Ask Chris #183: Thor And The Casket of Ancient Winters
Q: Since you hate Frozen so much and are stuck in an ice storm, what are some good stories about snow and ice? -- @prograpslady
A: Those harsh words I had for Frozen are going to follow me to my grave, aren't they? Listen, I'm glad you like your little movie about ice puns and slapstick snowmen and I would never take that enjoyment away from you. I just like things that are, you know, good. It's not necessarily that you're wrong, it's just that I have more sophisticated and refined tastes, which is why I like the finer things that cinema has to offer. Like, say, any movie that prominently features a dirtbike or karate.
Anyway, it's true: As I write this, I'm bundled up in a Batman snuggie (the blanket with sleeves and a utility belt) with snow on the ground and ice on the roads. This, of course, is pretty unusual for my home state of South Carolina, so I've been thinking all day about stories where a bitter winter plays a central part -- and really, there's one that stands out right at the top of the list. From Walter Simonson's Thor, the story of Malekith and the Casket of Ancient Winters.
To be honest, there actually is a little bit of a competition for this particular title. "Soft Targets" from Brubaker, Rucka and Lark's Gotham Central is probably the single greatest Joker story of all time, and it takes place in the middle of December. It's actually one of the core elements of the Joker's plot, something so intricate and well thought out that it really makes you hope that Brubaker and Rucka's respective nemeses never drop them into a vat of acid and set them off on a live of thematic crime. Uh, for reasons other than just generally not wanting awful things to happen to them, I mean.
Still, as much as the plot revolves around the Christmas shopping season and involves a snowy Gotham City, I don't know that I'd really call it a comic about winter weather. I definitely wouldn't call it a Christmas comic, even though it climaxes two days before Christmas Eve, a date that's very specific and necessary for how it's constructed. With Thor, though, the idea of ice and snow as a force that's opposed to the heroes, something deadly in its own right that's been manipulated to make a bad season worse, is right there at the forefront.
And it also has the benefit of being part of the single greatest run in superhero comic book history.
Saying that Simonson's Thor is a masterpiece is a little like pointing out that snow is cold, but it's always worth remembering how well that book is put together. It's an epic in every sense of the word. Not only does it sprawl out over the course of four years with stories that, for the most part, are built around one continuous story, but that story is one that's cosmic in scope. This is a comic where the very first words of the run are "Far beyond the fields we know, the core of an ancient galaxy explodes."
That's not just set dressing, either. The destruction of the Burning Galaxy is the act that sets everything that happens in Simonson's Thor into motion, because it's the first step in Surtur's plan to invade Asgard. That is, after all, the focal point for the run, building for an entire year before it happens and then providing the fallout for everything that follows.
But for being a story that's so cosmic, it's also amazingly intricate. There are things set up in the first issue that don't come back for a year, or that return at odd moments, breaking up the narrative to return to "far beyond the fields we know" for two pages, then cutting back right back where it picked up. Even the way that those scene shifts are built into the story is brilliant, with Simonson using page turns to cut away for two pages at a time, juggling multiple storylines that are eventually going to come together and then weave back apart. He shifts from Thor to Balder to Volstagg to Sif, juggling different variations on the same theme, and one of the interesting things about that is how he plays with time when he does it.
The stories are told to us concurrently, cut together to form one single narrative, but they don't take up the same amount of time for the characters. Volstagg, for instance, relates the story of Balder fighting his way back from Hel over the course of three or four issues, during which several days pass for Thor:
I don't think we're meant to believe that Volstagg is sitting on Agnar for an entire week -- it's not exactly out of the realm of possibility, I suppose, but I doubt that Volstagg would miss that many meals. Instead, the cuts back and forth are meant to tell two stories whose themes parallel each other, while also heightening the drama by providing a way to cut from one to the other when the tension is at its highest. These comics are gripping when you read them all together in a paperback 25 years later; I can only imagine what it was like to get it once a month.
In case you can't tell, I'm a really big fan of the technique on display here, but the single best thing it does is construct a narrative where everything follows logically. Everything that happens in this comic has its consequences, everything has a reason, and every action has its inevitable fallout, which is pretty important when you're trying to construct a story of mythological proportions that involves prophecies being fulfilled.
Surtur destroying the Burning Galaxy and beginning construction of the Twilight sword makes a great splash page, but it's also what destroys Beta Ray Bill's people, sending Bill out into space to find them a new home and leading him to Thor, leading to him battling Thor, getting his powers and becoming an ally, leading in turn to him leading Asgard's forces in the battle for Midgard* (*: Earth) during "Ragnarok 'n' Roll," but those are just the immediate consequences. The forging of Twilight is also what stirs up Fafnir the Dragon...
...who kills Eilif, the Last Viking, sending him to Valhalla as the Last Hero, completing the army of Asgard and heralding Ragnarok. There's an intricacy at work, a story that fits together perfectly, and that finally brings us back to the Casket of Ancient Winters.
In any other run, I have to imagine that the story of an ancient enemy who was exiled from the nine worlds in ages past returning to find an artifact that could unleash the fury of the past ice ages onto the entire world would be a pretty big deal all on its own. And in Simonson's Thor, it is a big deal -- but it's also just a small part of Surtur's master plan.
See, Surtur needs Malekith to open the Casket of Ancient Winters to freeze the barrier keeping him trapped in his kingdom so that he can shatter it -- that's the immediate consequence -- but he also needs it to unleash the hellish winter on South Carolina Midgard in order to keep the majority of Odin's forces busy, complicating their battle against the fire demons that he sends down as part of a three-pronged attack. But even that is really just a distraction for its true purpose, planning the ultimate sneak attack by allowing the god of fire giants to unleash a primal cold on Odin, trapping him:
That's a great set of consequences. It's surprising for the characters and the readers, but in a way that makes perfect sense within the logic of the story, and it lays out clear stakes for multiple sets of characters involved in the story. It's not just about whether Thor can get to Asgard in time to save his dear old dad, it's also about whether the Human Torch and Roger Willis can get to the shards of the casket and put it back together in time to free Odin and turn the tide.
Beyond its importance in the larger story, the stuff about the Casket of Ancient Winters is still great. The idea of a golden box that contains all the cold of winters past is the perfect kind of mythological McGuffin, and Malekith, a sinister shape-shifter drawn from stories of faeries and the wild hunt is a great counterpoint to Thor himself. In a lot of ways, he's Loki Lite™ -- in the same way that Beta Ray Bill feels like a redesign of Thor to incorporate more Kirby elements, Malekith, with his shapeshifting and smirking half-Drama mask face, feels like the same idea applied to Loki -- but he works for the story.
Like the rest of the run, it's got the perfect blending of mythology and modern Marvel Comics, pitting brainwashed humans armed with mind-controlling Faerie food against Thor and his new pal, a veteran whose chief weapons against the fey (who are of course vulnerable to iron, just like it says in the Monster Manual) are steel-jacketed bullets from a .45 and a metal plate in his head that gives him a resistance to their evil magic.
It's also notable in being an interesting failure for Thor, who ends up not preventing the bad guy from getting what he wants. It heightens the tension of everything going on around it, directly paving the way for Surtur and all that comes with him, but there's more than that, too. Since it's directly Thor's fault, since he falls for the deception that's hitting him from both sides from Malekith and Lorelei -- she was kidnapped by Malekith after a log dressed in her clothes subverted her plan to bewitch Thor to fall in love with her, it's a very intricate story -- it shows that even the gods are vulnerable. That's a key element in a book like Thor, where you're dealing with someone who's constantly operating at this mythical level.
Plus, it gives nice visual effect to the whole thing. Not just with the big explosion of winter weather that busts out when Malekith breaks the casket...
...but with how it bled into the rest of the line. The entire battle with Surtur's forces takes place while a snowstorm is raging through Manhattan, and that's not something that was confined to Thor. If you picked up, say, Spider-Man that month, you'd see it snowing in that book, too, with characters wondering what was up with that. It's a simple way to give the impression of a unified superhero universe, but it's not something you see too often outside of line-wide crossovers.
Speaking of, Final Night, the DC Event where the sun went out, is another big-name story that involves freezing. It's not what I'd call a very good comic, but it did give us that one issue of Hitman where the characters board themselves up in the bar and talk about the first time they killed someone, which is amazing, so it's a bit of a wash.
In the end, the Casket of Ancient Winters story is done so well and with so much great stuff going on that until I go back and read it, it always feels like it was more than just a few issues told as part of this larger, epic adventure. There's enough going on even in a few issues to make it feel like it stands apart, like it's just one of many stories of Thor overcoming impossible odds, and that's exactly that a book rooted in mythology should have.
Of course, it's also what lays the groundwork for Lorelei's seduction of Thor and her alliance with Loki that almost leads him to take over Asgard, and also what gives Thor the reason to travel to Hel to free the mortal souls that Malekith and the Faeries had trapped there, which leads to his battle against Hela, which is why she curses him with brittle bones, which leads to that fight in the issue that's all splash pages where Thor hits the Midgard Serpent so hard that he breaks every bone in his own body, which is when the Destroyer shows up, and... well.
Like I said, it's a very intricate run.