Sunday, December 19, 2010

I have bigger worries with Thor.

I'm going to level with you all right away, Thor was a tough sell on me from the beginning. While most of the people weighing in on the matter of Idris Elba as Heimdall--including, officially at least, the extremists themselves--refer to the characters in Thor as mere characters or even cultural icons, I'm not going to dance around it. I actually subscribe to a neo-pagan religion. Thor and Heimdall aren't just a name from old dusty poems or creations of Kirby, they're genuine spiritual figure for me. And while they are many different versions of the old myths and legends, and there's a big emphasis on discovering the essence of the Divine by parsing these different legends and seeing what has the most human truth to it, the Marvel version of Thor was a bit too far afield for me. I had the worst trouble getting past the beardless blonde Thor, even after differences like that were explained away by some generational or post-Ragnarok thing I still can't confidently repeat.

I managed to get a good jumping on point with JMS and I've read his run, some miniseries and some Silver Age reprints. I was impressed with the basic characters of Thor, Balder and the Warriors Three (who weren't in the original myths but seem like the sort of people who would have been so I love them) but had trouble getting past the treatment of the goddesses. The Asyniur (and Freya) were a really appealing part of the Norse pantheon. Fewer of their stories have survived, but this was genuinely a group of amazing goddesses that get sadly ignored at times. And in the Thor franchise, they continue to be ignored. I don't think I've seen Skadi or Freya--which is ridiculous because Freya is... Freya. It's insane to dismiss her. Valkyrie seems to be the only Valkyrie flying around.

Frigga's portrayal is what really annoys me. She's been consigned to the background and we never see her handmaidens. In the meantime her signature story, her story of motherly love that ends in the tragic death of Balder, was centered instead on Odin in the Silver Age. It's possible this has been retconned to a Frigga-centered story again but since we never see the Queen of Asgard say more than two lines I haven't seen it mentioned.

Of course there are some canonical goddesses who get speaking roles like Hela. Now, Hela as I originally saw her in my childhood reading was half-black and half-white. (Not racewise, I mean like those dudes in the original series Star Trek racial harmony episode.) Most of the sources describe a duality: half black and half white, half hag and half beautiful woman, half skeleton and half person, or half dead and half alive... either way, she's split down the middle like Two-Face and it's a damned powerful image. Even if they'd just decided black and white, they could still do the Beautiful death goddess but no... THIS was the first time I saw Hela:

I can deal with Kirby's green-clad fully-human-looking goddess (especially since she has such a cool headdress), but this shirtless shit has been the norm since JMS rebooted Thor. Every use of her, especially as a wicked plotter rather than the morally neutral indifferent Death Goddess (because comics writers hate Death Deities), makes me cringe. The Goddess of Death holds secret conspiracy meetings in her nearly nonexistant nightie. Fucking seriously. And Gillen had her running around in a draping halter top! And look what they have on her profile on their official site. (She rules one of the coldest of the 9 realms! WHERE IS THE REST OF HER SHIRT?!) It's a complete surrender of any mature examination of death in favor of Sexy, Sexy Danger.

I've allowed my recent issues to pile up due to the complete massacre of source material that occurred with the Disir. Now I'd always been under the impression they were the spirits of female ancestors who protect your bloodline and fall under the realm of Freya Vanadis, but it seems Straczynski and Gillen had other ideas. Seems they're creepy soul-eaters cursed by Odin who devour divine essence. Freya could not be reached for comment, because I still haven't seen her in any of the Thor comics. (Honestly, it is in-character for a love goddess to run around in a chainmail bikini but instead you ignore Freya and tart up Hela. I do not understand Marvel.)

That said, I have hope for the Thor franchise because I've read two volumes of Walter Simonson and his handling of Sif was nothing but pure joy. Shame JMS decided to toss her into a comatose body for several years.

My point is that eventually I managed to get away from desiring dogmatic adherence to the Eddas in favor of seeking a genuinely respectful portrayal of the gods. I do think for the most part they manage that with most of the gods and some of the criminally underused goddesses. Original characters (rather than twisting a persona into a story they aren't suited for) help a lot. There's some serious missteps, usually with the goddesses, but in general they treat them as an honorable society that's worthy of reverance and manage to capture the same personalities.

As a result, I'm actually rather optimistic about Idris Elba as Heimdall. Not just because I started laughing my ass off when I first heard (though I have been giggling about this impending freakout since April) but because they might be able to pull this off.

Don't get me wrong, I still feel that so-called Chromatic Casting ignores the real problems and probably isn't the way to make up for a history of white-washing in the film industry, but in this case I'm not exactly annoyed. We don't know the full story here and it could actually be part of the plot, (Like JMS having the Asgardians wearing mortal lives after Ragnarok.) If not, well, he's being played by an accomplished actor and so long as he doesn't get the same treatment Gillen gave the Disir I should be happy.

Of course, I might just be falling prey to some white liberal guilt, or prioritizing offense about gender over race, or maybe I just like annoying white supremacists.

Actually, it's probably just the last one. I still crack up whenever I think what their faces must've looked like.

ETA: Comics Alliance issued an apology for "where we suggested their gods were concocted by drunken medievals." Kind nice of them.


  1. I grew up respecting the Norse gods a whole lot, but haven't really read a whole lot of their Marvel Universe incarnations.
    Having said that, I have never quite understood why creators feel the need to twist the source material - when you've got a rich mythology full of really interesting and colourful stories, why would you want to change it? Anyone should be able to recognise Hel. That picture you posted, that's not Hel.

  2. I'm glad I read the full post, since my initial impulse was to rush down and say "Read Simonson's stuff, it's much better!" I'm not an expert on Norse mythology, so I can't say if Simonson's run on Thor hewed closer in that regard too, but I suspect it did. And yeah, I was bothered by Sif being made an invalid in JMS's run as well-it felt like an unnecessary mystery, especially when Thor transformed all of the sleeping Asgardians into their true selves. The reason for it was devious enough to fit Loki, yes, and I suppose that's enough of an explanation for why Thor couldn't wake her up as well. But it still didn't sit well with me to sideline her and keep teasing her absence.

  3. In all honesty, it IS pretty funny that Heimdall, of all the Æsir, is the one cast as a black guy. "Whitest of the gods", remember?

  4. Oh, that's interesting, I didn't know that much about Hela (or the Asgardian mythology in general), but there was a scene in this week's X-Factor where they show that half of Hela is rotting/dead (and she hides it). Now that scene makes much more sense, since it's probably referring to what you are talking about here.

    She's still pretty tarted up though.

  5. Alleged white supremacy aside, Heimdallr is the whitest of the aesir, has nine mothers, was born in sea foam, and is worth a lot more than PC stunt casting in a truly dire comicbook film.

    I have no time for neopagan hogwash either.

    Disr are wraiths- same indo aryan root word as provided the DM inscription on Roman tombs- dis manibus, and the intaker of the dead Dis Pater.

    Vanadis etc. aren't even Norse or cognate words and using them makes things less clear, less accurate- and of course much less credible.

    Marvel's deities are insultingly inaccurate, but since Lee Kirby Thor is a revival of an obscure golden age Thor character and not some loving refreshment of Norse myth- for reasons (Nazism) that should be obvious given Lee and Kirby's own antecedents and rightly so- Marvel Thor isn't and shouldn't be confused with Norse "myth".

    Particularly absent in Marvel mythology is not so much the classic portrayals of hranakar but more significantly the utter absence of the underlying mystical meanings. Without them their sterile comicbook tales of Thor really are nothing more than soulless puppet shows.

    And to the makers of the Thor film and similar travesties- the forces you tamper with are quite real. What you pray for you will receive so beware your mocking ways.

  6. Mymyr -- Impressive. Surely you've heard this one:
    "About his intelligence no man should be boastful; rather cautious of mind"

    You know the lingo and the etymology, but I'm not convinced you know what you're talking about. If the gods will be so offended by the performance of a black man, what will they think of one of their professed followers going to a stranger's hall, denouncing their host's values, and then presuming to declare what insults the gods and how they will react to it?

  7. When I read the Marvel Thor adventures I don't really regard the characters as representing the actual Norse gods, but as being kind of similar cosmic beings that may have inspired, been inspired by, or be refractions of the Scandinavian gods.

    I don't know what the official canonical position is, but I definitely take Marvel Thor and Odin to be a completely different type of character from, say, Ares and Zeus when they pop up in Wonder Woman comics (where they are more clearly intended to be the same entities as worshiped by ancient Greeks).

    I read the Asgardians are (not coincidentally) much more like the New Genesis/Apokolips characters, or the Celestials or Inhumans, and it always has felt to me like a kind of ... audience error to read them as if they were the same entities worshipped by ancient Norse.

    (The above in not meant to excuse or condone unnecessary shirtlesseness).

  8. I must admit that when I was fourteen or thereabouts I had a terrible crush on Marvel's Thor. I also mooned after John Denver, but that's neither here nor there. But this was back when John Buscema was doing the art, and it was fabulous. And HIS version of Hela was fully clothed. And she wasn't even evil really, just a Death Goddess, who really really loved her job.

    And yes, the Warriors Three are a whole lot of fun. I must admit that my mind was boggled when they had the Enchantress turn out to actually be Idunn. Never saw THAT coming!

  9. "Marvel Thor isn't and shouldn't be confused with Norse 'myth'."

    Nailed it!

  10. Van -- Yeah, but too bad he went on to suggest that the filmmakers were nonetheless going to suffer the wrath of the gods.

  11. I'm also a Heathen, and consider myself something of a devotee to Hel/Hela. I like the dicotomy she has too, with the light and dark aspects, though I tend to see her more as a beautiful woman rather than the crone (or occasionally as a perky goth girl, for some reason). I honestly don't think she'd mind the look she's got in the Marvel comics. I'm sure she'd rather keep the dual skin tone, sure, but there's nothing wrong with being beautiful and flaunting it. As you said, chainmail bikinis are standard fair in the myths, for all intents and purposes, and the ancient Norse certainly didn't have the hang ups about modesty we do today.

    I'll admit I was personally a bit rankled by them casting a black guy as Heimdall. Not because I have something against the actor, or even black people, but because it just seemed kind of disrepectful. We can all laugh gleefully at the racists whining about the "race lift" or whatever you wanna call it, but I wonder how many of us would find the same humor if a movie was made staring African mythology and they cast Anasi the Spider with a White actor (who from my understanding, as about the same level of hero worship as Thor does in the Norse). I'm sure we'd be seeing a lot less laughing and a lot more foaming at the mouth. I'm not that hung up over it, and I'm looking forwards to the movie, but still, I wish for the equality of respect that we show to be shown to us.