THE RING OF THE NIEBELUNG
The most popular non-superhero comic Marvel comics ever produced, in terms of lasting effect at least, is Conan the Barbarian, most memorably drawn by Barry Windsor-Smith. There's a recent, excellent Conan series which I've raved about elsewhere by Kurt Busiek and Cary Nord; the character is one of the few with the tenacity of Marvels' superhero characters, despite belonging to quite a different genre and idiom.
Conan was also rendered for a while by Roy Thomas (writer) who was the heir apparent to Stan Lee at Marvel for a while, and Gil Kane, who was one of the later artists produced by the classic "Marvel bullpen" of the 60s. These two seemed to be on the same page and worked together a lot in the subsequent decades, often on fantasy-based projects. Apparently by 1989 their amibitions hadn't dimmed, as that's the year they decided to tackle one of the greatest fantasy epics in all of human literature.
"The Ring of the Nibelung" is a cycle of four, count 'em, FOUR operas by Richard Wagner, one of the greatest composers and most unpleasant human beings to walk the Earth. The Ring cycle is an epic story inspired by Norse mythology (though Wagner made plenty of changes to suit his themes and personal hang-ups) which has inspired everyone from J. R. R. Tolkien (the saga involves a number of races warring over a supremely powerful, cursed ring) to, sadly, Adolph Hitler (Wagner was, among other things, a raging anti-semite who believed in much of the same Nietzschean ideals that inspired the Nazis). Still, this doesn't change the fact that the Ring cycle is a pretty massive accomplishment of breathtaking vision; it's not a coincidence that "Wagnerian" now means "massive, intense, exhaustive and obsessive".
That's the operas. The question on everyone's mind is, how would it work as a comic book?
Well, apparently it was a question on Thomas and Kane's mind, anyway. I'm assuming one of their first conclusions was "We may have to ditch the music."
Oh yeah, and the colouring is done by, of all people, Jim Woodring, creator of the extremely weird "Frank"; this lends everything (as you may expect, if you know Woodring's art) a very strange and psychedelic aspect which…well, I don't think it worked. It's like teaming up Herge and Todd Macfarlane. Or Al Capp and, I dunno, Mike Mignola. It's two great tastes that don't taste so great together. But in other respects…well, hey, it's still a Gil Kane/Roy Thomas fantasy comic. It would be churlish of me to criticize.
Yet I do it anyway.
The Rhinegold opens with a moderately spectacular seven page spread, narrated by Erda the Earth goddess, telling of the creation of the world and the wars between the gods and giants. It's everything a fantasy fan could ask for. One could nitpick that it doesn't technically have much to do with the rest of the story, but I guess Wagner figured that he may as well go for broke and cram the entirety of Germanic mythology in there while he was at it.
You wouldn't think it could get any better, but then the next sequence outdoes it. How? By featuring nudity, of course! Specifically, the three Rhinemaidens, Woglinde, Wellgunde and Flosshilde, who frolic amongst the waves in the buff. The three are charged with guarding the titular (oh, stop it) gold, which rests at the bottom of the river Rhine amongst, strangely enough, an air bubble "the height of a man". Into this comes the hideous dwarf Alberich, trying to get his mack on with the three sisters who swim above him (I'm assuming this rather awkward arrangement was originally designed as a staging convenience). The three cruelly mock him for being ugly, in a not-very-subtly veiled metaphor for the fickleness and shallowness of women. I did mention Wagner had issues, right? Anyway, you can add "stupidity" to the list as well, since after enraging the dwarf they immediately spill the secret of the Rhinegold: whoever swears to give up love forever could forge it into a magic ring that could gain him immense wealth and power. So not only have they revealed this to Alberich, they've just given him every reason to follow through with the "give up love" thing with their cruelty. Good job, you dizzy mermaids! Al grabs the gold and runs off (I'm going to guess that in the original opera he didn't add a comic-booky "HAHAHAHAHAHA!" as he went.)
Turns out that there's a problem, which kicks off the rather convoluted plot that spans the four operas. Valhalla was built by the two giants Fafner and Fasolt, who only did the deed because they were promised Freya, goddess of youth and beauty, in return. Now that the time as come, and Wotan, as befits a noble king of the gods, tries like hell to weasel out of it. Not because he actually cared about Freya, you understand. What, you were expecting likeable characters? Boy, did you pick the wrong book. No, Freya has access to the apples of youth that keep the Gods young, and hence the gods can't really spare her (exactly why Freya is needed to dole out the apples, when you'd think the giants would more logically request the actual, y'know, tree they grow on, is never explained.) Things look likely to come to blows, when suddenly Loge, god of fire and cunning, shows up, and saves Wotan's bacon by suggesting they retrieve Alberich's hoard (which he's accrued using the ring) and give that to the giants in place of the goddess. In the course of this scene, virtually every one of the gods manages to prove themselves thoroughly despicable (Wotan's a weasel, Fricka's a shrew, Freya's a whiny victim, Donner's a bonehead) except, oddly enough, for the supposedly "evil" God Loge. And of course the giants aren't any better.
Long story short, Odin and Loge kidnap Alberich and force him to give up all his treasure, including the Ring. I know he's supposedly the villain, but geez, at this point I can't WAIT to see Alberich bring down this load of divine douchebags. Impotent with rage, he curses the ring forever. Wotan shrugs this off, despite Loge's bad feelings.
Anyway, pleased with their days' work, the gods walk off into a splash panel of Valhalla as the Rhinemaidens lament below, and Loge mutters to himself, "What a buncha maroons."
I don't know much about opera, but I do know they tend to involve a lot of passionate love affairs and violence, two aspects that were notably missing from "The Rhinegold". However, this installment has both these things in spades. Turns out Blondie is married to a greenish troll of a man named Hunding, who arrives home and, while honour-bound to give Mimbo his hospitality, is clearly not too comfortable with the interloper. "Woeful", as he calls himself, relates the story of how his home was destroyed by the Neidungs, his mother killed, his sister kidnapped, and his father vanished. Since then he's been walking the Earth, righting wrongs, but the last wrong he righted went…wrong, and now the Neidungs are once again on his tail.
No sooner has he revealed this tidbit than Hunding reveals that he himself is a Neidung. Oops! However, he's willing to give "Woeful" a sporting chance (the villains being more honourable than the heroes is a recurring theme in these stories) and so he tells him to rest up for a duel to the death tomorrow.
Unfortunately, Woeful is lacking in the weapons department just this moment-which means it's time for the deus ex machina! The woman, who calls herself Sieglinda, turns out to be the oaf's long-lost sister, and she reveals that there's a sword driven into a nearby tree, placed there by Wotan for the Greatest Hero Ever to withdraw at a convenient time. If you guess that our hero will be able to withdraw it, you guessed correctly! Hoisting the sword aloft, our Hero now sports the new name of Siegmund, given him by his newly-found sister, and…
Act the second, and the Gods get involved. Turns out Wotan is actually Siegmund's father-he'd sired a kid who he'd hoped would one day grow up to slay Fafner and return the ring to him. But Fricka (goddess of marriage) is righteously pissed about the two lovers for their adultery, and , oh yeah, the incest thing too. Wotan, who apparently doesn't wear the pants in this household, is forced to swear that he'll arrange a little accident for Siegmund.
Wotan calls forth She-Ra…I mean, Brunhilde the Valkyrie. For those of you wondering, Brunhilde is the classic "fat lady in a pointed helmet" of cartoon operas everywhere (since the role requires a powerful voice that is generally aided by a hefty physique); it won't surprise you, I'm sure, to learn that Kane and Thomas have rendered her in a form that's somewhat easier on the eyes. Brunhilde, by the way, is also Wotan's daughter-like a lot of pagan deities and rock stars, the guy got a lot of tail.
Wotan fills Xena in on the plot so far and tells her to go make sure that Siegmund meets with the business end of Hunding's sword-which is contrary to her inclinations, but she's a dutiful daughter. When she arrives to tell Siegmund the bad news, though, he makes such a convincing case-threatening to kill both himself and Sieglinde in a rather extreme act of passive-aggressiveness-that Brunhilde decides to disobey their mutual pop and provide Siegmund the victory. Unfortunately, Wotan himself is on hand, and for once decides to do his own dirty work. Long story short, Siegmund's sword shatters against Wotan's spear, Siegmund is impaled by Hunding, Hunding has all of two seconds to gloat before Wotan dimissively fries him with a blast of energy, and Wotan heads out to give Brunhilde a good talking-to. But of course, since she did what he would have preferred to have done anyway, he finds it hard to be really mad. Nevertheless, betrayal is betrayal, and as punishment Brunhilde's divinity is stripped away and she's forced to sleep on a rock, surrounded by eternal fire, until someone stupid enough to charge through that mess comes along to rescue her. Fortunately, he'll be along in the next volume, the Eponymous Siegfried.
Anyway, in this third opera, we find out that Siggy is another beefcake hero living in the woods with the dwarf Mime, who popped up briefly in "The Rhinegold" as Alberich's brother. Mime was treated badly by Al, and now he's treated badly by Siggy. Hey, I know people don't like Mimes, but this is ridiculous!
Siegfried is the cruelest, greediest, most self-involved, and stupidest character in all of these operas-and he's also the main hero, so that'll give you an idea of Wagner's thought process right there. He's also one of those annoying characters who are gifted by their authors with the ability to do everything, as he proves by reforging the broken sword "Needful" from the last installment. We've already learned that Siegfried is (surprise surprise) the child of Siegmund and Sieglinda's coupling-Linda stumbled into the woods and died shortly after giving birth, where Mime found the kid and raised him as his own. Sort of. Siegfried isn't big on parental gratitude.
In fact, Mime was hoping that when Siegfried got old enough, he could take care of that pesky ring business. Mime eventually spills to Siegfried, telling him all about Fafner, who's now taken the form of an immense dragon (thanks to the ring's power) and guards his horde day and night. Siegfried, you see, was born with a congenital lack of fear, and Mime tells him about Fafner with the hope that this'll spur him forward and get him killed by the dragon. Siegfried indeed is eager to tackle the worm, so he reforges the sword (in a bit that reminded me inescapably of "He-Man") and runs off to the dragon's lair.
For all that he's been set up as such a major menace throughout the cycle so far, Fafner goes down pretty quick, partly because Sigfried is too much of a bonehead to be afraid of a gigantic fire-breathing lizard. Siegfried regains the ring and some other stuff, including the "Tarnhelm" that allows its wearer to shape-shift; he also gets an added bonus in that his being doused in the dragon's blood gives him the ability to understand birdsong. One of them helpfully tips him off as to Mime's plan to poison him and take the ring, so Siegfried preemptively chucks him off a cliff. Then the birds tip him off to the existence of Brunhilde, just settin' at home waiting for a hero to rescue her. Siefried gradually comprehends the concept of "Woman" and goes storming off into the fire. Wotan tries to stop him, but this time the sword is able to crack Wotan's spear, which is, cosmically speaking, not good. The story ends with Siegfried laying eyes on Brunhilde and claiming that he finally understands the meaning of fear.
Siegfried does bring back Brunhilde in the guise of Gunter, much to her dismay. When she realizes how she's been cast aside, her anger at Siegfried-well, a woman scorned and all that. She conspires with Hagen (who's now revealed himself to be the son of Alberich, fathered for the express purpose of, you guessed it, getting the ring back) to stab Siegfried in the back when they're out hunting. This next sequence is framed a little confusingly by Kane-after getting home with Siegfried's body to a weeping Gutrune and Brunhilde, Gunther denounces Hagen's act, and Hagen promptly kills Gunther and apparently takes the ring. However, Brunhilde has it a moment later when she rips off all her clothes and leaps on hoseback into Siegfried's funeral pyre (ah, THERE'S that gratuitous nudity. They made me go almost a whole chapter without it!)
Erda reappears to narrate the final sequence-the banks of the river Rhine roll in to claim the ring from the pyre, Hagen leaps after it and is dragged under by the Rhinemaidens, in the distance Valhalla goes up in flames for no clearly explained reason, the price of kreplach skyrockets, dogs and cats live together in harmony, and the curtains come down.
You may have noticed that the image files I've included here are pretty hefty-that's because Wagner demands big-ass imagery, and Kane provides it. It's perhaps not surprising that Wagner feels so natural as a comic book; not only is most of the fantasy fiction of the 20th century inspired by it, but it's populated by the same melodramatic larger-than-life ubermensch heroes that make up the average comic cast. These people are pathologically incapable of doing anything small.
And hey-it lets you seem culturally enlightened, just by reading a comic book!
Story of my life.
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