Column: After Ragnarök – Interview with Michael Avon Oeming

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Michael Avon Oeming got his first big break in comic books in 1993 as an inker on Marvel’s Daredevil, followed shortly as both penciller and inker on the DC Comics version of Judge Dredd. He drew Bulletproof Monk and Powers for Image Comics; the first was made into a film starring Chow Yun-fat, and the second earned the Eisner Award for Best New Series in 2001. The Mice Templar, another Image series featuring Oeming’s art, won a Harvey Award in 2010.

The After Realm, written and illustrated by Oeming, made its debut last month as a hybrid production of Image Comics and a Kickstarter campaign run by Oeming himself. The elevator pitch on the Image website sums up the concept:

In the aftermath of Ragnarok, Oona, an elven ranger, sets out into the post-apocalyptic chaos to discover the fate of the old gods. But first, she must fulfill and oath to a lost friend that could doom what’s left of the Nine Realms.

Rather than following a monthly or bimonthly publishing schedule, The After Realm is being published on a quarterly schedule. Released in February with a hefty fifty-six ad-free pages, the first issue features extra full-page art and an interesting essay on the roots and influences of the series.

The After Realm first issue cover art [courtesy Michael Avon Oeming]

This week, I spoke with Oeming about the interface of Norse mythology and his work in comics.

The Wild Hunt: This new series isn’t the first time you’ve channeled Norse mythology in comics. In 2004, you wrote the six-issue “Ragnarök” storyline in Marvel’s Thor comic book series that effectively killed off all the Norse-connected characters and ended the run that began in 1962. When the series was revived in 2007, the god of thunder had a new look and began a new era that eventually dovetailed with the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

How did you approach the daunting task of blending Norse mythology with Marvel mythology while laying Jack Kirby and Stan Lee’s creation to rest?

Michael Avon Oeming: Wow, it was the most exciting writing assignment, ever. I was ready for it. At that time in my life, I was steeped in Norse mythology from having finished my work on Hammer of the Gods, a Norse Mythology fantasy. I emphasize fantasy here, because all sorts of liberties were taken for the sake of comic book narrative. As you know, there is a lot of meaning and context lost from the Norse stories, most of which lend themselves to a much deeper, almost meditative, study. But we have to punch people in comics. Ha!

I was also a big Kirby fan for a very long time, most especially his Asgardian back-ups in The Mighty Thor. The first thing I did was read as many Thor comics as possible, especially Kirby’s and Walt Simonson’s runs. I bookmarked important events, characters, and themes from the comics and tried to marry them with some of the themes in the Norse myths.

There was so much from the comics I was not able to fit in, but I was able to get some gems in there, like some “lost” characters like Vidar, Thor’s other half-brother. The cyclical nature of creation and destruction seemed to be a good theme that married both the Marvel Comics lore and some of the deeper lessons from Norse mythology – death begets life, life begets death, and it all comes from blood. Marvel characters always die and come back, and Valhalla promises another life and death after this life and death.

Once I figured that out, it was all a matter of managing space – the limited amount of pages per issue.

TWH: In 2005, you wrote the six-issue limited series Thor: Blood Oath for Marvel, set in the early days of the Kirby-Lee era and inspired by the Irish mythological cycle known as The Tragic Story of the Children of Tuireann. In the afterword to the hardcover collection, you write that “everyone’s religion is someone else’s mythology” and state that, for you, mythology “really isn’t about the answers, but about the questions and how we ask them.”

That last bit is exactly what first attracted me to the Old Icelandic poetry. It wasn’t that the texts provided ancient answers; what got me was that these long-ago people were asking the same questions over a thousand years ago that I’ve been asking for most of my life. Fifteen years later, do you still feel that the old myths speak to the current moment?

MAO: Absolutely. As humans, we are always looking into the abstract for answers – tarot Cards, Rorschach tests, symbology, film metaphors, and more. We are always seeking meaning in things. Mythology, religion, psychology, and philosophy are all doing this.

It’s fascinating to me, because I get how we evolved in other ways, most of which are survival-based. Like the way we see patterns everywhere, how we see faces in inanimate objects – it comes from our survival needs, always looking for the camouflaged face of an animal or enemy. But questioning who we are and why we are here through our environment seems to come from some “other” place.

I know it is a little tin-foil-hat territory, but I like the idea that our consciousness isn’t generated within our brain, but that our brain is a receiver to a larger connected consciousness. If that is true, it could be part of the puzzle to why we look to subjects like mythology to explain who we are, how the universe works, and why we are here.

I love the idea that we can look into mythology not only for metaphors but also for support. “I can’t do this today” is something I say to about every email or phone call I get! But then I think of real life problems that are much more stressful or even remind myself that stories about Odysseus and others are about struggling through things. Even the completely made-up stories can be great reminders that we can handle anything thrown at us, even emails.

TWH: You’re both writer and artist for The After Realm. How does your approach as a writer differ when you’re also handling the art? Do you still write out a formal script, or does the work proceed in a different fashion?

MAO: I actually still write a full, detailed script for myself. I don’t do this on all projects, but I’m doing it here, because I’m writing so far head for myself that I need to know exactly what I was thinking and going for when I wrote it. I also need the script to be detailed for the letterer.

I’m not at the point where I can afford a dedicated editor yet, but I do have several eyes on it, so I want things to be as clear as possible for them. And to be honest, with a less detailed script, I may end up improvising too much or get sloppy. It is a slippery slope for me, because I’m all about deadlines and schedules, but I don’t want to sacrifice quality. All within reason, of course.

TWH: One of the interesting aspects of The After Realm is that it’s an original project that wears its long list of influences on its sleeve, including Thundarr the Barbarian, Dungeons & Dragons, Joust, Dragon’s Lair, Norse mythology, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Gordon Lightfoot.

As someone who grew up with all of that stuff, I appreciate the nods but still find your tale to be bracingly original. How do you find a balance between influence and originality while creating a work like this?

MAO: I have no idea! In this particular project, I’m trying to take those influences and filter them through my particular experience.

There are a lot of comics making nods to D&D. Except for me, when I played D&D as a kid, I did a lot more daydreaming about the twenty-sided dice rather than actually using them for gameplay. So I have the dice here, but they are more connected to [the central character] Oona for guidance, like the runes written on them instead of numbers or any sort of real gameplay within the comic. I have dice in my narrative, as do others, but I’m really trying to make those influences very personal. Even if people don’t get it, I’m hoping I’m still painting a relatable picture.

For instance, I decided to put my Aunt Carol, who passed away in 2017, as Oona’s spirit guide to travel in-between the realms. You’ll see her in issue two. She serves the same purpose as any other guide. Originally I was going to use Audhumbla, the cow that licked the first god out of the ice, but I’m still grieving for my aunt and uncle, so my experience told me to replace Audhmubla with my Aunt Carol. Like literally her – she has coffee, smokes cigarettes, and quotes her favorite song. Along with my mother, my aunt really was my guide through life, both teaching me so much about love and empathy.

TWH: You launched this series on Kickstarter despite it being published by Image Comics. I haven’t seen that sort of a pairing before for an original project. Now that so many of us are trying to find a way in a world where an ever-increasing number of traditional career paths are closing down, can you explain how this dual method works?

MAO: Sure. It’s tough to sell comics, even for an old pro like me. There are tons of reasons for this from our horrible distribution to a sort of glut of great comics on the shelf.

I’ve been wanting to do a Kickstarter for awhile, but didn’t want to lose the built-in audience in the direct market that may never see the Kickstarter. So I talked to Eric Stephenson at Image Comics and he came up with great suggestions on how to do this. It seems to be working out!

So, if the book stops making money through the direct market, the Kickstarter will help assure it can continue while allowing me to pay people and keep the book out of debt. This truly is a passion project. As long as it not losing money on the series, I’ll continue to do it. So far, so good.

TWH: The After Realm begins after Ragnarök, picking up the story of Norse mythology where the myths themselves – and your work on Marvel’s Thor – end. How does your relationship to your mythological sources differ here from your interfacing with it in your work for Marvel?

MAO: I’ve written so much about Ragnarök, through Thor and my own comics like Hammer of the Gods, that I’ve longed to place stories in the aftermath of the end.

When I saw my pal Walter Simonson’s Ragnarök book about elves after Ragnarok, I almost gave up my ideas, but I saw how differently he was handling it. Both of us have written for Marvel’s Thor, and Walt has always been a big influence on me, but now we can both explore the aftermath of Ragnarök in our own ways, separate from Marvel.

Marvel has its own history and rules that are close to the legends but also vary quite a bit. Now we can make our rules and not be beholden to either Marvel or traditional mythology.

TWH: Ever since Tolkien centered his mythology on notions of race as a determinant of character and Dungeons & Dragons hardwired the concept into gaming, there’s been a disturbing undercurrent of racialism in popular fantasy. The elves of The After Realm, however, are incredibly diverse. Were you consciously pushing back on racialist fantasy tropes when designing your characters?

MAO: Yes. For one simple reason that goes beyond social awareness. If we can imagine dragons and all the freedom that fantasy gives us, why is it so hard to imagine different skin color and ethnicities?

Is it a problem with “authenticity” because these are Northern European mythologies? Well then, why aren’t they speaking Old Norse? Why aren’t our heroes raping and enslaving others and doing other horrible things that were the norms of those time periods?

We see fantasy through modern eyes, let’s just see it through modern eyes. What people choose to fantasize about is almost as fascinating as what they choose to reject in their fantasies. It says a lot about people.

TWH: The first issue of the new series has an interesting dual mood. Oona Lightfoot, the young elf that the series is built around, both longs for the past and dreams about the future. She wishes “things would go back to being normal” but also “yearn[s] to escape.” This captures so well both the feeling of being a teenager on the verge of adulthood and the current moment of self-quarantine in the face of the coronavirus.

You’ve written that the series “gather[s] all of my loves and influences from my youth, like favorite but forgotten toys rediscovered left on the floor.” Is this double mood of Oona’s more a channeling of your youthful self or an emanation of your current feelings?

MAO: Wow, well, when I wrote this, we didn’t see the coronavirus thing coming, and I hadn’t seen the parallels until this, but I see it now, for sure!

Largely, I put a lot of my feelings into young Oona. I had a rough childhood with sudden and damaging changes. It’s one of the reasons I have several stories about children, but they are all girls. I can’t write young boys, because my experience was pretty traumatizing. But I can put distance between those feelings and a character like Oona.

They are universal, right, almost clichéd, but so true they are inescapable. Now we all are yearning for things to “go back to normal.” But like any “Ragnarök,” we can come out better in the end. Painful change can lead to a healing, stronger future. That’s been my experience, for the most part.

TWH: Many modern versions of Loki have taken the same basic approach of making him a sexy and/or sympathetic anti-hero and/or underdog who resists the overbearing gods. This is the standard contemporary take in the Marvel movies and work by Neil Gaiman, Joanne Harris, Matt Fraction, M.D. Lachlan, and many others.

Your Loki in The After Realm is quite different. He’s a threatening treelike giant who quotes the Old Norse Völuspa (“Prophecy of the Seeress”) to taunt the elves as he stands astride the enormous wolf Fenrir and “unleash[es] chaos and doom.” After his defeat at Ragnarök, the elves imprison him in Ginnungagap (here called “the gap of Aurgelmir”), and he coldly manipulates Oona’s hopes in order to free himself and his trollish army. What was your thought process in designing this version of Loki?

MAO: Well, I’m guilty of writing Loki as my go-to bad guy in my fantasy writing. I’ve written him at Marvel and in my Hammer of the Gods series as a more overt villain. And now there are movies and countless other comics. So I had to do something different, if I was to use him again.

I thought of Ragnarök and how it really isn’t the end, but it is the end of most things, and the world is reborn. So, I wanted to do the same with Loki and have his body die, but be reborn within the very thing he used to bring Ragnarok in the first place – a mistletoe toe. I mean, he’s more tree than mistletoe, but I think it still comes across. And any chance to quote the old poems is fun!

Exclusive first look at cover art for second issue of The After Realm [courtesy Michael Avon Oeming]

TWH: The preview of the second issue looks much more like science fiction than the first issue, which fits squarely in the fantasy genre. Do you plan to leave behind the mythological elements in favor of hard science fiction, or will the series continue to include elements of Norse mythology in the futuristic setting?

MAO: You know, in my heart of hearts, I originally wanted to just do the kind of high fantasy I fantasize about, i.e. Lord of the Rings. I could have continued with that, but how would my world be any different from the countless others? Many actually pull it off, high fantasy medieval genre but unique. It isn’t easy to do. But even if it is done well, there’s just so much of it.

My pal Brian Bendis really challenged me to make this fantasy my own, which is why I reached back to my particular influences, asking myself, “what made me daydream?”. Some of it was the pop culture of the time, but others like my aunt, or quoting “A Horse with No Name” and Led Zeppelin lyrics are all me, filtered through the fantasy world.

I’ve set up a world(s) so that I can set a story completely in high fantasy, if I want, or even in a big city or suburb. Most likely, you’ll see a mixture of settings and genres. We’ll see more of both young and adult Oona. While adult Oona will be way more out there, young Oona will be set in the more traditional elf world we see in issues one and two. It’s going to be fun writing a character at two different ages and settings for an ongoing series.

TWH: Thank you for agreeing to be interviewed. I’m looking forward to following the series as it develops.

MAO: Thank you for the amazing Twitter feed, which is what first grabbed my attention. I’ll be here making comics, anytime you or your fans need me.

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The views and opinions expressed by our diverse panel of columnists and guest writers represent the many diverging perspectives held within the global Pagan, Heathen and polytheist communities, but do not necessarily reflect the views of The Wild Hunt Inc. or its management.