IF PEOPLE THINK of the Norse gods at all, they think of Marvel Comics‘ take on Thor.
Not Erik Evensen, author and artist of the new graphic novel “Gods of Asgard” (Studio E3).
As an American of Norwegian descent, Evensen heard about the Norse tales from his grandfather. He eagerly studied up on Norse mythology and folklore, eventually reading translations of Snorri Sturlson‘s “Prose Edda,” which first collected the oral tales around the year 1220, as well as the “Poetic Edda,” whose authorship and timeline is under dispute, although it’s believed to be the earliest known compilation of the stories.
With Sturlson’s work as his guiding force, Evensen interpreted the Norse myths in a way that fit a graphic novel — that is, some of the roles of the gods have been simplified — without losing their essence or corrupting the source material for the sake of modern narrative. (See, for example, “Thor.”) The book’s 20 tales are brisk and crisp, without extensive exposition, and Evensen’s black-and-white drawings are sturdy and evocative.
“Gods of Asgard” is a perfect way to introduce people to these ancient accounts of war, love, avarice, joy and deception — in other words, stories about things modern people will still recognize as being all-too-human and not always superheroic.
» EXPRESS: Did Marvel Comics’ “Thor” influence you in any way?
» EVENSEN: Not at all. I’ve read some back issues from Walter Simonson‘s run, but I never got into “Thor.” I think it’s because I was versed in the original myths from such an early age, and Marvel took so many liberties with the mythology that I just didn’t dig it. But I’m actually a big fan of Marvel in general. It’s just “Thor” that I didn’t get into.
» EXPRESS: You describe the Norse gods as having a “vulnerability” and being “world-weary” and “mortal.” Those things come through in the original stories — but rarely in the interpretations, where it’s always about heroism and infallibility above everything else. Why was it important for you to “humanize” these gods — and why was it important in the original stories that these Nordic people told so many years ago?
» EVENSEN: Well, the heroism is important, don’t get me wrong. But people tend to take a real glitz-and-glamour approach, and that was never the appeal of these myths for me. I mean, put yourself in the shoes of a Norse trader, or a farmer’s kid:
You work all day, sailing, fishing, farming, and you come back to the house or the camp and all you have to look forward to is another day of the same stuff. But then a bard, or a crewman or a relative gathers everyone around the fire and recounts the story of Loki cutting off Sif‘s hair [Sif is Thor’s wife].
The Norse gods weren’t just deities to these people — they were familiar characters with distinct personality traits, and their exploits were passed down for entertainment purposes as well as worship — maybe even more so than worship. I mean, Thor in drag? Where’s the moral in that story?
These people had to relate to their gods the way we relate to television characters today, and to do so they had to be based in familiarity. Thor was the favorite, and he was a reflection of the “farming freeman.” He’s a simple, good-natured, hot-tempered lout that stood as the “everyman” of Norse society. I really think that because of this, the Norsemen would have seen the gods as extensions of themselves and the people they knew, so that’s the approach I took.
» EXPRESS: The book reads almost like a textbook for the Norse myths. I think you’ll do very well with teachers but I wonder if you’re worried, in any way, that comic book fans will find your interpretations almost too literal, without enough overtures to modern-day storytelling? The pieces can feel quite brief — even more so that your average 22-page serialized comic book tale.
» EVENSEN: They might, and I’m sure some are feeling that way. But I really wanted to be straightforward with my book, since so many comics involving Norse mythology change things around quite a lot, just to suit their purposes. Some of those myths are short. They survive today as poems and prose translations. I mean, you can do just about anything with comics, but the challenge is figuring out how to do it. Since this was my first book, I thought keeping the process as natural as possible was probably the best way to go, and I thought it would be the most respectful to the source material.
» EXPRESS: Which Norse god did you have the most trouble trying to visualize?
» EVENSEN: I can’t say that I did, specifically. But as a black-and-white book, I did have to make sure they were distinguishable from each other without the use of color. Some of them have built-in features, like Odin‘s missing eye, Thor’s lightning-bolt beard or Tyr‘s battle scars and missing hand. But with others, it was harder. Actually, I think I ran into more trouble with the Jotuns [giants], in that respect!
» EXPRESS: Which Norse myths are your favorites?
» EVENSEN: I think my favorite as an adult is “Lokasenna,” which in the book I call “Loki’s Insult,” but you can also translate as “Loki’s Quarrel.” I like that it’s really full of angst, and it’s basically just Loki finding the most malicious things to say about the gods while they try to restrain themselves and hold on to their honor. He’s just such a jerk in that story, and he drags everyone else down to his level. It was my favorite one to adapt and one of my favorites to draw. Beyond that, I like any that involve Odin. He’s kind of a darker character, and I’m always drawn to those.
» EXPRESS: You mentioned the “Prose Edda” and the “Poetic Edda” written interpretations as influences, but were there any visual interpretations of the Norse myths that influenced you?
» EVENSEN: Actually, yes. I was hugely influenced by Ingri and Edgar Parin d’Aulaire, who were a Newberry Award-winning husband-and-wife team of children’s book author/illustrators. Specifically, it was their interpretation of Odin that influenced me the most. I’ve seen countless visual interpretations of Odin, and theirs stood out as unique, clever, iconic and true to the spirit of the myths. I really wanted to build on that with my Odin. My Thor looks a bit similar to theirs and to Peter Madsen’s, but again, those guys really know the material.
Anyone who follows the myths knows Thor as a big, burly, red-bearded galoot. Dr. Merrill Kaplan at the Ohio State University told me that she thinks I’ve drawn the first blond Loki in comics, and she might be right. Who says the turncoat can’t be blond? Loki’s not a truly dark figure — he’s a bright and dynamic one — and I tried to play that up.
» EXPRESS: You received a Xeric grant for the book. Is this why you decided to self-publish it? What are the benefits and drawbacks of the decision?
» EVENSEN: Yes, the Xeric grant was a huge factor in my decision to self-publish. The nice thing about the Xeric is that they basically cover your production costs, and on top of that it’s kind of a name brand unto itself. So ultimately, I got my book printed for free and got some attention just because of the grant. But also, you mentioned my academic approach to the myths. I felt that it might be harder to find a publisher because of this approach, which is why I approached the Xeric people in the first place. I’m incredibly happy with the decision, and I’d recommend them to anyone working on a non-traditional comics project.
» EXPRESS: Do you plan on doing any other work with the Norse myths? Say, expanded versions or interpretations of the stories in “Gods of Asgard”?
» EVENSEN: It’s funny you mention that, because I’m working on a similar length adaptation of the “Volsungs Saga,” which was the epic story that inspired Wagner‘s “Ring of the Nibelungs” opera. It focuses on people rather than gods, and the fall of the royal house of Volsung. It has a lot of tragedy, unrequited love, and well-rounded characters — especially female ones. Unlike “Gods of Asgard,” it’s one long, continuous story. I also have a “Beowulf“-related project in my head that I’d like to do someday. As for expanding on these Norse myths, it’s very possible. I really love these stories, and I expect I’ll be influenced by them for the rest of my life, in one way or another.