Title: Ragnarök Volume 1: Last God Standing
Publisher: IDW Publishing
Writer: Walter Simonson
Artist: Walter Simonson
Colorist: Laura Martin
Letterer: John Workman
Spoiler Warning! This review talks about the plot of the graphic novel being reviewed. Read at your own risk!
In the ’80s, Walter Simonson had his chance to present his take on Thor the Avenger. With his creator-owned series Ragnarök, Simonson gives us his take on Thor the god, with the rest of Norse mythology along for the ride. Long, long after Ragnarök, the twilight of the Norse gods, Thor returns to the world as an undead draugr to find the world a vastly different place. While trying to find a way to fulfill the boon he granted a dying Black Elf, Thor also seeks to discover what has happened in the time since his death.
Simonson likes to come out the gate strong with his projects, and Ragnarök is no exception. The first page is a full-page panel featuring erupting volcanoes, the monstrous wolf Fenrir, trolls, and armored men and monsters with giant weapons. Turning the page, there’s a two-page spread of Thor dwarfed by the Midgard Serpent, a beastly snake with three rows of fangs and red eyes. While Thor himself is small by comparison to the Serpent, he radiates crackling lightning and seems to crumble the stone he’s standing on by his mere presence. Thor slays the Serpent, but dies himself, and four long vertical panels show the death of the world in oceans, falling stars, and fire. Last God Standing leads with an ace, hooking readers with big action and the literal end of the world. Few artists can render mythological epic with as much energy, style, and aplomb as Simonson. His art is just a treat to look at, a feast for the eyes, aided by renowned colorist Laura Martin.
First, Simonson’s ability to draw energy discharge is unrivaled. Errant bolts radiate from orbs filled with Kirby Krackle. Fire and magic are alive. Thor’s lightning is both terrible and magnificent to behold, such as when he demolishes Kliffborg, his tomb. He calls powerful flashes from the sky, always accompanied by appropriately large thunder sound effects. Even just a swing from Thor’s hammer Mjolnir is enough to sound a mighty peal of thunder. Whether it’s in the Marvel universe or a spin on Norse myth, nobody draws Thor’s lightning like Walter Simonson. Martin’s colors are just as important to conveying not just Thor’s power, but the power of his enemies. For example, fire demons are deep red with orange flames radiating off them, and their ruler, Surtr, is colored red-orange like a living flame that flows and solidifies into his body from fire around his head. Simonson and Martin’s alchemy works wonders in their design of Surtr, a standout among a plethora of great designs.
Simonson’s environments are just as big and epic as the action that takes place in them. The world of the Norse gods has become the Dusk Lands, a blasted, barren wasteland. Dead, blackened trees are the only vegetation, and the population is sparse. These visuals are shorthand for how thoroughly Ragnarök has destroyed the world, and it’s convincing. Simonson dresses characters in outfits with some of the Kirby-inspired flair he used for Thor, but with his own extra flavor from history. There’s a particularly interesting example in Myrkr, Lord of the Dead, who wears concealing robes with boots and gauntlets, as well as a mask reminiscent of, intriguingly, Darth Vader. It’s a slightly Kirbyesque blend of fantasy and sci-fi that distinguishes this ostensible high fantasy. Similarly, the dwarves’ Dvergr gates are connected to computer-like control panels. These splashes of technology are a unique touch without feeling out-of-place. Thor himself is a walking corpse, missing his jaw and nose, his mummified skin taut against his bones. His eyes are usually a dead white or foggy blue. He has clearly been dead for a long time, and it solidly sets Thor apart from other, more famous versions that appear in comics.
What I find most interesting about Simonson’s Ragnarök is how different its Thor is from Marvel’s Thor. Being outside of the Marvel Universe, Simonson is allowed to kill Thor for centuries, maybe even millennia, and Ragnarök can happen without needing a retcon. In short, the story can have consequences. This Thor, also based loosely on the Thor from myth, is noble, but not as outwardly heroic as Marvel’s. Having lost Asgard, his family, his entire world, has made Thor wroth, and he is ready to face all of Asgard’s surviving enemies. This is an angry Thor who will not toy games with his enemies. He thinks nothing of demolishing his monumental tomb into a gigantic crater, nor disintegrating an army of draugr about to attack a village for harboring him. But he feels grief for the loss of his wife and children, and regret for rash words to his companion Ratatosk. Thor is a complex and nuanced character, revealed to us gradually through layered detail.
Letterer John Workman also deserves recognition for all his work in Ragnarök. Prophecies and legends are lettered with a slightly runic alphabet, with a more fully runic font for incanting of magical spells. His letters in plain conversation are smooth but unique, a personal stamp of Workman’s that appears in much of Simonson’s work. I have only one critique of Last God Standing, and that is uncertainty about Thor’s goals. Near the beginning, he grants a boon to the assassin sent to kill him which involves finding her daughter. While at first blush it seems this will be a primary thread, Thor doesn’t focus on that, and by the end of Last God Standing, I couldn’t tell if Thor had just forgotten it entirely. I understand his desire to find out what happened to the Asgardians, and his desire for revenge against Asgard’s enemies, but his decision to destroy them seems a little spontaneous, and I’m not entirely sure what Thor stands to gain by eliminating them if Ragnarök has already occurred. This is, however, only the first story arc in a longer series, and I’m very interested in what comes next, so I can forgive it. Ragnarök is still an example of Simonson in top form, and I highly recommend it.