“I am in control of my life.” (Valkyrie)
Death, or more specifically mortality, as an abstract idea, has been on my mind a lot over this last weekend.
As anyone who follows this blog can tell, I’ve been having a rough time dealing with some big events in the world that I wasn’t a part of, but which I couldn’t help but be aware of after they’d happened. All of us have been affected by a major tragedy that’s propelled a situation into acute public awareness. So, I don’t think it’s appropriate for me to lie and act as though nothing’s happened to me, that I haven’t been emotionally affected by recent events in the news. One look at the date of this posting, even in hindsight, will show that such a claim would be - I like to hope - impossible for anyone with even a modicum of compassion.
As much as this blog is, as I’ve said, a celebration of heroism and idealism and the fictional women who have inspired me and continue to do so, these articles also serve another purpose - they’re a place for me to write down a version of my own personal biography for everyone to see.
I’ve also said before that I have to think long and hard about every piece I write, because of how personal these feelings are that I’m putting on public display. I’m telling stories about myself and how my life has gone, and where I think it will go - and sometimes, where I hope it will go. As a result of this, I don’t pretend that other people will necessarily be interested in the biographical elements of the pieces I write. But, to me, there’s little to be gained in simply understanding the raw mechanics of characters. It’s not how I’ve ever worked. I find it far more interesting to talk about a character - or any fiction - through the lens that matters most, the human lens, the reader’s lens. I can find out about a comic book character in any number of online or print sources. In the long run, those are just dry collections of facts.
What does a given character matter to you? That’s a much more interesting question for me. So, that’s the question I pursue on here, because it addresses a deeper question no encyclopedia of fiction can address, the question of WHY a character matters to you.
With my thoughts lingering on death as an abstraction, the fictional character who most matters to me right now is Marvel’s VALKYRIE.
Now, those of you who’ve read the previous article I wrote about Thundra will no doubt recognize a common theme between that character and Valkyrie.. Brunhilde, like Thundra, was portrayed very early-on in her catalog of appearances as being what was considered at that time to be a feminist. What that meant for those appearances is that she spent a great deal of time putting down men and not much time building up women, beyond showing off a physical prowess that came and went with the beats of the story.
It’s a hallmark of the character, in fact, that even as a kid I remember thinking that I never had a clear handle on how powerful she was - and, given an analysis of her character showing she’s been equally powered and de-powered along with the aforementioned reintepretations of her origins, that’s not terribly surprising.
And it continues to this day, when the character does appear.
When the stories have needed her to be monstrously strong, she would be.
When the stories have needed her to be weaker than a mortal opponent, she has been.
Consistency was never a terribly important element of comic book mythology in those times. It still isn’t - and I’m thankful. Story, to me, is everything - not consistency of power levels at the expense of telling a quality narrative.
And sometimes that’s true, even in a less-than-quality narrative …
Likewise, Valkyrie’s opinions about men have been portrayed in an inconsistent fashion over the years by different writers clearly trying to use the character in different ways to make different points, whatever motivations they might have. Sometimes, she’s an outright misandrist in her opinions of men.
Then, another writer comes along and portray her as having a more even-headed approach toward the opposite gender.
And then another writer decides to shift things in the opposite direction again.
So, yes - like Thundra, Valkyrie’s attitudes and abilities have changed with the times, back and forth, throughout the publication history of the character in various titles.
But that’s not why I’m bringing these elements up in the first place.
What I’m trying to point out is that even with all these elements present in the various interpretations of Valkyrie, I nevertheless loved the character, just as much as I loved Thundra. It didn’t matter that their powers weren’t portrayed consistently, or that their personalities shifted from comic to comic.
And that’s because, sometimes, inspiration can come from what a character represents to the reader, like I suggested at the beginning of this piece. And sometimes, the central point of a character shines through no matter how the details work out with a given writer, and that’s something I think is both for Thundra and for Valkyrie.
And for me, what Valkyrie represented was keeping a warrior’s heart even in the presence of death - something I’m not good at, even on my best day.
To me, VALKYRIE represents death in a way I could deal with as a child, could understand without the concept seeming quite so frightening or depressing as it usually happens to be.
This doesn’t mean I believe in Asgard, or Valhalla, or any other religious iconography or system of faith. I don’t. I’m an atheist, through and through. I believe that when a person dies, they simply cease to exist. I don’t believe in the existence of a soul. I don’t believe in the presence of an afterlife. I don’t believe in anything supernatural. And yet, here I am, loving Valkyrie. So, what gives?
Speaking as someone who, to this day, has never dealt with death very well in her own life, Valkyrie inspires me. And I think that’s the point I’m trying to make with this essay. It’s not that I feel a kinship to Valkyrie. It’s that her warrior’s strength inspires me to try - to attempt to be more brave in thinking about death, to attempt to quell my rage when death is unjust, to try to see death not as the terrible shadow of total oblivion but rather in a way that serves as a metaphor - death as a release from obligation, death as an end to pain, death as a merciful being like Brunhilde ultimately is to me despite all the various interpretations of her character.
The nature of the character that holds true to me is the woman warrior who sees death coming to others and stands fast against an unjust demise for a person, a warrior woman who demands that people be given their due in their final moments, who believes in rewarding those who are true and just with a journey to a sort of Valhalla. It’s a beautiful notion, even if it’s that Valhalla is a fiction. It’s that Brunhilde herself believes these people are worthy of that rest and that reward that I find inspiring - that she doesn’t see death as something to retreat from but instead something to deal with, refusing to despair in its inevitability and instead seeking to guide its inexorable progression to grant people some kind of ultimate universal truth, universal justice. And that has nothing to do with her power levels, her feelings toward men versus women, her perceptions of chauvinism. What it has to do with is her sense of compassion for the fallen and her recognition that she has a duty to do for the fallen rather than to simply succumb to despair at their loss. Today, especially, those are feelings I find I still need, feelings that I recognize must stand stronger in me than any grief, must prove more powerful than any anguish I feel.
The recognition of the idea that death isn’t the end doesn’t necessarily have to mean that one belives in any afterlife. The simple notion that the death of one person carries with it responsibilities from the living, that’s keeping me going now, today, just as it did in the past. It’s keeping me from curling up in a ball on the floor of my apartment and sobbing, because I’m trying to channel that warrior woman’s spirit in myself, even if it’s not specifically Valkyrie herself, but rather the warrior woman’s spirit of all the fictional (and real) beings who inspire me in this world and in the near-infinite fictional universes. The idea can come from those fictions, but the actions and stance of strength must ultimately be mine, even if thinking of fictional people helps with that process.
As a child, I lost a few people who were very close to me, people whom I loved more deeply than I could ever articulate. There are no words, really, to describe those feelings of loss beyond simply cataloging them. I can say the pain was indescribable, but all that’s saying is I know of no way to articulate it in a proper fashion. And, certainly, a comic book character can’t replace a real person; it’s not even relevant in that respect.
But what a fictional comic book character can do is to serve as a symbol in my own mind that I can use to try to take on real-world traits I value, like serving as an example to others in terms of not cowering before death no matter how terrified of it I might be. That fictional avatar can help me get up out of bed in the morning, not becuase “Valkyrie would get up” but because “I need to get up,” even if the imagery I’m using to channel my energy is Brunhilde atop her mighty steed soaring across a sunlit cityscape.
None of this means my rage at unjust death is deterred. None of this means the pain of real life death is assuaged. None of this means I feel any better about even one person lost before it’s their time.
What it does mean is that I can call upon myself and others to behave in a way I admire, in a way I find inspiring in my own personal life. Those are elements of myself I believe I learned in part from a fictional character named Brunhilde, most powerful of the Valkyire of legend.
Despite all the different stories, all the different personalities, Brunhilde in the Marvel Universe has come to stand as a courageous warrior who will never compromise to honor the fallen. It’s her life’s work, and she performs it - in the best of stories - with honor and dignity. These are the traits I took from her, and these are the traits I believe know no gender, no bias, no outrage except at unjust death. And it also knows no limitations, no sense of surrender, no sense of quitting out of despair, no matter how pained we might be.
Today, I agonize and I grieve, even though the things that cause me to do so didn’t happen to me. They happened to other people, people I don’t know - people I don’t have any kinship to beyond being a fellow human on Earth. I recognize that I can’t know or feel their pain. I can’t magically experience some kind of supernatural empathy with them that makes me understand what they’re going through.
But I can demand justice from the world, and I can object to unjust loss of human life. And we, all of us, can insist of ourselves that we stand as heroes, that we stand as warriors who don’t need to fight with weapons but instead with our compassion and our intellect and our understanding of each other, our tolerance.
In the real world, the stakes are much more complex than in the fantasy world of comic books. In that world, problems are solved with fisticuffs and rhetoric, bold words and bolder deeds. Our world is more subtle than that. In our world, true victories come not from shouting bold statements but from standing firm to our own conviction in terms of finding the balance in ourselves and living our lives as we want others to live, rather than simply demanding of the world that it conform to our expectations - because it won’t, no matter how much we’d like it.
So I’m thinking of Valkyrie in a time where the world seems to be filled with pain an death, and asking myself to think about how I can be like the virtuous elements of her character and how I can find the strength I know is inside me but seems so challenging at this point, the strength to be a good person to others, to not simply yell to shout down other people’s opinions but to listen and be confident, to find my inner strength, my inner character.
I can work to further my beliefs, to stand against what I perceive as injustice. I can’t pretend to speak for the dead, but I can try to make the world the kind of world I’d want those people to live in if they were still living, and can seek change in our world to try to better my own existence as one of the living. I can’t guide the dead to Asgard or some other magical realm I don’t believe exists, but I can try to make the real world closer to an Asgard, a Valhalla, a Heaven.
To me, that means making this world more peaceful, not less. It means making it more introspective, not shrill and loud. It mean making the world more calm and reasoned, not more savage and barbaric. It means making the world a place where we can hope one day there will be no perceived need for weapons, even as we realize that such a world is at present - at best - only a dream.
And perhaps those of us who try to remake the real world into the paradise of our dreams are the true valkyrie, the people who bridge the gap between what is and what we wish was, to make sure that all of us get to one day live in a reality that resembles the dreams out of our past.
That, of course, will take tremendous courage and tremendous strength.
Fortunately, strength can be achieved. And courage can be found.
You just have to be willing to try, no matter how difficult the task might seem, to never give up, and to recognize that true victory comes in refusing to be cowardly, in refusing to give in to one’s fears, even if one fears as overpowering a force as death itself.
That’s what Valkyrie teaches me.
She teaches me that I am in control of my life.
She teaches me that I am in control of my life.
“I challenge you — to a duel you can never win!” (Thundra)
As my love for comic book characters grew over the years, I began to notice a trend: every comic book I loved got cancelled pretty much as soon as I discovered it, and my favorite characters who weren’t featured in their own titles basically never got them.
I discussed this to a degree in my last article, talking about DC Comics’ VIXEN, a character who is one of the most inspirational comic characters to me, and one who I believe is very much deserving out of all in that company’s pantheon who’ve never featured in their own regularly-published book of having a continuing series.
VIXEN, of course, has never had her own monthly series. If you’d like to to know my feelings as to why this might be, go ahead and read that article.
However, I’m not going to wait around while you get caught up on what I have to say. We’re moving on, so keep reading if you want to keep up with me.
In this article, I want to discuss the Marvel character I most feel is deserving of her own regular monthly comic but who has never gotten one; that would be THUNDRA, a character who has inspired me since I first read about her and whose principle virtue - and the source of much of that inspration - can be summed up in one word: confidence.
If you have any doubts about Thundra being a good representation of confidence, consider the picture at the beginning of this article.
I specifically chose it out of the many I looked at in putting this article together because to me it represents the way Thundra expresses herself in the world: with pure unadulterated confidence. She’s got one of the most self-certain attitudes of all women in all comic books, and that appeals to me tremendously for a variety of reasons.
Chief among these reasons, I was never the most confident kid growing up and the virtue of confidence is one I struggle with to this day.
Those few people who have asked me about why I do this blog (rather than trying to tell me why) have asked me what the point is of profiling these characters.
I’ve tried to explain it to people as best I can that the idea of this blog is that I believe that by talking about these favorite characters of mine, I will point out the virtues I believe are important in life, the trends I see in the world and maybe to educate people with my own childhood and provide inspirational examples for other people who might be dealing with the same things I dealt with as a kid.
I certainly know the difference between fantasy and reality. I don’t live in the fantasy world of comic books. I enjoy the empowering elements that appear in them and the way these elements make me feel, and enjoy following the developments in the lives of my favorite characters.
As they overcome the obstacles placed in front of them, mine can sometimes seem nominal by comparison. There’s never an element of wanting to live in tha fantasy world, though. I believe it’s important to exist in the real world, for reasons practical and pragmatic as well as intellectual. Aside from the fact that it’s the only world we’ve got, in my opinion, it’s also a matter of trying to improve oneself, to better oneself.
So, no, I don’t want to be Thundra and I don’t think I am Thundra. But if I can observe the virtue of confidence as seen through her exploits, then I can take those elements from Thundra that inspire me and apply them to the real world. I may not be challenging Hercules or The Thing to a duel, but for me maybe it’s simply a matter of trying something new in my life.
More importantly, my hope is that those others I mentioned dealing with issues similiar to the ones I dealt with might discover the joy and inspiration I felt over these characters the industry often marginalizes and go back and find these same stories I talk about, and maybe find a little hope in these characterizations like I did.
I mention all of this and the nay-sayers because I found that I thought of them when first making notes about what I wanted to say in my Thundra piece. Interestingly to me, I discovered that only a few people know much about the character. I mentioned her on my personal Twitter feed and received a number of responses from people saying, basically, “Oh, interesting - who’s that?”
Because this blog isn’t really about continuity or specific story lines, and because Thundra has been revised and retconned quite a bit, I’ll summarize by saying that Thundra comes from another world where women have been encouraged to be warriors to the point where they dominate out of the two sexes. Her society values strength and prowess, honor and wisdom. Hers is a culture of warriors, though much more technologically advanced than our Earth. Basically, try to imagine a planet where the women are Xena and the men are Joxur (and if you don’t know Xena, I’ll simply say that there’s another character who’ll be for another article on another day). She originally came to our Earth through time and space to defeat the most powerful men of our world’s “modern” history, consisting largely of characters like HULK and THE THING. After a short time, she ended up allying herself with the heroes of Earth and counting herself among them, though in a fashion where her personality brings her into misunderstandings and conflicts with mainstream Marvel heroes.
Of course, all of this is a gross oversimplification of the back story of Thundra and ignores such unpleasantness as a story line where she became a professional wrestler for a time (yawn) which has thankfully not been referenced since, but it’s not a terribly important back story, because plot points don’t make Thundra awesome.
And she does that with some of the most unmitigated confidence of any character in the history of comics that I’ve ever seen. The quote that titles this article is Thundra’s (all the quotes I post come from the profiled characters, by the way - a point I haven’t made but which I thought was self-evident until recently corrected of this misconception on my part).
This isn’t hyperbole when Thundra says it - she really believes it. Duels in her culture are used to establish the social order and even to settle disputes. Her attitude toward conflict can seem cavalier until you recognize that her culture believes that physical brawling can be used in a controlled environment to end arguments in a way that isn’t a gladiatorial bloodsport. When I explain her world to people in the short hand, I try to compare it to the ideals of the Klingon culture in STAR TREK. That’s not precisely accurate but it gets the literary point across. For her, battling someone proves a point, but it’s not a fight to the death.
Of course, just because she saves someone in one issue of a comic book doesn’t mean that Thundra won’t teach them to respect her on a physical level in another issue.
She tends to throw out the same kind of self-expression during most of her fight scenes, taking a super-villain’s penchant for explaining his actions as he performs them with arrogance that outdoes THOR from time to time. And as you can see from the panels I’ve selected, she gets into a lot of fight scenes. Her aggressive personality is such that she doesn’t even really care whether she ends up fighting someone who normally identifies as a hero or a villain - she cares about fighting for a cause she believes in and for a purpose she thinks is true. Whichever side she’s on, her code remains her own. She’s not dictated by her allegiances, only by her causes. The side she believes to be on is the right side as she sees it - the side that serves the purposes of her own convictions.
That doesn’t mean, however, that she doesn’t take a certain sense of pride in knowing that her enemies tremble before her when she appears on the battlefield.
It’s not all big dialogue in the middle of the actions scenes, though. Thundra sometimes even uses this method to punctuate her imperatives.
I chose those panels also to illustrate something else about the character. When she’s written well, and with care, she appears on the page to be of a type similar to THOR.
For me, THUNDRA - as a monthly series - would have been my preferred THOR. I remember wishing that there was a Thundra comic where she righted wrongs with her usual arrogant, righteous indignation and sense of self-assured purpose.
When I would read a Thundra story, there was always a sense of a lack of predictability on her part as a character. Would she end up fighting the hero or the villain in a given issue? Would she stay on the “right” path as we, the reader, understood it or would she end up serving more sinister purposes without realizing it? What this did for me as a reader was to show me that no matter what - right or wrong - Thundra as a character BELIEVED in HERSELF. That was hugely important to me because of how our society so often writes women, especially in comics.
For so many women (comic books characters), the characters principally serve the masculine narrative. By that, I mean that they’re there to appeal to a male reader and designed to conform to a male perception. This much was evident to me even as a young transgirl because of the fact that this type of representation could be seen and was reinforced month after month, with the typical accompanying sexism and overwrought sexualization of even the women who were superheroes.
As should be obvious, this sort of problem even befalls a character like Thundra. In the hands of writers who don’t care about a woman’s narrative, Thundra was defined entirely by a goal-oriented mentality that was fixed (hah hah) directly on a masculine character. In these versions of Thundra, she becomes something of a parody of modern-at-the-time fears of feminism, making statements that are clearly designed to mock the way modern men of the time view feminist viewpoints as villainous by virtue of a misconstrued classification of all feminism as hatred (or disdain) of all men everywhere for any reason.
This has also resulted over the years in a lot of work having to be done on the character to work out rewrites and reinterpretations of these earlier appearances in an effort to make sense of the character.
But that’s not how the character functions, and that’s not what makes the character work.
What makes Thundra work as a character, to me, is when she’s doing the things she wants to do for the purposes in which she believes, and it’s where the character excels. And it’s where we get to see Thundra’s confidence and be inspired by it.
I remember observing as no accident that Thundra’s chief opponents tended to be variations on The Thing and Hulk, regarded as two of the most physically powerful heroes in the Marvel Universe. This is unsurprising given Thundra’s aforementioned desires under some writers to prove herself by contrast to male strength. However, as a child I never cared about that element of her. What I cared about was her uncompromising bravery in dealing with monstrously-powerful characters.
Rather than cower or defer, she stood tall and proud - when she was drawn right. Her confidence reflected in a stance of strength instead of one of “seductive” Hawkeye Initiative-worthy framing in these versions, typically. Of course, not everyone sees it that way.
So, yeah, that’s a thing. Gross.
Anyway, I want to point out that it wasn’t hard to find positive role-models of Thundra on a Google search, which surprised me, because when I went to look for images of the other characters in this blog I typically found a ton of unpleasant images for every one image I found that was acceptable to express the themes I wanted to express. With Thundra, most of the images were positive, but there were a few negative ones I wanted to include just to make a point about the way the character seems so much more natural and positive when she’s portrayed with her strength intact.
I’ve never articulated it to many people, but I believe that part of the solution to the whole Hawkeye Initiative problem needs to come from three sources: from the readers, from the artists and ALSO from THE WRITERS. I wonder how many times writers working with artists describe the character as needing to look confident, or decrying any inclusion of a cheesecake pose. Do writers as a rule get to dictate that sort of thing? I have no idea, but I imagine that if a writer felt strongly enough about not portraying a character in a sexist fashion then things could be said to that effect. Maybe tha’ts just naive on my part. I don’t know. Thoughts are welcome, of course, in the Comments section.
But what I’m trying to say with all that is that Thundra is a character whose very nature seems to invite writers and artists of a professional level to portray her with confidence, and such confidence is inspiring, and that inspiration I believe crackles through not just my perceptions as a reader, but also in the act of writing and drawing her. I think she encourages a portrayal of a woman as strong and powerful and self-defined. I also believe that’s why she had to be portrayed as being from another world and another time and to be portrayed as something of a villain at first, because I think those ideas can seem threatening to a lot of men and I think they may have created a sort of safety-bubble around the character. “Well, she’s a strong woman,” they seem to be saying, “but only because she comes from a world other than our own and from a different time.” It’s all social politics to me, but I think it does impact how the character came to be and how she’s been used previously, and I also think it plays in to how she’s been kept from having her own book even in the era of the 1990s when virtually every character - worthy or not - was at least spun off into a brief series try-out.
And, to me, nothing is more dangerous to the masculine domination of women than keeping women from finding a place of confidence. And I believe Thundra’s confidence makes some masculine-favoring readers uncomfortable, seeing a woman portrayed - often without irony - doing the same things a man is typically shown in comics doing, whether it be lifting a heavy object…
…or standing up for herself in a fight…
And she does it all because she can, because she believes she’s right - and not in that DR. DOOM fashion where the argument is made that she’s simply misguided. She has an incredible strong moral code - one of the strongest in the Marvel Universe, and that code is also part of her confidence. It’s not just a physical thing - being confident of her strength and prowess. She’s also confident of her ethics and her beliefs, in her feelings. She’s confident about her intuition, even though she’s written as naive by some writers (or, at least, was in the past).
What fascinates me also about Thundra is that she’s never been portrayed as purely heroic. There’s always an element where the writers make it clear that she could spring off into the opposite end of a conflict, as I’ve said, and that can be fun to read because of its unpredictability, as I’ve also said, but it’s also problematic to me. Is it possible that her strength as a character, her determination and, yes, confidence, make her so difficult a woman to write because of a male writer’s sexism that the character must remain at arm’s length from joining the true heroic pantheon of Marvel, even after all this time? Is that part of why she hasn’t gotten her own book? I would submit it’s one of the primary reasons, actually.
To me, ultimately, Thundra represents the two sides of confident women in the real-world culture and also in the comic book culture that so often reflects its social issues and problems.
Because of her confidence, she’s a truly inspirational character, a figure of near-limitless strength who is as goal-oriented as Thor, as courageous as Wolverine, as brave as Daredevil and as strong as The Hulk. And yet, it’s specifically because of these strengths that the men of the real world who are part of the readership may not react as positively to her as I would. In other words, it’s because of her confidence that she faces additional challenges from people who might otherwise welcome her if she only conformed to the masculine desire for women to be subservient.
Thundra says no to that. And she’s not alone.
Thundra - and the rest of the powerful, inspirational women of the Marvel Universe, won’t have that. And I, for one, find the literary insistence of these characters who stand together - perhaps subconsciously on the part of writers and artists who don’t even know what they’re doing, perhaps by the works of writers and artists who likewise refuse to cater to masculine expectations - to refute the idea that women can’t be true warriors, can’t be heroes, can’t be the equals of their male counterparts in audience respect and production-level inclusiveness.
They keep up the good fight in the Marvel Universe. It’s up to us all to keep that same fight going here. And, thanks to Thundra, I remain ultimately confident we’ll win.
MERRY CHRISTMAS, ALL!
MAY 2013 BE THE YEAR OF THE WOMAN’S REBELLION!