Saturday, 10 November 2012

On Kid Loki's Drowning Without Even The Privilege Of Waving: Some Rainy Saturday Afternoon Thoughts On "Journey Into Mystery" #645

  
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.
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14 comments:

  1. I've always had a soft sport for Loki and his half brother. Thor was the first comic I read that lead me back to its insppiration or source material. It is interesting that the very best mateial has been that with at least one foot planted firmly in myth rather than superheroics. The doom that hangs over the entire cast gives them an epic and operatic stature that still oustrips all but the most mythic of superheroes. Gillen certainly understands that and for me his treatment of Kid Loki is a doom laden forshadowing of Ragnarok. It is the only book from Marvel and DC that I've gone out of my way to pick up in nearly 10 years.

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    1. Hello Peter:- I suspect that there have been many thousands who've been inspired by Thor to go and check out the source material, and I can't help but think that's a measure of the comic's success in so many ways. It's not only a clearly worthwhile thing to inspire, but the act of comparing of what Marvel present with the various versions of the myths inevitably - forgive the appearance of my teacher self here - encourages a spot of analytical thinking. 'What's different' and 'why' are two questions which the appearance of the Kirby/Lee Hercules in the 70s Marvel UK one-tone reprints inspired in me, being that Ancient Greek rather than Norse mythology was my interest.

      For one of the first wave Marvel properties, Thor has seen remarkably few classic runs. Certainly that sense of doom, of fate playing with lives, is present only in the best of them, and in particular the Lee/Kirby and Simonson runs. I think JIM stands up well with those classic runs. (I know I need to investigate more of Matt Fraction's run on Thor, so it's absence from this answer isn't meant to carry any meaning in itself.) To say, as you do, that JIM is "the only book from Marvel and DC that I've gone out of my way to pick up in nearly 10 years" is the kind of statement which ought to be used in a marketing campaign :)

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  2. Basically, the entire internet is telling me I should read this - and, much like The Wicker Man, knowing the twist ending encourages me to pick this up. Because that is a nasty, fourth-wall vapourising ending.

    - Charles RB

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    1. Hello Charles:- Knowing the end will also allow you to pick up on themes and foreshadowings which become all the more enjoyable and interesting when you know how it'll end. I was re-reading the Terrorism Myth last night and light-bulbs keep flashing on.

      Strangely enough, that ending is also counter-intuitively inspiring too. Kid Loki did his best and fought the power despite the fact that he himself was doomed. Well, we all are. That's the point, isn't it? He was a rather splendid lad when all was said and done. You should enjoy yourself in Journey-Into-Mystery-land :)

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    2. I'm in the same boat. Didn't read much of Journey Into Mystery, but I'll be eying the trades. Between this and Mr. Ewing's wonderful analysis, I am won over to Kid Loki.

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    3. Hello Andrew:- The first JIM trade is the one to go for. I know that sounds obvious, and it is, but there's always a temptation to jump into the middle of a sequence, and each volume makes perfect sense on its own. But the Fear Itself volume - at least the HB - has some really useful extra features. Some history, some interviews; it's good stuff.

      Tom Ewing's post was splendid stuff, wasn't it? I couldn't not link to it :) To be honest, and I know it'll have been obvious, but the above was my attempt to work through three aspects of JIM which I wanted in my own writer's locker. Even that never-getting-out-of-the-drawer stuff can be improved a touch through the, er, appropriation of a real writer's skills :)

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  3. I've been trying to write something about the psychological meaning of the fourth-wall breaking on animal man for some time... but Gillen seems to have risen the game to another level. 'Cause the path his Journey into Mystery have taken is so bold and brilliant that it not only works as a reflection about fiction and the meaning of the art itself, but also about the ongoing comics media and the public that consumes it. We all don't accept change... we all refuse to die. And thus Kid Loki seems even braver, his oblivion even more compelling...
    If Gillen had only presented us a comic with the cerebral strengths enlisted above it would be already an amazing achievement. But the main strength of his Journey into Mystery to me is the fact that I can't remember JiM 645 without getting really sad.
    And succeeding in create an emotional bond between character and audience and then showing us how much we are to blame on Kid Loki's death Gillen invites us to change and do our part too(almost twisting the the fifth wall, we could say) ...
    In Myths death have been for thousand years a metaphor for change. In comics media, the resurrection 'though have been used as a tool for bring back the same again, and again, and again... is really nice to see a character twist this endless circle in something other than the same... Loki has to die and change... like everybody has. Farewell Kid Loki!!

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    1. Hello Thomaz:- well, given your chosen academic discipline, Animal Man and the fourth wall would seem to be right up your street. But as you say, there's a sense in which JIM may well prove to be a more immediate call on your time.

      While I'd never in any way suggest that the meta aspect of KL and his fate is both important and successful, I find the existential aspects of his journey and fate even more compelling. And disturbing. As you say, it's impossible to think of the conclusion without feeling "really sad".

      It's an odd thing to realise that I wouldn't want Kid Loki's death reversed despite how much I wish the character hadn't died. It's been a particularly unexpected journey; I'm not used to the super-book working this well, and doing so with material which originally seemed so unpromising.

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  4. Hy Colin^^ Oh, no, it would be a shame if someone reversed Kid Loki's death... As much as it could be a delight to read another story with him, it would be cheating and the character would loose that existential appeal that you've stressed above... We all are trapped in life and we all can't run from death... Also, Kid Loki is kind of a meta-martyr...as long as the comics market doesn't change anything new has to vanish, not only die, but be engulfed by the same and desapear ( as we have seen before with Morrison's x-Men, Kirby's new Gods, Englehart's Dr strange...)
    If someone made undone what Kid Loki had to deal with so desperately, and yet so bravely, all emotional weight of his tale would collapse. And I believe we all would be allowed to get mad about it =p

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    1. Hello Thomaz:- I can't help but play devil's advocate here. KG's proven something of a master of engaging his readers in games of double and triple bluff. What if he's slowly intending Kid Loki to remerge in Young Avengers, as either as the self-knowledge which fires Loki's shrivelled conscience or even as an alt-personality of some kind. For KL to haunt L would seem to me to be a perfectly legitimate development of the story.

      Naw, I'm not suggesting there's the slightest possibility. But there are ways in which the character, or at least his experience, could be kept alive. Problem is, that would mean undercutting that death scene.

      Comics are full of characters who've been given brilliant death scenes and then destructively been brought back to life. Warlock and Thanos come to mind immediately, each given a perfect end in Starlin's MTIO/Avengers Annual crossover, each brought back - by Mr Starlin himself? - a few years later.

      Still, I didn't believe that KL could be made to work, let alone so well. I don't believe that he could be brought back. If that trick could be worked .....

      But no, I'd rather it wasn't attempted.

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  5. Journey Into Mystery has been my favorite Marvel book of late, solely because of Loki, although I have to admit that Thor was my very first Comic Book love, way back when I was about 15 or so. And right up to that last page, I was hoping...HOPING that somehow it would all have a happy ending. Because I am a hopeless sap for happy endings.

    But still WHAT an ending! And dagnabit I STILL have hope...somehow. But this was a helluva book, and I fear we will not see its like again any time soon.

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    1. Hello Sally:- I guess it makes sense for a GL fan to have cut her teeth of Thor. Neil Gaiman always said that GL was really Arthur and the Knights Of The Round Table, and Thor similarly - and of course obviously - is grounded in myth.

      I too fear that we may not see a book like this again. Which is rather unfair on Mr G, of course, who has Young Avengers waiting in the traps - with HORRID LOKI in it - as well as Iron Man just issued. I guess it's hard to imagine anyone getting lightning to strike twice, and yet, it was hard to imagine it happening once.

      I also think it's rather touching that Thor was your "very first Comic Book love", and yet its LOKI'S passing that's so touched so. That's good stuff, isn't it, to turn all those old fondnesses on their head?

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  6. Strangely, since I loved Gillen's JIM, I think the ending of #645 finally has cured me of reading mainstream Big Two superhero comics. Gillen broke my heart, but that's not why. It's because JIM #645 was an ending, but it's never really an ending in a shared universe. If a writer is going to break my heart, I'd rather it be creator-owned so that when the story is over, it's really over, and I don't have to put up with only the illusion of change. With so many Marvel titles relaunching (and having already said goodbye to the mainstream DC comics), it seems like a good time to let go.

    After my initial excitement, I've decided not to read Young Avengers. The story is finished for me, and I have no desire to read about the Loki that remains (he's basically a Buffyverse vampire, wearing the face of the person he killed). Plus, why get attached to other young characters that will be killed off in a sick Hunger Games copy if Marvel thinks it will make money?

    If I'm absolutely honest, I still want to have hope for Kid Loki, which makes it worse in a way. He had a beautifully written good death, but if there was ever a comic book death I didn't want to stick, it's this one. While it's true that if Kid Loki never returns he'll be forever preserved as a hero who never had that heel turn we all feared he would, but I'd still rather he return. I see no reason why the resurrection couldn't be earned, especially considering the magical nature of the character and because I'm not sure I understand the exact nature of what happened in that last scene.

    I suspect Gillen killed Kid Loki at least in part because he knew eventually Marvel would want the old, evil adult Loki back in time for the movie (and because only the illusion of change is allowed), and he'd rather end the character on his terms. I understand, but that doesn't mean I have to like it. Sadly, I don't really expect Kid Loki to return, new/old Loki will be villainous again after a period of ambiguity, and the Kid Loki story will just be a fondly-remembered run that had no long-term consequences on the MU.

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    1. Hello Lorrie:- I do know what you saying about wanting closure in your fiction, and closure that's determined by the creator's choices rather than a whole series of possible corporate-sanctioned decisions. I also share something - a considerable degree of something - of your feelings about the Big Two's current Jumping Off choices. An irony, that both companies are so anxious about providing readers with an "in" that they sometimes forget that they can be doing the opposite too. The New 52, for example, certainly attracted a very specific audience to DC's books. Whether it needed to do so in a way that also aliented readers from beyond that niche ... I don't think so.

      I'm up for Young Avengers, but that's because I'm starting from a different point to you. When JIM kicked off, I was exceptionally disillusioned by the super-book and lacked the slightest interest in what seemed to be just another short-term, look-at-me change. I've not shaken that disillusionment! But having seen Gillen and the Thor Office win me over despite my almost total lack of interest, I'm curious to see how KG and JM are going to deal with the very problems you're mentioning. One of my few fascinations left with the super-book is to see how folks cope with these very problems of endings and so on. When - as with Waid's Daredevil and JIM - creators make me care as well as displaying the technical skills to cope with the limitations of the Big Two books .... well, I feel that it'll be fun to see where they go next.

      I also share your feeling that KL could be returned to the MU. The key is whether it could be done in a way that didn't undermine the last scene in JIM, and of course all that led to it. But I can't see HOW that could be done. The rebirth of Bucky shows that "impossible" returns can be acheived. But in this case, I suspect that "impossible" means just that.

      Long-term consequences? You're right. That's why the majority by far of what I read is beyond the superhero book. I come to the immersive superhero universes for things which I can't get elsewhere; the spectactor sport of seeing creators wrestle with immense limitations and sometimes overcoming them, the company of well-loved characters ...

      But I can see how the whole process can become wearing. I've largely dropped out myself before, and if not for the fact that I review this stuff, I think I'd be mostly dropped out now :) Of course, I'd've missed out books such as JIM and Secret Six if I'd stayed out of the loop. To stay or not to stay?

      Good luck with where you go next with your reading.

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