One of the things I love about superhero comics is the willingness to take totally ridiculous ideas and run with them in an attempt to give them some sort of – maybe gravitas is going too far, but certainly to imbue them with a logic or an approximation of dignity without taking themselves too seriously.
My favourite superhero comics do this at the same time as maintaining a sense of playfulness that shows they’re fully aware of how silly the situations depicted are, but that they’re willing to go with it to see what kind of fun can be had from exploring that silliness while also givng the reader a decent amount of widescreen “woah – cool” moments.
Which is why I love Beta Ray Bill. He’s a horse-headed alien with the powers of the Norse god Thor who flies around in space inside a talking spaceship called Skuttlebutt. That is pure superhero poetry right there, my friends.
I’ve been reading Beta Ray Bill’s latest adventures in the three-part series called Beta Ray Bill: Godhunter, part two of which I picked up last week (check out the online previews of issue #1 and issue #2). The story, written by British writer Kieron Gillen (most well-known as the writer of the crazy hipster magic-and-music comic series Phonogram), ties into Bill’s earlier adventures, wherein his home planet was destroyed by Galactus.
(For those who came in late, Galactus is a giant planet-eating alien all decked out in purple-and-blue armor and a crazy weird helmet that looks like a rubbish bin with a boomerang stuck on either side of it – another great example of how comics can take something utterly ridiculous and give it a sense of drama and urgency.)
The other thing that’s cool about this series is that the back of each issue contains reprints of Beta Ray Bill’s very first appearance from the 1980s Thor comics that I vividly remember reading when I was fifteen years old. It’s a classic superhero punchup between Thor and Bill, with some great cliffhangers and curveballs, all lovingly illustrated by the crazy angular cartoony artwork of artist/writer Walt Simonson, the guy who came up with the idea to replace Thor with a space-horse in the first place.
But before I get totally derailed by nostalgia, back to Mister Gillen’s offering. The core of the feature story is about Bill’s decision to take revenge on Galactus by preventing the big G from eating any more planets – the idea being that he’ll starve to death. So how do you stop an all-powerful planet-eater from eating planets? Easy – you blow them up before he can eat them. Nice and high-concept, with plenty of opportunity for space-battles and the old explodo.
The story is basically a setup to consider the old saw about ends justifying means. It’s a rhetorical question, sure, but how often do you get rhetorical questions about morality asked by space-horses intent on punching out giant planet-eating purple space-gods? Not often, I should think.
What interests me more, though, is how the story is going to play out. Since the answer the question is a given, and also given the fact that superhero comics rarely disrupt their own status quo (that status quo in this case being that Galactus is a character that Marvel Comics wants to continue to be able to bring out as the ultimate Cosmic Big Bad whenever stories need him, so killing him is pretty much not an option).
The question then becomes how you maintain that status quo while also maintaining the dignity and intergrity of your characters, and without concluding it in a way that undermines the story you’re trying to tell. How can Bill fail in a way that doesn’t negate the character development he’s undergone in the story so far?
I’ll be very intersted to see how Mr. Gillen resolves this story. He seems to have a real affection for the character of Beta Ray Bill, so I’m expecting something in line with that affection. We shall see.
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