The House of Eddas: the Death of Balder (Sort Of) in Journey Into Mystery #107

Thorgarg0This month’s main story is “When the Grey Gargoyle Strikes!” After some more scenes of Don Blake/Thor pining over Jane, we get a new villain: French chemist Duval, who turned his hand to stone in a laboratory accident (“Ohh! I have carelessly spilled the potion on my hand!”) Not only is this appendage permanently made of rock, but anything it touches – except, conveniently, Duval’s glove – is similarly turned to stone for half an hour. With this trick up his sleeve, Duval is able to both petrify his victims and transform himself into a stony-skinned supervillain, with the ultimate aim of stealing Thor’s hammer and obtaining immortality – this is, I believe, the first time the comic has established that the weapon gives the user longevity.

The Grey Gargoyle is the first street-level villain introduced by the comic since Mr. Hyde back in issue #99; between the two, every opponent faced by Thor has either been an Asgardian antagonist or someone recycled from an earlier issue. And once again, we see the at Lee and Kirby still viewed Thor as, ultimately, a conventional superhero who went up against conventional supervillains: a gargoyle-themed evildoer who turns people to stone could easily have been cast as a denizen of Utgard or an offspring of Loki, but instead he’s given a mad scientist origin.

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As Silver Age superhero yarns go “When the Grey Gargoyle Strikes!” has some good moments, including imaginative use of the villain’s powers as he turns a paper aeroplane into a deadly stone dart and later ignites a stream of petrol by rubbing his rocky hands together, creating sparks. The story does, however, cheat a little at the climax by having Don Blake borrow a holographic projector from Tony Stark, effectively pulling a magic implement out of nowhere. Projecting a three-dimensional image of Thor into the sky, Don Blake lures the Grey Gargoyle into the sea, presumably drowning him; the ethics of this action are never questioned.

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Cover-dated August 1964, this issue marks Thor’s second anniversary as a Marvel hero. So, with two years’ worth of adventures under his belt, it’s fair to ask – exactly what defines Marvel’s Thor, in relation to other superheroes?

It’s not his dilemma-ridden love-life, as this has been part of the genre since Lois first slagged off Clark. I’m not sure it’s his connections to Norse mythology, either, given that these have (so far) still been confined largely to the back-up stories. Is it his personality? Well, he doesn’t make as many quips as his merry Marvel compatriots, but that’s about as deep as the distinction gets.

No, Thor’s primary defining quality at this point is his ability to transform between a mighty thunder-god and weedy Dr. Blake: a magical transformation, not merely a disguise, making Blake and Thor closer to Billy Batson and Captain Marvel than to Clark Kent and Superman.

This might seem strange to modern readers, given that the trait in question would eventually be removed from the mythos, but it plays a vital role in the early stories. In this issue, for example, Thor is turned to stone; but when he falls over and his hammer strikes the ground he turns back into Dr. Blake, which has the added side effect of curing his petrification. Throughout the series Thor’s transformative powers would routinely get him both into trouble (as when he loses his hammer and automatically turned back into Blake) and out of it (turning back into Blake and slipping away from danger). The constant flipping between mortal and god defines Thor far more than the superficial detail of his weather-controlling powers.

Well, anyway. We’re not really here for the Grey Gargoyle; we’re here for the Asgardian back-up story. This month we get “Balder Must Die!” – a direct sequel to last month’s story.

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The story opens with Balder playing music in an idyllic glade, while Loki fumes in the background: “See him fussing over the brainless birds and beasts, secure in the knowledge that Odn has made him invincible! But I’ll find some way to strike at him! Loki, god of mischief, cannot bear to see one so happy and contended!”

So far, this is reasonably close to the Norse myths. Granted, the Prose Edda doesn’t depict the near-invincible Balder playing music for Bambi; instead, he celebrates his new powers by allowing the other Aesir to shoot arrows and throw stones at him. But since that scene formed the rough basis to the contest depicted in the previous issue, I’ll let the artistic license slide…

In the Prose Edda, Loki disguised himself as a woman and approached Frigg, who was responsible for bringing about Balder’s near-invulnerability by asking plants and weapons across the land to vow never to harm him. She admits that one shrub did not make this oath: mistletoe, which seemed to her “too young to exact an oath from”.

Marvel’s adaptation has already removed Frigg from the narrative, with Odin instead granting Balder his gift, and so the comic has Loki approach a different woman to learn of Balder’s weakness: the Norn Queen.

So far, Lee and Kirby haen’t been entirely consistent in their portrayal of the mythological Norns. Issue #101 featured the Norn Hag as one of the various villains attacking Asgard; Issue #102 showed Thor approaching “the three Fates” for guidance. Now we have another oracular figure, the Norn Queen; when she appears at the end of the story she’s joined by an old woman she called “my aged one”. Is this latter figure the Norn Hag, seen earlier? Are these characters two of the three Fates? The issue doesn’t make it clear.

One thing is clear, however: the Norn Queen is reluctant to help Loki. Only after much arm-twisting does she reveal that one living thing made no pledge to protect Balder: the mistletoe.

Deathbalder2The Prose Edda indicates that Loki fashioned a sprig of mistletoe into a dart himself, but Marvel adds a middleman: “the gloating Loki orders one of his slave trolls to fashion a blow-gun and a dart out of mistletoe”.

Comic-Loki does, however, decide to get his hands dirty when it comes to killing Balder. In the Prose Edda, he gives the mistletoe dart to the blind god Hoder, who then throws it at Balder as part of the let’s-throw-things-at-Balder game. In the Marvel retelling, Loki decides to blow the fatal dart himself – and craftily does so when Balder is taking part in a practice swordfight, to make his death look like an accident.

So far, this adaptation has been – by Marvel’s standards – remarkably accurate. But at this point it departs from the source drastically. In the myth, the mistletoe kills Balder; this kicks off a chain of events that includes Hermod travelling to the underworld in an (ultimately unsuccessful) attempt to bring back Balder; Loki being hunted down and punished by being imprisoned underground; and Balder eventually being resurrected after Ragnarok.
Marvel, however, cuts this short by having the Norn Queen materialise and destroy Loki’s blowgun: “You made one careless mistake – you forgot that Odin had pledged all who live to guard Balder’s life – and I, too, took that solemn pledge!”

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In fairness, though, the large chunks omitted here have already been adapted, in roundabout form, elsewhere in Marvel’s series. The backup story in Journey Into Mystery #102 was clearly derived from Hermod’s voyage to the underworld, albeit with Thor and Sif replacing Hermod and Balder. Loki’s punishment has often been alluded to, as the mischievous god is typically depicted as chained up in Asgard (at least, until he escapes again). And Balder’s resurrection is sort-of-represented by the fact that he’s already turned up in the comic’s’ present-day narrative.

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