After the somewhat controversial end of this title’s inaugural arc, many readers were disappointed to see Annabelle Riggs die so soon. The character’s surprising death abruptly ended her role as a powerless but capable (and certainly fearless) Defender, as the team’s resident expert on Asgardian artifacts. Her sacrifice to stop Valkyrie’s killing spree (as Val’s alternate persona, the Doom Maiden Rage) caused serious rifts in this relatively new team, as Misty Knight lashed out at Valkyrie and their fellow Shield Maidens abandoned her as their leader. However, with the recent release of the much-anticipated #7, this title has lived up to its promise to begin an all-new arc, with some surprising plans for its principal characters.
Stephanie Hans takes up the artistic reins in this issue, stepping in for regular artist Will Sliney, as Annabelle deals with her new status as a member of the celebrated dead in Valhalla. Her particular station is at an old inn and tavern, filled with many great and boisterous warriors, all of whom Annabelle feels little kinship with. She doesn’t belong here but she’s resigned to her fate, content to have sacrificed herself to help Val return to her senses. Meanwhile, Val mounts a rescue effort and travels to Valhalla to resurrect Annabelle, making amends for stranding her there undeservedly. Her quest reunites her with Clea, the exiled sorceress Val helped hide from otherworldly threats, whose skills Val requires for this spell. Although Clea is pleased to see Val, she hesitant to use her magic to revive Annabelle, warning that the ritual comes at a great cost.
Determined, Val convinces Clea and brings her to see Annabelle at the inn. There Val and Annabelle try to reconcile their thorny recent past, and Clea brings Annabelle back, but at a price: Val must sacrifice her life to restore Annabelle’s, and Annabelle is her new host. Their spirits tangled in the same body, Annabelle is the vehicle through which Val must navigate the mortal realm, switching back and forth between forms whenever the need arises for Val’s brute warrior strength. Changing things up for the team, this decision helps to mend the rift between Val and Misty, and allows Annabelle to fulfill her new role as Val’s earthly vessel. Val sacrificing herself for Annabelle, and Annabelle’s upgraded status as Val’s host, adds another layer of humor and interest to the team dynamics. While things seemed to be smoothed over between them, and Misty is likely on her way to forgiving Val for killing Annabelle in the first place, this opens the doors to new intrigue as the Defenders gear up to tackle Le Fay’s new team of Doom Maidens. New status quo, indeed.
A striking departure from Sliney’s regular pencils, Hans’ artwork steers this book in a gorgeous new direction in tone and presentation. Her vision of Valhalla is lush and fertile, with an ethereal quality that feels dreamy and fantastic but appropriately so, offset by the ugliness of the trolls Val and Clea face. The principle characters are gorgeously rendered with the help of strong panel compositions and soft, otherworldly color palettes. Her females are strong but still feminine, sacrificing little of their quirks or flaws to embody the strength and power that warriors like Val represent. Gone is the serviceable but at times bland artwork we’ve seen from Sliney, upgraded to Hans’ decisive action sequences and evocative interior spaces, which keep the story balanced and well-paced. Overall, Hans strikes a good equilibrium of emotional weight and action-adventure, making for a highly engaging visual reading experience.
As for the writing, Bunn’s script this issue is straightforward but intriguing. The surprising reveal of Val’s updated backstory could have cheapened the character, but it continues to work here, especially in the face of recent developments. Although it was somewhat surprising to see Annabelle come back so quickly, after the pomp and circumstance surrounding her death, the decision for Val to immediately look for Annabelle is true to her character. Val’s resolve to make amends speaks to her need for redemption; not just for Annabelle’s death, but for the sense of loss and ineffectiveness she’s felt since the beginning of the series. She’s looking to restore her own honor by living up to Odin’s expectations, which she has previously failed to do. All of this feels very natural for her characterization, and further humanizes her, despite the many twists and turns she’s taken as of late.
Bunn also does something very interesting with Val and Annabelle’s relationship in this issue. While far more complicated than before, their dynamic remains refreshingly downplayed, and very much based on the mutual respect of comrades. Just what comes of their uncertain friendship, however, remains to be seen. Annabelle’s romantic interest in Val, as seen since the first issue, has not yet been fully addressed, and is likely to be further confused by recent events. It does say a lot about Val’s feelings for Annabelle in that she was so willing to sacrifice herself for her, which does open the door to some exploration on Val’s side of the relationship. As Val’s new host Annabelle has a lot to ponder, but her feelings for Val have been given the opportunity to further develop her character. All of this will be interesting to see in the future.
Overall this is a successful issue with some solid writing and stunning artwork. Big on promises, it lives up to nearly all of them, offering an intriguing new opportunity for this team to grow. Where this title goes from here is uncertain, but the foundations put in place make for some interesting possibilities.