somewhere out there. The world is suffused with twilight, because a little bit of their light sneaks out, but it’s not a night and day situation anymore. People live in cycles, but they don’t have night and day to keep track of it.
Time goes by. Several hundred years. And Thor returns. We don’t know where he’s been. He is unaware of what has actually happened. He’s been in a place where it’s not possible to get news. He gets back and finds the world as it is. He’s a quick study and discovers what actually happened. He goes back to what’s left of Asgard, and there’s not much left. He finds the body of his wife Sif, and the rest of his family. He gathers all the remains he can find and creates a giant pyre. He fires it up with a bolt of lightning and it runs continuously from then on. An eternal bolt. Then he picks up his hammer and he goes out in the land to find his enemies and their allies. To discuss with them the current state of affairs. That’s my story.
That sounds pretty epic! Will there be a mystery element to the story as Thor seeks to discover the truth, or is it all-out action?
We see Thor in the first issue, and where he’s been will be clear pretty quickly. Why he has been there will be less clear. That will be part of an ongoing mystery that will take some time to reveal — what’s actually happened to him and why.
I don’t see Thor as a deep thinker. He’s not a dumb guy at all, but he’s not a deep thinker the way Odin might have been. So I think once he’s out and loose and recovered, his primary goal is not going to be to solve the mystery of what happened to him, although I do think it will concern him. His primary goal is to go out, find his enemies and deal with them. So there’ll be a balance between epic adventure and mystery. I would call it an epic mystery. The mystery is ongoing, as the adventure is. I guess you could say that RagnarÃ¶k is ongoing. As long as Thor is alive, RagnarÃ¶k continues.
Does Thor have any friends at all in “RagnarÃ¶k,” or is he flying solo for this one?
He’s solo in that none of the gods survived. That being said, of course, if the book runs for 40 years, maybe we find something else out, but I don’t think it’s gonna happen. But no, he is the only one.
There will be some characters in the book that will make appearances from time to time, but I don’t think he’ll have a companion, or at least a steady one. There will be characters that hang with him or return from time to time. I have one character that Thor will regularly visit. She doesn’t wander the world with Thor, but he’ll go back and visit her from time to time. She will have special significance. I also expect other characters to evolve as the strip goes on. Hopefully, there will be some characters that we go back and revisit, but there will be some characters that will be in for just a story arc, then will take their bows and depart.
The story at the moment is a mix of both careful planning and serendipity. I really enjoy the happy accidents that occur when you don’t have too tight a story running through an ongoing series. At the same time, I like to plan things out. I hope this is a balance of that. In fact, the character I have in mind that Thor would go back to see was initially, when I first created her, only going to be in one story. Maybe two. That was it. Then I was talking to Weezy [Simonson’s wife Louise Simonson], and she had an idea. I liked it. I hit the springboard and went off into a different more elaborate thought. Now the character’s actually set to be an anchor point for some of the stuff that’s going to happen in the book. So that’s the way it works. Nothing starts off full-formed to begin with.
So will Thor be taking on the entire pantheon of evil Norse gods in “RagnarÃ¶k?”
The enemies are from classic Norse myths. Fenris wolf. JÃ¶rmungandr the great world serpent. Surtr the fire demon. Those classic guys will all be in the story sooner or later. They’re all scattered across the land because they all carved out their fiefdoms. They’re living the “Life of Riley” in the wake of the death of the gods.
At least one of them will anticipate what’s about to happen, though. He realizes Thor wasn’t there at RagnarÃ¶k. It’s of some concern to some of the people a little brighter than him. I hope to make each of these characters into characters of their own and not do what you would expect as a reader. I have plans for at least one of them that’ll be a little bit different than you would expect to happen with the guys.
The big guys will be in it, but there’ll also be a lot of mid-level and tertiary villains, simply because I need more villains than are available at the top. The way fiefdoms work, you have your overlord and then your various lords below that, your various land-running guys below that and then your serfs below that. I don’t expect to do a documentary approach to social organizations of the land, but I do expect to imply a great deal of stuff. I want to understand the structure of what happens so if I want to do backgrounds or something, it will be clear that I implied more that was going on.
Are you maintaining a more or less monthly release schedule for “RagnarÃ¶k?”
The model for “RagnarÃ¶k” is, in some ways, Mike Mignolla’s “Hellboy.” The way Mike has done it is to put out story-arcs as he goes along rather than doing a monthly comic month in and month out. I don’t know that I have it in me to do a monthly comic again — write, draw, pencil and ink — at this point in my career. It’s just more work than I’m capable of doing in a month. But I hope to do a series of story arcs. The lengths of the arcs will really be determined by the story I have to tell. The first arc is six-issues long because I really want to set everything up. But that’s probably the longest arc I plan to do. I wouldn’t be dogmatic about that, because you never know where your story is going to take you. I’d like to finish one arc, take a month off to regroup, then start working the next arc, so we’ll be able to put these arcs out as complete units as I go along. Hopefully it’ll be interesting enough to have people anticipate them and pick them up as they come up.
What drew you to Norse mythology as a kid?
A couple things. When I was a kid, my parents had a book, which I now hold in my hands, that is called “Myths of Northern Lands.” It’s been reprinted any number of times. The edition I’ve got, that my parents had, is copyrighted 1895! [Laughs] So it was old when I was a kid, and it’s much older now. That was really my introduction. They had two volumes, a book of Greek and Roman gods, and then this book of Norse stories. It’s a lengthy book. It’s not a kids book, but it was great reading as a kid. And, of course, as a kid I was drawn to the idea that the gods don’t live forever. That there is this actual apocalypse at the end of time in which everything dies and is then reborn. So I knew about Thor and Odin and the Norse myths long before I discovered the Marvel comic.
Then, when I was in college, I discovered the Marvel comic. At the time, it had been going about four years. I found out about it and got a copy. I read it and really enjoyed it. I was not perturbed by the fact that Thor’s hair wasn’t red or that he wasn’t wearing his gauntlets to catch the hammer or that the hammer’s handle wasn’t particularly short. Some of that stuff I am taking into account in the series I’m doing.
Since then, I’ve collected various books of Norse myths. Retellings. There aren’t that many of them, really. It’s not like there’s a 20-volume set of Norse myths by any means. There are different retellings and different thoughts about it. I’m not trying to create a cosmology that’s exactly scholastically accurate to what we have of the Norse myths. I want to use them, as I did in the Marvel comic, as jumping off points to tell new stories. That’s why I’m giving myself a unique situation when it comes to Thor and the gods and their enemies that will make it possible to tell stories the audience will not anticipate. At least in the beginning, they won’t know what the strip is and where I’m going to go with it. It’s very exciting for me. I’m thrilled to be doing it. It’s nice to go back to stuff I loved doing in the first place and taking another crack at it in a different way. Hopefully tell some stories worth reading.
Is “RagnarÃ¶k” the definitive Walt Simonson take on Thor?
I shy away from the word definitive. It will certainly be a different take from me on Thor and on the Norse myths than the Marvel version was. Hopefully it will have a little more of the quality of the Eddas and the Icelandic sagas. It’ll still be adventure. It’ll certainly be grimmer than the work I did before. In some ways, it’s some of the grimmest work I’ve done, although I would hope that it will not be without humor. I think there’s some funny stuff in the first issue. It’s not a joke a day thing, or a late night monologue; it’s humor in pathos and tragedy and triumph. All that stuff I hope to be able to draw out of the characters themselves. The overall tone will be a little grimmer. After all, this is a guy who has lost everything. If I compare it to something, it might be like [Jack Kirby’s] Orion. I thought Orion was a grimmer character and as a result the story has a darker cast; the same is true of this book, as well.
Walt Simonson’s “RagnarÃ¶k” #1 is out this July from IDW Publishing.