• THOR #361:


    Thor leads his forces past Garm into the gates of Hel (see cover). Their journey last nine days and nights. At last they approach Gjallerbru, the bridge across the River Gjoll which marks the boundary of Hel itself. Modgud, the bridgekeeper, grants them access. Once inside, they are surprised to find an idyllic, heavenly landscape. Soon, the Executioner is greeted by the image of the Enchantress, who tells him that she was killed by Heimdall in a fit of rage when he realized Amora would remain true to Skurge. He vows revenge, but the Enchantress convinces him to stay with her in Hel always.

    Just then, the deceased loved ones of all the Einherjar begin to appear. They convince the warriors to abandon their mission and, two-by-two, wander off into the mist. [Back in Asgard, Sif anf Frigga discuss the Althing to determine the next ruler of Asgard, which will happen as soon as Thor returns from his mission.] Then Nanna appears to Balderand Sif appears to Thor, but Thor sees through the ruse, revealing "Sif" to be Hela before she is able to touch him. Then he uses the power of Mjolnir to dispell all of the other illusions. The loved ones of the Einherjar are real, but they are under Hela's control and must do her bidding. (I'm not sure what the case it with the Enchantress, since she is not really dead.) The Einherjar are being led to the CLiffs of Death by their loved ones. Some have already fallen, and Balder is next, but he snaps to his senses just in time. Then Thor challenges Hela to a wrestling match, wagering his soul against those of all the mortal souls wrongfully held there. She accepts, and he prepares by donning the Iron Gauntlets of Thor, which extend to his shoulders. Then he rips his cape and fashions it into a mask to protect himself from being touched by Hela during their contest.

    Back in Asgard, Volstagg has a joyous reuntion with his children. Fandral and Hogun are with him, and all bear gifts for the children.

    In Hel, things are not going well for Thor. At the height of vicious battle, Hela rakes her nails against Thor's face, tearing his mask. Thor is in excruciating pain and is slowly aging to death, but rallies and tears Hela cloak from around her neck, also revelaing her scarred visage. Her cloak is the sole means by which she can depart her realm. Without it, she is as trapped as her subjects. Thor threatens to rip her cloak in half if she does not concede victory. She concedes, and Thor is returned to health. (His face, however, is still hideously scarred.) During the fighting, Nanna had told Balder that she never loved him, but she now admits to Thor that she only said that so that Balder would return to Asgard, otherwise he would have stayed with her in Hel forever. She wanted Thor to know, but asks him to keep it from Balder.

    Balder returns and blanches at Thor's appearance. Thor uses the rest of his cape to fashion a mask which will hide scarred lower half of his face. Then they and the Einherjar set off for Asgard, but Hela thinks, "And this victory is thine, Thor. But think not to tell the tale of your triumph in the mead halls of the Golden Realm... for the road from Hel is more dangerous than you could know, and in the end, Hela shall hold everything in her hands!" The "next issue" blurb foreshadows that "some of those who rode to Hel do not ride out again!"

  • Thank goodness for the scene on Asgard with Volstagg to help alleviate the dark tones of the main storyline.

    This is one of the issues featured in Walt Simonson's Mighty Thor: The Artist Edition from IDW.

    • I have heard that Walt Simonson has kept all of his returned original art pages over the years, making things such as "Artist's Editions" relatively easy to compile.

  • Before continuing on to the next summary, I would like to pause briefly to sing the praises of Thor letterer John Workman. In addition to his distinctive style of lettering sound effects, his balloon placement works with the art to flawlessly lead the eye from panel-to-panel, often in unconventional ways. This occurs to me now because I am also currently reading Don McGregor's Black Panhter, in which Rich Buckler and Billy Graham often employ unconventional storytelling techniques, but the caption placement often works against the artwork, leading me to sometimes read panels out of their intended order. So hats off to John Workman!

    • Workman has long been one of my favorite letterers. I actually bought one book -- Turf, by Jonathan Ross and Jean Paul Leon, because he lettered it! True, Leon's art was gorgeous, but I wasn't familiar with Ross, and even though I liked the premise -- aliens vs prohibition-era gangsters -- I wasn't quite willing to trust it. But then I flipped through it and saw Workman's lettering, and realized that even if it was over-written, all the words would be glorious to look at. And so I picked it up, and had no regrets -- it's a fun series. 

      I met Workman on my one trip to San Diego Comic-Con, in 1997. He was walking down an aisle, and I noticed his nametag and stopped him to compliment his work. He was pretty surprised! As distinctive and accomplished as his style is, letterers don't get a lot of fan acclaim. I met him again at Baltimore Comic-Con last year, and picked up a trade paperback of Roma, a story he wrote and drew which was serialized in the early issues of Dark Horse Presents back in the 80s. I haven't had a chance to read it yet, but I'll check it out soon!  

  • THOR #362:


    Thank goodness for the scene on Asgard with Volstagg to help alleviate the dark tones of the main storyline.

    You won't find any of that in #363, Kevin; it's pretty relentless from start to finish!

    It opens with Thor and the Einherjar preparing to depart Hel. Hela appears in order to taunt them one last time. She causes the Executioner and the Enchantress to appear in hope of goading Skurge into some rash action that would release her from her oath, but her plan backfires. Balder reminds him that that are in Hela's realm and nothing is what it appears to be. This convinces Skurge to use his axe's ability to "cut through any disguise to reveal the truth beneath." I'm not quite certain how that works, but you can't argue with the results: the ""Enchantress" stands revealed as Hela's "doxy," Mordonna, who pretends that she, Hela and Skurge have been in cahoots all along. The Executioner loses his temper and destroys Naglfar, the ship made out of the fingernails of the dead, which has been under constuction since the dawn of time and will one day be used to sail the dead to Asgard to destroy the Gods, which causes Hela to completely lose her %#!t.

    "My ship! My beautiful ship!" she screams. "Thor! This is your fault! Had you never come to Hel, Nglfar would be nearly ready to sail upon the seas! I swore I would let you leave with the souls of the mortls! and leave you shall... as a corpse!" She shoots a bolt at Thor, which Balder deflects with his sword. then she realizes that Balder is the only one who knows the way out of Hel, and redirects her attack at him instead. Agnar rises to Balder's defence, but before Hela can strike, Thor hits her with his hammer. they all begin to retreat, with the forces of Hela in close pursuit. It is then that Harokin and the Einherjar break out their M-16s and open fire. As they approach the Gjallerbru, the golden bridge which crosses the River Gjoll, Modgud, the bridge's silent guardian who job it is to greet to arrivals as well as to prevent those who would escape Hel from returning to the land of the living, abandons her post for the first time ever.

    But the bridge is also a bottleneck, through which Thor's forces cannot pass quickly. Someone must stay behind to keep the Warriors of Despair from overtaking them. Thor volunteers for that mission in hope that perhaps his hammer will yet win him passage through to the upper worlds. Suddenly, he is attacked from behind and knocked unconscious by the Executioner! Before Balder can react, Skurge appeals to him in one of the most humanizing speeches a villain has ever made.

    "They made a fool of me, Balder. They laughed at me. Everybody laughs at Skurge. Hela, Mordonna, even the Enchantress I love. They all laugh at me. Except you. Balder is too kind to laugh at Skurge. But whenever they laugh, I hurt inside, maybe I die a little. Now I think I am dead already. And my axe was destroyed with Ngalfar. So I will stay behind and the last laugh will be mine. You and Thor have a drink when next in Asgard, and laugh Skurges last laugh together. I will hold the bridge."

    Balder promises him that drink, and arms the Executioner with three M-16s and all of the ammo they can spare.He defends the pass for three bloody pages, then his image gradually fades away over four panels into white. 

    Somehow, their journey back is not as long and dark as their journey in, and they soon find themselves at the entrace to Hel, and after fighting their way bast Garm, their mission is over. Balder takes his leave and rides off into the pages of Balder the Brave #2, while Thor returns the souls home.

    Walt Simonson's Thor is one of my go-to re-reads, but every time I do, I tend to start over at the beginning (as I did this time, even though it's been only four years since I read them last), whether or not I read the entire run in its entirety the time before. (Oftentimes my attention wanders elsewhere before I make it all the way through to #382.) When I I post reactions to something I have read, I try to divide my comments equally between summary and commentary, although I realize I have leaned more toward summary these last several posts. That is because it has been a long time since I last read the post-Surtur issues, and I'm just enjoying them without trying to "analyze" them.

    • Yes, Thor 362 is a another dark story - it does take place in Hel after all. Still, the visuals of Asgardians in battle with the weapons of Midgard is oddly satisfying.

      And I agree wholeheartedly with the comments regarding John Workman. He makes a valuable contribution to this material as an artist in his own right. 



    Today we move away from Thor to cover the rest of the Balder the Brave limited series. In order to help speed the discussion along, I am gong to try to cover the three remaining issue in one day.

    The issue opens with Karnilla awaiting Balder's in Nornkeep and regratting the way they parted. Suddenly a rider appears on the horizon. It is Balder returning from Hel! She greets him with a kiss and a warm embrace, but immediately realizes that this in not Balder at all, but a magically alterered doppleganger sent as a diversion to mask the attack of Utgard-Loki's Frost Giants. They quickly overcome the palace guards, and Utgard-Loki releases magic dust which turn the inhabitants of the entire realm to stone. When Utgard-Loki learned of Odin's disappearance, he immediately set into motion plans to conquor the Golden Realm by first attacking Asgard's allies. First on the list was Karnilla's realm. Utgard-Loki chains her, gags her, cuts off all her hair, and takes her back to Jotunhein as a captive slave.

    By this time, Balder and Agnar are approaching Nornkeep and discover the inhabitants of the realm have been turned to stone. A little bird tells Balder that the Frost  Giants are on the march, and Whiteface the Eagle (whose sight is keener than Balder and Agnar's, able to pierce illusions) offers to be their guide. they soon arrive and find evidence of the giants' attack: a disgarded axe and Karnilla's shorn locks. they set out in purrsuit, with Whiteface leading the way. At one point, Whiteface indicates that what appears to be a chasm is in fact solid land, and vice versa. Balder trusts the eagle and spurs his mount across empty air, but Agnar prefers to trust his senses and rides across what he thinks is solid land. It's not, and he loses his horse in the process. Next, Whiteface indicates they should ride into what appears to be a solid cliff face, but Agnar blanches at the idea of fighting against illusions rather than stell. Balder rides ahead leaving Agnar behind, but Agnar soon joins him.

    Meanwhile, after being forced to scrub floors and do other drudge work, Karnilla is brought before Utgard-Loki, who changes her into a bird. Before she can fly to freedom, Utgard-Loki thrusts her into a cage. He is trobled by a strange sense of unease which tells him there is something in Jotunheim which does not belong.

    As darkness falls, Balder and Agnar make camp beneath a frozen stand of trees. They are soon approached by Rattusk, one of Karnialla's demopn-guards (whose life was saved by Balder in #1) who escaped the giants. He knows a hidden entrance into Utgard-Loki's castle, too small for giants, and offers to show them the way. Balder folows, against Agnar's warning, while Agnar waits in camp. He eventually dozes off but is awakened by Balder's return. the behavior of the birds, however, warns him that this is not Balder, but rather te same kind of doppleganger which fooled Karnilla earlier and lead to her deafet and capture. He defeats the doppleganger, and follows a bird he believes will lead him to Balder. He soon comes upon a body, covered with Balder's cloak with his healmet lying nearby.



    Agnar quickly discovers that the corpse is not Balder after all, but rather Rattusk wearing Balder's cloak. From the footprints, Agnar determines that Balder must have given him his cloak for some reason, and he can quess why. A flashback reveals that Rattusk led Balder to a secret passage and suggested that Balder go in first and that he would follow and hide the entrance. Feigning fear of the dark, Balder insists that Rattusk lead the way. Noticing Rattusk shivering, Balder laons him his own cloak and helmet to "keep him warm." Rattusk walks right into his own ambush, but the three giants who mistakenly killed him cand find no trace of Balder. Assuming that he fed, little do they know he is clinging to one of their boots. 

    Once within the castle, Balder starts to explore. In a scene dripping with irony, Balder finds a sparrow (Karnilla) locked in a cage, presumably for the giants' sadistic amusement (Balder assumes). He frees the bird, but it is unable to fly due to its wings having been clipped. "Would that I could find Karnila as easily!" Laments Balder (verbal irony). the bird attempt to communicate with Balder but, despite the fact that he speaks the avian language, he cannot understand what the bird it is saying. He sets the bird atop his shoulder and sets out to "search for [his] heart" (situational irony). Soon the temperature grows cold and the bird falls from his shoulder. As he holds it in his hands, they begin to glow, "Life-giving warmth suffuses from my entire body!" he observes. He is radiating both heat and light, which he assumes is some after-effect of te training program he undertook with Agnar. After the phenomenon as passed, the wounds he sustained in Hel have been ealed and he feels entirely rejuvenated.

    Meanwhile, Utgard-Loki's sense of uneasiness grows. He sets out to check on Karnilla and finds Balder and the bird, which rallies despite its clipped wings and attacks Utgard-Loki. the bird is no match for the giant, obviously, and he transforms her back to human form. Holding her as hostage, Utgard-Loki insists that Balder accompany him back to the great Hall. Meanwhile, Agnar is still searching for Balder, and Whiteface shows him a secret entrance into the castle. 

    Balder finds himself in an arena, with Karnilla suspended from her wrists high above. Because it would be "unfair" to pit Balder against a giant, Balder's chosen opponent is Hagan of Trondgarrd, who is only "a little giant" after all. But Balder recognizes Hagen's weapon as the long lost Sword of Frey, on of the deadliest weapons in all the Nine Worlds because it fights by itself and cuts through any defense. They begin to fight but, in addition to weilding a charmed sword, Hagen is a skilled fighter in his own right. Blader then removes his hauberk and fashions it into a sap. When Hagen attacks, he uses it to hit him in the face, which gets past the sword's enchantment because it is defending against Balder's sword, not his shirt. Then Balder takes further advantage of the sword's enchantment by tossing it away. When the Swaord of Frey goes after Balder's sword, Balder uses the opening to grab Hage by the wrists. They graple, with Balder eventually applying enought pressure to cause Hagen to drop the Sword of frey. Now they are both weaponless, but Hagen has another sword. But Balder is the master of many forms of combat and lays Hagen low with a right cross. 

    Just then, Agnar appears from an alcove above and throws Balder a rope. Before he can climb to saftey, However, Utgard-Loki reminds him that Karnilla is still his hostage and he will kill her unless they both surrender. the "next issue" blurb foreshadows that things will not end happily ever after in issue four.



    Without saying a word. Balder hurls the Sword of Frey to Agnar, who understands that he is to hold it in trust and use to to get the word to Asgard about the Frost giants' impending invasion. Utgard-Loki continues to use Karnilla as a negotiating chip, forcing Balder to surender. He orders Balder be taken to an ice cell for holding, but has no intention of keeping him alive. As soon as Balder is out of earshot, Utgard-Loki orders three of his giants to sneak into his cell and kill him. Then he sets about casting spells to make it cold enough in Jotenhein to freeze and warm-blooded creature and to cause all roads to magically lead  Agnar back to his castle. He keeps Karnilla chained, gagged and helpless with a jar while he works his magic.

    Meanwhile, Agnar has had a rough time of it. His trail has already let him back to the castle once. Then Whiteface appears and he allows himself to be led away, purposefully stepping off an illusory cliff to safety. Elsewhere, the assassins enter Balder's cell only to find that he has melted his way through the wall using the same heat-generating power he displayed last issue (evidentally a byproduct of being in the vicinity of Karnilla). He makes his way to Utgard-Loki and disrupts a table, spilling chemicals which start a fire as a distraction. He springs to the tabletop and breaks the jar holding his lady love. By this time, Utgard-Loki has put out the fire and throws his deadly forever dust at him, which will turn him to stone, but Balder uses his newfoud power to incinerate the dust before it touches him. Then he to glows so hot that he not only causes the castle to begin to melt, but he also weakens the giants, which causes them to shrink in size until Balder and Karnilla tower over them.

    Karnilla attempt to wreak her revenge, but Balder stops them, allowing them to flee. after her ordeal, she doesn't have the energy to trasport them, so they bundle up in furs and set off for Nornrealm. Soon they come upon the body of Rattusk, but Balder tells her that the demon sacrificed his life for Balder, dressing in his clothes to lay a false trail for the giants to follow. He says that rattusk would not have done this had Karnilla not showed him mercy in issue #1. They prepare to depart, but Karnilla insists upon a proper burial for Rattusk, plus she has enough magin available to mend Balder's smashed armor. By this time, Agnar has reached Nornkeep, where he is surprised to see a shadow moving amonsg the statues. He draws his sword, only to find Hugun the Grim, who has come to deliver a message to Balder.

    Hogun recognizes the Sword of Frey, which will not tolerate the unjust. "When last we met, warrior," he says, "you were a callow youth. Now I percieve a marked change in thine eyes." Balder sees to Agnar's horse while Agnar, who has not eaten for several days, has some food. Agnar tells Hogun what happened in issue #2-3, and Hogun tells Agnar that the Great Althing has been held in Asgard, and that Balder has bedeclared the new Lord of the Realm. (This has happened/will happen in Thor #365-366.) Hogun leaves a note for Balder, stuck to a door with his own dagger, but decides it is more important to carry Agnar's news to Asgard than to search for Balder. (He trusts Balder will escape on his own.) 

    While Blder and Karnilla make camp for the night, he explains to her that showing the giants mercy was the proper course of action. For one thing, they will now live in shame rather than die as martyrs; for another, other giants will learn of their fate and think twice about attacing the Gods of Asgard. Then he begins to speak of Karnilla's duties to her people as ruler. They were loyal to her, but she should also, in turn, be equally loyal to them. she is unfamiliar with Giant magic, but she picked up a lot she didn't know from watching Utgard-Loki prepare his spells, and perhaps she can work to retore her people to flash-and-blood. Then next day the arrive at Nornkeep, but it Karnilla who finds the note intended for Balder. She becomes incensed at the news that he has been appointed ruler of Asgard, but gives the note to him anyway. 

    His duty forces him to leave, and her duty forces her to stay. Back in issue #1, she witheld the Sword of Frey from him, which in turn was looted by the giants. Had she given it to him then, she realizes, this entire situation might have worked out differently. Having learned her lesson, she lets him go and her him her ring. They kiss and Balder takes his leave.

    "Save the hoofbeats of Balder's steed, there is no sound at all in Nordrealm as Balder the Brave rides forth into the day, to assume the mantle of Liege Lord of the golden Realm of Asgard. And at night, the only sound is that of of the rain softly falling within Karnilla's chambers." With that, Balder rides off directly into Thor #367 (but I'm reading these slightly out of publication order, as I explained in an earlier post). the issue ends with a double-page pin-up of Balder, Karniall, Agnar, and the entire cast of the mini-series.

    And that's the end of Balder the Brave. Sorry it's been all summary on my part and little commentary... 'cept to say the entire series was drawn by Walt Simonson's designated fill-in artist, Sal Buscema. Sal's work on Thor is somewhat different from most of his other work (perhaps because he's inking himself). I remember at the time Sal commenting that his work on Balder/Thor best represents his "own style." He also ponied out that he never draws the covers of the books he pencils, but I don't remmeber why. Does anyone know?

    Tomorrow I'll be back with Thor #363 and the crossover with Secret Wars II (ugh).

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