Beta Ray Bill isn’t a character that makes a contemporary reader think “new” or “fresh”, what with his introduction now nearly forty years distant. At that time he was somewhat of a revolutionary character, a bold new direction by visionary creator Walt Simonson, and I feel that most creators since have treated the character with a sort of rigid reverence that didn’t do any favors in terms of cementing his relevance. For characters synonymous with singular creators, there’s a temptation to write them just as those creators did, and for Beta Ray Bill that means in Simonson’s now somewhat outdated formality.
That’s not to say that all of his modern appearances have felt a bit outdated and wooden, but many do. Some characters sort of fall out of favor. It’s a real shame, but in a universe with thousands of characters all vying for several hundred creators’ time, it’s bound to happen to someone.
Enter Daniel Warren Johnson, a creator seemingly incapable of putting out a product that doesn’t ooze with fluid, bombastic energy. If anyone was meant to bring Beta Ray back to relevance—to shed the sort of kid glove-handling, ‘just like Walt’ mentality—it’s Johnson, a creator himself as singular as Beta Ray’s.
The five issues of Argent Star are so metal and huge—and, occasionally, quiet and introspective—that Beta Ray wouldn’t have fit into the world without a looser, more naturalistic presentation. There isn’t room for huge, expository dialogue bubbles filled with ‘thee’ and ‘thou’ because all the room is needed for incredibly big, bold action, giant-size space ships, and dominating dangers—and, of course, for just as huge silences, in which a true melancholy is exhibited in a way that no dialogue could pronounce.
It’s a book, then, of dichotomous extremes which never feel forced but, instead, balance organically (and force Beta Ray to become organic, in turn). For all the exploding space ships, giant swords, and sentient gunships, an emotional core runs throughout and gels these things together. Beta Ray’s own morose, tragic sentimentality—his innate soulfulness—bleeds out into the big blacks and huge, glowing Mike Spicer colors.
It’s a true feat of revitalization for a character who desperately needed it, filled with nuance and subtlety. Small moments define him just as much as epic ones—such as the fact that it appears Beta Ray has 1991 children’s action-comedy Hook playing on a loop in his ship. Such a strange personal tic, one delivered without definition, so the subtlety of the thematic resonance of that lost Peter Pan feeling in Beta Ray’s post-Stormbreaker life isn’t explained so much as decoded.
Everything in the book is so big, so bombastic, that the emotional growth feels just as enormous—and each supporting cast member, in their way, has growth and depth regardless of how minor they might be. Early on, Pip the Troll approaches Beta Ray at a party, and in his few panels there you see his immediate empathy for Beta Ray’s inner turmoil. It’s a scene that lasts all of five panels, but it makes Pip seem much more earnest than nearly any other of his appearances.
It’s this deep care, laced with the Heavy Metal brutality of the action, that makes Daniel Warren Johnson an honest genius in the industry—and it’s what makes Beta Ray Bill: Argent Star such a delicate rarity in the genre of superhero comics. In this one lone volume, Johnson has both rescued a character from irrelevance and produced a masterwork book sure to be the defining work for that character for the next forty years of his history.
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