Four Color Primer: Valkyrie, Part 1

This fall’s Thor: Ragnarok may be winning the hype war with a rockin’ 80’s-themed trailer and a Planet Hulk-style interstellar gladiatorial tournament, but it’s those co-stars that really get my head banging. Cate Blanchett as Hela looks fantastic, and, like this guy, makes me want to buy toys again. Jeff Goldblum is inspired as the Grandmaster, and knowing that the director himself, Taika Waititi, gets his mo-cap suit on for a turn as the combatant Korg is delightful. This movie just looks like a great time. And my favorite addition to the party just might be the lovely Tessa Thompson as Valkyrie.

For the fourth in our series of comic book primers on B-list characters making big screen debuts, we’ve mined the archives and dug deep into the vaults. Presented here is a fairly comprehensive history of Valkyrie’s funnybook career, accompanied by reading recommendations for anyone even as remotely obsessive as myself.

Valkyries in Norse tradition are the mythical warrior women who preside over mortal battles, shepherding the chosen slain into the halls of Valhalla, where the noble combatants can revel, drinking mead and sharpening their axes in anticipation of Ragnarok. In a Marvel universe already well populated with mythological characters and lore, it was only a matter of time before Brunnhilde the Valkyrie made an appearance. This Valkyrie, like her kinsman Thor, possesses superhuman strength befitting an immortal Asgardian, but instead of a hammer, swings a big-ass sword as her weapon of choice. She’s also surprisingly less married to that Nordic tradition than is the God of Thunder. For years she flew around on the back of Aragorn, a winged horse handed down from the Arthurian-inspired hero Black Knight. She even picked up his Ebony Blade for a spell, before replacing it with the still-not-very-Viking-sounding Dragonfang. And, at least during the earlier years of her career, she was much more interested in punching men in the face than escorting them to the afterlife.

This Valkyrie is more than just an anachronistic collection of accessories in a hot outfit, and her origin story is as bizarre and non-traditional as any comic book hero that came to life in the gloriously zany 1970’s. Read on, for a backstory that involves demon-worshiping cultists, celestial harmonicas, and Wagner’s The Ring of the Nibelung.

Avengers #83 (1970)

The Three Valkyries of the 1970’s
The first appearance of the Valkyrie persona is in late 1970 in the pages of The Avengers #83. Like many stalwart do-gooders in the Marvel pantheon, Valkyrie debuts with more ignoble motives, and from the opening splash page of this issue, her incendiary antagonism is pretty clear. Valkyrie convinces a group of female superheroes, including two current Avengers, the Scarlet Witch and The Wasp; the Inhuman queen Medusa; and Black Widow, to claim Avengers mansion as the headquarters of the newly formed Lady Liberators, mobilizing to orchestrate the “downfall of male supremacy.” Their first mission takes them to Rutland, Vermont, where the male Avengers are participating in a bizarre Halloween parade. Meanwhile, the Masters of Evil spring out from the shadows, intent on hijacking a parallel-time gadget from an esteemed local university professor. The Liberators help make short work of Klaw & The Gang, before turning on those “chauvinist pig” Avengers as well.

After both the villains and heroes have been subdued, Valkyrie reveals herself as Amora The Enchantress in disguise. Turns out the wicked schemer needed to get her hands on the aforementioned gadget in order to defy Odin’s curse and restore her powers, now halved after being banished to Casiolena’s nether realms. But Scarlet Witch and the gals get their shit together in the nick of time, turning the tables on Amora, and returning her from whence she came.

On the surface, Roy Thomas’s story seems like a rather insensitive parody of the Women’s Liberation movement of the 60’s and 70’s. The issue is rife with hyperbolic assertions of male chauvinism and gender injustice. When the instigator turns out to be a classic Avengers villain, and the liberation sentiment is cast as little more than manipulative brainwashing, it would seem to completely discredit the earnest efforts of second-wave feminism during this time period.

In context, however, what Thomas really seems to be commenting on is society’s tendency to indiscriminately rally towards publicized causes without a clear understanding of the issues. The final panel in this comic, and Goliath’s boneheaded comment, highlights the fact that, indeed, equal rights for women is not only a valid hot-button issue, but one that isn’t going to be resolved with the defeat of an Asgardian sorceress. Whether it was saving the whales, ending the war, or standing up for gender equality, the 70’s gave a voice to every concern… but, too often, insensitive voices simply felt compelled to be concerned about something. When Roy Thomas pulls out Valkyrie for an encore, a few months later, he once again uses her as a satirical tool, this time to poke fun at the cause-hungry upper crust.

Valkyrie takes on her first human host (August, 1971)

The character appears for the second time in The Incredible Hulk #142, this time materializing in her first human host. Samantha Parrington is the privileged daughter of an elite New York couple, who are preoccupied with finding an appropriate charity to champion. It has to be something fabulous, of course, in order to impress their fellow socialites, so they latch on to a brilliant fundraising idea. Despite their daughter’s work with a women’s lib group, the parents decide that it would be much more newsworthy to raise money for the Hulk, of all people. With enough cash, they propose, the Green-skinned Goliath could buy his own country and finally live in peace. And, of course, it doesn’t hurt that having the Hulk make an appearance to pick up the donations is a sure-fire way of making their shindig the most talked-about event of the decade.

but Daaaaad..!

The Enchantress, still bristling after defeats in the pages of Avengers as well as The Incredible Hulk, seizes the opportunity to wreak some havoc, and zaps the Valkyrie persona into Samantha. The Valkyrie then crashes the party to do battle with the Hulk, along with any other male chauvinist pigs who might get in the way. Now if that doesn’t make the society pages, nothing will! Also, it helps that neo-journalist Tom Wolfe, in his characteristic white suit, is on hand to record the melee for posterity.

Yeah, that’s Tom Wolfe in the bottom right

When the dust settles at the end of the issue, Samantha is restored, with no memory of what happened, and Bruce Banner, as always, trudges off in quest of that eternally unattainable peace and quiet.

Barbara Norriss becomes Valkyrie in Defenders #4 (February, 1973)

It’s a few years later before Valkyrie finds a new human host, and this time she settles in for a much lengthier, not to mention more heroic, stay. In Defenders #4, our favorite “non-team” super-team of the 70’s welcomes its first female member when Barbara Norriss plays host to the Valkyrie, helping her fellow Defenders defeat Casiolena and the Executioner. Barbara’s origin story, however, actually predates Avengers #83 by a few months. We have to go back to The Incredible Hulk #125 and #126 in early 1970 to see what this former cultist was up to, and how she ends up later becoming another pawn of The Enchantress.

Barbara Norriss first makes a cameo appearance in Hulk #125 March, (1970)

Barbara Norriss starts her comic book career as an acolyte in service to the Undying Ones, a race of demons with aspirations of taking over the earth. In order to facilitate the Undying Ones’ passage to our plane, Barbara’s cult needed to find a way of defeating the powerful dimensional gatekeeper known as Night-Crawler (no connection to Kurt Wagner). Conveniently, the Hulk and Absorbing Man knocked each other out while battling on a hillside not far from the cult’s gathering place. Their leader, the devilishly named Van Nyborg, gets his crew to abduct the unconscious Bruce Banner, so that they can send his angry alter-ego through a portal and into conflict with the Night-Crawler. Good plan.

just following orders, eh Barb?

But oh no! Sorry kooky cultists; in Incredible Hulk #126, young Barbara has a change of heart. Same question I want to ask every devil-summoner and demon-worshiper: what has gone so wrong in your life, Ms. Norriss, that you found yourself this close to helping break down barriers to our world and unleashing an invading legion of monsters? (We’ll find out, years later.) Instead of thwarting her fellow crazies’ plan, however, Barbara just gets thrown into the portal along with The Hulk. There she bears witness to an interdimensional slugfest, and has an encounter with the Sorcerer Supreme himself, Doctor Strange.

Barbara at the mercy of the Night-Crawler

After his first encounter with the Undying Ones, and their monstrous lord The Nameless One, in Sub-Mariner #22, Strange has voluntarily confined himself within a mystical prison in order to keep the demons at bay. The only way he can be free is if someone takes his place. Enter Barbara Norriss. Maybe it’s out of guilt for her part in manipulating the Hulk, or the greater crime of conspiring with lunatics to oversee the enslavement of our world, but she willingly changes places with Dr. Strange, so that he, and the Hulk, may return home. Interestingly enough, this is the first time Strange meets the Hulk; years down the road, these two founding members of the Defenders will welcome the super-powered alter ego of the once-discarded Barbara Norriss to the team.

Barbara sacrifices herself to release Dr. Strange

Interlude aside, now we’re caught up with that first volume of Steve Englehart’s Defenders run. Roy Thomas may have passed along the writing duties on most of his books and characters, but the heir to Stan Lee wasn’t done engineering the new age of Marvel. As the company’s editor-in-chief, Roy had something to do with breaking the gender barrier in the Defenders, overseeing the storyline wherein the Enchantress introduces the Valkyrie persona into yet another human host. In his own words, however, Roy admits that it was Steve who deserves the real credit for developing both the series and the Asgardian warrior.

John Buscema and I had designed [Valkyrie] in an issue of The Avengers, but she had turned out merely to be a disguise for Thor’s old enemy, the Enchantress. Liking the name and look, Herb Trimpe and I had conceived a second Valkyrie in The Incredible Hulk. Steve took that concept and ran with it, giving Val… yet a third alternate identity… and, in a nice touch, even having her face the Enchantress… – Roy Thomas, 2008

In Defenders #3, Dr. Strange tries to help Silver Surfer return home to Zenn-La by way of an interdimensional shortcut. Unfortunately, his detour lands the Defenders in the realm of the Nameless One. There, he runs into old pal Barbara. Strange seems to suddenly remember her sacrifice, and that she had been left locked in a magic cage, so that the Sorcerer Supreme could return home and have coffee in Greenwich Village and read tomes and stuff.

oh shit! Barbara – you’re still here?

As it turns out, Barbara’s presence in that dimension was exactly what the Nameless One was hoping for, and in the interim period, the demon lord found a way to bond with the poor girl. How do you make this already bizarre-looking creature amalgamation even creepier? Jam the head of a crazy blond woman on top.

Three heads, but no name. No wonder he’s pissed.
Whoops! Can I put her back?

Doctor Strange is able to separate Barbara from the Nameless One, rescuing her from its infernal clutches, and ferrying her, along with the rest of the Defenders, away from the realm of the Undying Ones to a (hopefully) safer dimension. In the process, however, Barbara positively loses it; something about being forcefully torn from her demon mate drives her mad. Way to go, Stephen. He also fails to help the Silver Surfer find a way back to Zenn-La, which was the reason they hopped on the magic school bus to begin with. Peter Parker gets a lot of grief for constantly fucking things up, but Doc Strange, at least in the 1970’s, may give Spidey a run for his money.

Screaming woman to your right, naked dudes to your left. Just another Saturday night, eh Doc?

The slightly safer dimension that the Defenders find themselves in is the nether realm ruled by Casiolena and her new consort, the Executioner. It doesn’t take long for our heroes to succumb to the combined might of the ruler’s sorcery and her lover’s army. They get tossed into a dungeon cell where, lo and behold, their neighbors are the captive Enchantress and Black Knight. Turns out Casiolena used her wiles to lure Executioner away from Amora’s side, and the Enchantress, in turn, used her waning powers to win over the Knight. Regardless, they’re all prisoners at this point – Enchantress, Black Knight, Bruce Banner, Namor, and the insane Barbara Norriss. But the Enchantress has a plan…

usually it’s Doctor Strange with the bad ideas

The Enchantress zaps the Valkyrie persona into Barbara, completing the transformation for this third, and maybe most famous, iteration of the character. She passes what amounts to a Defenders job interview in glorious fashion, working with the heroes and the Enchantress to defeat their captors.

“Mortal wench,” meaning Barbara

Enchantress explains that the Valkyrie persona is fully embedded this time, no longer a puppet under her control, but a true mortal embodiment of this immortal Norse warrior. There’s no explanation as to who or what this Valkyrie persona is exactly, or why the Enchantress had her under her sway… at least not yet. We’ll get that answer years later. For now, it’s enough to understand that Valkyrie has been truly reborn, and she helps the Defenders vanquish their foes of her own volition. In the end, however, the Enchantress shows her true colors and, after Executioner begs forgiveness and returns to Amora’s side, she repays Black Knight’s devotion by turning the poor bastard into stone. The Enchantress also reveals that she has created this new Valkyrie with a built-in safeguard: Valkyrie is unable to use her powers to harm a woman. Now that Val has a will of her own, the Enchantress needed to make sure she wouldn’t turn against the villain who had been toying with her for so long.

Which leaves this newly permanent Valkyrie in a bit of a quandary. What is her role? What should she do? She asks to join the Defenders, but Namor is the first to snap back with an assurance that they are not a team, merely a group of heroes who keep finding themselves in situations that require teamwork, as it were. (This is really the only commonality between the classic Defenders groups and the current Netflix-inspired version. If you ask me, any Defenders team without Doctor Strange as “den mother,” just doesn’t feel right.) Besides, Namor continues, word on the street is that you hate all “male chauvinist pigs.”

oh, this is going to look soooo good in the foyer

It’s at this point that Steve Englehart takes that huge step forward with Valkyrie’s character, separating her from the satirical tool she had been in that handful of Roy Thomas books. In one panel, her comment “I do not hate men… I merely know I’m as good as they are,” coupled with a posture of confidence rather than one of defiance, erases any prior mockery of feminism. But you need more than a mission statement to play ball with the super-heroes, so she adds to her powerset. Since the petrified Black Knight isn’t using them, Valkyrie takes it upon herself to pick up his Ebony Blade, and saddle up Aragorn, his winged horse. But the Dane Whitman statue? That’s going back to Greenwich Village, to decorate the Sanctum Sanctorum of the Sorcerer Supreme. Doctor Strange is fucking weird, man.

Now that Steve Englehart has successfully introduced this strong female superhero to the team, it was time to work out how she would function in this family of alpha males, none of whom seem particularly interested in working together. In a way, Valkyrie helps create the Defenders as a super-team during these formative years, since she is the only one who may genuinely need them to be a team. Strange, Namor, Hulk, and even Silver Surfer all have separate lives, agendas, and concerns. Valkyrie, who isn’t even really clear about who she is, coming to life so suddenly, only has these churlish men to turn to, or to provide a course of action.

a tight summation of Val’s current confusing state of affairs, from Defenders #5

Valkyrie’s earliest appearances, in her three different hosts, are represented in the following collections. While the first two books contain only one Valkyrie story apiece, they are treasures in their own right, showcasing work by two of the most influential artists in comics. In other words, come for the Norse warrior, stay for the classic 70’s Marvel stories.

Valkyrie, Pawn of The Enchantress

Marvel Masterworks: The Avengers, Volume 9 (2015 – new edition)

The ninth volume in the Avengers Masterworks series showcases legendary artist John Buscema at the height of his powers. In addition to reprinting issue #83, the first appearance of Valkyrie, this collection contains the origin of the Black Panther from #87, and a two-part Hulk epic written by the great Harlan Ellison.

Marvel Masterworks: The Hulk, Volume 7 (2013)

The incomparable Herb Trimpe illustrates his signature Marvel character, The Hulk, in this Masterworks volume. In addition to reprinting issue #142, and the first appearance of Samantha Parrington as Valkyrie, the book fully displays Trimpe’s EC-inspired blend of horror and humor with some classic Hulk tales from the ’70’s.

Marvel Masterworks: The Defenders, Volume 1 (2008)

Roy Thomas, Steve Englehart, and Sal Buscema bring this “non-team” of superheroes together, first in Marvel Feature, and then in their own title. Features the separation of Barbara Norriss from the Nameless One, the birth of the third Valkyrie, and her first adventures with her new super-family.

Valkyrie may have finally found a semi-permanent human host, but the search for her true identity is only just beginning. As Val enters this next stage of her development, she welcomes back Roy Thomas, who will flesh out her distant, Nordic past. More significantly, however, for the Barbara Norriss half of the equation, this Defenders team is about to be handed over to one of the most creative comics geniuses of the 1970’s. And if offbeat, genre-bending origin stories are something that you’re after, Steve Gerber is your man.

To see how this comic book game-changer contributed to the story of the Valkyrie, continue with part two of the primer.

Other Four Color Primers:
Black Panther