This is a somewhat informal essay on a character that has fascinated me for a few years, Beta Ray Bill. While it echoes the work of folklorists and the hero narrative (Propp, Campbell, et al), this was not meant to be a detailed breakdown of Beta Ray Bill on that level. The character’s cultural importance has yet to be discussed, but this highlights some of his more important contemporary accomplishments, while leaving room for the discussion of others. This is a character with a particularly interesting origin appearance, a few of his own stories, and is occasionally dropped into random events in Marvel comics, but has always stood out to me as being more important that Marvel has really allowed him to be.
Within the depths of the cosmos, a hero of two kingdoms fights for the survival of his people and his adopted home. In Marvel Comics’ Stormbreaker: The Saga of Beta Ray Bill Beta Ray Bill is the hero of the Korbinites, friend of the Asgardians and faces the ultimate battle for the survival of his people and for the safety of the universe. To the Korbinites, he represents the ultimate result of their spiritual knowledge and science – the product of the art of merging souls with machines. He became their ultimate weapon and savior to a planet of people who have been forced to face struggle after struggle. After being mysteriously transported to Asgard, and proving himself the equal in battle to Thor, Odin has bestowed upon him his own hammer, Stormbreaker, and blessed Beta Ray Bill with the power of Odinforce. This change in Bill from something created by the people of Korbin into a god-like figure is the primary concern of the religious sect of the planet causing a rift between the spiritual and the secular. This blatant dichotomy of opposing elements of Bill’s identity is what helps to establish his character and the struggle to overcome the contrasting facets of his life further solidifies his heroic identity.
In distant space, the Korbinites face their greatest challenge. Their fate seems sealed with the approach of Ashta, the fallen god, the world revenger, their fabled destruction. A priest argues with a general – accept their fate as punishment for believing in a false god (Beta Ray Bill) – their self-constructed savior, or hope that their savior will save them from complete destruction. While some see Bill as a false idol, some see the approach of Ashta as punishment for believing in the “false gods” of Asgard that have become a part of Bill’s identity, elevating Bill into a foreign pantheon. This conflict is apparent in the Korbin society, but also within Beta Ray Bill, who feels aligned to both his home and to his adopted culture of Asgard. However, Bill overcomes this social conflict of ideology and sticks to his true heroic nature in order to become what is necessary to save his people from extinction and to save the universe from destruction while maintaining the memories and friendships of his now-fallen Asgardian family.
Early in the narrative, readers see a conflict in the representation of Beta Ray Bill. To some he is the accumulation of a culture’s endeavors, embodying their collective strength and bravery; to others he represents a dangerous threat to their faith and religion; and to himself he is his own man. Bill embodies these traits in his physical appearance. He has the body of a Korbinite, but is more muscular and has an elongated face. This visually distinguishes him as an other to his home planet. He is not a member of society, but the hero to that society. His difference is further constructed in the clothing and armor that is similar to his brother-in-battle Thor’s. He wears the garb of the “false gods” of his friends, a sign of heresy to some. His weapon of choice is that of a hammer instead of something traditionally Korbinite. However, Bill transcends the conflict of faith for the necessary protection of his home planet. His duty is to protect the entire population of his home, regardless of their opinions of him. Bill sees importance in actions over words, choosing to ignore the struggle between his own people in order to save them all and ensure the survival of their culture. Besides being the culmination of achievement in one society, and embodying the power of another, Bill holds to his own personal codes. Though he is most comfortable in battle, Bill keeps an importance of honor, even in a fight. His culture is also important for him, not simply because he is responsible for their survival, but also because he keeps the memory of their struggle in his mind as motivation for his success.
The average Korbinite citizen in the comic is forced into the position of being heroic. Their hero is away, and they must take arms against the approaching threat of their destruction. All men are drafted, and though they are hesitant to go to battle without any military background or training, they still feel the need to protect the ones they love. Though they face oblivion, the civilians feel the same duty that Beta Ray Bill embodies. Some are inspired by Bill, wearing symbols of his hammer as homage and hope; some are simply willing to die so that others may live. The comic shows their story in flashback, recounting the bravery that these people showed in the face of something they had no chance of defeating. They are shown scared, doubtful and worried, but their actions are still important to the survival of their people, and therefore are still heroic in their failure to stop evil.
Though the story makes it hard to classify “evil” within some of its villains, evil has a few forms within the book. What is actually destroying the home of the Korbinites is Galactus – Eater of Planets. He does not do this out of spite for the inhabitants, but simply to feed and continue order in the universe. He is a part the nature of space, not a being who acts in malice. However, Galactus is still one of the primary threats of the book and will be included with those who represent evil. Galactus has no distinct form, as he represents the visual appearance that the planet’s inhabitants holds to be its own destruction. He eventually shifts into his humanoid appearance that is standard in Marvel comics. The Korbinites see Ashta, though Galactus’ appearance is his own way of giving the people a logical conclusion to their existence. His herald Stardust, a being of energy, hunts down survivors for insulting the honor of Galactus and for running away from their part in the natural order of the universe. Though his body has a distinct shape, as a being of energy he is equally formless and he changes in appearance throughout the narrative as well. Their formlessness as representations of evil works in contrast to the hero’s – the bodies of heroes are singular, constructed, and specific. Their mortality is important to their heroic nature as they are able to take damage and able to die – unlike Galactus, a literal god in space. Their physical bodies and finite mortality increase the value of their sacrifice when battling an immortal force, giving hope and honor to the people, and a cause for Bill to extend his own personal fight even further. As a comrade to the Asgardians, Bill’s moral code is bound to his culture, but influenced by his second family. In turn, avenging the death of the fallen Korbinites is one of his main motivations.
Later in the story, a being is brought into their universe due to the pandemonium involved in the fight between Beta Ray Bill and Stardust. Asteroth, a female demon from the “universe of chaos” is free, and wants to devour not simply the universe, but the order that it represents. Her skin is gray, her breasts large and her body is slender and scantily clad. Her sexiness is not necessary for the character, nor appealing to anyone she encounters, but it establishes a contrast to the muscular men and formless beings. She embodies the ultimate evil of the book, giving a common enemy to those who were battling just before her entrance to their universe. She takes pleasure in destruction, instead of partaking in battle for specific reasons. Therefore, she can be the evil that they must battle, as she is the opposite. She continues the concept of the malleability of evil in the book, as she later possesses the body of a Korbinite warrior to fight with Bill one final time. Her destruction is not final until she is in possession of a masculine body. Since Asteroth is no longer the binary opposite of Bill, he is finally able to destroy her.
After the final battle, Bill awakes on Earth in the body of a human male. This is similar to how Thor is represented in Marvel comics – a superhero with two physical forms. Since this is Bill’s first solo title, he had no battle as grand and never had the chance to be shown to the reader as someone on the level of Thor (one of the most powerful people in the Marvel canon), even though he shares the same abstract qualities, and also literally shares the power of the Odinforce. This alludes to Bill finally becoming equal to Thor, as he sacrificed himself not just for the safety of his people, but also for the universe. His human body does not give him the same formlessness that the evil in the book has, as each body (his human and Korbinite form) is specific to him and serve specific purposes. He is Beta Ray Bill when he needs to fight, and he is Simon Walters (a reference to writer Walter Simonson) to blend in with the people of Earth.
Simon Walters, however, does not share the glory of Bill. Walters was homeless and dying in the streets as Bill was dying on the scene of the final battle. Bill enters the body upon their shared deaths through magical intervention. Walters is black and a war veteran, providing a fitting as a vessel for Bill, but the blackness is more problematic. On Earth, Bill instantly becomes an other. He is the champion of his people, and accepted as family to the Asgardians, but on Earth he is an alien. The original purpose of the dual-body representation of Thor was so that he would learn humility and the life of a human being. Though Bill does not lack humility, his otherness is important to his heroic nature. It represents a perspective of struggle and an overlooked part of society. Though he was the hero to the Korbinite people, he was also an other to them. He was not naturally born, he was constructed, his superiority to them separated him from normal society, and his allegiance to another culture kept him from complete social acceptance. This otherness is continued as he is now a member of the human race as well. He embodies otherness to understand the complexities of the human people in order to be able to be the hero that can be representative to everyone as he was on his home planet.
Beta Ray Bill embodies multiple complicated dualities and because of this suffers to represent both sides of his identity and stand true to himself. Because of this, he has elements that connect him to specific cultures, but also allows him to have a unique identity – a creation of religion and science, a being of competing cultures, a cosmic alien, a racial minority on Earth, other-ing him away from standard heroic roles. Bill overcomes this forced othering of his identity, and uses his complexity in order to achieve his heroic missions. This ability to satisfy contrasting sides, and maintain his own personal ethical code, gives him and his abilities a higher purpose as a hero who isn’t limited to a specific culture or world, but a selfless champion, willing to risk his very life for the safety of others.