Tessa Thompson joins Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, and Cate Blanchett as the sword-wielding Valkyrie in this November’s Thor: Ragnarok. There are many wonderfully succinct character bios available on the Internet that can illuminate her powers and backstory, but this isn’t one of them. This is part three in another ridiculously verbose Idle Time primer on Valkyrie, and if you’d like to get caught up, start with part one. If you are up to speed, and still reading these posts, thank you. I had no idea this little journey through oddball Marvel comics from the 70’s and 80’s would result in more than 10,000 words on an admittedly minor character. I’ve grown quite fond of Brunnhilde of the Valkyrior, to be honest. Regardless, I need to think about wrapping it up. But not before an in-depth look at the next writer responsible for putting his stamp on the character.
Over the course of a decade, beginning in 1970, a handful of writers and artists took this concept and design, which began as nothing more than a villainous blind for Amora the Enchantress, and began to flesh out a complex and compelling character. She is Brunnhilde, leader of Odin’s nine valkyries, immortalized in popular culture by Richard Wagner’s Ring cycle. For reasons as yet unclear, she was held captive by Amora, with her persona and powers bent to the sorceress’s will. Eventually that persona was permanently embedded in the body of a human woman, Barbara Norriss. In turn, Barbara’s psyche was trapped in Brunnhilde’s body, still held captive by the Enchantress. Brunnhilde fought nobly for years, while inhabiting Barbara’s body, as a member of the Defenders. During a war in Valhalla, the immortal body of Brunnhilde animated by Barbara’s psyche was damned to Niffleheim, and Valkyrie, as she was now known, went back to the hero business seemingly devoid of the psychic feedback and confusion that had been linked to Barbara Norriss (although she still happily made use of Barbara’s body).
She was still a member of the Defenders, and this famous “non-team” title had been a wonderful below-the-radar outlet for trippy forays into non-traditional stories, social commentary, and general experiments in superhero team dynamics. The next major creator to play around in the Defender sandbox was J.M. DeMatteis and he, much like Gerber before him, used this series to explore themes that may not have gone over as easily in a mainstream book.
Gods & Goddesses, Death & Rebirth
DeMatteis’s later work, particularly on books like the Moonshadow graphic novel and DC’s Spectre, clearly showcases the author’s interest in spirituality and humanity’s place in the universe. But a look back at his earlier books, including a Defenders run that began with issue #92, reveals a related fascination with religious iconography, the psychology of faith, and the concept of an immortal soul. What better instrument of exploration than Valkyrie, a character herself inspired from human religious beliefs, right?
Wrong. As DeMatteis launches into his first lengthy storyline, “The Six-Fingered Hand,” Val takes a backseat to recent Defenders recruits Hellcat, Devil-Slayer, and Daimon Hellstrom, as well as Gargoyle, a character first introduced in Defenders #94. The Hand in question is an alliance of demons, captained by Mephisto, looking to unleash literal hell on earth. Hellcat, our dear Golden-Age Patsy Walker, reveals that she might be the daughter of the devil, and that she was sold into demonic servitude… by her mother! What a great opportunity for Valkyrie to sympathize. After all, the human body that she’s running around in belonged to Barbara Norriss, who was sold off to a cult of demon worshipers by her mother.
But no. Throughout this storyline, replete with demonic possessions and satanic pacts, Valkyrie is a minor supporting character, operating almost exclusively in the background. You begin to get the impression that, had he been able, DeMatteis would have written her off the team. Even in the climactic battle, in Defenders #100, Mephisto separates her along with Clea and Silver Surfer, disregarding their worth as “children of other worlds” to be “consigned to an eternity as nothings — in a realm of nothing!”
A few issues later, and it almost seems as though DeMatteis gets his wish. In the aftermath of a battle against the Captain America villain August Masters, a stray minion fires off a hand cannon right into Valkyrie’s back. Within a few pages, there’s a full-on superhero funeral, and then we’re back to the Sanctum for more teary farewells. She’s dead, Patsy. And just as you gals were starting to really connect.
But that J.M. is a sneaky monkey, because this wasn’t meant to be the end of Valkyrie’s story, but a new beginning. Not only does the author tidy up some holes in Val’s origin, but he establishes her identity more firmly for the future, and even offers some spiritual solace for the poor, abused Barbara Norriss. Like a Bond villain insisting that the birth of a new and better world can only occur once our existing civilization has been razed, DeMatteis has to destroy Valkyrie in order to truly recreate her. Wipe away your tears, my friends. This resurrection won’t take long.
If his first arc on Defenders was an exploration into Judeo-Christian symbology and beliefs, then DeMatteis’s second major storyline can be seen as a deeper look into more universal ideas about religion, afterlife, and the spirit. We’ll get harpies from ancient Greece, Hanuman and Rama from India. Pagan seances, pentagrams, and crosses. Ancient aliens that devolve into a ball of nihilism after a fruitless cosmic quest for meaning, and modern aliens on a far-flung planet that revere a musical flower. And in the middle of it all, the Valkyrie of Norse myth alongside her longtime nemesis, The Enchantress.
Before Defenders #107 even draws to a close, Patsy is visited by Valkyrie’s ghost. As we know, the body that was killed and buried belonged to Barbara Norriss. The spirit of Brunnhilde, however, is trapped in Limbo until she can be reunited with her true form which, as we’ll also recall, remains captive in Niffleheim. As soon as Patsy convinces her superfriends that she’s not crazy, they get to work on summoning Val’s spirit from the beyond. Times like this it’s helpful to have folks like Daimon Hellstrom, Son of Satan, on the payroll.
They reach out to Brunnhilde’s spirit, but with her body still trapped in another realm, the ghostly vibes get sucked into the next most sensible receptacle: Val’s sword, Dragonfang. And once that’s taken care of, Amora the Enchantress makes a grand entrance, snatches up the sword, and demands aid from the Defenders lest Brunnhilde’s true form be destroyed forever!
Amora has been hunting the Rose of Purity, a mystical bloom that will enable her to finally achieve her heart’s desire. And what she’s really been after all this time isn’t power, or wealth, or any of the standard aims of villainy, but love.
Not love with just anyone either, but love with Love. That is, a physical embodiment of love in the universe. Fascinating little ploy, really, and something that helps evolve Amora beyond her two-dimensional Silver Age origins. A woman whose principal power, essentially, is to manipulate men by falsifying love, now finds herself unable to connect with true love. Her mastery of this emotion has only ever been an empty ploy, and, in a way, it’s prevented her from truly knowing what love is. Anyway. I’ll leave the philosophizing to DeMatteis; it’s what he’s best at. Suffice to say that the Enchantress is jonesing for this enrobed Love fellow, and she needs the Defenders to help her get him.
It’s at this point that we finally learn the details regarding Amora’s control over Brunnhilde. Remember, since Valkyrie’s very first appearance in Avengers #83, the Norse goddess’s persona had been a plaything of the Enchantress, partially released from that servitude in Defenders #4 and only fully released following the War for Valhalla in Defenders #68. So how’d that enslavement come to pass? While hunting the Rose on behalf of the Enchantress, the Brunnhilde-possessed Dragonfang remembers an encounter with the Asgardian sorceress from millennia ago.
After Odin swore to no longer interfere in the affairs of Midgard (see The Eternals Saga referenced in the last installment), the Valkyrior were an aimless lot, and Brunnhilde, apparently, was pretty bored. Amora steps in at an opportune time and promises adventure-filled gainful employment. The young, naive shield-maiden becomes a hired sword for the Enchantress, but soon realizes that she’s working for a treacherous villain, and emphatically tenders her resignation.
Amora had been expecting Brunnhilde to wise up eventually, so she springs a carefully prepared trap on Valkyrie, imprisoning her body in a mountain and manipulating her spirit via a mystical orb. This is how things played out for centuries, until circumstances required that Brunnhilde’s spirit possess the body of crazy Barbara Norriss. And now, almost eight years after Defenders #4, the Enchantress offers our heroes a chance at making Valkyrie whole once again.
Helping reunite Brunnhilde’s spirit with her body, however, would mean relegating the soul of Barbara Norriss to eternal damnation, and many of the Defenders, including Dragonfang the Talking Sword, aren’t down with that. So when our heroes confront Amora in the story’s climax, the tables are inevitably turned: Brunnhilde is restored to her rightful body, Enchantress is poised to get her ass kicked, and the soul of Barbara Norriss? That’s the best part. Love lifts her up where she belongs! He chooses her, and not The Enchantress. Double burn, Amora. All that’s left now is for a little payback. Hundreds of years, even for an immortal, is a long time to be domineered. So Valkyrie is understandably pissed. Defenders #109 is one big knockdown dragout melee appropriately titled “Vengeance! Cries the Valkyrie!”
Not only does Brunnhilde defeat the Enchantress, but she enacts some sweet revenge in doing so, trapping Amora within the same spirit-sphere that had been used to control Valkyrie all those many years. She passes the ball to Doctor Strange for safekeeping. Everyone knows that guy has plenty of room in his house for random mystical shit. There’s also this weird moment at the end of that battle when Valkyrie gets this crazed look in her eyes, exulting in her victory. It seems out of place at first, but in subsequent issues of The Defenders, DeMatteis will flesh out some new personality traits for Brunnhilde, spotlighting them through the reactions of the other characters.
There’s more at play here than simply aligning Valkyrie’s persona with the archetypal bellicose Nordic warrior, although that does seem to be part of it. It was odd, after all, that a character who should have been so closely linked to Thor rarely appeared alongside the God of Thunder over the years, and the only time she had really been featured in his book was during that flashback Ring adaptation. Moving forward, DeMatteis seems intent on rightfully defining Valkyrie as an Asgardian immortal, and the first step towards doing so is to confront Odin.
She asks the Allfather what we’ve all been wondering up to this point. Or, at least, what DeMatteis had been chewing on during his tenure on the series. If we accept that Brunnhilde isn’t just the leader of the Valkyrior, and not just Odin’s favorite shield-maiden, but actually his daughter, then how can she have been ignored for so long? Her body, trapped, paralyzed in a rock mount for centuries. Her essence, appropriated, bent to the will of a two-bit, depowered sorceress for decades. Her character, neglected, relegated to the has-been roster of Marvel’s Defenders for years, like a thirty-five year-old minor league pitcher still looking for his chance to break into The Show.
Brunnhilde dominates this exchange, and, in the span of a few pages, finally becomes the wholly formed character that had been disjointed and conflicted for years. Odin doesn’t have any excuses, and, instead offers a heartfelt apology. It’s a maturation moment for Valkyrie, that point at which a daughter realizes that her father, an Allfather no less, is fallible and, even if impossible to forgive, worthy of love. It’s an emotional scene, and one that offers an impressive degree of closure for Valkyrie, summing up a convoluted origin story and setting the stage for a more clearly defined future, devoid of identity crises and powered by self-determination and free will.
It’s a nice maturation moment for DeMatteis too, if you ask me. His jaunts through heavens and hells, representations of human spirit, and metaphysical examinations of love and justice are wonderful examples of how expansive the superhero playground can be. But bringing this all back to a conversation between a daughter who proudly sets off on her own, and a father who can do little more than gently weep, may be his most effective storytelling to date. In fact, I hardly think it coincidental that one of his greatest books, the graphic novel Moonshadow, a coming-of-age tale of a boy coming to grips with his absent alien father, is published just a few years after this issue of The Defenders.
J.M. DeMatteis had the longest run on The Defenders, scripting more issues than Steve Englehart and Steve Gerber combined. Along the way he gets to do all the wonderful stuff that we’ve come to accept as normal on this historically abnormal title. There’s an attempt at making sense of Gerber’s Elf With a Gun; an adventure of Seussian proportions; and plenty of existential hand-wringing, particularly when Null the Living Darkness makes a repeat appearance.
But perhaps more importantly, he is afforded plenty of time to develop Valkyrie’s character. This turning point, in which her body and soul are restored and she confronts Odin, occurs midway during DeMatteis’s time on the series, and right away, the author starts laying the groundwork for what will come to be the definitive Brunnhilde.
Patsy, her closest friend on the team, is the first to notice the change. Others pick up on her attitude switch as well – more resolute and authoritative – which is accompanied by a more consistent use of the flowery style of speech usually employed by Thor. In a discussion with Beast, who keeps pushing the idea that the Defenders become a proper super-team, Val very matter-of-factly states that, if they were a real team, then she would obviously be the leader.
There’s an attempted romance with Namor, which comes in stark contrast to her dalliance with Jack Norriss during the Gerber run, or even the advances of Nighthawk. In both of those cases, Valkyrie naively goes through the motions, but the attraction is clearly one-sided. In the Sub-Mariner, Val finds a suitor who is more her equal, both in power and status. Things don’t work out, unfortunately, as Namor claims his heart belongs to his “long-dead Lady Dorma” and has no room in his life for a partner.
The more significant relationship, moving forward, is reaffirming the friendship she had established with Patsy Walker. Patsy had been the most bothered by this “new” Valkyrie, particularly in regards to the way Brunnhidle seemed to relish combat. And, maybe secretly, she’d had enough with the “verilys” and “enow villains!” Lord knows that’d get my eyes rolling.
Hellcat largely keeps her feelings bottled up, however, until Defenders #117 when she tells her former bestie that she doesn’t seem to be the Val she knew, but a total stranger.
After a little heart-to-heart, Valkyrie explains to Hellcat that, despite her recent changes, nothing is more important to her than the bond of friendship that they share. As with the exchange with Odin a few issues earlier, DeMatteis allows these quiet moments to profoundly inform our understanding of this character. She is a warrior-goddess, fully formed and newly restored. But she is also a collection of adventures and interactions experienced as a displaced spirit in a human body.
Later on, however, DeMatteis uses Valkyrie to enact a major direction shift on the title, in preparation for the ill-fated “New Defenders.” Now that she’s patched things up with Odin, and been established as a bonafide Asgardian, Brunnhilde is summoned back home for a special mission.
Odin places Heather Douglas, Moondragon, in his daughter’s care. Moondragon, crazy cosmic telepath raised by the monks of Titan, who also happens to be the daughter of Drax the Destroyer, had just been placed in Asgardian custody after attempting to forcibly instill peace in the minds of a planet’s entire populace. So Odin pawns her off on Valkyrie. You know, seeing as how we just patched things up, and you seem to be pretty well adjusted now to life on Midgard… maybe you can deal with this insanely powerful bald woman? Teach her a few things, yeah?
Around this time, the series was entering a major editorial shift. Hellcat and Hellstrom are getting married and moving on. “Founding” members Strange, Namor, Silver Surfer, and even the Hulk are written off in an epic time travel tale. The Defenders, like an SPCA for stray superheroes, have gathered in no fewer than three castoffs from the original X-Men team. And one of those former students of Xavier, Henry McCoy, the boisterous Beast, who had also bounced away from a stint with the Avengers, finally gets his way. After more than 125 issues of refusing the appellation, The Defenders were a team for reals. And the only member with any kind of veteran status at all, our dear Valkyrie.
DeMatteis sticks around for one more story arc, once again bringing in concepts from his Captain America series by pitting these New Defenders against Professor Power and the Secret Empire. By the time the series is turned over to Peter B. Gillis, a different editorial mandate was working against our heroes.
In the mid-80’s, where Marvel was concerned, the X-Men were king. Not the original X-Men, mind you. Beast, Iceman, and Angel were still slumming it on the New Defenders roster, while Claremont, Cockrum, and Byrne’s Uncanny gang of mutants proceeded to revolutionize comics.
After Phoenix dies, Cyclops and Professor X are the only original members on the X-Men, fighting alongside new fan favorites Wolverine, Storm, Nightcrawler, and Colossus. But the popularity of that series renewed interest in the old roster, and Marvel capitalized on the opportunity by bringing back Jean Grey, and launching another mutant book to run alongside Uncanny X-Men and New Mutants. The decision to give the original X-roster its own book, X-Factor, meant the end of the line for The Defenders. They were about to lose half of their team, and nobody back then gave a crap about folks like Gargoyle or Moondragon. Nobody even now gives a crap about a clown named Manslaughter or the Atlantean has-been Andromeda. And Val? Well, I guess folks figured she’d find her own way eventually.
The beginning of the end comes courtesy of Moondragon, and a demonic creature who conveniently goes by the name Dragon of the Moon. The evil entity wants to take over the earth, obviously, and it does so by possessing Heather Douglas. To aid her guardianship of Moondragon, Odin had afforded Valkyrie some enhanced powers, and, thanks to that boon, as well as the assistance of the rest of Brunnhidle’s Valkyrior, the team is initially able to drive the demon away.
But the series was ticketed for cancellation, and Gillis had his marching orders. So, following a Secret Wars II crossover, in battle against a powered-up re-possessed Moondragon, every member of the Defenders who is not also a former X-Man teams up, sacrificing his or her lifeforce in order to defeat the Dragon of the Moon. Issue #152 is the last for The Defenders and the curtain closes on the dusty remnants of Valkyrie.
The following three trades sums up a good portion of the later years of Valkyrie’s adventures with The Defenders, including the bulk of DeMatteis’s work.
|Valkyrie and The Last Days of The Defenders|
Defenders Epic Collection: The Six-Fingered Hand Saga (2016)
This giant trade paperback contains the full “Six-Fingered Hand” story, which has much more to do with Son of Satan and Hellcat than anyone else on the team. But you also get the Captain America crossover and, most importantly, the three-issue arc in which Valkyrie has her final faceoff against the Enchantress.
Defenders Epic Collection: Ashes, Ashes (2017)
Another massive collection of Defenders stories courtesy of DeMatteis and Don Perlin. Along the way you’ll see our heroes help the Squadron Supreme deal with the Overmind, appreciate the development of Valkyrie, and bear witness to the group’s transformation into a “team” of New Defenders. Also, this volume contains the bizarre attempt at explaining the Elf with a Gun.
The New Defenders Vol. 1 (2012)
The Epic collections are great, as they collect big issue sequences in full color without worrying about a consecutive release schedule like the Masterworks line. But until they publish another Defenders Epic book, this out-of-print trade, the first as the “New Defenders,” is the only way you can appreciate the end of DeMatteis’s run on the title. Contains the whole Secret Empire adventure.
These are comic books, of course, and no one stays dead forever. (Even stupid characters like Manslaughter get resurrected.) This also wouldn’t be the first time Valkyrie has had to cheat death. Brunnhilde spends the next few decades enduring a shitshow of anthology vignettes, one-shots, and guest appearances, but there is a light at the end of the tunnel for one of my new favorite Asgardians. We’ll catch you up to speed in the fourth, and what I promise to be the final, installment of the Valkyrie primer!
In related news, I’m happy to report that Brunnhilde finally rates a Funko POP bobblehead! It’s a Walgreens online exclusive featuring the character’s comic book design, and not the Tessa Thompson movie version (although I’m guessing that one isn’t too far off).