One of the best parts of Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s legendary All-Star Superman is its succinct retelling of Superman’s origin: “Doomed planet, desperate scientists, last hope, kindly couple.”
There’s a similar moment in the first issue of Beta Ray Bill, a new five-part miniseries from writer/artist Daniel Warren Johnson, colorist Mike Spicer, and letterer Joe Sabino, that gracefully invokes the character’s tragic backstory. Once a humanoid alien, Bill agrees to be transformed into a grotesque, horselike cyborg to protect his people from a fire god.
He’s a hero who looks like a monster—a contradiction that has defined his role in the Marvel Universe since he first appeared in the pages of Walter Simonson’s Thor run. The “heroic monster” is one of Marvel’s recurring archetypes—back to Benjamin Grimm, the Thing—but what sets Bill apart is his grand, even mythic, level of heroism.
He is one of only a few characters worthy of lifting Thor’s hammer, and his love interests include Asgardians like Lady Sif. He is every bit Thor’s equal, but knows he doesn’t look the part. As he says at one point in this first issue, “I am not blind.”
Johnson is a perfect fit for a book about one of Simonson’s characters because, like Simonson, his artwork lends itself toward grand depictions of gods and monsters. Wonder Woman: Dead Earth, one of my favorite comics from last year, was Johnson at his best, interweaving scenes from a dystopian Earth with a personal tale rooted in the specifics of Wonder Woman’s upbringing.
Unlike the alternate future of that book, Beta Ray Bill is set firmly in the present of Marvel’s universe, even tying in to King in Black and events in Donny Cates’ ongoing Thor run.
The strictures of continuity can sometimes make for awkward storytelling, as when Johnson has to justify why Bill looks like himself here despite having his humanoid appearance in Cates’ book. But it helps to have a Bill story set in continuity so Johnson can meaningfully advance his relationships to Thor and other characters.
That aspect of Johnson’s story has me most intrigued, though fans will love some of the more awesome set pieces here, including a clash with a Knullified Fin Fang Doom that has Johnson’s customarily huge sound effects and contains maybe the funniest line of the book—and also one of the saddest. It’s not a spoiler to note that Bill’s defining relationship to Thor has been one of mutual respect, but also jealousy.
At the end of the issue, Marvel helpfully includes an interview between Johnson and Simonson about Bill, Thor, and comics in general. It’s an illuminating read for many reasons, but chief among them is in the way Simonson describes Bill as not a “comedic character,” but a “more tragic one who underwent torture and isolation to save his people.”
That sentiment is key to Johnson’s story and how he is writing Bill. I’m excited to see if his vision lives up to the promise of this brilliant first issue.
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