Ask Chris #196: He Stood Alone At Gjallerbru
Q: What is the best redemption scene or storyline in comics? — @yellfeat
A: It’s funny, I was just talking about why there aren’t a whole lot of stories where villains become heroes in the latest episode of Here’s The Thing, and how they almost never work out the way you want them to. That might’ve been my pessimism creeping in, because there are certainly examples of it working really well — one viewer on Twitter mentioned the Pied Piper from Flash — but I blame the wording. A face turn and a redemption aren’t quite the same thing, and if you’re looking for the single best example of the latter, there’s not even a question about which one it is.
Skurge stood alone at Gjallerbru, man. And that was enough.
I realize that I talk about the Walter Simonson run on Thor in this column almost as much as I talk about Batman, which is sort of like saying that I talk about it almost as much as I breathe oxygen, but you can never really overstate just how good that comic is. It’s seriously the single best run of superhero comics of all time, and part of what makes it great is how thoroughly character-focused it is.
The sweeping, mythological adventures and cosmic stakes are great, but what makes it all work is the character interaction and the way that Simonson rounds out every single character in the story to make them someone you care about. The best example — aside from Beta Ray Bill, who I think we can all agree went over a heck of a lot better than anyone expected for a space horse who beat Thor up and then became his best bro — is probably Balder, who got one of the most harrowing reveals in comics history, a love interest in Karnilla the Norn Queen, and a pretty amazing miniseries out of the deal, but he’s not alone. Everyone in that run is fleshed out and relatable. Odin, Sif, the Warriors Three, the kid that Volstagg sits on for three issues in order to stop him from trying to kill Balder. Everyone. Even the villains.
Again, there’s an obvious character to talk about when you bring up the villains of Thor and how fantastic they are, and that’s Loki, but the thing about Loki is that he outright rejects any sort of redemption. Even when he throws his lot in with the heroes of the story rather than manipulating them — even after he straight up ruins Balder’s life again, which is a pretty cruel thing to do to a dude that you have already murdered once — he’s only doing it for his own gain.
I’ve mentioned this before in the context of the Avengers movie, but that’s one of the things that’s really compelling about the Thor of the comics, and particularly Simonson’s run. He’s a god, with incredible power, literally worshipped by mere mortals and held up even in the modern day as one of Midgard’s* Mightiest Heroes, but the only thing that he really wants is just to have his brother back. And it’s something that he’ll never, ever get, because they’re doomed by their natures to constantly battle against each other, and the best he can hope for is that maybe this time, the lesson he’s trying to teach him by cracking him upside his ornately horned head will stick and keep him from trying to destroy everyone. It’s this incredible central tragedy that’s at the heart of their relationship, and it works beautifully.
Which, you know, it should, since those personal tragedies are the gasoline that the Marvel Universe runs on. But then, so are redemption stories. They’re the defining element of so many characters that they’re coded into the fabric that holds the entire line together. Spider-Man, Iron Man, Hulk, Wolverine — they’re all characters that are based on atoning for past sins in one way or another, whether it’s a small-scale thing like the death of Uncle Ben or as large as being a living WMD who loses control and levels towns across the Southwest. Even the Fantastic Four have that element of Reed’s guilt over getting his best friend turned into a rock monster.
Which brings us back to Skurge, the Executioner.
In case you can’t tell by the axe on his chest, the hairstyle that I like to call “The Road Warrior Hawk,” and the fact that his name is “Skurge the Executioner,” Skurge was originally an adversary for Thor, although never a particularly successful one. The real brains of the operation was the Enchantress, with whom Skurge was hopelessly in love (which, as her name implies, was the Enchantress’s whole deal), which led him to be manipulated into scheme after scheme, with the Enchantress pitting him against Thor.
The problem was that while Skurge wasn’t particularly bright, he was smart enough to realize that he was getting a raw deal. He was fully aware that the fearsome Executioner of Asgard had become a joke after countless defeats — defeats that, even if they’d been victories, would never have really gotten him what he wanted. He knew he’d been used and cast aside as part of a scheme from someone who didn’t really care for him the way that he cared for her, and it was that realization, and the shame of having allowed himself to be manipulated and used as a pawn, that was both utterly, crushingly depressing for him and, ultimately, the catalyst for his redemption.
Like I said, it all comes back to those tragedies.
I’d be hard pressed to think of anything a villain in comics has said that’s more affecting and heart-wrenching than Skurge’s acceptance of what he’d come to. Just the simple, blunt punch to the gut of one of Asgard’s strongest warriors admitting something like “Whenever they laugh, I hurt inside,” the pain of this monstrous warrior who only ever wanted to be love. It’s brutal. And it tells you everything you need to know about why he chooses to do what he does in Thor #362.
The basic setup for the story is that it takes place immediately after the big battle against Surtur, when Thor leads a charge of warriors into Hel to rescue mortal souls that Hela captured unfairly. It’s presented as something of a suicide mission, which is a pretty bold statement considering that they just fought (and won) the actual battle of Ragnarok, but Simonson has a knack for keeping the stakes as high as they could be.
Incidentally, it’s worth noting that this all takes place after the Asgardians have gotten all chummy with the regular human military, meaning that they’re not only armed with magic axes and hammers and longswords, they’re also strapped with a ton of M-16s.
Honestly, if you still haven’t read this run even after knowing that there are several issues in which Viking gods armed with machine guns raid Hell, then what do you even want out of comic books? If it’s not this, we will never understand each other.
Needless to say, the good guys triumph, although Thor himself is wounded and severely weakened, with the scars that would lead him to rock a full beard for the remainder of the run, and even once they get past Hela, the Asgardians and their charges still have to fight through the damned souls of every single warrior that they’ve ever slain in battle. Eventually, they fight their way to Gjallerbru, the bridge that separates the land of the dead from the land of the living, a choke point that can be held by a single warrior, allowing the others to escape. And that’s where the suicide mission comes in: There’s no way a single warrior, even a god, even Thor or Balder, could hold that bridge and survive.
Obviously, that’s not going to stop Thor from trying. He’s a hero, after all. It’s who he is, and heroes are always willing to sacrifice themselves for the good of others. But just like Skurge is smart enough to realize that his own lot in life has been a pretty raw deal, he also knows that the world needs a hero far more than it needs an executioner.
What happens next is, well, exactly the kind of redemption that sticks with you. I don’t think I’m spoiling anything about this thirty year-old story when I say that he doesn’t make it out, but the actual page where it all happens is so beautifully elegant that even though I’m certain I’ve put it up here at CA before, I’m reluctant to post it for anyone who hasn’t read the entire run that hasn’t seen its impact. Skurge alone at Gjallerbru, much like Balder taking up the sword, is something best read for yourself.
What matters, and what really makes his redemption stand out, is that it’s done on its own terms. Skurge, brutally heartbroken by a life of being led around by others, doesn’t just charge into battle behind Thor, he makes his own decision to stand as his own man rather than a slave to his nature. He does it as a person who’s finally standing up for the right thing for the right reasons, making the choice to change his life in the most permanent way possible, for the benefit of others rather than himself, asking only that they share a drink in his memory. It’s as old school as heroism gets, but it’s an incredible example of Simonson’s skill in how moving it is even as it’s being told in the action movie terms of one man blasting at an army of the undead with a machine gun in each hand.
He stood alone, and that’s enough.