Comics have a long history with using metafiction (that is, the reference within a work of fiction to that work’s status as a work of fiction). Deadpool’s fourth-wall breaking is an obvious example, but even earlier than that Sensational She-Hulk was lampshading comic conventions and Animal Man confronted writer Grant Morrison in an issue of his own comic. One of the most interesting places this has shown up recently, however, as well as one of the more subtle, is over the course of a story arc spanning three years about one of Marvel’s major supervillains.
Loki in his most familiar incarnation first appeared in Journey Into Mystery #85 in 1962 as a fairly stock supervillain: Thor’s sworn enemy (the “jealous younger brother” angle came later).
Over the years, Loki changed somewhat to become more complex – more background was added to his story, making him Thor’s younger half brother, jealous of Thor’s success. A notable moment for the character occurred in Thor #353, where he joined Thor and Odin in defense of Asgard against the fire demon Surtur, if only for selfish reasons.
However, the real turning point came in Siege #4 during the 2010 crossover event. Loki, seeing the destruction of Asgard at the hands of the insane superhero Sentry, attempted to defeat him using the power of the Norn Stones, sacrificing his life in the process. Not long afterward, however, Thor searched for Loki and found him reincarnated as a child, possessing all of his past memories but (relatively) innocent. (It was revealed in the oneshot Siege: Loki that Loki made a bargain with Mephisto (then ruler of Hell) and Hela (the Norse god of death) to write his name out of the book of death, thus leaving ambiguous the possibility that his death was planned ahead of time.)
His reasons for doing so? The desire to escape his fate. After cycle after cycle of Ragnarok, Loki wants to change but is unable to, just like the other gods:
“For the first time in history, the Asgardians think themselves free from the whip of destiny. We are free…yet Asgard remains. Even here, on Midgard’s lowly soil, we are as we are. Balder is good. Thor is noble. And Loki…is Loki.”
Superhero comics are narratively conservative. What this means is that things tend not to change – characters don’t stay dead for long, heroes might change names or costumes but tend to return to their original forms eventually, heroes tend to stay heroes and (most crucially) villains tend to stay villains. Even when character development happens it is frequently rolled back or undone later.
There are a few exceptions – Magneto is a notable one, who began as a standard issue Silver Age supervillain and gradually developed into the complex and morally grey character that he is today; similarly with Emma Frost. But by and large in superhero comics there tends to be a fair amount of “once a supervillain, always a supervillain.”
Which is exactly the fate Loki is trying to avoid by ensuring his own reincarnation and fresh start. Which brings us to Journey Into Mystery, the first part of a two (and a half) part character arc that delves deep into issues of metafiction, limitations of superhero comics as a medium, and questions of agency.
Journey Into Mystery: Fate, Free Will, and Writing Stories
From the very beginning of the series, Journey Into Mystery establishes itself as a comic about stories and storytelling. One narrative convention of comics is the use of boxes to serve as indicators of an omniscient narrator (or speech by someone outside the action being shown). In Journey Into Mystery, throughout the series, those boxes take the form of scrolls, using a format distinct within superhero comics. This not only lends an archaic feel to the comic (much as the use of “thee” and “thou” used to in older comics set in Asgard) but also gives the feeling of storybook-ness layered on top of the reader’s existing experience of reading a comic book. Later on, the narration mentions “the attentive reader of this narrative”, thus referring to its own textuality and status as narrative.
Underlying this sense of stories within stories, some text from the narration, placing the reader in context of the current situation, appears again within the comic itself in a book read by a character.
In another structural nod to this metafictional device, each arc begins with a brief recap to remind the reader of previous events – a common device in the serialized format of comics. However, instead of being told by an omniscient narrator (the usual convention), the previous events are narrated by various characters from the comic itself, directed at the reader and thus breaking the “fourth wall” – the division between fiction and reality – by acknowledging its own fictionality.
The first appearance of Loki himself begins with a question: “why do people always presume I’m lying?” While the question is specifically being asked about why people on the internet think he’s trolling, it also points toward a specific issue that Loki will face continuously throughout Journey Into Mystery: that Loki is judged not based on his own actions but based on expectations of his former self. Loki sometimes plays to those expectations, and sometimes is thwarted by them. The All-Mothers (currently ruling Asgard) make Loki their clandestine agent for precisely this reason: in the event he is caught, they can disavow him because no one will believe that they would work with the Loki.
Loki literally confronts the specter of his past self in the first issue, transforming him into a magpie that he calls “Ikol” who will be Loki’s constant companion (making, in the way of comics, the metaphorical very literal). During that conversation, Loki tells his older self that “what I wish…is to be Loki.” Of course, the question throughout is just who that is; as the introductory text indicates (“why did Loki do it? No one knows”) Loki and his motivations are an enigma.
The first arc of Journey Into Mystery ties closely into the Marvel event running concurrently: Fear Itself, in which the Fear Serpent (Odin’s brother) has risen and seeks to destroy the world, and Thor is the only one who can defeat it. Loki’s mission is to ensure that he does. The Serpent is invulnerable, but Loki is able to change that by accessing a book in the Fear Serpent’s citadel, accompanied by a small group including Hela’s handmaiden Leah.
There, Loki literally rewrites the Serpent’s story.
“We cannot change history. But gods do not have history. They have story. And that is something a writer always has the prerogative to twist.”
This extraordinary piece of narration shows that the Aesir, as gods, are not fixed. They are malleable, and furthermore are written. Loki is literally taking up the position of a comics writer within the comic, altering previous events to write Leah into the scene and create a weakness that Thor can exploit. The gods are the stories told about them. The implications of this for Loki are enormous, but more interesting still is the casting of Loki as author/storyteller, a theme that will continue to reverberate through this series and Loki: Agent of Asgard. Loki is both writer and written, and those two things are in constant tension.
Later on in the story arc, a spell causes a number of the Asgardians (including Thor, Hela, Loki, and Leah) to forget their identities and become “normal” individuals in an idyllic suburb. Loki, now called “Luc”, is shown in active imaginative play with figures of the characters in their godly forms (suggesting, perhaps, the role of the writer “playing” with the characters).
When confronted by the New Mutants, the only ones who remember what’s really going on, Loki assumes they are playing a game and reacts accordingly, playing along with aplomb – again, both helping craft the story and acting as a character within it. Here, as always, Loki is keenly aware of his role as character or actor. In this case, however, he has control over the narrative – creating it rather than controlled by it, at least on the surface. There is always the overarching plot driving his actions, and eventually Loki’s game ends and the main story resumes.
Finally, during the final arc of Journey Into Mystery, Loki’s authorial errors resurface in the form of Leah – but not the Leah he knew. Instead, she is the version he created by writing her into the Serpent’s (hi)story.
She isn’t pleased. “You wrote me a small part,” she accuses. “You left me no capacity to grow. Writers lie. You made a lie just good enough to do the job, and no more.”
What a spectacularly meta thing to say. Leah is the embodiment of the character rebelling against her limitations – Loki wrote her into being, within the story of Journey Into Mystery – but of course, Kieron Gillen wrote all these characters into being when he was writing the comic itself. Leah’s speech points out the seams of that relationship, and the boundaries of character – they can only be as they are written, and badly written characters are trapped within narrow boundaries without room to expand. On another level, Leah’s rebellion specifically as a female character rings particularly true: the use of female characters as plot devices and little more is a common problem across media, including comics.
Of course, as Leah’s original writer, Loki can rectify the problem by rewriting her story – again. “He told his lie to the best of his ability. Because in the end, the lies you choose to tell define you.”
Gillen is doing a lot of interesting things here. He links storytelling, and specifically writing, with lying: “writers lie.” Loki, the writer, is also Loki, the consummate liar – and thus, it follows, the consummate storyteller (we’ll get back to this later). Here, too, it isn’t the story that defines a person, but “the lies you choose to tell”. The “you” is also ambiguous – do the lies define Leah, who is being created through them, or Loki, who is telling them?
Additionally, the fact that Leah’s story can be rewritten underlines the idea of changeability, of the fact that things are not set in stone and people are always being created and recreated, in stories and out of them. Gillen-as-writer is echoed in Loki-as-writer, and yet Loki’s inability to escape the trap that is closing around him makes this idea of self-creation painfully ironic.
Secondary to ideas of storytelling, but also inextricably linked to it, is the theme of Loki’s fear of the possibility that his future is set and his villainy is inevitable. From the first issue it is clear that others either expect Loki to return to his bad old ways or that he is trying to deceive Asgard into trusting him again – the idea that his change is genuine hardly comes up. It becomes quickly clear that Loki has been repeatedly threatened by other Asgardians, and is aware, too, of his precarious position and the fact that others hate him and suspect him of treachery. In a panel in a later issue, Loki says “I am the Lightbringer! And similar satanic exclamations.” Loki in mythology has frequently been identified with the biblical Satan/Lucifer, and in comics themselves he could be considered to play a similar role as Thor’s “fallen” brother. By invoking Satanic imagery, Loki indicates his knowledge of the place he holds, or might hold.
Loki’s self-awareness, both of his own past and the way others see him, manifests in different ways through the series. Sometimes he plays on his villainous reputation – as he does in order to trick his way into Hell and bargain with Mephisto (one of Marvel’s many devils). In other cases, he rebels against it. Early on, Loki brings home a litter of puppies of Garm, the wolf who guards Hel (the Norse land of the dead). The All-Mothers urge him to get rid of the one pup he cannot find a home for – the most savage.
Freyja’s words might well apply to Loki himself – or at least Loki’s fears about himself and what others say is true about Loki. Naturally, he decides to take the pup in himself – a decision which later echoes tragically when the puppy, who Loki names Thori, betrays him, effectively proving Freyja’s words right. If there is such a thing as intrinsic nature for Thori, then is there one as well for Loki, that must inevitably emerge?
In Journey Into Mystery #634, Loki has a nightmare in which a zombie Thor accuses Loki of causing his death and the downfall of Asgard. The narration in captions expresses Loki’s fears bluntly: “he was Loki, after all. Loki is a villain.” Loki responds to the narration as if he can hear it, and even interacts with the captions themselves, attempting to tear them free. Loki is thus not only aware of the way others see him within the Marvel universe, but also how the narrative sees him – the awareness, again, of the part he is playing in a story larger than he is, and over which he only has some control.
Merely an issue later, as Loki strives to free a child trapped in a nightmare, he speaks words that might as well be addressed to himself.
Inevitability is something Loki clearly fears himself – the idea that he is bound to the old life of his future self, and cannot ever be a hero. Several times throughout Journey Into Mystery Loki compares himself to Thor – early on, he even asks Thor directly what he would do, using his older brother and hero as his moral compass.
All these questions – of fate and destiny and storytelling – come to a head in the final issue of the Loki arc of Journey Into Mystery, as the master plan foreshadowed in the beginning of the series – back in Journey Into Mystery #622 – is revealed.
The old Loki, as it turns out, laid plans to trap his younger, reincarnated self. Through a series of machinations, he creates a situation in which the world will end unless Loki, as he is now, is destroyed. The only way to avert disaster, Loki informs his other self, is to allow the old Loki to take over his body – as was his intention all along. The innocent young Loki will be effectively dead, and the old Loki gains a fresh start with the trust the child Loki has built.
Loki seeks another way out – asking the Disir, who devour souls, if they can erase him from existence (they refuse) and seeking out Thor to try to extract a promise to kill him if he “goes bad.” Thor refuses, attempting to reassure Loki and telling him to have faith in himself. Loki is unconvinced, however. “We all know how this story ends,” he says: once again calling back to the patterns of stories and the power they hold.
In this issue, the adult version of Loki is the comics creator: he has the power to rewrite Loki’s entire story, and in fact is responsible for the delivery of that story to the being known as the Teller, back at the beginning – a magpie brings him a book with a cover reading “Journey Into Mystery: A Comedy in Thirty Parts (Or a Tragedy in Thirty One)”. There are 31 issues in the entirety of the kid Loki arc.
The events of a comic, like any form of narrative, are constructed by the writer; here it is revealed that many of the events of the series were orchestrated by the adult Loki, manipulating his younger self to his own ends. Looked at in a certain pessimistic, fourth-wall breaking light, the comics writer is doing the same thing: manipulating characters to their own ends, to suit a story they want to tell. From the beginning, there was no escape for Loki – in a very real way, no escape from himself. And yet, the adult Loki took these actions precisely to escape: “with your innocence you reestablished my name. And now I have a chance to be someone else.”
As Loki lays out the situation, showing all his cards at last, the child Loki offers a protest, of sorts: “I played the game. I played it for as long and as hard as I could.” His adult self answers: “you did, Loki. But the house always wins.” The house is not just Loki within the world of the comic, but also the house of Marvel, the weight of comics’ narrative conservatism, the arbitrary power of the writer.
As he prepares to “swallow the lie” and destroy himself, the child Loki edges in a few last words, telling his adult self that he’s lost. “I will change,” Loki protests, but his younger self interrupts: “No, you won’t. They won’t let you. I played and won. I changed. You’re just being yourself, as always.”
By effectively killing his innocent self – or perhaps, his own innocence – Loki seems to fall into old patterns and prove his naysayers right. The story was already written after all, but the adult Loki was the better, or at least the more powerful, storyteller. He can rewrite Leah’s story, but not his own. And in the end, of course, the narrator/comic writer rules all.
The house always wins.
Loki: Agent of Asgard: Erasing History, the Self as Antagonist, and the God of Stories
Loki’s story arc continues under Gillen in Young Avengers, but its spiritual sequel is Loki: Agent of Asgard, with a new creative team of Al Ewing and Lee Garbett. In between Journey Into Mystery and Loki: Agent of Asgard, Loki is aged into a teenaged/young adult form through the magic of Wiccan (Billy Kaplan). Throughout Young Avengers, Loki is haunted by the “ghost” of the child self he destroyed, a manifestation of his guilt that plagues him and expresses repeated doubts about his ability to do good. Even more significantly, several of the secondary villains of the book turn out to be manifestations of Loki’s guilt given form.
Interestingly, the visual when Loki is aged up includes several images of multiple, different “Lokis” from different times and universes.
This works with the Marvel concept of multiple universes and alternate realities all existing simultaneously (and occasionally interacting), but it also serves to show in visual form the multiplicity of possibilities for paths Loki can (does, and has) take.
At the end of the series, world saved, Loki exits stage left into his own series: Loki: Agent of Asgard. The central conceit of the series, on opening, is that Loki, as in Journey Into Mystery, continues to work for the All-Mothers. As a reward, for every mission he successfully completes, one bad deed from his past is erased from Asgard’s records.
If, as written in Journey Into Mystery, gods have no history but only story, this suggests that Loki’s (hi)story is literally being rewritten through his work – the past is not only being erased from the record but changing Loki’s story itself. Even if that is not so, the erasure of records in itself is significant – Loki is seeking to alter his legacy and the way in which he is remembered, in order to keep from falling back into old patterns.
In an early scene in Agent of Asgard #1, Loki is shown hacking into the Avengers’ computer server in order to delete all of its records on him. He describes his reasoning for doing so in eloquent terms that suggest an awareness of the immense and complex history of comics continuity that lies behind him – and the pressure of comics’ narrative conservatism to maintain the status quo. Perhaps more than any other character (with the exception of Deadpool), Loki is aware of the limits of his medium.
The distinction Loki draws here between “I am Loki” and “I am myself” seems significant, pointing as it does to a division between the identity “Loki” – perhaps, the identity Loki as it has been constructed over decades of comics history – and the person “Loki.” Others have written about the ways in which comics characters function differently from characters in other mediums, in that while they can act in different ways they are expected to maintain a certain core “type” throughout. This is the root of the ability of comics to remain (relatively) consistent over the years as they pass through the hands of myriad creators, but it can also impose a static mold on characters that limits their development. “This universe”, in Loki’s speech, refers not only to the Marvel universe internally, but also the Marvel Universe as a construct of Marvel the comics company.
It is also interesting that Loki believes that the way to change is to erase history, rather than change the future. This backward looking strategy is ultimately a hindrance – Loki is falling into the same trap that others do when seeing him. Real change, and seizing control of his own story, comes when Loki stops looking backward and turns to face forward.
Speaking of storytelling and control over the narrative, the thematics of Loki as storyteller continue full force in this series, beginning right from the first page, in which Loki describes how magic works:
“At the core, though…magic is taking a thought and making it real. Taking a lie and making it the truth. Telling a story to the universe so utterly, cosmically perfect that for a single shining moment…the world believes a man can fly.”
Once again, magic is linked to storytelling is linked to lying, Loki’s talent for magic tied to both. This will resurface later, most forcefully at the climax of the comic’s final arc.
Loki: Agent of Asgard also delves deeper into the nature of the gods, reinforcing and further developing the themes in Journey Into Mystery of the gods as beings of narrative rather than history (though how often the two overlap). Again and again, Ewing underlines the fact that the gods of Asgard can have their very natures changed by their choices. In the first issue, Loki’s history is given in brief:
“Once upon a time, Thor was exiled to Midgard, and spent his time playing the role of the hero. So his brother Loki – smarting over a few minor squabbles – decided to play the role of the villain. But the gods are creatures of magic, creatures of story. We must be careful which roles we step into. The god of mischief became the god of evil.”
Narrative role is almost a compulsion – this is the enaction of performativity, where by playing a certain role that role is created. Loki is a villain because he makes himself one, and then could not change, becoming ever more deeply ensnared in that role according to the needs of the story.
Furthermore, this continuing emphasis of the gods as “creatures of story” highlights something interesting about making this a quality of the Aesir of the Marvel Universe. It reminds the reader of their fictional status, making them in some sense doubly fictional. After all, to the reader of comics every character is a function of the narrative. Here Ewing, and Gillen before him, bring that quality forward while simultaneously creating a situation where the characters are aware of it. This quality, and the implications of it, is one of the most important pieces of Agent of Asgard’s eventual climax.
Superhero comics have a history of making the metaphorical literal – a product, perhaps, of the visuality of the medium. The primary antagonist of Loki: Agent of Asgard is, quite literally, Loki himself – an older version of himself from the future, who is shown freely manipulating events of the past Loki’s life to suit his own ends. This older Loki is king over a ruined Earth, firmly settled into and apparently satisfied with his villainous role. As he tells Loki when they first confront each other: “I’m not the fool who thinks he can ever be anything new. I know what I am. And I love it.” The true battle Loki fights over the course of Agent of Asgard is not against external enemies, but against an internal enemy that is manifested externally: this Loki, the embodiment of everything Loki fears he cannot escape.
The future Loki again and again reiterates the inevitability of the future he represents. “You think I’m the Loki that was?” He says during their first meeting. “I am what will be! I am the destiny you run from – but will never escape! Because nobody else wants you to!” Loki is thus hemmed in by not only his past self that he is attempting to escape, but the specter of his future self claiming that Loki’s destiny cannot be escaped – because nobody else wants you to. Once again, Loki runs up against the expectations of his character and the role he is presumed to play.
It is revealed in Loki: Agent of Asgard #5 that this future Loki has made a deal with the All-Mothers, in defiance of the present Loki’s deal with them, in order to secure a stable future for Asgard. Previously, at the end of Avengers Disassembled where Loki brought about Ragnarok and the fall of Asgard, Thor realized that the gods were trapped in a cycle for the amusement of entities known as “Those Who Sit Above in Shadow.” Thor acted to end the cycle and free the gods from the endless repetition of previous cycles. Not everyone, however, is as pleased as Loki with their new freedom.
The All-Mothers want a return to the reassuring patterns that they are familiar with. What the future Loki offers is stability and certainty – neat categories of “good” and “evil”, “hero” and “villain.” They are willing to sacrifice Earth and all its inhabitants for that security. If Loki represents free will and choice, the All-Mothers here represent the narrative conservatism that maintains the status quo in superhero comics. Safety in familiarity. An embittered and defeated Loki turns his back on Asgard – however, Odin notes to the All-Mothers that Loki will not “go quietly into any box you build for him.” Loki’s resistance to being boxed in, locked not just into a specific fate but into a specific, narrow archetype (the villain) is explicitly noted, within the comic itself.
Almost immediately after his return, however, Loki faces Doctor Doom, who upon traveling to the future witnessed the destroyed Earth with Loki as ruler. Determined to prevent this from coming to pass, he draws Loki into a battle and traps him in a box of frozen time – as he puts it, stopping his story.
It is Verity Willis who acts to save Loki, a character new to comics as of Loki: Agent of Asgard. Loki meets her while tracking Lorelei at a speed-dating night, and surprises her by telling the complete (but outrageous) truth – which startles Verity because (as her name suggests) she can always tell when someone is lying. She and Loki become friends, and when Loki realizes that Doctor Doom intends to trap him he provides an invisibility token to Verity so that she remains free. Verity confronts Valeria Richards, who helped Doom build the trap, and argues for Loki’s release in spite of what Doctor Doom saw in the future.
While Verity exists in a world of some absolutes (people either tell the truth or they are lying) she nonetheless advocates for flexibility. Change is impossible unless the person is allowed to change: they have to take the risk of a possible negative future to make room for the possibility of change. Once again, too, the reference to the “Loki” box, here made very literal by Doom’s cube of frozen time. More than that, however, the Loki box is the collection of traits and attributes that are assumed to make up the character/person “Loki.”
Immediately following on Loki’s release, the Marvel Universe entered one of its periodic universe-wide events, and this one had very interesting implications for the Agent of Asgard series – and rippling effects. Known as Axis, the event in part involved a spell cast by the Scarlet Witch that inverted a number of characters, making the heroes villainous (by drawing out their darker qualities) and the villains heroes. Loki was among those affected.
The very concept of this event when applied to Loki in this context is revealing. For one thing, it reveals that the categories of “hero” and “villain” are subjective – if they can be swapped so easily, then what is the meaning of holding them as utterly separate poles? More significantly, while it occurs through magical means it does show that Loki is capable of heroism – if of an exaggerated, comedic, and at times painfully self-righteous sort (as seen in his treatment of Verity as now beneath his notice). When he engages Thor on the Moon, Loki is, for the first time in his life, able to wield Mjolnir – Thor’s hammer that can only be lifted by “the worthy.” (Thor himself lost the ability to lift Mjolnir during the Original Sin event for reasons that are still unknown.)
Confronting his brother, turned violent, boorish, and brutal by the inversion spell, Loki gives him a speech that might as well be directed at himself in an attempt to reach out to Thor.
Loki earlier compares his own attempt to reach Thor with Thor’s previous attempts to reach him. Here, however, he makes the link between them even more explicit, connecting Thor’s current unworthiness (as shown by his inability to lift the hammer) with his own quest for redemption. “We are more than our roles – more than our fates.” This is what Loki desperately wants to believe – and his being able to lift Mjolnir, something he has always been incapable of and sought after, seemingly proves it.
When the spell ends, however, the inversion of characters undone, Loki once again loses that ability – and furthermore, he cannot make Thor believe that he ever was able. “You must learn, Loki…there are some stories that none will ever believe,” Thor says as he walks away. The status quo, of course, is restored.
But not entirely. Loki remains unable to lie, and when Thor comes to apologize for his behavior under the spell he reveals the secret he has been keeping from Thor: namely, his “murder” of the child Loki that Thor brought back from the dead. Thor, infuriated, drags Loki to Asgard, where his crime is announced openly.
Loki’s protest is interesting: “I didn’t mean it. I couldn’t help it. I had no choice.” For someone who has argued, again and again, for his right to choose his own fate, this statement is seemingly contradictory. At the same time, it suggests Loki’s general feeling of being trapped – the reason, of course, for his resurrection scheme. In essence, Loki blames the attitude of those around him – their refusal to let him change – for his actions.
At the end, facing the All-Mothers, Loki’s anger at them explodes in the face of their condemnation.
He, Loki’s words suggest, will not have the same luxury: he has to die in his fated role, “in the cage you built for him” – the eternal villain.
Exiled from Asgard, Loki reappears in his apartment in front of a startled – and confused – Verity. Once again, Loki and King Loki confront each other, the former furious with the latter for ruining his life. The latter promises to finally explain why he’s done all of this – “the story that turns you into me. The story of why you can never be anything but me.” According to his explanation, in his timeline Loki’s gradual redemption continues as planned, uninterrupted by Loki’s discovery of the All-Mother’s plan. Finally, King Loki says, his history was erased, the slate wiped clean – but all was not well.
“Why, oh why? Why did nasty old King Loki throw it all away like that? Why should I do the same? Why can’t I make up for everything any Loki ever did? Because it’s not about that, you naive little idiot. It’s never been about what we did. Never. It’s about what we are.” (Agent of Asgard #12)
Erasing his history did not change Loki’s reputation. Among those in Asgard, he remained the god of lies, perceived the same as ever, still the outcast. “I tried to change – and I changed. And it didn’t matter.” Regardless of his behavior, King Loki explains, to others he remained locked in the same mold.
This, as he describes it, is why he has been meddling with Loki’s life in the past – in order to get him to reach that point sooner, to stop what King Loki believes is a futile effort and hasten the transformation into his older, evil self – and possibly Loki’s victory. To this end, he attempts to purge Loki of his illusions by burning him – launching Loki into a dreamlike place “where all Lokis go at the end.” There, two ghosts: a child Loki and an older iteration of Loki (pre-Siege and his resurrection) offer Loki a choice.
According to them, Loki can either “be what everyone wants – another version of [the old Loki]. Embrace nostalgia. Enjoy the security of doing what’s expected,” or “end the story of Loki. Embrace the Void to save everything from yourself.”
In the end, however, Loki chooses neither. Verity calls, protesting Loki’s fatalism, and asking what it even means to be the “god of lies.” Loki realizes:
“A lie is a story told. That’s all…and we can rewrite our stories. All of us. Write our own happy endings. We don’t have to be what we’re told to be. Even by ourselves.”
This calls back to themes that emerged in Journey Into Mystery and throughout Agent of Asgard – lies as story, magic as story, the gods as “living stories, creatures of pure symbol and metaphor.” And it calls back to Loki as liesmith – but if a lie is a story, liesmith could easily be storyteller. Finally, it is a definitive vote for the ability of anyone to not only create but recreate themselves – in effect, it is never too late to change. Even the limits we set for ourselves are impermanent and breakable.
In the apartment, Loki’s burning body seems to explode, totally annihilated. But the new Loki appears in the next issue as the world is ending, eight months later. His appearance is altered to be older, rougher, with a broken tooth (and, as Loki notes looking at himself, more body hair). This Loki calls himself the god of stories. Verity asks if he is the same Loki – a question he answers in a rather roundabout sort of way: “he’s not coming back, because I’m not going backwards. We move forward. We learn. We do different.”
He goes on:
“That story’s over. New chapter. […] That’s the thing about stories – they have to end to mean anything. I can’t be Loki forever. But right now I’m the god of stories for this time and place – and I’m nobody’s but my own. I’m me. First, last, and always.”
Loki’s understanding of story is a narrator’s understanding – a storyteller’s, or a comic writer’s. Change is inevitable and closure is necessary. Every story has to have an ending and Loki already knows that he will change again – he tells Verity as much later on. But from this point forward, rather than being propelled by the story Loki seems to take over direction of it, transforming himself from tale to teller. He takes Verity’s life story, through its being told, in order to preserve it, and her, from the ending of the world in Marvel’s Secret Wars event.1
Meanwhile, the future Loki has turned back to Asgard, his original plans thwarted by the seeming destruction of his past self. Instead he moves to bring on Ragnarok and the death of the gods with the assistance of Hela. The captions of the battle of the gods are recognizable to those familiar with Norse mythology: they refer back to the Völuspá in the Poetic Edda, one of the oldest written sources of Norse myths. The Völuspá is best known as one of the most extensive accounts of the myth of Ragnarok, taking the form of a seeress narrating to Odin the downfall of the gods.
Axe-time, sword-time, | shields are sundered,
Wind-time, wolf-time, | ere the world falls;
Nor ever shall men | each other spare.
Refrains frequently end with the repeated question, frequently translated as “would you know more?” (Vituð ér enn eða hvat?) The same refrain appears in the captions of Agent of Asgard #16.
Into the midst of this epic battle (in this iteration including a bazooka wielding Odin) waltzes Loki, who interrupts the fighting with seeming ease and frightens away his future self. When he is asked to choose a side between the forces of Hela and the forces of Asgard, however, Loki refuses, turning his back on them both. Once again, rather than siding with good or evil, as in his self-annihilation/recreation, Loki chooses a middle road, stepping out of the universe into what is literally a blank page.
Without him, the battle goes on – only it is revealed that the captions, in Eddaic style, were in fact narration by Loki. Just as he captured Verity’s life essence to preserve her by telling her story, he is preserving the gods by storing their essence, located in their stories – since, after all, the gods are creatures of story.
With the universe ending, however, Loki and Verity are facing figures familiar to readers of Thor comics, and closely associated with the Marvel Ragnarok: Those Who Sit Above In Shadow, the faceless figures who stand above even the gods. Those Who Sit Above In Shadow, as previously alluded to, are the beings who perpetuate the cycle of Ragnarok in order to feed on the life energies of Asgard’s gods.
This brings us to Loki: Agent of Asgard #17, the final issue of the series and the culmination of its themes – as well as the place where the metafiction aspects of the comic are most evident. This begins with the cover itself, which features Loki on a blank background, sitting cross-legged on a scattered pile of issues of Loki: Agent of Asgard. This is a reference similar to other covers, including the Sensational She-Hulk cover on which she threatens to “come over and rip up all your X-Men” while holding up a copy of her own comic, or the Excalibur cover with the janitor directing the reader to look inside for “huge muscular heroic males and beautifully erotic females engaging in gratuitous violence”.
All three refer to the textuality of their own source material and reference the fact that they exist within a fictional universe). On this cover, Loki’s positioning not only suggests self-awareness of his fictional status but also the fact that at this point he has seemingly transcended that status – exited the limits of the Marvel universe, as it were, and stepped outside. The blank page quality of his surroundings both on the cover and within the comic suggest just this, and add to the sense of a story unwritten or undetermined.
As far as the issue itself: Those Who Sit Above In Shadow demand the deaths of the gods, which Loki has stored in their stories. Loki, however, refuses – and offers a counter: “you lot want stories? I’ll tell you a story…”
Loki proceeds to narrate the origin of the gods in stories told by people on Earth in the face of fear. Gods come from story – “a magic that could take the fear away” – that gradually became manifest.
Like magic in Agent of Asgard #1, stories become their own kind of truth – but this also refers to the act of creation that occurs in the writing of fiction. In writing fiction, the creation does become manifest and take on a kind of life of its own. According to much literary theory, including Roland Barthes’ The Death of the Author, texts as written then interact with their surroundings; the model of the auteur is a false one because no one person has total authority over a text. This is all the more true in comics, where characters pass through multiple hands and are controlled by a central authority of editorial. Thus it must seem as though superheroes seem to exist on a plane of their own, separate from their creator – a story that lives.
Loki goes on, however, to talk about the stories of those new fictions-made-manifest, now telling their own stories (just as Loki, a fiction in a comic, is now telling a story within that comic) to stave off their own fear. In the face of their prophesied end, Loki suggests, the Asgardian gods might have created their own gods to ward off fear. Those Who Sit Above In Shadow are not, in fact, superior to the Asgardians or in control of them, but rather a creation of Asgardian storytellers. Loki, of course, as the newly minted god of stories and consummate storyteller, has a unique power over such beings – a fact which he is quick to point out. Seemingly alarmed by the revelation of their origins, Those Who Sit Above in Shadow vanish.
Finally, with Those Who Sit Above In Shadow dealt with, Loki turns to the final loose end – king Loki, hiding in the blank space and seemingly sulking. Loki pulls the mask off the old Loki to reveal himself as he was at the beginning of the series. Instead of anger, however, or condemnation, Loki offers himself kindness and compassion.
Throughout this comic, Loki’s opponent has been Loki – a version of himself convinced that his only future is in embrace of villainy, becoming everything that present Loki is fighting to avoid. A conviction, in essence, that his worst self is his only self. In the end, though, Loki overcomes that: rewrites himself and refuses that destiny.
What this panel represents is a kind of absolution: a recognition that his antagonist is a part of himself, and an offering of forgiveness for that. For Loki, whose guilt literally manifested in a semi-physical form in Young Avengers, that’s not a small thing. Furthermore, it is an acceptance that he is not just one thing – the one-dimensional hero of the Axis inversion or the one-dimensional villain his older self claims to be. Like any truly well written character, he can be some of both.
Fate is not doom, and the pull of his old self – or of comics continuity and narrative conservatism – need not be destiny.
Loki comments on the events of Secret Wars going on concurrently and decides not to go back – at least not yet. He draws a rectangle in the white space with “NEXT” written above it that becomes a door, and on the last page stands on the threshold, prepared to step through to parts unknown. Stepping out of the Marvel Universe, as it were – defying the limits of the boundaries of his medium and creating his own exit. Removing himself from the narrative entirely – the greatest rebellion a fictional character can make.
So what does this all mean?
A lot, obviously. Loki’s arc over the course of Journey Into Mystery is the struggle to write his own story and failing. In Agent of Asgard he succeeds – at least partially. Both series explore the role of nature or fate versus agency, and the idea of escaping a cycle – a preordained future encroaching on the present. And both series write into one of the most easily criticized parts of long-running superhero comics: lack of change.
In my notes for this article, I wrote “can people change? Not in comics!” As a rule, that is true. In more recent years classic villains have been allowed to grow more complex and move out of their traditional roles – Magneto and Emma Frost, mentioned above, fit that category, though both have a longer history of sympathetic portrayal than Loki. However, the general rule over the nearly sixty years of Marvel publishing history is that characters fit a certain mold and will return to that mold.
Writing from within those limits, Gillen and Ewing confront them, challenge them, and draw attention to them. Invocations of story and storytelling, the power of writing both literal and figurative, draw attention to the fictional status of the characters, who are, furthermore, aware of the conventions of their genre and acting against – or with – them. Loki in Journey Into Mystery attempts to tear out the captions to stop his nightmare; Loki in Agent of Asgard narrates in mythological, Eddaic mode to capture the essence of the gods. Narrative, and the awareness of narrative, drives them both.
A piece of the puzzle I have not mentioned previously is Loki’s queerness as shown in Young Avengers and Loki: Agent of Asgard. Both according to Ewing in interviews and on panel evidence, Loki is both attracted to multiple genders and fluid in terms of his own gender2 – when transforming into a female form he twice reiterates that he is still the same person: “I’m always myself” (Agent of Asgard #2) and “I’m me. First, last, and always. (Agent of Asgard #14)”3 Loath as I frequently am to discuss queerness as a metaphor for anything else, I think it is fair to assess Loki’s gender fluidity in particular as paralleling fluidity of identity, the idea of changeability and the refutation of fixed narratives.
The end of Loki: Agent of Asgard coincided with the Marvel Universe-destroying event Secret Wars, and it isn’t clear where the 616 (the designation for the main Marvel universe) version of Loki went. Currently Loki is appearing in The Mighty Thor, status ambiguous once again, and he appeared in Vote Loki as a political opportunist (possibly trying to effect change in the life of a single character). It remains to be seen where Jason Aaron and future writers will take Loki – whether this character development will stick or be lost in a maze of continuity. Even within Agent of Asgard itself, Loki acknowledges this possibility, again and again saying that he cannot stay this way forever and has to eventually change again – as though with awareness of the vagaries of comics canon.
Nonetheless, as a metafictional meditation on comics as a medium and a considered examination of fate and free will, and the degree to which we can make our own stories, Kieron Gillen and Al Ewing achieved something masterful. They showed the ways in which the narrative conventions of superhero comics can be, rather than a limitation, a challenge. Rather than ignoring those conventions, Journey Into Mystery and Loki: Agent of Asgard face them head on, digging deep into fundamental questions about agency and narrative.
One final note. In another comic, the alternate universe series Earth X, the Aesir are represented as alien beings that quite literally conform to expectations placed upon them, taking on shapes according to how they are perceived. Loki, upon realizing this, breaks free and changes himself, eventually becoming a figure with a blank face divided into a black and white half. He rebels against his nature and changes himself into something new, eventually managing to similarly free all the Aesir.
At one point, however, fighting one of the Celestials, Loki speaks:
How familiar this sentiment is. Who has not felt trapped by expectation or by the boxes in which people try to put us? If in Journey Into Mystery that battle is ultimately lost, at least by the child Loki, in Loki: Agent of Asgard and in Universe X there is hope held out: people can change, can write their own stories, don’t need to be limited by themselves or by anyone else.
People can change. Even in comics.
- Interestingly enough, Verity’s story contains a peculiar paradox, as it reveals the source of her truth-divining powers as coming from the ring of Andvari – first seen in Agent of Asgard #2, when it was a part of the future Loki’s plot to entrap his past self. Verity only met Loki because of his future self’s meddling – but she was also the one who prevented that future from coming to being by reaching out to Loki at a critical moment. Furthermore, Verity is also revealed to be linked to a Thor character from old continuity – Roger Willis, who appeared in Thor #345 (1984) during Walter Simonson’s beloved run. This isn’t actually important to my point, just further evidence of Al Ewing’s love of deep continuity dives.
- There is a somewhat problematic history of Loki’s gender fluidity. Loki did appear in a female form before, back in J. Michael Straczynski’s Thor series. However, at that time it was not his body but rather Loki stealing Sif’s body in order to serve his own ends – this incident has been made in some places analogous to sexual assault. Loki: Agent of Asgard is the first series in which Loki is shown to have a female form that is explicitly his own: I think it is important to separate these two instances as different from one another, for obvious reasons.
- An interesting thing to note as far as external references/self referentiality in this comics series is that this quote is not original to Loki – it first appeared spoken by Black Widow in Daredevil and the Black Widow #94 (1972) as “I’m my own woman – first, last – and always!”