“We may be through with the past, but the past is not through with us.” − Bergen Evans
In my recent blog post about the career of Fred Kida, I mentioned his work for Hillman Periodicals in the 1940s, including how he was the co-creator of the femme fatale aviatrix Valkyrie, who made her debut in the Airboy story in Air Fighters Comics vol 2 #2 (November 1943). Hillman folded up shop in 1953 and its various characters fell into limbo until 1986 when Eclipse Comics began publishing a new Airboy ongoing series. Written by Chuck Dixon, it featured Davy Nelson III, the son of the original Airboy who assumed the mantle after his father was murdered. Eclipse also brought Valkyrie back into print in the book, although in her case she was the original, having spent four decades in a mystic suspended animation.
Val proved popular enough that Eclipse published a three issue Valkyrie miniseries in 1987, written by Dixon, with art by Paul Gulacy & Will Blyberg, and edited by Catherine Yronwode. It was quickly collected into a trade paperback, “Prisoner of the Past.”
One of the aspects of most Golden Age comic books was that any sort of gradual or sophisticated character development was practically non-existent. This is particularly true of Valkyrie. If you read her 1943 debut story “Airboy Meets Valkyrie,” you find that she is not the most subtle of characters, to say the least. She starts out as an icy, sadistic killer who is unquestionably devoted to the Nazi cause. Yet within the space of a mere 12 pages Valkyrie falls in love with Airboy, suddenly comes to realize that she is fighting for the wrong side, shoots her commanding officer in the back, and defects to the Allies. By modern standards it is perhaps not the most convincing of redemptions! (You can view scans of the entire story on Comic Book Plus.)
Dixon must have perceived the problematic nature of Valkyrie’s background, and he tackled it headlong in “Prisoner of the Past.” In the opening issue, Val is caught on camera by the eleven o’clock new beating the ever living crap out of a gang of muggers. She becomes a “media superstar” and receives an offer to work for the world’s top modeling agency. Unfortunately all of this publicity eventually brings her to the attention of the KGB, who recognize her as the same Valkyrie who fought in World War II over four decades before. The Russian agent Steelfox is dispatched to capture her and bring her back to the Soviet Union to stand trial for war crimes.
The Soviets accuse Valkyrie of leading her squad of Air Maidens in a brutal attack against the village of Lubon in February 1944, murdering two thousand orphaned refugee children. Val insists over and over that she never flew any missions against civilian targets, only military ones. Moreover, she tells her captors that she defected to the Allies months earlier, and was in England at the time of her supposed involvement in this atrocity. But her protests fall on the deaf ears of the Soviets, who are eager to try & execute her as an enemy of the state.
Dixon does excellent work scripting Val in “Prisoner of the Past.” As the story opens, she is already something of a haunted figure, struggling to adjust to having slept through the past forty years, and keenly feeling the loss of her beloved, the original Airboy, who married, grew old, and died while she was missing. Captured and brought behind the Iron Curtain, tortured by Steelfox, her past allegiance to the Third Reich thrown into her face, Val’s conscience begins to eat away at her. “It wasn’t me,” she repeats over and over, and it is obvious that she is trying as desperately to convince the Soviets as she is herself.
In the opening pages of issue three, Val, who is already in anguish from her ordeal, is seemingly visited in her dreams by Misery, a Grim Reaper-esque supernatural entity who collects the souls of aviators. He was the one who was responsible for Val’s decades-long slumber, and now he seeks to claim her. Dixon leaves it a bit ambiguous whether it truly is Misery haunting her, or if it is Val’s guilt and torment that is creating this nightmare. Either way, it is an effectively unsettling sequence.
Dixon has always been good at writing female characters that are sexy and strong, yet also well-rounded. His Valkyrie is a multi-faceted individual who is tough as nails and confident yet at the same time still a very human individual.
Likewise, Dixon does interesting work with Steelfox. When we first see the Soviet operative, he is gleefully slaughtering resistance fighters in Afghanistan with a poison gas attack; he hardly seems like the sort who has any right to be judging Valkyrie for her actions. As the story progresses, though, we learn that Steelfox has a very personal stake in matters. He was one of the few surviving children from the Lubon massacre, although the attack left him crippled. It is conceivable to see this as the defining moment of his life that set him on the path to becoming a monster. And once Steelfox learns of Valkyrie’s existence, he is obsessed with exacting vengeance against the woman who he believes destroyed his childhood. In his own way, Steelfox is as much imprisoned by the past as Val. If she is haunted by grief & guilt, then he is consumed by hatred.
Although there are several action sequences, Dixon chooses to conclude “Prisoners of the Past” in a more unconventional manner. The climax of the story is Valkyrie’s trial, via an intense, emotional revelation. It is a very effective ending.
The artwork by Paul Gulacy and Will Blyberg is definitely top-notch. I’ve always enjoyed Gulacy’s work. When he was first starting out, Gulacy worked as an assistant to the late, great Dan Adkins, and he was also influenced by Jim Steranko. You can definitely see both of their influences in Gulacy’s art, although he is certainly much more than an imitator.
Gulacy is especially well known for his renderings of super-sexy women, but there is much more to his work than that. There are quite a few artists who can draw a hot girl, but who cannot tell a story to save their life. Gulacy, in contrast, does amazing layouts. He has a very cinematic style to his work that is well suited to depicting dynamic action sequences. At the same time, he is also very good at rendering quieter character moments.
Gulacy’s diverse skills are all at the fore in “Prisoner of the Past.” His Valkyrie is stunningly beautiful and strong, yet still human and capable of vulnerability. The action is well choreographed. And the character moments are moving, full of real emotion.
In the first issue there is moment when Valkyrie, laying in her bed, sadly reflects on what she lost over the decades she was in suspended animation. The collaboration here between Dixon’s scripting and Gulacy’s pencils creates a very melancholy, memorable sequence.
I found an inexpensive used copy of the “Prisoner of the Past” collection on Ebay a week or so ago. So that’s one way to go if you want to pick up this great story. However, the miniseries is being reissued by IDW, along with the remainder of the Airboy material from Eclipse. Airboy Archives Volume One came out in March. Volume Two, which includes the Valkyrie miniseries, is scheduled for a July release. I’m planning to pick up both books. In addition to the writing by Chuck Dixon, there are several talented artists who worked on the Airboy series, among them Tim Truman, Stan Woch, Tom Lyle and Ron Randall. It’s always nice when quality out-of-print material such as this finally has the opportunity to find a new audience.