Jan 18, 2016

Karnilla: Uncle Walt!

Karnilla The Norn Queen: An Irrational Love Story
Part 7 – Uncle Walt!
Ben Smith

For those still with me, I’ve embarked upon a valiant quest to explore each and every single appearance of the minor Thor supporting character, Karnilla the Norn Queen. I developed a deep and irrational love of the character when, in preparation for the release of Thor: The Dark World, I read for the first time Stan and Jack’s groundbreaking and amazing run where they created all these wonderful characters. I also reread Walt Simonson’s deservedly highly acclaimed run as the writer and artist on Thor. What makes my love irrational is that she’s never been anywhere close to a major character in the series, but she made a distinct impression on me nonetheless. So far, in the previous weeks of this retrospective, her appearances have been up and down in terms of quality, but she reached her peak under the pencil of a young Walt Simonson. Now, she would reach new heights under the full storytelling mastery of Walt as writer and artist.

Now usually, I write Back Issue Ben with tongue firmly in cheek, and a large dose of sarcasm. But when you’re in the presence of greatness, like Walt Simonson’s Thor, I’ll do my best with my very feeble writing skills to treat the material with the appropriate amount of reverence and awe. For Walt Simonson is our God, and we must all worship at the feet of his glory and wonder.

Praise be unto him.

THOR #341
Art and Story: Walt Simonson; Lettering: John Workman, Jr.; Editing: Mark Gruenwald

(The coloring has clearly been updated on these issues since I last read them, and I like the end result a lot. I know some are split on digital colors versus the original newsprint copies, but they need to get with the times, because digital is where it’s at. Sorry, I’ve been fully on the digital comics train for about 4 years. Either way, there’s a clear difference between this and the initial digital coloring effort.)

Karnilla makes her first appearance fairly early in Walt’s run as writer and artist, watching over her beloved Balder, who in his distraught state has wandered close to her domain. Balder is still a very changed man following his prior experience in Hel, and Karnilla demands that everyone in her domain know he is not to be harmed.

Walt really ups the sexiness factor of Karnilla here, compared to previous renditions. I would be lying to you if I said this wasn’t a factor in my love of her. There’s something about an evil and sexy bad girl.

I love Walt Simonson.

THOR #342
Pencils and Story: Walt Simonson; Inks: Terry Austin; Lettering: John Workman, Jr.; Editing: Mark Gruenwald

Karnilla pays a visit to Balder’s campsite. In contrast to previous comics, Walt’s superior storytelling skills adds an extra level of depth to their interaction here.

This in no way is an insult towards Stan and Jack, as they reinvented the entire template of modern comics storytelling. Thor seems like it is inexplicably one of their least talked about collaborations, when I personally enjoy it much more than Fantastic Four. But Karnilla was far from their most developed Thor character, and the kinetic energy of their Thor stories didn’t leave time for a lot of nuanced dialogue. The Thor comics were big and bold, over the top action. And honestly, female characters and romantic interactions were a little stilted in those days, just a product of the times. Karnilla actually speaks to him as a person, instead of a prize, and Balder speaks to her not on the defensive or in denial, but with truth. She offers him sanctuary, and leaves provisions for him should he decide to remain. No doubt her end goal remains ever the same, but her concern and friendly offerings have an air of sincerity that they previously lacked.

Walt Simonson is our God.

THOR #343
Art and Story: Walt Simonson; Lettering: John Workman, Jr.; Editing: Mark Gruenwald

Balder has accepted Karnilla’s hospitality, but keeps to himself. Karnilla curses Loki for damaging her beloved so drastically, and vows to make him pay. Yet, she wonders if Balder, as he is now, is still a prize even worth seeking.

It’s interesting how infrequently Karnilla has been used by all the creative teams in the history of Thor. Stan and Jack created her obviously, with her making appearances here and there all the way into the Buscema era. She just happened to be at her most prominent as a character in the series during Walt’s first stint as artist on Thor. I’m fairly certain that Walt loved, and took inspiration from, Kirby’s original stories, so I wonder if it was those, or his own prior work on Thor that made him want to use Karnilla. Anyway, it’s weird that she played a role in the two best Thor creative runs ever produced, and has appeared only sparingly otherwise.

Walt Simonson… is a really great guy by all accounts, outside of being a comic book genius.

THOR #344
Art and Story: Walt Simonson; Lettering: John Workman, Jr.; Editing: Mark Gruenwald

Odin’s wolf, Geri, arrives at Nornkeep to summon Balder back to Asgard. Odin has a mission for Balder, which requires him to deliver a letter to Loki. The mission ends up being fraught with danger, and forces him to break his newfound pacifism, all ultimately for naught.

After believing he has slain Loki, a furious Balder returns to Karnilla in Nornheim.

Being jerked around by Odin and Loki, despite his obvious and understandable grudge with the God of Mischief, probably made the possibility of leaving Asgard for Karnilla permanently seem a lot more appealing.

Walt Simonson… makes great comics. Seriously, go pick up Ragnarok.

THOR #348
Pencils and Story: Walt Simonson; Inks: Bob Wiacek; Lettering: John Workman, Jr.; Editing: Mark Gruenwald

While consulting with the legendary Norns, Balder holds his own thread of fate, and sees all the lives he has changed throughout his days, and all those he has not.

(As a comic art collector, I’d love to have an original page of art from Walt Simonson’s Thor. I’d seriously consider giving up one of my children in trade. I wouldn’t go through with it, but I would spend a fair amount of time agonizing about it.)

Walt Simonson… is swell.

THOR #350
Art and Story: Walt Simonson; Lettering: John Workman, Jr.; Editing: Mark Gruenwald

The Surtur saga is in full swing, and all of the realms are in the most dire of perils. (The Surtur saga, for those unaware, is arguably the greatest Thor storyline ever created. Thor’s subsequent trip to Hel is a solid contender also.) Balder pleads with Karnilla to send her formidable forces to aid the forces of good against Surtur. Predictably, Karnilla makes a familiar offer. She will help if Balder pledges his allegiance to her.

You may think this is heading into recycled territory, but stay tuned, my friends.

Louise Simonson is pretty darn great as well. They might be the greatest husband and wife duo in comics history. I want to be their ward.

THOR #351
Art and Story: Walt Simonson; Lettering: John Workman, Jr.; Editing: Mark Gruenwald

Karnilla has made her trademark offer, but this time Balder’s response is an absolutely brilliant bit of storytelling. Instead of hemming and hawing, or sullenly relenting, Balder simply laughs and tells her they are both too good to play these games, and promises to just let her get to know him instead.

At least that’s my interpretation of it, I could be wrong. I’ve never been the brightest bulb, or the tastiest cookie in the box. Man, now I’m hungry for cookies. Regardless, this is either him cheerfully agreeing to the deal, or Walt subverting reader expectations by having him offer her a different option. Either way, it was but a small example of how Walt was able to use previous comics, and their established behavior, and give readers something different than they were expecting. Instead of Balder sulking or reluctantly accepting the offer, he laughs… which is the first time that I can recall him ever doing so. Chubby Balder is so much better than stiff “all the good in the world” Balder.

Walt Simonson… seriously, I want to be his Dick Grayson. I’ll live in his basement if need be. No green panties though, that’s a deal breaker.

THOR #353
Art and Story: Walt Simonson; Lettering: John Workman, Jr.; Editing: Mark Gruenwald

As Beta Ray Bill and his forces are on the verge of being overrun defending Earth against the demons of Muspelheim, reinforcements arrive in the form of Balder, Karnilla, and her army of warriors.

Walt Simonson is… someone I sincerely hope I get to meet someday, so I can express to him in person how much I appreciate all the wonderful comics stories he has given us. (That got all heartfelt there, let me write something stupid… uh… farts, poop, dicks.)

THOR #354
Art and Story: Walt Simonson; Lettering: John Workman, Jr.; Editing: Mark Gruenwald

Karnilla and her army help make quick work of Surtur’s remaining forces. The battle is won and the day is saved. Balder and Karnilla depart back to Nornheim, to get to know each other better.

Walt Simonson is our God!

Walt Simonson, in a limited number of panels (panels, not pages — panels) added more sophistication and depth to the relationship of Karnilla and Balder than had ever been seen before. Much has been written and said about the greatness of Walt Simonson’s run as writer and artist on Thor, but exploring it through the context of these two specific characters really helped to highlight everything he added to the Thor mythos. He was able to build upon all those fantastic Kirby stories, and in my opinion improve upon them with more developed storytelling. Again, that’s no slight to Stan and Jack. Everyone that has worked at Marvel since is standing on the shoulders of giants, but storytelling can only evolve and improve over time, and Walt Simonson was truly an evolutionary leap. A perfect descendant of both Stan as a writer, and the King as an artist. Walt Simonson is a special talent, and one of the greatest writers/artists comics has ever seen. (If cornered and forced to say who was greater, Walt or Frank Miller, my answer would be to throw my burrito in their faces and run like hell.) My life has been made better by having Walt Simonson comics as a part of it, and for that I am forever grateful. (Also, while running away, I’d yell, “you left out Howard Chaykin!”)

Not only that, but his contributions to the character of Karnilla, my irrational love, are incalculable. Walt’s Karnilla is very close to being the only Karnilla worth reading, both his initial time as artist, and then as writer/artist. You can’t really say that about any other character outside of Roger Stern’s Hobgoblin. For that alone, let us all put our hands together, for in Walt’s name we pray. Amen!

Next week, the most substantial comic book appearance of Karnilla’s long history. Balder the Brave, the mini-series!

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