The Apocalypse Isn’t The End of the World: Ragnarök and Reading Comics Narratives

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After the initial media head-scratching about the announced title “Thor 3: Ragnarok,” people have latched on to the idea that the 2016 Thor movie will be about the end of the world. As a religion scholar, I have a hundred things to say about this! I’ll give you a few pointers for watching the end happen, what the end might mean anyway, and share some thoughts about the angles Marvel’s Thor has on the end of… well, something.

Every few years, popular culture seems to wake up to apocalypses. Most tend to treat the word “apocalypse” like it just means “the END of the WORLD”– said in the most booming voice you can imagine. Entertainment Weekly devoted a cover to the theme this summer, and an article inside gives a brief history of apocalypse pop. Our own WWAC women had a roundtable on apocalypse fiction. It’s a fascinating theme in popular culture, and speaking as your comics academe religious studies geek, it was a well-worn theme before there was anything like “popular culture” to be studied! It’s a genre of literature that’s actually one of the oldest things we talk about as “genre”— “apocalyptic literature” is so old that it exists before what scholars call “literature” had come into focus.

Apocalyptic literature has been troubled by misunderstandings since the moment that first ancient apocalypse writer took stylus to tablet. The word “apocalypse” comes to English, via Latin, from a Greek word meaning “to uncover.” At heart, an “apocalypse” is a revealing of something about the way the world works. It’s not necessarily about the destruction of the world! Pause and savor that for a moment. Instead, it’s the moment when the curtain goes up and people get a chance to see behind appearances to the real state of things.

For ancient apocalypses that we can still read, that revelation often had to do with angels or demons — once a great day comes, people might see the angelic or demonic forces that are in control of the world. Or, maybe another group will finally see that the apocalypse-writer’s group was right all along! Most apocalypses in the ancient world have a guide character that takes the hero on a preview trip through the afterlife or the heavenly hosts. The writer gets a backstage pass before the day of the event so that he–almost always “he”–can return and give everyone else a hint of what’s to come. The language is mysterious and esoteric. The don’t reveal too much, but tantalize the readers with just enough.

Although modern apocalypse comics, film, and other pop culture oddities usually have the end of the world in common, they, too, have the power to reveal something about what the creators think is behind the world. So, the recent Planet of the Apes films thinks modern technology is behind the success of human beings as a species. Mad Max (1979, 1981, 1985 and probably the 2015 version, too) tries to show that refined fuel is the thing behind the curtain keeping us all from donning feathery football gear, scrap-metal earrings, and studded codpieces. Dawn of the Dead (1978) insists we’ve already broken our society by becoming mindless consumers — zombism is just a short hop over. The Walking Dead comic (2003- ) has a longer-term take on humanity in zombie-world, but I think fundamentally asks how and why we go on living after the rules of death change. Last summer’s Snowpiercer (2014)— which I highly recommend— says pleasant weather is what keeps us from… well, I refuse to spoil this excellent film. Just watch it.

Mad Max- Lord H, 1979, George Miller, Village Roadshow Pictures

Only one thing protects us from the everyday studded-codpiece, apparently.

Apocalypses reveal the way the world works for their writers and their perceived world, whether that something is about supernatural beings or natural resources that we think are necessary. What do we put in our survival kit? Guns? Katanas? Topsoil? Cigarettes? Cheetos? Tang? I may need a snack before I start packing my bag. Perhaps something that is revealed about the way many people think when they talk about the apocalypse is both how global and how personally we take it. The ancients just thought of the big reveal as having to do with their own groups— not even necessarily the group over the next hill. We think of the end as having to do with the whole big blue marble. We also always seem to think that although billions of people will be wiped out, there will be someone left to eat all the leftover canned goods. Usually men. Usually white men. With guns. I’ll leave the commentary (and the naming of the numerous fantastic exceptions) to the rest of you. So, what these apocalypses trend toward is a revelation, not necessarily the end.

Earth

This is it, folks

What often turns these conversations toward big booms that end us, I think, is how mixed up the terms “apocalypse” (uncovering) and “eschatology” are. Eschatology (pronounced ess-ka-tol-ogy), again from the Greek, is essentially “the study of the end.” Yes, the end. (Someone cue Jim Morrison.) In English, though, check out how slippery this term is. It can mean the final thing but also, the purpose. “The world exists to what end?” can mean “how it will conclude?” or “why did happen?” To have an apocalyptic eschatology means to have an idea that at the end, the purpose of the world is to reveal something. Most of these apocalypses fit that category nicely, whether they seem to want to go there or not.

But, what about THOR? What can Marvel’s revamp of a Norse god’s part in Ragnarök tell us about the world?

Loki, or  T-Hiddles, Tom hiddleston, Marvel Entertainment

Google “Loki Hiddleston” and tell me the internet is not dating him.

First, a word from the internet’s boyfriend, Shakespeare/Loki actor and person for whom I would like to make waffles, Tom Hiddleston has sketched his take for us in an interview:

In the mythology, when you get into Ragnarok, which is the ‘end of all things,’ it’s not the end of the world…It’s the end of time, and the universe, and space. And I think, if I am correct…Loki essentially, sets that in motion. And his motivation for doing so is intriguing and he almost becomes the incarnation of chaos, in a way…

Let me break this down a little. Before I start, this is a great, thoughtful on-the-fly-at-ComicCon quote. None of this is in my grumpy-school-marm voice, it’s all in excited-look-at-how-cool-this-nerd-stuff-is voice. First, Ragnarök is not precisely the end of the universe or time or space (or the world either, for that matter): it’s the name of the last battle of the gods— it comes from an Old Norse word that literally means “twilight of the gods.” Sure, the world has a triple-power-winter, burns and gets a nice immersion bath, but it ultimately is renewed. The world in Norse mythology is tough and resilient. Nothing like our fragile little one-button-and-we’re-all-POOF nuclear world. Space and time and the universe are not quite the same in the modern conceptual world as they were in the Norse legends.

Hiddleston is correct in saying that “Loki essentially sets [Ragnarok] in motion” and when he says he’s something like the incarnation of chaos. Traditional stories have Loki as the tricky root of the problem, setting things in motion without getting his hands bloody. It’s a great story about talking to mistletoe and blind men shooting deadly arrows and Loki refusing to cry. All this is prime cuts for an actor. What would be impossible to make lovable or hateable would be the true incarnation of chaos. Heath Ledger’s Joker comes close, but it’s the all-too-human aspects that help us relate to him on screen. Comics and films have struggled with this tendency for myths to turn characters into concepts. In modern stories, we love characters. No one gets awards for acting a concept. And, as much as we love Loki, we also need a character for him to play off of, that is, Thor.

Thor is important, but not always at center-stage in the legends; the Norse god Thor is primarily a giant-fighter. Far less doe-eyed and cheeky than Chris Hemsworth or even the various comics-Thors. He never seems to get the language-jokes that Loki dishes out. The legends come from what scholars call the “Eddas,” either of two 13th-century Icelandic books, the Elder or Poetic Edda (a collection of Old Norse poems on Norse legends) and the Younger or Prose Edda (a handbook to Icelandic poetry by Snorri Sturluson). The Thor of these fascinating myths is only the sort-of inspiration for Marvel’s Thor. Heather O’Donoghue in her book From Asgard to Valhalla: The Remarkable History of the Norse Myths show how the comics don’t follow Norse myths and points out that comic-book-Thor is usually blonde and clean-shaven, whereas in the myths he’s always red-haired and bearded. She’s right, even if she does say that “Marvel’s The Mighty Thor” is “published by DC comics.” Fawcett was the first publisher to do a Thor in 1944 (that’s Whiz Comics #50, for those keeping score.) And DC’s Manhunter does have a dog named Thor the Thunder Dog. But, I digress.

That’s not the last confusion around Thor in comics. There has been some confusing babble on websites that I have the good manners not to cite here about what Marvel’s Thor’s Ragnarok(s) (yes, plural and usually umlat-less) have meant for the character and might mean for the movie. They seem to agree that something is ENDING, but the question that I think teaches us more in our readings/watchings is: “What does this apocalypse reveal about the workings of the world?”

Thor: Ragnarok, One of the Ragnaroks, Marvel Comics

One of many Ragnaroks

Most of these confusion-mongering websites also tend to cite Thor comics as if everything only happens once— Thor DID THIS THING that we will now SPOIL GLEEFULLY and tell you that this MOVIE WILL KILL LOKI. This is just a poor reading of comics narratives. Just like many imaginative, long-running comics characters, Thor and Loki have done lots of things, lots of times. Comics readers can hold on to vast and complex narrative situations. In a world constantly boiling ideas down to 140 characters or a 5-second sound byte, comics challenge readers to expect and relish narrative complexity. There is not just one Ragnarok, and I think most of us who read comics are comfortable with that.

Thor himself is a complex character; he has had no fewer than 7 Marvel titles devoted to him, including 180 issues of Journey into Mystery, at least 400 of Thor the first volume, and 85 issues of Vol 2. It’s a mind-boggling list.  There are tremendous fans (for great reasons) of Walter Simonson’s amazing run on the series. Thor’s part in Mark Millar’s Ultimates stories is a gorgeous and trippy one— there’s a conversation with Volstagg that’s in my top-ten favorite comics pages ever. Artist Bryan Hitch show us Thor as a liberal protester of corporate and government intervention: is he just a crazy guy from Norway or a god from Asgard? You’ll just have to read to find out. There’s a new Thor series staring a female Thor. Each of these Thors tells us something about the artistic vision of the creators and how they want to talk about myths, religion, governmental power, or anything else for which Thor can serve as a vehicle. We’ve come a long way from the Eddas and even from the first Marvel-Thor.

Frog Thor, Marvel Comics, Walt Simonson,

Thor, Frog of Thunder is an amazing, popular part of Simonson’s run. Tell me again why people are worried about Thor’s gender?

Thor’s first serialized appearance in Marvel comics was in Journey Into Mystery #83 in 1962. While traveling in Norway and running from monsters from Saturn (as one does), American Dr. Don Blake picks up a stick, whacks it against a rock, and becomes a clean-shaven, blonde Thor.  He changes back and forth between mild-mannered doctor with a leg-impairment that requires the use of a cane and full-power Thor— thunder-god with a lightning hammer. Not quite the Chris Hemsworth film-Thor character that audiences have embraced.

The Mighty Thor tackled Thor’s first Ragnarok in an arc from #272-278 in 1966. Roy Thomas writes, John Buscema and Tom Palmer epically illustrate. They put the heading about Dr. Don Blake at the beginning of each issue, but essentially ignore it. This is Thor, God of Thunder, dealing with some identity issues, but nonetheless dealing with the gods of Asgard and following Norse legends. We get to see the death of Baldr, the rise of the Midgard Serpent, even a fishing expedition with a giant bull-head from the Eddas… something you don’t see everyday in a comic. This particular run at that Ragnarok highlighted comics-Thor’s connections to myth-Thor. Thor often goes back and forth between being a solid mythological character to a fish out of water, showing us the concerns of the authors and their takes on what matters underneath the character.

This Ragnarok is not the last: The Avengers: Diassembled arc also had a Ragnarok that ran in 2006. It’s got a pretty sweet decapitation scene that might break a few hearts. Kieron Gillen wrote an arc called “Siege” that concluded with a Ragnarok in 2010. No one Ragnarok is sufficient to tell the whole story of experiences and ideas that it can bring up for people. The End, whether we’re talking about the final or the goal, happens over and over. The questions these Ragnaroks help us ask over and over are:

“What does it matter? What is being revealed? What’s the purpose? What’s ending this time?”

It’s these sorts of open questions that position us to learn more about the world we live in, and ultimately, live more thoughtful, purposeful lives. All that from a Thor movie. Really.

 

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About Author

Elizabeth has a PhD in religion and a snarky sense of humor. She writes about religion(s), comics, and the Bible and can be tweeted @ecoody and tumblr'd /ecoody. She posts pictures of food she makes only slightly ironically.

2 Comments

  1. Love this! Thanks for providing a more nuanced and researched look into apocalyptic lit. I think if more of the criticism took this perspective it would really make for some more interesting analytic takes on the genre.

  2. Thanks, Ginnis Tonik! I’m glad I could give you some of the analysis you want. I wonder why there’s so little thinking about apocalypse that takes religious-studies-type thoughts into account?