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NUM-INOUS COMICS PT. 2

This essay is a very belated response to a " part 1 " published in February 2015. The gist of that essay was a response to a corre...

Thursday, February 21, 2008

DAUGHTER OF LOVE AND DEATH


In my previous post I stated that I could only evaluate the character of the Defenders character Valkyrie by exploring other narratives that contributed to her mythos. The first of these tales appears in the THOR story entitled “The Enchantress and the Executioner”, which appeared in JOURNEY INTO MYSTERY #103 (April, 1964). The story’s archetypal plot is that “the spurned and/or jealous goddess” that readers will know best from Greek myths, which is fitting since, despite sharing title-credit with her male partner, the Enchantress is the real star of the story. Arguably this witchy woman is also the first villainess of significant stature in the Marvel Universe, though this status didn’t keep her and her axe-wielding swain from enduring some distinctly un-mythic stories.

At the time of this story’s genesis, the continuity of the THOR feature still followed the founding premise that the character of Thor was no more than a superheroic identity assumed by Doctor Don Blake whenever he stamped his magically-endowed cane (which likewise transformed into Thor’s hammer). Creators Stan Lee and Jack Kirby probably derived their basic idea from Fawcett’s Captain Marvel, to whose 1940s saga Kirby briefly contributed. However, in CAPTAIN MARVEL Billy Batson, the alter ego to the Captain, was clearly the “true identity” of the two, complete with mortal relatives, while Marvel was in essence a magical idealization of Billy’s self-image. In THOR, however, Blake had no ties with mortal life save his romantic interest in his nurse Jane Foster, who was alternately attracted to both Blake and his thunder-god alter ego. But the character of Thor did have an identity separate from the moments when Blake summoned him into being. The otherworldly realm of Asgard wasn’t just a place where Thor could go to hang his winged helmet, but a place where he had familial connections, such as Loki, the brother who hated him, and Odin, the father who wasn’t crazy about his son potentially hooking up with a mortal woman. Given that Thor was more “real” than Blake in the ongoing narrative, in later years Don Blake was downgraded to being a vessel magicked up by Odin, in which Thor’s spirit could sojourn for a time in order to be humbled by mortal experiences. Jane Foster’s role in the series lasted even less long than the Blake persona, but at the time of JIM #103, both Blake and his romantic interest in Jane were ongoing concerns of the narrative—and of Odin, who wanted to break them up. To this end Loki encourages the father-god to send a “bad woman” to break up their romantic attachment; i.e., the Enchantress, sort of a faux-Norse version of love-goddesses like Aphrodite and Ishtar.

Curiously, though most of Lee and Kirby’s Asgardians have regular names, either drawn from Norse mythology or created to sound vaguely Nordic, the Enchantress and the Executioner are always referred to by what one might call their “supervillain names,” and don’t acquire personal cognomens until the 1990s. The text calls them “demi-gods,” which may have been Lee’s rationalization as to why his readers wouldn’t find the two of them listed in any Norse mythology books. In any case, the Enchantress happily accepts Odin’s mission, her demeanor making it clear that she looks forward to conquering Thor’s heart for the sheer sport of it. She’s also a sorceress, which gives her name a dual meaning that equates feminine attractions with literal witchery.

The demi-goddess’ mission to break up Blake and Jane proves indirectly successful. Posing as a mortal woman, the Enchantress visits Blake’s office and tries to work on him with her womanly wiles. But Blake, who apparently knows everything Thor knows, recognizes her as an Asgardian, and knows something’s up. However, Jane barges in on Enchantress trying to get Blake in a lip-lock, and then flees the office, having been (a caption helpfully tells us) “heartbroken.” Blake ignores the goddess and pursues his mortal love, leaving the goddess mightily insulted. She still wants to win Thor’s heart, but now decides that she can only do so by getting rid of Jane Foster, to which end she returns to Asgard to pay a call on one of her many frustrated suitors, the Executioner.

The title of this essay evoked the images of “love and death,” and if the Enchantress fills the bill for the first, clearly the name of her partner by itself evokes the opposite. However, unlike the demi-goddess the Executioner seems more of a blending of many mythic motifs. He is kin to various gods of death in that, when he finds Jane Foster, he consigns her to “limbo,” which is one of the abodes of afterlife spirits in Catholic theology. However, in terms of his character as the goddess’ subordinate servant, he reminds one more of Aphrodite’s ugly husband Hephaestus, and though the villain isn’t expressly a craftsman-god he does embody a sort of weapons-fetish, as later events in the story show. And lastly, the scene in which Enchantress sends her servitor to eliminate Jane has strong resonances with similar scenes in the folktale SNOW WHITE—a euhmerized version of the “jealous goddess” tale-type-- where the evil queen sends a huntsman to dispose of a younger competitor. Indeed, Lee’s script even specifies that the Executioner seeks out his victim with “the eyes of a hunting falcon,” though in no other way does he resemble mythic huntsman-figures (one of whom includes the archaic version of Odin).

After the Executioner descends to Earth and sends Jane Foster into limbo, Thor shows up and battles the villain, battering him to his knees. At this point the reader might rightfully expect the hero to use force to make the Executioner return the mortal girl to life, but this possibility never occurs to either hero or villain. Instead, the Executioner asserts that “Slaying me will avail you nothing,” but that Thor can recover Jane by giving up his hammer, which the villain says he desires “more than anything on Earth or Asgard.” This is a curious turn in the tale, in which the Executioner seems to have forgotten that his original motive for exiling Jane Foster was to win the heart of a certain sultry sorceress. There’s nothing in the text to explain such a change of heart, but I don’t regard it as a simple mistake.

On one level, the villain’s mid-stream motivational change serves a “furniture-moving” purpose in the tale. Because Thor does surrender his hammer to the villain, Thor’s nobility is emphasized, because losing his hammer means that when he next reverts to Don Blake, he will “remain so for all time.” Thus with this development Lee and Kirby create more suspense than they would have by simply having Thor beat the malefactor into compliance, and the suspense is furthered when the Executioner brings back Jane and then is frustrated by his inability to actually wield the hammer, which can only be lifted by one who is worthy.

Though as I said there’s no textual explanation of the villain’s motives beyond what he says about having always desired the weapon, it’s possible to see some deeper motives at work. The Executioner never asks his witchy woman why she wants some mortal removed, but one can imagine that he puts two and two together, and knows that he’s basically paving the way for the Enchantress to become romantically entwined with the thunder-god. By taking Thor’s hammer the villain hopes to both eliminate a rival and obtain his power—perhaps with the idea of conquering the Enchantress’ heart in future, or just for the gratification of power in itself, embodied in the aforementioned “weapons-fetish.”

In any case, his independent actions are a clear affront to the goddess he claimed to serve, and the Enchantress, watching from afar, takes vengeance by turning the axe-wielder’s limbs into tree-branches. Her intrusion inadvertently saves Thor, for the Executioner, desperate to save his life, gives the hero back his hammer so that Thor will combat the villainess (thus putting the formidable Executioner in the position of the “damsel in distress.”) The combat between Thor and the demi-goddess is short: she tries to change his hammer into a “deadly serpent,” but the hammer is proof against enchantments due to its being forged by the supreme father-god Odin (ironically enough, since the Enchantress is serving as Odin’s catspaw here). With male power reasserted over that of the jealous goddess, Thor returns both demi-gods to Asgard. Later Don Blake finds Jane and makes up with her, returning their relationship to square one and further aggravating all-father Odin.

As remarked earlier, most 1960s uses of the Enchantress and the Executioner did not attain this level of mythic complexity. Often the two were treated as little more than standard super-villains, whether separately or together, though a few stories have the Enchantress become infatuated with another archaic myth-hero, Hercules, making her the ironic victim of unrequited love. The main exception to this comedown appears in INCREDIBLE HULK #102 (April 1968). In this tale by Gary Friedrich and Marie Severin, the titular green-skinned star travels to Asgard, where he becomes embroiled in the attempt of the Executioner and Enchantress to become major players by leading a troll army against Odin and Asgard. In doing so they go from being minor incarnations of “love” and “death” to attempting their own Titanomachy. However, their failure returns them to something of the status of also-rans in the hierarchy of Marvel villains, and over the course of the next two decades their ambitions rarely attain the grandeur of attacking Asgard. However, the villains’ punishment by Odin for the attack on Asgard, as chronicled in AVENGERS #83 (December 1970) has the more far-reaching effect in beginning the first action that will lead to the birthing of their symbolic daughter, the Valkyrie—which will be further addressed next post.

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