Messages from Midgard Finale: The Good and Bad of War of the Realms
Just when you thought you’d seen the last of me, here’s another installment of “Messages from Midgard“. This isn’t a column length analysis of Unbeatable Squirrel Girl #46, which was the final “War of the Realms” tie-in to come out although I will mention Ryan North, Derek Charm, and Rico Renzi‘s hilarious and clever work with Doreen Green and the Norse squirrel god of chaos Ratatoskr later. No, I have come to survey the wreckage of “War of the Realms” and sift out what worked and what didn’t as well as the memorable moments and the comics that will gather dust in the quarter/dollar/whatever currency inflates to bin at the comic cons and stores of the future.
Without further ado, here’s “War of the Realms: The Good and the Bad“.
1. Thor’s Character Arc
The core War of the Realms series was at its finest when Jason Aaron remembers that he and Thor have been on a seven year journey together, and this event is the climax. Sure, the montages of Fire Goblin and Frost Giant destruction, superheroes making inane Tolkien and DnD quips, and Punisher shooting Elves are fun. However, the series clicks when it focuses on Thor feeling guilt for the death of the Valkyries and Loki, going on a berserker rage, returning with one arm, and then making sacrifices to not just become a hero, but the All-Father of Asgard. Tom Taylor does a good job enhancing this main narrative in his Land of the Giants tie-in where Wolverine tells his teammates to let Thor let his berserker rage burn out and kill Giants before he is ready begin the next step of his journey.
Despite the continent and realm spanning tie-ins and some issues in the middle, which feel like trailers for more interesting comics with cool battles, Jason Aaron and Russell Dauterman craft a robust arc for Thor. They also make a great one for Jane Foster too as she evacuates New York, takes on the role of All-Mother in Freyja’s absence, wields War Thor’s helmet, and finally becomes the new Valkyrie. Superhero comics are all about the illusion of change, but it’s cool to look back and see a damsel-in-distress nurse battle cancer, become the goddess of Thunder, revoke that mantle, and find new ways to be heroic in War of the Realms. Basically, people who started reading comics in the 2010s will only see Jane Foster as a hero thanks to the work of Aaron, Dauterman, and Matthew Wilson.
2. Russell Dauterman and Matthew Wilson’s Visuals
All my high-falutin’ words about responsibility, heroic journeys, and mythology aside, at its core, War of the Realms is a no holds barred good guys vs bad guys superhero throwdown except with fantasy baddies instead of the usual costumed villains. And this is all thanks to the art of Russell Dauterman and the colors of Matthew Wilson. Dauterman is like a modern day Art Adams (Who did the covers for War of the Realms) or George Perez and possesses a singular gift for splash pages with multiple characters and making them compositions that tell a story instead of glorified pinups. He excels at both layouts and character designs using the newly omniscient Daredevil as the reader’s POV on the action of the War of the Realms while coming up with cool riffs on characters like Odin’s Iron Man armor, Malekith becoming engorged by the Venom symbiote, or Freyja going full Vanir witch on Malekith and his minions.
Matthew Wilson really is the secret weapon throughout the “War of the Realms” event with his work on the core miniseries as well as issues of Thor and the Daredevil serial in War Scrolls. His colors are the ingredient that put the Frost in Frost Giants, the Fire in Fire Goblins, and the effects he uses in War of the Realms #6 make the storm caused by the four Thors truly cataclysmic. But his work isn’t all chaos and Kirby krackle, and there’s delightful minimalism to the big scenes like the reforging of Mjolnir or Daredevil gazing from above that cause one’s eye to linger on the panel and reread the issues that he has colored and that Russell Dauterman has drawn again.
3. Humor-Driven Tie-Ins
The “War of the Realms” tie-ins aren’t at their best when they’re trying to make serious points about the effects of war, like Dennis Hallum and Kim Jacinto did in War of the Realms Strikeforce: The War Avengers. They do work when they lean into the fun and lore of superhero comics and events. For example, in Superior Spider-Man, Gwenpool comments on the well-worn structure of event comics and how a B-Lister like Doc Ock doesn’t get to strike the final blow against Malekith, and in Skottie Young and Nic Klein’s Deadpool, the titular character fights trolls with the help of Australian stereotypes and the event’s single funny Lord of the Rings joke. There is also a great short story in War Scrolls #2 by Anthony Oliveira and Nick Robles where Loki (in disguise as Kate Bishop) and Wiccan go to drag brunch.
However, the two tie-ins that take the cake in the comedy department and are also fun road stories are The McElroys and Andre Araujo‘s Journey into Mystery and the aforementioned Unbeatable Squirrel Girl. Most of the humor in Journey into Mystery comes from character idiosyncrasies, like Miles Morales not knowing what to do in a casino because he’s never left Brooklyn or Death Locket’s obsession with Westerns because those were the only movies her Life Model Decoy “uncle” had programmed. The jokes also come out of the wacky situations that the ensemble cast finds them in from a Skrull trailer park to a literal Western ghost town and a henchman convention.
In Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, Ryan North, Derek Charm, and Rico Renzi send the titular character on a mission from Loki to take out the Frost Giants’ secret base in Canada. On the way, she gets a cute new costume from her mom, sees two Frost Giants make out, reads Robert Frost poetry on her own, and builds an unlikely friendship and alliance with Ratatoskr, a Norse squirrel deity that is tricksy even for Loki. North’s script continues to be joke-dense and full of fun facts about science and the world around us while insightfully showing Squirrel Girl at her conflict-avoiding and problem-solving finest. Her actions even have an effect on the larger event, and Derek Charm’s art continues to be heckin’ cute.
4. Standalone Character Studies
Jason Aaron plays some good 3D chess by using War of the Realms to tell the big, loud story of Malekith’s invasion and Thor finding confidence in himself again and his other titles Thor and Avengers to tell quieter (Sometimes) character studies and hint at big plans after the War. So, we get stories like Loki being visited by his past and future selves while being digested in his father’s stomach, a tale of Gorilla-Man’s day to day role at the Avengers HQ during a crisis situation, and She-Hulk dealing with people’s (and by extension readers’) perceptions of her and how she really wants to be. They provide a fresh outlook on the events of the War of the Realms that isn’t just omniscient narration or Thor’s quest.
Avengers #18-#20 end up pulling double duty by introducing the Squadron Supreme of America as well as fleshing out the aforementioned Gorilla-Man and She-Hulk and setting up future plans for Aaron’s works in the Marvel Universe. The Squadron is a great satire of nationalism with a bit of trolling towards the DC Universe, and Aaron wisely puts them in an ancillary book to not detract from “War of the Realms”. The same goes with Gorilla-Man, who is in cahoots with the imprisoned Dracula meaning that the King of the Damned still has a role to play in this book’s events. And none of this is mentioned in the core War of the Realms mini, who only spends a solitary panel setting up Marvel’s next event “Absolute Carnage” as Venom slithers away from Malekith’s Necrosword. It’s nice to enjoy the ride/event you’re on before thinking about the next one.
5. Mediocre Minis
Most Big Two events have three to six issue miniseries to add depth to major supporting characters, give B-list heroes a showcase, or just to make money. Sadly, most of “War of the Realms'” minis were more miss than hit with the exception of Journey into Mystery and the anthology series War Scrolls. I also personally liked the end of War of the Realms: Punisher and its portrayal of Frank Castle as a defender of innocents and unrelenting executioner of criminals even if it didn’t connect to his portrayal in the event possible.
However, the rest of “War of the Realms'” minis were either untapped potential or just plain stinkers. New Agents of Atlas introduced a new team of Pan-Asian superheroes, but became overwhelmed by its ensemble cast and its intriguing character designs didn’t translate well to its interior art. Giant-Man had a madcap concept of Marvel’s size-changing heroes taking out the “source” of the Frost Giants, Ymir. But it went off the rails by its third issue with a villain who was shoehorned in and an artist that was really bad at staging and establishing scenes.
Spider-Man and the League of Realms had a cool concept of Spider-Man leading representatives from the other nine realms into battle, but it constantly changed settings, switched bad guy/threat on the fly, and like New Agents of Atlas, didn’t make me care enough about its ensemble cast. The worst tie-in of all was War of the Realms: Uncanny X-Men which had a decent premise of the X-Men defending New York, but shoehorned in awkward connections to Norse mythology, killed off Sunspot for no reason and had no focus even though Sabretooth would have made a great villain. Thankfully, it will probably be all retconned when Jonathan Hickman begins his X-Men run.
If you stick to the core miniseries plus the Thor, Avengers, War Scrolls, Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, and Journey into Mystery tie-ins (I can also vouch for Cullen Bunn’s work on Asgardians of the Galaxy and Venom.), “War of the Realms” is a good time. First and foremost, it works as an event because it’s a culmination of seven years of work that Jason Aaron has done with Thor, Jane Foster, Odin, Freyja, Asgard, and the non-Midgard Realms instead of trying to tie into an MCU movie. In fact, much of the current MCU Thor’s arc seems inspired by the work that Aaron has done throughout his run.