Four Color Primer: Valkyrie, Part 4

Taika Waititi’s highly anticipated Thor: Ragnarok opens in theaters this weekend, and the hype engine has been revving ever louder for the indie filmmaker’s first Hollywood blockbuster. Among interview bon mots like Waititi’s stance that he’d love another chance at an MCU film, so long as it’s Thor, because he doesn’t “really like any of the other characters,” is buzz regarding Marvel’s first openly LGBTQ character, Valkyrie, played by Tessa Thompson.

boom! – nice to meet you

We’ve been detailing Valkyrie’s comic book backstory and, if you’ve been following along since the first installment, know that this unnecessarily in-depth primer is finally getting wrapped up. Thanks for sticking it out. If you’re here for the first time, welcome as well! And if Valkyrie’s bisexual orientation is what steered you here, then you’ve arrived at an opportune time. This four-part series on the Nordic shield-maiden is, ostensibly, a guided reading list of key storylines. In the process, however, we’ve shed some light on how the visions of various creative teams, over several decades, can shape and define a character. Her sexual orientation, for example, really came into focus within the last few years.

When last we left Brunnhilde of the Valkyrior, she had finally been restored to her true form, body and mind in the same place for the first time in centuries. Her memories were no longer muddied with those of mortal hosts like Samantha Parrington or Barbara Norriss (may she rest in peace); her powers of enhanced strength and combat skill had become more pronounced; and she was leading (at least in her own mind), the “New” Defenders. And then she died. Again.

Back Issue! #65, the B-Team edition

This was an editorial mandate to free up all those former X-Men for the launch of X-Factor. Without Beast, Iceman, and Angel, there was very little rack appeal for The Defenders, and the series was ticketed for cancellation. Despite her lengthy tenure on the team, Valkyrie really didn’t have a life outside of that title, so she was sadly sacrificed along with super-nobodies Interloper, Andromeda, Gargoyle, and Manslaughter. In an interview for Back Issue, Peter B. Gillis bemoans the premature demise of the team he had been building.

My long-term plan was to populate the Defenders with my own crew of characters… characters who nonetheless had ties to interesting parts of the Marvel Universe. Andromeda, while not the Sub-Mariner, gave me a connection to Atlantis. – Peter Gillis

Even though he didn’t get his chance to develop that crew, including some remarkably stupid characters (“I fell in love with Manslaughter as much as Don [Perlin] did. He was definitely going to stay a member”), Gillis found a way to bring back Valkyrie et al, in the pages of another book he was writing, Doctor Strange: Sorcerer Supreme.

The storyline that dropped the curtain on The Defenders involved the aforementioned heroes giving up their lifeforce in order to stop the Dragon of the Moon. In Sorcerer Supreme #3, we learn that those brave heroes were still defending, endlessly combating ethereal foes in the afterlife. It’s a good thing they’re still around, since we also discover that the galactic demon isn’t as vanquished as we’d hoped. Doctor Strange finds a way to summon his former teammates, invoking them into humans, much in the same way that Valkyrie first found her way into folks like Samantha and Barbara.

the Defenders return as the Dragon Circle in Doctor Strange: Sorcerer Supreme #3 (1989)

The Defenders come back, Valkyrie in the body of a Welsh student named Sian Bowen, and they form a new team – the Dragon Circle – to best the Dragon once and for all. Once the threat has been neutralized, however, the souls of the heroes return to the land of the dead.

Val comes to help Ghost Rider with an onslaught of Furies (1996)

This device is used several times in the late 80’s and early 90’s, allowing Brunnhilde to guest star in various second-rate books and mini-series. Doctor Strange sacrifices a sherpa (!) to procure a day and a night of Val’s assistance in the new volume of Strange Tales. She inhabits Victoria Bentley to help another possessed mystic warrior in the pages of Black Knight. She answers the summons of Jennifer Kale to fight alongside Johnny Blaze in an issue of Ghost Rider. And Brunnhilde even zaps herself into Dani Moonstar of X-Force to battle the Dark Elf Malekith and rescue her Valkyrior sisters in some random ’97 annual.

Victoria Bentley as Valkyrie in the Black Knight limited series (1990)

These itinerant appearances didn’t help advance Valkyrie’s story, to say nothing of the impact these second-rate guest spots were having on her status as even a B-list superhero. With The Defenders done, and little interest in Thor or even The Avengers around that time, Brunnhilde was in real danger of fading into obscurity. That’s when Marvel brought in J.M. DeMatteis and Len Wein, two writers who had developed Valkyrie during various Defenders runs, to revive the character in a 1997 one-shot.

the ’97 one-shot that can be safely ignored

This book looks slapped together, mashing up pages from different artists, and it clearly doesn’t worry overmuch about continuity in Brunnhilde’s story either. It opens with a woman who looks like Barbara Norriss dreaming about being a Scandinavian warrior who can sense someone’s imminent death. Sure, Barbara’s form died when Val was shot in the back by one of August Master’s minions, and her soul was carted up into the heavens by Love, but maybe she was resurrected? It happens. Except, no, this is the real Brunnhilde and the person whose memories she’s somehow retained – a different Barbara Norriss – committed suicide in an offpanel backstory. At least one brave Internet blogger has suggested that perhaps Love resurrected Barbara… only to see her killed off again. Your No-Prize is in the mail. And it’s been chilling in the Dead Letter Office for twenty years, because none of the story elements in this abortive rag were ever revisited, not even the explanation as to why Brunnhilde is restored, adventuring on Midgard once more. It might be best to forget it exists.

It’s a shit comic that Marvel hasn’t even bothered to digitize, and can safely be ignored, save for two points. One, it’s nice to know that someone in charge felt like the character was interesting enough to showcase once more (even if it took several years for her to star in a regular series again). And, two, this story more firmly establishes that, as a member of the Valkyrior, Brunnhilde can sense when someone’s life was about to end, and she has the power to shepherd departed souls to Valhalla. This had always been a part of her powerset, but after making this an integral part of the story in this issue, Valkyrie does a lot more death-spotting in the coming decades. Which makes sense, of course, since that’s what a valkyrie is supposed to do.

Defenders Vol. 2, #1 (2001)

In 2001 the dream team of Kurt Busiek and Erik Larsen took the reins on a new volume of The Defenders, for a criminally overlooked and underappreciated twelve-issue run. The series starts with old nemesis Yandroth cursing the dysfunctional quartet of Hulk, Sub-Mariner, Doctor Strange, and Silver Surfer. These super-frenemies, each of whom would much rather work alone, are jinxed into forming the team that none of them ever wanted to happen.

The series, in its brief run, captures all the humor, bombast, and weirdness of the greatest Defenders stories. Busiek seems to revel in his chance at playing in the non-team sandbox, and anytime you can get Kirby devotee Erik Larsen to draw The Hulk, you’re fixin’ for a good time. But simply bringing the titans together, or rolling out the Headmen, doesn’t make this a Defenders book. We need the dangerous spontaneity of Nighthawk, the fiery Hell-tainted tenacity of Patsy Walker, and, of course, the sword-swinging bravado of Brunnhilde the Valkyrie.

Busiek explains in one page what it’s taken me four blog posts to muddle through

But this creative team realized something else about those best Defenders stories. The Valkyrie that was so much fun to work with and who added such an interesting dynamic to those teams, was the one who didn’t really know who she was, or what she was meant to be doing. The confused Brunnhilde rummaging through the life of a woman she’d never meant, drawn to adventure and heroism, but never fully able to come to terms with her estrangement from Asgard. So when it came time to put her on the team, they opted for another Valkyrie.

I like to think that when this idea was first pitched, someone handed Busiek that ’97 one-shot and said, here – some of the work is already done for you. And he tossed that comic book right in the trash and said, no. Barbara Norriss is dead. We’re going with Samantha Parrington.

Brunnhilde on the left, the new Valkyrie (Samantha Parrington) on the right

Remember her? The second appearance of the character, way back in 1971, featured the Valkyrie persona inside the body of young activist Samantha, the daughter of the wealthy Manhattan socialites who tried to throw a fundraising party for the Hulk. Busiek establishes the existence of two Valkyries. The one, true Brunnhilde, we’re not messing with. She’s back leading the Valkyrior doing important immortal things, like she’s supposed to. This new Valkyrie (or, newly restored Valkyrie) was created by Amora’s sister Lorelei at the behest of Pluto, who was going to use the empowered mortal to wreak havoc on Earth.

the “fun” Defenders, from Busiek & Larsen’s vol. 2

The Samantha-Valkyrie breaks free from her manipulators’ control, and, as a member of the newest iteration of The Defenders, adds the right amount of fun and crazy to the mix. She even gets her folks to bankroll an HQ. The series ended with the twelfth issue, and even though Busiek & Larsen tried to tidy things up with a subsequent mini-series, this classic off-kilter non-team concept was back-burnered once again, where it’s remained, simmering, for almost fifteen years. At some point the publisher will likely collect or digitize these stories. Until then, mine the back issue bins for some early aughts Marvel majesty!

Meanwhile, what’s going on with Brunnhilde? In 2004, Marvel was getting ready to push the reset button on their Avengers line, and all affiliated titles got caught up in the “Disassembled” mandates. For Thor, that meant Ragnarok: the destruction of Asgard, and death of all the gods, Thor and Brunnhilde included.

Secret Avengers #1 (July, 2010)

As part of J. Michael Straczynski’s Thor reboot in 2007, Asgard returns as a city floating over Broxton, Oklahoma. But there’s no sign of Valkyrie until 2010’s Heroic Age initiative. Ed Brubaker, one of the great Marvel architects during this era, debuted his Secret Avengers series with Mike Deodato Jr., featuring a Steve Rogers-led team of cloak & dagger super-operatives that included, surprisingly, Valkyrie.

This was indeed the one true Brunnhilde, operating once again as part of a mortal band of Midgard protectors, rather than as an agent of Odin or soul-shepherdess to Valhalla. Issue #14 of that series, written by Nick Spencer, offers a new spin on her origin, flashing back to a time before she was that renegade shield maiden who was moved by Siegmund’s plight. No stranger to defiance, a young Brunnhilde opposes Odin during an ancient attack against Midgard and, moved by her devotion to a mortal, the Allfather bestows the powers and responsibilities of the Valkyrior upon her. It’s a much-needed update to her backstory, and one that also helps explain away why so many of Valkyrie’s adventures over the decades involved defending humans rather than serving Asgard.

Odin’s first meeting with the mortal Brunnhilde (from Secret Avengers #14)

In 2010, another Valkyrie one-shot was published, this time with the explicit intention of validating her return, and establishing her identity as Brunnhilde, and not another random perplexed mortal host.

Valkyrie #1 (November, 2010)

Interestingly enough, this issue seems to suggest that her long history of connections with mortals is the reason Brunnhilde was restored following the destruction of Asgard. Now with the shimmering city returned (albeit over Oklahoma), and all things Thor-related more popular than ever, it was a good time to capitalize on the character.

Matt Fraction’s Fear Itself may have been a dud, but it did good things for our pal Brunnhilde. In the aftermath of the event, with eight magic hammers wielded by The Worthy sprinkled around the globe, Brunnhilde races against Sin, the evil daughter of The Red Skull, to collect the potent artifacts.

Fear Itself: The Fearless #6 (March, 2012)

Sin obviously wants to use them for her own wicked ends, but Brunnhilde is tasked with returning the hammers to Asgard. This spin-off series, The Fearless, was scripted by Cullen Bunn and gave the writer his first taste of the character, sending her all over the globe to battle friends, enemies, vampires, whatever. It’s a fun romp, and sets up the debut of his Marvel NOW! series, which was not only one of the best titles of that initiative, but easily one of the best Valkyrie books in almost thirty years.

Even the title of the book, Fearless Defenders, is a loving mash-up of the greatest years of Brunnhilde’s comic book life with her newfound restoration as a preeminent heroic badass.

Fearless Defenders #4 (July,
2013)

In the first arc, Valkyrie is tasked with re-forming the Valkyrior in order to stop the Doom Maidens, an undead troupe of valkyries gone bad. The team she assembles is actually a group of mortals, which turns out to be as much Defenders as it is Heroes for Hire, featuring Misty Knight, Dani Moonstar, and archaeologist Annabelle Riggs. Annabelle’s lack of superpowers doesn’t prevent Val from planting a massive kiss on her face in the first issue, reaffirming that, especially in the heat of battle, Brunnhilde has a thing for mortals, men and women.

Annabelle learns not to get too attached

That series came to a close with issue #12 in December of 2013, marking the last time Valkyrie fronted her own book. She’s still around though, making the rounds as a guest star once again.

Val has lunch with old buddy Patsy Walker in Hellcat! #2 (March, 2016)

In a recent issue of Patsy Walker: AKA Hellcat!, in fact, Brunnhilde visits with her bestie to rally the superfriends against the return of none other than Casiolena, the nasty sorceress that crossed paths with The Defenders waaay back in issue #4, and again in #66.

There isn’t much Valkyrie to read between 1986 and 2010 (unless you can dig up back issues of the Busiek & Larsen Defenders run), but these three trades contain the best of the modern Brunnhilde.

The Modern Valkyrie

Fear Itself: Secret Avengers (2012)

Earlier volumes of Secret Avengers focus on Brubaker’s black ops adventures, which are a lot of fun. This third volume, however, featuring stories by Nick Spencer and Cullen Bunn, has that Valkyrie origin tale, which is almost worth the price of admission alone. It also plays in the Fear Itself waters much more effectively than the parent series itself ever did.

Fear Itself: The Fearless (2013)

Speaking of great Fear Itself stories that aren’t the lame main event series, this massive trade contains the entire twelve-issue chase around the world to reclaim the Hammers of The Worthy. It’s a little formulaic and loose-ended, but the art is great and the Valkyrie action is on point.

Fearless Defenders Vol. 1: Doom Maidens (2013)

There are two volumes of Bunn and artist Will Sliney’s Fearless Defenders, but this first one, with all the wonderful Asgardian business and monster maidens is the only one to worry about. The second arc suffers from too many event tie-in mandates (a problem with many burgeoning Marvel series these days), and then the book was canceled.

It goes without saying that comic book origins, backstories, and overall characterizations are forever malleable. Indeed, like the myths and legends on which Brunnhilde is based, the story has as many variations as there are storytellers. And despite spending an inordinate number of weeks poring over the storytelling directions of various comic book writers and artists, I won’t ever say that there is a definitive take on Valkyrie or a certain approach to her character.

I applaud Tessa Thompson for affirming that her version of Valkyrie will be as bisexual as her Fearless Defenders iteration, but I also look forward to a fresh vision, and a new design. We love comic book creations, but we also love the creative process. If this trip down the Valkyrie rabbit hole has taught me anything, it’s that an appreciation for superhero culture, the modern mythology, is nothing without the efforts of the modern mythologists, actors and screenwriters included. Cheers to Taika and Tessa, Chris and Mark, and you too, Kevin Feige. Kudos to the current writers who keep unspooling those Norn threads. Here’s hoping that the bigscreen attention gets Val some love on the comic shop racks again. And a special thanks to the late, great Steve Gerber, Len Wein, and John Buscema. Your honored seat in Valhalla has long been assured.

Other Four Color Primers:
Colossus
Psylocke
Black Panther