Proceed with caution, kind visitor. Spoilers await;
It's a profoundly unpropitious moment for any other comics writer who's looking to successfully bring down the curtain after a protracted run. For with the tragic end of Kid Loki, Kieron Gillen and his various collaborators on Journey Into Mystery have succeeded in offering up the very last thing that their readership wanted while inspiring a chorus of approval for doing just so from groundling and grandee alike. If there is a more remarkable climax yet to appear in comics in 2012, then it's going to have to be superior to just about anything that's ever been seen in the sub-genre before. Put simply, the wrap-up of Gillen's tale of the secret back-stage history of Asgard from Fear Itself to the cusp of Marvel Now! bears comparison with the very best that the superbook has ever produced. The Little Comic That Surely Couldn't has, it appears, become the standard by which everyone else's achievement is going to have to be measured by.
|Kid Loki, as depicted by the splendidly accomplished Stephanie Hans.|
Here's not the place to discuss much of how Journey Into Mystery became one of the greatest of post-millennium comics, although TooBusyThinking will be returning to the matter in some detail in the not-so-distant future.(*1) But it's worth briefly considering just a few of the choices which made JIM #645 such an untypically moving and satisfying conclusion. Yet to do so isn't to want to suggest - as McKee proclaims about Casablanca - that the issue stands as a storytelling ur-text. If Gillen's work on Journey Into Mystery represents anything, it's the fact that monthly serial comicbooks are open to being informed by a wide variety of storytelling choices. In a sub-genre whose editors and creators have all-too-often accepted such a narrow range of creative strategies, JIM stands out in part because of the willingness of Gillen to adopt a broad range of unfamiliar and inventive approaches. Nothing could be more contrary to the adventurous spirit which the book represents than to argue that it's a How To Do It manual which suggests a single, fixed solution to the problem of ending a run and raising the rafters.
*1:- The redoubtable Tom Ewing's already done a huge degree of the heavy lifting on the subject anyway. If you've not read his piece on JIM, then I'd ignore the rest of this and just head out his way instead.
But it is perhaps worth noting, as of course so many others already have, how impressively disciplined and purposeful Gillen's depiction of Kid Loki's last stand is. For one thing, the writer maintains the reader's doubt and anxiety about the boy god's ultimate fate right up until the final panel, and in doing so, never once permits our attention to waver. With an eye that's fiercely focused on the road to the issue's final frame and nought else, Gillen allows nothing to distract the reader from the central snare of whether the short-lived Loki can survive or not. As the reasons why he can't possibly escape his own extinction pile up, Gillen plays upon our sympathy, and thereby our hopes, through a parade of selfless acts and smart-minded, ethical thinking on his unlikely protagonist's part. To emphasise and re-emphasise the cruel certainty of Kid Loki's end while simultaneously increasing our affection for him brilliantly inspires a cocktail of despair, anxiety, fondness and hope. In that, this is a book which never takes the reader's attentions for granted, and there's not a trace of self-indulgence at work here. The deconstructed stories of many of today's as-labelled superstar writers are all-too-typically slackly meandering affairs. Yet here, the tension's increased and increased and then, just at the moment at which the very worst occurs, the story's brought to a shuddering end. As such, climax and conclusion arrive simultaneously, and the reader's thrown out of events just as the horror of them hits home. There's no time to process what's happened, or to look around for hopeful signs of an alternative reading. The worst has occurred and there's nothing for us to see beyond that. It's a fundamentally theatrical technique, and the reader can practically see the proscenium arch and hear the gasp of the play-watchers at the sight of Loki's suddenly wide eyes and his hateful whisper, "Damn you all." It's at that moment that it's easy to imagine a stage manager diligently killing the lights, as the audience catches its breath, swallows its disappointment, and then breaks into heartfelt applause. Epic theatre concluded on an intimate scale, this is not how the super-book tends to do things.
In providing such a definitively cathartic ending, Gillen ensures that his tenure on Journey Into Mystery stands as a complete as well as an thoroughly enjoyable body of work. Not only have the issues that he's contributed to been marked by his own particular style, but what follows his moving on to other comics can't possibly be seen as a straight-forward extension of his work. As simple as the point is, Gillen created a character that his readers can adore and then made sure that no-one can ever touch Kid Loki again without everyone involved seeming both mercenary and pathetic. (*2) Certain key aspects of the Thor franchise may appear to be returning to their default settings so as to be ready for the arrival of incoming writer Jason Aaron. Yet Kid Loki is dead, and movingly so, and that means that there's a great more than just Gillen's writing which will separate his tenure from the next. Few scripters succeed in producing work so individual and affecting that their runs end up standing out from the superhero book's relentless cycle of temporary innovation and ultimate reversion to the norm. Trademarks must be protected and properties guarded so they don't become dangerously uncoupled from the public's expectations of them.
It's a commercial necessity which Gillen clearly recognises and respects. Everything that he inherited has either been returned as he found it or refashioned in a way which strengthens rather than threatens the Thor franchise. But what he hasn't done is homogenise his work in doing so, because he's quite deliberately ensured that the reader's been denied any further access to the very character which made these issues so winning. Kid Loki wasn't just the McGuffin which allowed a sister book to Thor to fill up the schedules for a few passing months. Instead, he was also a brilliantly depicted individual whose appeal was irrevocably dependent upon a single creative voice. To those who'd sign off on a series for the Big Two with the hope that they'll be well remembered, the message seems clear; don't just respect the corporate property, but make sure that there's something fundamentally touching and unique which simply can't be passed on to the next wave of custodians. The irreversible disappearance of such a key component of their work which will help to keep their achievements unique and vital as time passes.
*2:- Kid Loki will inevitably be resurrected, I fear, and that's true even if Gillen doesn't have a cunning wheeze to somehow bring the character back into play at some time in the future. The industry which brought back Elektra as a ninja-babe and presented Before Watchmen as a respectful tribute to the very man DC stole the work from will eventually recycle anything that can turn a profit. But the point is, few if any creators will ever be able to match Gillen's Kid Loki, just as no-one's ever been able to convincingly present Howard The Duck in Steve Gerber's absence. Indeed, the way in which the character died means that it's almost impossible not to disappoint with any conceivable reappearance.
A key aspect of Gillen's impressive and unlikely accomplishment here is the way in which he succeeds in making death in the Marvel Universe a disturbing rather than an ennui-inspiring prospect. No matter how terribly lonely and cruel Kid Loki's death is shown to be, fans still know that a whim on the part of beancounter, editor or senior pro could result in his immediate and pathos-neutering comeback. There are, after all, a great many characters who've been gifted a splendidly moving death who've yet failed to stay buried, and Ed Brubraker's unlikely, admirable success in bringing back Bucky without cheapening his part in Marvel's history is a dangerously inciting example. Yet Kid Loki's reabsorption is grounded in fears far more fundamental and disturbing than those associated with the conventions of the superhero book. The reader may fear that they'll soon see Kid Loki again, and yet, the way in which Gillen has presented his passing is so brilliantly disturbing that the death still feels significant and permanent. As such, it's not the inconvenience of his being shuffled off-stage for a while - prior to an inevitable rebirth - which the young Loki's fate suggests. Instead, Gillen skillfully evokes the secularist's terror of dying in a meaningless universe as he shows us how the godling's consciousness is entirely and irresistibly absorbed by his elder self. All but the most religiously committed suffer those moments when the prospect of dying without any possibility of an afterlife generates a measure of existential angst. (For some of us, it's a considerable measure too.) Yet the superhero book has struggled and persistently failed to evoke anything of that terror. By contrast, there's a deeply, deeply uncomfortable shadow of our own inevitable annihilation looming in JIM #645. Where Kid Loki's headed, and where he's never going to return from, we are too.
In direct contrast to Neil Gaiman's Sandman, which often discussed how stories can lend meaning to suffering, Gillen's chosen to emphasise how even the most profound of tales might ultimately prove to be utterly useless. No grand narrative, religious or otherwise, can offer the slightest comfort to Kid Loki at the end. All he has is the bitter consolation of knowing that he did his best and succeeded in something of what he set out to. But in the end, even the story of that dies with him. No-one will ever know that he lived and struggled and died as he did, and he's certainly not the slightest hope of ever returning to those he cared for. Even the traces of good faith which he'd established - such as with his brother, "the biggest, sweetest idiot in the nine realms" - will be used against the very people who'd slowly developed a measure of trust in him. It's possibly the single most horrifying moment that either of the Big Two's comics have ever presented, and it makes the swallowing up and destruction of Kid Loki's individuality all the more disturbingly memorable. It's hard to want to see such a scene undermined by even the best-meaning plot to bring the lad back to life, and that's part of why it seems impossible that such could ever happen.
Hopefully, it never will., and I say that very much wishing that the younger Loki could be returned to good health and his noble-hearted if inevitably scheming ways. What the reader wants, of course, is so often exactly what they shouldn't be given.
To be continued, in a quite different way and at a later date.