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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...

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

KNIGHT MOVES






As I come to the third iteration of the Valkyrie concept, I find myself forced to divert into yet another tangled skein of the Marvel Universe, because of that skein’s entanglement with the Valkyrie’s “mother” the Enchantress. Thus, here’s a short summation, then, of Marvel’s superheroic Black Knight (also the third iteration of a much looser concept):

The first version of this concept appeared in the early 1950s. This Black Knight was a medieval hero who had no relation to any Marvel superheroes until being retroactively linked to them in the 1960s. The second Knight was an Iron Man villain who became a member of that group of Avengers-adversaries known as the Masters of Evil. (As such this made him a loose associate of the Enchantress, though I don’t believe the characters ever interacted in any story). This villain’s modus operandi included using medieval-style weapons with advanced-tech gimmicks, and riding into battle on the back of an ebon-hued, genetically-engineered winged horse—at least until the villain died of injuries taken during a battle. But in AVENGERS #48 (January 1968) he bequeathed his gimmicks to his nephew Dane Whitman, who decided to use them to become a superhero. As a stereotypic device to signal the change from bad to good, writer Roy Thomas had Whitman breed a new winged steed; one that was lily-white instead of black like the previous horse. Thomas also gave this new aerial equine the heroic name of Aragorn, in an odd derivation from a human character in Tolkien’s LORD OF THE RINGS.

Following a few appearances this good Knight abandoned his uncle’s high-tech gizmos, and began to sport a magical “black blade” inherited from the original Knight of medieval times, who now became Whitman’s ancestor. Retroactive though the relationship was, this made Whitman the figurative spawn of two ancestors, much as the Valkyrie enjoyed an immaculate descent from a love-goddess mama and death-god papa.

In AVENGERS #84 (January 1971), Thomas decided that this “Black Blade” should become sort of a road-show version of the cursed blade “Stormbringer” from Michael Moorcock’s Elric series. Suddenly, the Knight finds that his own sword is urging him to kill his enemies. The hero consults with his ancestor’s ghost, who tells him to journey to another dimension to dispose of the sword in a magical well (another LORD OF THE RINGS borrowing for the Knight’s mythos). But this realm happened to be ruled by a sometime foe of the Avengers named Arkon, who took the Knight prisoner. And just to heap on the coincidences, it was also the place where the Enchantress was transported when her spell backfired at the end of AVENGERS #83. The goddess, having wormed her way into Arkon’s confidence, works her seduction-mojo on the Knight to get his story out of him, and then accuses him of being a pawn sent by the Avengers—all of which leads to the usual dust-up between Arkon and the good guys. In the end the Black Blade ends up in the well and the Enchantress escapes.

However, the events of AVENGERS #98-100 (April-June 1972) prove that the spirit of the original Black Knight wasn’t so good in the department of destroying cursed blades, though he was great at giving comics-writers new plot-complications. The Black Blade isn’t destroyed, but ends up in Olympus, home of Marvel’s version of the Greek gods, where its power is co-opted by another Avengers foe, Ares the war-god. The Enchantress, despite having shown no interest in the Blade back in AVENGERS #84, chooses to follow in the Blade’s wake and promptly joins forces with Ares. It’s arguable that Ares, like Arkon before him, takes the place of her long-time partner the Executioner, though the character says nothing to corroborate this. During this three-part tale the Enchantress seems to have forgotten her original goal of getting back to Asgard, and now decides to help Ares wreak destruction on both Earth and her own home-realm. The Avengers thwart the villains’ plot, with the aid of short-lived former member the Hulk (who, by coincidence, had also come into conflict with the Enchantress twice in his solo feature) and of the Black Knight, who reclaimed his cursed blade.

During the same year this seasoned super-group defeated the Enchantress’ plan, leaving her imprisoned in Olympus, Roy Thomas made a new team, the Defenders, out of the three characters he’d intertwined in his “Undying Ones” saga. For three issues of MARVEL FEATURE written by Thomas, Doctor Strange, the Sub-Mariner and the Hulk battled evil, and then, two months after the conclusion of AVENGERS #100, the Defenders got their own book, with Steve Englehart writing. Englehart promptly returned the heroes to fighting emissaries of the Undying Ones for their first three issues, as well as inducting the Silver Surfer into the group, though that hero departs at the end of issue #3. In #3 the four heroes are spirited into the Undying Ones’ dimension and immediate behold Barbara Norris in her magical cage. With the aid of the Silver Surfer, Doctor Strange breaks her free, but Barbara has in some sense returned to her status of “traitorous female” seen at the outset of HULK #126, for it’s revealed that out of maddened loneliness she became the “mate” of the demons’ leader, the Nameless One, even merging her body with that of the two-headed monster so as to become his “third head.” The heroes manage to stymie the demon-lord and Doctor Strange frees Barbara from the creature’s influence, but Barbara goes screaming-mad from the separation. The heroes return to Earth and the Surfer deserts their company.

With DEFENDERS #4 (February 1973), Englehart puts aside the Undying Ones thread in favor of a new wrinkle on another Thomas-created thread: the interlinking of the Enchantress, the Black Knight and the Black Blade. The Defenders just happen to materialize outside Dane Whitman’s ancestral castle, which for no clear reason is linked to the dimension where the Enchantress and Executioner were imprisoned by Odin, and where a nameless sorceress stole the demi-god from the side of the demi-goddess. The Defenders, along with Barbara, are taken prisoner by the sorceress (now named Casiolena) and by her consort the Executioner. In their dungeon the Defenders then meet the Enchantress and the Black Knight. It seems that the Enchantress escaped Olympus and suddenly decided to go back to Casiolena’s dimension and fight for her man. To this end Enchantress decides to engage the services of the Black Knight—a peculiar choices, as even with his sword the Knight was no powerhouse— but in any case she uses her magical smooching-power to bend him to her will. (Narratively, she becomes identical with the Black Blade: a force that seduces Dane Whitman to serve evil, so that he becomes morally “grey” if not actually “black.”) The Enchantress and Whitman are beaten and imprisoned, but though the goddess doesn’t have the power to break out by herself, the Defenders have brought her a vessel that Enchantress can transform. Over the heroes’ objections, Enchantress transforms mad Barbara into the Valkyrie, who breaks them all free. The heroes, joined by Enchantress and her more-or-less willing servant the Knight, summarily trounce the Executioner, Casiolena and all of the queen’s men. Interestingly, when the Valkyrie appears, she’s carrying a war-spear identical to the one in her earlier appearances, though after she uses it to disarm the Executioner this weapon, like its sister in HULK #142, simply disappears from the ongoing Valkyrie narrative.

But though the spear’s absence isn’t accounted for, that doesn’t mean there’s no reason for it to disappear; it goes away so that the Valkyrie has a reason to appropriate the sword of the Black Knight.

After the dust-up is finished, Enchantress decides to “forgive” Executioner for his waywardness, with the clear implication that she’s once more in the driver’s seat while he must return to being her lapdog. Dane Whitman, having become totally besotted with the goddess, protests and threatens the axe-man, but Enchantress shows her preferences by turning the mortal hero to stone, and then fleeing with her immortal lover. This development has the effect of leaving Whitman’s sword and winged horse up for grabs, and Valkyrie duly takes possession of them. It may be that writer Englehart and editor Thomas thought that a sword would prove less cumbersome than a spear, and better able to deal out non-lethal force when desired (in later issues Valkyrie swats her merely-human opponents with “the flat of the blade.”) Valkyrie doesn’t keep the Black Blade, though, for in Englehart’s final DEFENDERS issue, #11 (December 1973), it’s revealed that the Black Knight’s spirit has manifested in another body back in the days of the Crusades, and so the Blade is returned to Dane Whitman once more. But in the succeeding issue, writer Len Wein gives Valkyrie a new super-sword called Dragonfang, which she keeps for the remainder of the super-team’s first run, just as she keeps custody of winged horse Aragorn.

In some sense Valkyrie soon becomes, far more than the group’s technical leader Doc Strange, the glue that holds future incarnations of the super-team together. Given that she appears as a tabula rasa, with no conscious memories of being Barbara Norris, she might even be considered the “child” that unites a troubled family. As noted before she is the first Marvel superheroine to register as a “powerhouse,” able to exchange blows with the Sub-Mariner and the Hulk, but even at the start there’s some mitigation of her power—what one might call a “curse,” given that it’s predicated on her gender-kinship with other women. I’ll discuss this more fully in what should be my cumulative essay on the nature of Marvel’s Scandinavian superheroine.

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