Richard Wagner's cycle has made its mark on comic books
Look, up in the sky! In case you haven't noticed already, our entertainment stratosphere has grown crowded with muscle-bound superheroes in almost every conceivable shape and size: the franchise-rebooted likes of Spider-Man and Superman, battle-armored warriors such as Robin Hood and Perseus.

To whom do we owe our super-saturated superhero culture?

It would be easy to lay all of the credit (or blame) at the feet of comic-book artists and Hollywood executives. But superhero roots go much deeper than that, and if you excavate long enough, you will inevitably bump smack into Richard Wagner, the 19th century composer whose four- opera cycle "The Ring of the Nibelung" is regarded by many as an important genetic mother ship for today's fleet of action heroes.

In terms of its cast of characters alone, Wagner's "Ring" tetralogy has fanboy potential written all over it. The complex saga stars maidens, angry gods, female warriors, a temperamental dragon and an angsty teen hero whose powers get him into a lot of trouble.

Holy Siegfried!

The comic-book artist P. Craig Russell sees the "Ring" as a crucial evolutionary step in the development of superheroes as we know them today. "I think it's a continuum -- from Ulysses to Wotan to Superman," he said by phone from his home in Ohio.

Russell, whose recent credits include "Hellboy" and "Coraline," penned his own comic-book version of the "Ring," a two-volume series published in 2002 by Dark Horse Comics that he considers the most personal project of his career. An opera fan, he has even spoken to gatherings of so-called Ring Nuts, extreme fans of the "Ring" cycle. "It's almost like going to a comic book convention -- you see the same faces," he said.

Los Angeles Opera is producing the complete "Ring" for the first time beginning in May. Although this avant-garde staging isn't for neophytes, its emphasis on spectacle and visual effects (light sabers play an important role) could make it the ideal "Ring" for superhero geeks.

Even those who have never experienced Wagner's epic should have little trouble recognizing the names of some of its chief protagonists such as Wotan and Brünnhilde and her fellow Valkyries. That's partly because Wagner himself borrowed from a number of well-known myths and legends -- the 12th century Germanic poem the "Nibelungenlied" was his primary source. But it's also because pop culture has taken Wagner's creations over the years and liberally repurposed them into a multitude of hit incarnations.

Perhaps the most popular of the "Ring" characters are the Valkyries -- the airborne female warriors of the cycle's second opera, "Die Walküre," who carry slain soldiers from the battlefields to their final resting places in Valhalla.

Marvel Comics created a character in 1970 named Valkyrie who continues to resurface in various forms in the company's many franchises. Tall, blond and muscular, she is the essence of contemporary female empowerment.

She first appeared in "The Avengers" and has subsequently popped up -- sometimes using the name Brünnhilde, sometimes in the form of a modern woman known as Samantha Parrington -- in issues of " The Incredible Hulk," "The Defenders" and others.

Comic-book experts say that Brünnhilde and her fellow Valkyries have influenced the recent flourishing of on-screen female action heroes whose soft-butch exteriors hide an emotionally vulnerable core.

On TV, the most recognizable offspring of Wagner's Valkyries was the title character in the cult series "Xena: Warrior Princess." In the sixth and final season, which aired in 2000-2001, viewers learned that Xena ( Lucy Lawless) was once an evil Valkyrie who presided over a reign of terror in the show's pan-mythological universe.

The season featured three episodes inspired by the "Ring." In one, Xena takes a Sapphic swim with the Rhine Maidens -- a nod to the opening of "Das Rheingold," the first opera in Wagner's cycle.

Strains of Valkyrie DNA can also be found in page-to-screen heroines such as "X-Men's" Jean Grey, who shares Brünnhilde's suicidal tendencies, and the title character of "Elektra," who experiences a Brünnhildian resurrection from a death-like state.

Ralph Macchio, a longtime writer and editor at Marvel, said mythological characters such as Wagner's "have the angst and sense of absurdity and alienation that speak to a current reader. It's all about wish fulfillment and hero worship," he said, speaking from Marvel's New York office. "That's why they have lasted so long."

Operatic comics

The male superhero with the closest ties to the "Ring" is Marvel's Thor. In 1980, comic-book veteran Roy Thomas penned several issues of the Mighty Thor that used elements of the "Ring" for an extended flashback to explain the origins of the comic's Asgardian universe.