This is part two in a primer on the comic book saga of Valkyrie, portrayed in this fall’s Thor: Ragnarok by Tessa Thompson. For the first part of her story, including the origins of three different Valkyries, brought to life by comics legends Roy Thomas, John and Sal Buscema, and Steve Englehart, among others, click here.
The newly incarnated Valkyrie, the persona of an Asgardian warrior in the body of a human named Barbara Norriss, may have been the missing ingredient that transformed these conflicting personalities into a team of Defenders. Or, at least, brought them dangerously close to establishing the identity that they had been denying for several issues. In Giant-Size Defenders #1, Doctor Strange’s disciple Clea guides Val through a framed narrative that helps her make sense of the “three titans” who, despite each possessing his own headstrong nature, seem to work so well together in this burgeoning super-squad.
Just as these normally solitary heroes are coming together as a team, however, Valkyrie asks for a leave of absence from the Defenders. She has unresolved issues with her past, specifically her connection to Barbara Norriss. But despite expressing a desire to part ways, Valkyrie soon finds herself fighting alongside the team on several adventures, including the famous Avengers/Defenders War.
That clash is precipitated by Doctor Strange’s solution for bringing the Black Knight back to life, currently existing as a stone statue in Strange’s home. But following the manipulations of Loki and Dormammu, members of each super-team find themselves squared off against one another in a competition to recover pieces of the Evil Eye. Cooler heads prevail (as is typically the case in these hero v. hero conflicts), and Val and her cohorts journey to the twelfth century in an effort to restore the limbo-locked soul of the Black Knight to the present. During this adventure, Valkyrie responsibly returns the Ebony Blade to its rightful owner.
Dane Whitman, however, makes the decision to remain in the past, alive again in the body of his ancestor. Since Aragorn didn’t make the trip back in time, Val gets to keep the Black Knight’s flying horse. In Defenders #12, Doctor Strange gives Val her new magic sword, Dragonfang, which was carved – not surprisingly – from the tooth of a dragon. A few issues later, new Defender Nighthawk uses his super-powered checkbook to buy Val a private riding academy for her winged steed. Pretty nice friends, kid.
Len Wein, who took over writing duties from Englehart prior to issue #7, gives Valkyrie one last little push to deal with those gnawing, unanswered questions.
Valkyrie appoints herself appropriately for civilian exposure, and, in issue #17, Strange enchants her sword so that it’s invisible until drawn. Thomas, Englehart, and Wein had all put various pieces in play, routinely peppering in narration that had reminded the reader that Valkyrie is a lost soul bound to a mortal host. But when it’s finally time to tell the story of Barbara Norriss, and her ephemeral connection to this Nordic hero, that task falls to Steve Gerber.
Who Is Barbara Norriss?
Steve Gerber may be best known as the Howard the Duck creator and Man-Thing champion, but his work on The Defenders in the 1970’s may have been some of the most influential comics work of the era. Former Vertigo editor Stuart Moore, in an introduction to a hardcover collection of Gerber’s run, cites these comics as a major inspiration for the wave of British comics writers of the 90’s. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine Morrison’s Doom Patrol or Gaiman’s Sandman ever coming into existence without the groundbreaking, off-kilter stories from Gerber’s early years at Marvel.
In his first few years on the title, he introduced us to the discomfiting sex appeal of Ruby Thursday of the nefarious Headmen. He confounded readers with random acts of murder committed by the infamous Elf With A Gun. And, in a storyline that relates directly to our pal Val, he spun a yarn involving the mind-bending mystery of a Celestial Harmonica.
Gerber’s saga that will go on to reveal more of Barbara’s origin begins in Marvel Two-In-One #6, a team-up between The Thing and Doctor Strange. A random group of strangers, including Doctor Strange and Clea, overhear a girl playing some kind of otherworldly tune on a New York City subway platform. As she is about to be struck and seemingly killed by an oncoming train, Strange saves the instrument (not the girl). Instead of getting splattered by the impact, however, the girl explodes into a cloud of colorful sparks, which envelop the gathered bystanders.
As it turns out, the girl wasn’t human at all, but a physical manifestation of the Destiny Force (also, she influenced Strange to save the harmonica, rather than herself; he wasn’t naturally that callous). The accident and resulting sparkle-bath causes each of those onlookers to adversely hasten a destined tragedy, and it falls to Strange and the newly involved Ben Grimm to intervene. In the case of Alvin Denton, a weary transient clinging to memories of happier times, his detour through Destiny’s path gets him escorted by The Thing to Cobbler’s Roost, Vermont, in pursuit of our old pal The Enchantress. Amora is still trying to weasel her way back into Asgard. The newest scheme? Snatching Strange’s celestial harmonica, and awaiting the convergence of fates occurring in this quaint little New England town.
See, there’s someone else waiting in Cobbler’s Roost. When Valkyrie changed into her civvies and set off in search of her host human’s identity, the path led to Vermont as well. No sooner does the Fantasticar enter the town’s airspace than Alvin spots Val… his daughter! Confusion and punches follow, as the Valkyrie has to fend off the embraces of an old drunk, while battling the Enchantress and the Executioner who are preparing to screw with Destiny.
Through timely intervention by our heroes, and a number of reality-warping melodies on the harmonica, order is restored and the villains are captured. When the dust settles, however, that poor old man has died of a heart attack.
Valkyrie returns her “father’s” body back to town so that he can be buried in his former home. While there, she runs into a number of people who recognize her as Barbara, including a police chief who uncovers the history of her current surname. Barbara was married to a Jack Norriss, who is still in town, and possibly still torn up about their break-up. The other person still in town, now alerted to Barbara’s presence, is the evil demon-worshiping Van Nyborg. Remember him? He tossed poor, young Barbara through the dimensional gateway in Hulk #126, which led to her union with the Nameless One and subsequent mental breakdown.
The plot thickens. Van Nyborg had recruited Jack Norriss and his young bride to the cult years ago, but he wasn’t the one pulling the strings. The real mastermind behind Barbara’s involvement was Celestia Denton, Barbara’s own mother. A horrible accident left the woman left for dead and disfigured, but thanks to her cult connections, she worked out a deal with the demons from beyond. Supposedly, the Nameless One was going to restore Celestia’s youth and beauty in exchange for a young female sacrifice. So this terrific bitch worked out a ploy to offer up Barbara. And it would have worked, too, if not for you meddling Defenders!
After Van Nyborg traps Valkyrie and Doctor Strange, the cultists make another attempt at appeasing their dark lords. Nighthawk and The Thing spoil the party, however, and in the ensuing battle the harmonica is crushed. Sister Celestia‘s harmonica, as it turns out. With wicked Ms. Denton’s magical mouth harp reduced to scrap, her life force is drained and the planar pathways to demontown are barricaded once more.
Valkyrie’s quest may have ended in Vermont, but her confusion now has simply given way to disillusionment and frustration. She goes to Barbara’s family home and pores over over old photos. She meets Jack, Barbara’s husband, who proceeds to follow her around, and back to New York, like a lovesick puppy. Valkyrie feels more alienated and disoriented than ever. As such, she becomes, like Howard the Duck or Nighthawk, a means for Steve Gerber to express his anger and general resentment towards an unjust society.
During the conflict with The Headmen, and a battle with the franken-freak Chondu, Valkyrie is arrested for trashing a midtown restaurant. Her subsequent incarceration, neglect, and abuse is a clear indictment against the criminal justice system. This sobering imprisonment subplot is sewn within a totally bonkers triple-brain-swap storyline involving a mystic, a guy from another dimension, and a baby deer (seriously). All this, while Nebulon recruits the sheep of humanity into his cult of Celestial Mind Control. He convinces folks to wear bozo masks and assassinate their psychic selves. Gerber’s stories don’t just seem weird in brief summation – they are weird. But it’s only by pushing the boundaries of an already absurd genre that the author is able to focus a lens on the damning parallels of our own reality. Again, see Morrison’s Doom Patrol.
Her fellow Defenders had been too busy to take notice of Val’s plight, so she had just been quietly dealing with the indignities of life in a women’s detention facility. Because of the Enchantress’s spell, furthermore, Valkyrie is unable to respond to the bullying of the female inmates. She can, however, sock the jerkass warden when he goes too far, and that sets off a riot in cellblock 12!
Kyle Richmond, AKA Nighthawk, bankrolls Matt Murdock, and Val’s charges are dismissed. The judge even commends her for her “role in quelling last week’s prison riot.” And when she gets home to Strange’s sanctum, her fellow Defenders, overjoyed at her exoneration, gift Val with a new, slightly less slutty costume. The celebratory vibe isn’t appreciated by everyone, however. Jack Norriss, still punishing himself by loitering around a woman who looks like his ex-wife but isn’t, won’t leave Val alone.
The Headmen & Nebulon saga famously concludes in Defenders Annual #1, an issue whose resolution spells out Gerber’s views on “the sad and raucous, noble and perverse, heroic and fool-hardy pageant of all mankind’s history.”
Ultimately, those views are impossibly conflicted. The cast of the Defenders becomes one man’s therapy session, each member echoing distinct grievances. But while folks like Valkyrie, Red Guardian, Jack Norriss, and Luke Cage give life to Gerber’s cynicism, he allows Doctor Strange to have the last say, the de facto leader of the team channeling the author’s inner optimism in a rebuke against Nebulon:
Man is a creature whose most despicable qualities often result in his most towering achievements. Rob us of the fool, the adventurer, the scoundrel — in short, the bozo — in each of our souls — and we are nothing. We attain our most glorious heights when we admit our ignorance… and forge onward to surmount it. – Doctor Strange (Steve Gerber), Defenders Annual #1
Gerber penned one more issue of The Defenders before moving on to focus on Howard the Duck. But he gave future creative teams a lot to think about, especially in regards to the displaced soul of Odin’s favorite shield-maiden. We finally know who Barbara Norriss was, but, oddly enough, we still don’t know much about the Valkyrie inside.
David Kraft and Ed Hannigan begin a three-part story in Defenders #66 that, together with Roy Thomas’s Celestials saga in the pages of The Mighty Thor, illuminates the origin of Brunnhilde of the Valkyrior. There is a war brewing in Valhalla, and Valkyrie is summoned home to Asgard. Odin had recently relinquished control of Valhalla to Hela, the Goddess of Death and your basic comic book super-villain (we’ll see her mucking things up in Ragnarok as well). But ruling the afterlife home of the honored dead proves to be a bit challenging for her. When Valkyrie arrives, she learns that an upstart asshat in a lizardhat named Ollerus has incited a rebellion in Valhalla. He’s recruited the nether realm witch Casiolena and a goof named Poppo to aid his army, and he’s got his sights set on taking over. Then, with Hela’s defeat, he looks to reign as the new God of Death.
Things get complicated, however, when Valkyrie has a visit with the Norn sisters, who show her a terrifying fate: Val will help Hela defeat the usurper, but instead of a thank you, Val will be cast into the eternal flames of Niffleheim. So her choice is to either let Ollerus take over, or help Hela and be banished. Brave, stalwart Asgardian that she is, Valkyrie accepts her fate, and goes forward to lead her Valkyrior guard alongside the army of Lord Harokin in the name of Queen Hela.
During the course of the battle, Val busts into lizardhat HQ, and makes a startling discovery. Poppo’s devious plan to thwart Hela involves capturing Valkyrie, and replacing her on the battlefield with another Valkyrie. Specifically, the crazy mind of Barbara Norriss in the body of the true Val, Brunnhilde.
So Barbara’s psyche had been transfixed in Asgard all this time, held in stasis in the immortal body of Brunnhilde, just as Brunnhilde’s persona had been animating the body of Barbara Norriss back on earth. Under the influence of Poppo and Casiolena, Barbara’s fractured mind is bent towards Ollerus’s evil demands, and the impostor heads back out into combat to sway the course of battle.
Of course, the true Val busts free and, with the help of the Defenders, the plot is exposed and Ollerus is defeated. Barbara-in-Brunnhilde (AKA Bad Val) is the one thrown into the flames of Niffleheim, thus validating the Norn vision. Ollerus is sentenced there as well, and Hela, in a sudden demonstration of regal responsibility, declares that she will be returning to that hellish realm in order to maintain order, and to ensure that Ollerus and Barbara Norriss don’t get any funny ideas. She abdicates rule of Valhalla to her general Harokin.
It seems a bit odd that Kraft & Hannigan decide to “restore” Valkyrie without actually returning Brunnhilde to her rightful immortal body. Everything about this brief storyline seemed to have pointed to achieving more closure for the character, but perhaps they felt obligated to continue the years-long tradition of jumbling up her identity for the next guy who comes along, somewhat like a B-list Wolverine. It’ll be years – again – before a new writer attempts to work out the Barbara-Brunnhilde puzzle, and, at that point, we’ll also get answers to the Enchantress’s role in all this.
It’s also quite odd that Valkyrie had existed in comics for almost a decade with nary an appearance outside of the Defenders books. Roy Thomas, who created the character, had been writing The Avengers since the late 60’s and The Mighty Thor since the mid-70’s, but Valkyrie may as well have been an X-Man for all the good her Asgardian lineage did her. Hell, The Champions wouldn’t even touch her.
When Valkyrie finally does make an appearance in her fellow Asgardian’s solo book, it’s in an unexpected fashion. In the middle of the grand, sweeping Eternals saga, Roy Thomas apparently thought it would make sense to include an adaptation of Richard Wagner’s The Ring of the Nibelung.
Wagner’s four-part opera cycle, which itself is based on Norse legends and epic poetry, is narrated to a perplexed Thor by the giant, disembodied eyeball of his father, Odin. In Thor #296, they discuss the second story in the cycle, Die Walküre (The Valkyrie), which, clearly, is the bit that concerns our dear Brunnhilde. The eyeball gives Thor a glimpse of the distant past, focusing on a distraught Viking named Siegmund who looks a lot like Thor. Easily explained, says the floating eye – that is you, Thor. Odin claims to have given his son that earthly embodiment a millennia ago, and has since erased the memory from his mind. Siegmund, as the comic’s faithful adaptation progresses, steals an abusive man’s wife, who happens to be Siegmund’s twin sister, and they fall in love and conceive a child. That doesn’t sit well with the gods (not the incest part, but the wife-stealing), so, prompted by Frigga, Odin reluctantly orders that Siegmund be killed. The agent dispatched to do the deed? None other than Odin’s favorite shield-maiden, commander of the Valkyrior, Brunnhilde.
Like Thor/Siegmund, Brunnhilde is also a daughter of Odin (and also not by Odin’s wife Frigga). And, as with Thor, the Brunnhilde running around in Barbara Norriss’s body lo these many years has no memory of her role in this epic drama. Brunnhilde, moved by the story of Siegmund and his twin/lover Sieglinde, defies Odin and tries to protect the hero. It falls to Odin, then, empowering the jilted husband Hunding, to slay Siegmund. Now the distraught Allfather has to deal with a dead son in Siegmund, and some kind of impending punishment for his daughter Brunnhilde.
Before accepting her judgement from Odin, Brunnhilde shepherds Sieglinde away, ensuring that she can bear her child safely. Then, Odin strips the immortality from his daughter, casts her into a magic sleep, and isolates her on a mountaintop surrounded by a ring of fire.
As the Thor series moves into the third part of the Ring cycle, Siegfried, we get a look at the titular character, who is the son of Siegmund and Sieglinde, all grown up and living with a creepy gnome. Siegfried also looks just like Thor and, surprise! That’s because he is also you, Thor, in one of those Odin-crafted mortal incarnations. You’re your own father… or something. No, you don’t remember any of this either, and no, this has nothing to do with the fact that maybe Keith Pollard has very little range when it comes to illustrating muscular blond Nordic dudes. I’m just a fucking eyeball. Listen to the story.
Siegfried’s adventures include crafting a magic sword, meeting his grandfather Odin in disguise, and slaying the dragon Fafnir, who had been guarding the magic ring that’s at the center of this whole musical journey. He then climbs the treacherous rock face protecting the slumbering Brunnhilde, braves the fire, and wakes the beauteous warrior with a kiss. It’s a shame neither Thor nor Brunnhilde have any memory of this heartwarming union and fulfillment of destiny. You kids look really happy! Maybe that’s because this little scene leads right into the next and final part of this Ring/Thor drama… The Twilight of the Gods!
Wagner’s final piece, Götterdämmerung, or Twilight of the Gods, refers, essentially, to the prophesied celestial war and end of the world, Ragnarok. But this story is more about the tragic end of the two lovers. Hypnotized by a love potion, Siegfried betrays Brunnhilde and is later killed by Hagen, who is scheming to recover the ring. Siegfried’s memory is restored just before he dies, so that he may lament his fate during those final moments. Brunnhilde, when she learns the truth, gallops her horse right into her lover’s funeral pyre. Fire and death; fire in Valhala; the end of all. Curtain.
In one of the plot differences from Wagner’s drama, the Odin in this comic book adaptation restores the lives of his dear children, channeling his Odinforce into the reincarnation of Thor and Brunnhilde. They’ll have no memory of their adventures as mortals, of course. At least, not until the floating eye gets all chatty. When the adaptation wraps up, in Thor #300, Thomas dives right back into the Eternals & Celestials drama, connecting the pantheons of human history to the cosmic brainchild of Jack Kirby.
You can’t go wrong with any of the three collections mentioned below. In addition, to get the full scope of Steve Gerber’s mad genius as displayed in The Defenders, the fourth Masterworks volume completes the opus.
|Barbara Norriss and Brunnhilde|
Marvel Masterworks: The Defenders, Volume 3 (2012)
The beginning of Gerber’s landmark Defenders run is collected in this volume, including the entirety of the Celestial Harmonica adventure that began in the pages of Marvel Two-in-One. This volume also contains some fabulous Atlas-era reprints that present the inspiration for some of Gerber’s Headmen, including Chondu and Gorilla-Man.
Marvel Masterworks: The Defenders, Volume 5 (2015)
This book features the best of Gerber’s Defenders: the crazy, convoluted, and thought-provoking tale of the Headmen, Nebulon, and the Cult of Celestial Mind Control. It also contains a reprint of the classic Howard the Duck treasury edition in which the wise-crackin’ duck teams up with the Defenders to battle the soul-crushing mediocrity of the Band of the Bland!
Thor: The Eternals Saga Vol. 2 (2007)
The Celestials are one of Jack Kirby’s finest creations, and this Thor storyline expands their mythos, tying them, and the Eternals, into the various pantheons of Marvel deities. It also contains the adaptation of The Ring Cycle, which is hands-down the best way to get yourself up to speed on this particular masterpiece of classical music. Read it, and impress your friends before a trip to the opera.*
So Brunnhilde, fabled valkyrie of the Volsung saga, is the same Valkyrie who was manipulated by the Enchantress, got zapped into the body of a crazy cultist, and spent a decade defending humanity alongside titanic superheroes like Doctor Strange and the Hulk. And that poor girl, Barbara Norriss, deserves recognition as one of the most sorely abused supporting cast members in the Marvel universe. Their stories aren’t over yet, and we aren’t even done filling in the gaps in Brunnhilde’s origin. How did a favored shield-maiden of Odin, leader of the Valkyrior, come to fall under the sway of the Enchantress? And, moving forward, will she ever get her body back? These answers (and more questions), in the next installment!
*if you live in the Bay Area, you can make plans for a week-long immersion into San Francisco Opera’s Ring Cycle, coming in the summer of 2018. Ticket and festival information: https://sfopera.com/ring/