Friday, January 8, 2016

Enow, Cries The God of Evil

It's been over ten years since I took a second look at the four-part Loki series from 2004, and I must say it's aged very well indeed. Written by Robert Rodi with art by Esad Ribic, the story fits comfortably within the Asgardian mythos that Marvel established in years past, and yet refreshingly makes its own powerful statement as to the characters and motivations of Thor, Odin, Sif, et al., and of course Loki himself. The Asgard of this series is far removed from the "eternal realm" of magnificent spires and spotless hallways, grandiose and defiant speech, and spacious, well-lit palace chambers that reflected the glory of the realm and those within; instead, these Asgardians give us a sense that every battle has been hard-fought, every victory coming at a cost--a race of warriors with a strong grasp on life and a keen awareness of the many factions of their world that threaten their existence and demand their vigilance.

The same history is there, but there is more to see of it, with undercurrents that still resonate among even these immortals. The infant Loki was still taken from Jotunheim after his father, Laufey, was slain by Odin, and adopted as Odin's son. Loki still evolves as a trickster, one who employs guile and deceit and endures the taunts and mockery of his new countrymen. Thor is still champion and favored son of Asgard, his brother-at-arms Balder and the lady Sif at his side. And Thor still makes sojourns to Earth, fighting alongside "his Midgard cronies," as Loki calls them. Yet in this deeper look at the Asgardians whom Loki despises, there are definite indications of their disdain toward Loki through the years, and not just from Loki's perspective. In an environment where a strong and bold presence on the battlefield translates to camaraderie and respect amongst your fellows, there is no room for the wiles of Loki Laufeyson--a son of Odin who appears to be anything but.

In order to meet these impressions head-on, Rodi finds it necessary to finally bring Asgard under Loki's heel--a state which Loki has long sought and launched many campaigns to accomplish. Now, fortunes have indeed shifted in Loki's favor--and the conquered of Asgard no longer have the luxury of ignoring Thor's half-brother or throwing snide innuendo his way with impunity as to his worth as a warrior. He is now unquestionably their master. Accordingly, the bold cover image chosen for the first issue in the series is no mere teaser--it is where this story begins, preceding a striking two-page spread by Ribic that reveals the aftermath of a fierce struggle which sees Loki triumphant.

We're never told the circumstances or details of how the Asgardians were brought so low--how Loki deposed Odin and was able to have Thor beaten so decisively that he's now brought before his conqueror in bloody humiliation and chains (as well as on his knees). Nor are those details important to this story; indeed, if time were spent in giving us even a partial account of Loki's methods and how they succeeded, the question of when Thor would turn the tables and defeat Loki (which has already been done repeatedly in prior stories, in one form or another) would likely act like a marker in our heads and distract us from giving our full attention to Rodi's true story here. As it is, with this story's look and tone so very different from other Thor stories, it's really not apparent at all that Loki is in any danger of retribution. To that end, Rodi adds another clever touch--Thor, who would normally give the reader a sense of hope by declaring his usual defiance and oath to prevail, remains trapped and chained in his dark dungeon for the duration, and is never allowed by Rodi to utter more than a word or two throughout this entire series, while the other Asgardians are kept tightly locked down and are only allowed to speak when Loki makes it a point to call on them in captivity. This is, after all, Loki's story to disclose--he's arguably earned it.

So in deference to Rodi, you won't be reading here any details about what events take place as this series ends; in the meantime, whatever happens with the Asgardians remains for the story to reveal, and in Loki's own good time. Even Loki seems to realize that the conquered, now his prisoners, need not be given his attention until the need arises. Loki, as we've seen before, has always taken great pleasure in rubbing Thor's nose in his defeat--but not this time.

Instead, Loki turns to the people of Asgard to relish his moment, and reflect on the turning of the tide that few of his new subjects expected or wanted. But when a young boy refuses to cower like the others and assaults Loki's dignity, Rodi gives a glimpse of the direction he intends to take this series in.

It's a fascinating pivot from similar moments in Loki's prior seizures of the throne, where he reacts angrily to such impudence or strikes out at the transgressor. Here, it's clear that his memories give him pause--memories that appear to surface not simply because of circumstance, but also perhaps as a result of the assurance he feels that his defeat of Asgard's defenders has been certain and definitive. In other words, there is no longer anything or anyone to threaten or rail against, since there is no one left to oppose him.

One thing that is made clear by Rodi is that Loki had help from several quarters in whatever plan was hatched that allowed him to seize power; and before the dust has even settled on those dungeon doors slamming shut on the prisoners, he finds himself beset by the many parties he enlisted in his cause who are now calling in those favors (if with all due fealty). It's a somewhat amusing series of scenes which serve to remind Loki that he can't simply ascend to the throne of Asgard without placating those who, if denied, could possibly organize a coup of their own, given cause. Rodi gives particular attention to the Norn Queen, Karnilla, who stalks Loki through the corridors of the palace demanding an audience, yelling implied threats that echo throughout.

Yet one such suppliant--if we can dare call her that--need not bother with formalities or mince words. And while she played no part in Loki's conquest (other than to collect her own spoils), Hela, Goddess of Death, in anticipation of Loki finally taking his vengeance against Thor by formally executing him, has come to seek assurance that the Thunder God's soul will shortly be hers for the taking.

Clearly, Hela's words have taken Loki by surprise; he indeed seems to have given no thought whatsoever to executing Thor (or any of the captured Asgardians), a revelation which also comes as a surprise to the reader in light of the fact that Loki has rarely had qualms about slaying those who stood against him in prior attempts at usurping the throne. Hela makes an excellent point that Loki knows he would do well to take seriously--that, given time, Thor will likely find a way to gain his freedom and perhaps regain all that has been taken. The meeting ends with Loki basically taking Hela's caution under advisement--though Hela's departing words leave no room for doubt that she expects Loki's answer to be forthcoming.

Yet while Hela's visit doesn't move Loki to rash action, the seed has been planted, and he finds his thoughts now drifting back and forth to the often frustrating times he's spent with his half-brother in the less volatile moments of their past, as he sought to find his place in Thor's world, and in Asgard. So prevalent are these thoughts, combined with the possibility of Thor's impending death, that Loki begins to wonder about the new role that he is now assuming for himself--specifically, if he is ready to embrace his own destiny, after being tied to Thor's for so long.

Loki's musings on the subject, however, will not end here, even seemingly resolved as he is to see that Thor is executed. Thus far, his remembrances of his time with Thor have yielded only reminders of how different the two of them are, and how much their familial ties were in name only. As a result, he becomes even more agitated, more determined to convince himself that his half-brother only deserves his scorn, as well as his ruthless judgment. To that end, he seeks out both affirmation and perspective, from those who are closest to Thor--comrades whom Loki came to know as well, albeit with no trace of camaraderie. Because while Thor's friends were extremely loyal to the God of Thunder, they held little but contempt for Loki, and made no secret of the fact. It thus makes perfect sense for Loki to end up confronting both Sif and Balder in separate visits, the two people closest to Thor and therefore the two most likely to give Loki the unfiltered truth as to just what place Loki held in Thor's life as opposed to their own.

For her part, Sif points out how Loki often tried to come between her and Thor in terms of being the one the Thunder God preferred to share his confidences and spend his time with. In almost every encounter, Loki found that Sif's derogatory, mocking words toward him struck as deeply as any dagger that Loki could drive into an enemy's heart, while Sif's beauty often made Thor amused with her stinging taunts thrown Loki's way. "There was honesty in my words, Loki," she unapologetically points out. "I saw from the first what you were, and said so ... you but did me the favor of showing me to be right." "As you did me the favor," he responds, "of showing me the power of words. From then on, it was through my tongue that I sowed sedition..." "Yes," she says, "through insinuation and lies..." To which he concludes with "You chose your weapons... I chose mine." It's a duet of resentment that finally infuriates Loki to the point of almost costing him his life, as he comes within arm's reach of Sif and nearly pays the price for dropping his guard. By the time he departs, he is convinced of her guilt in the part she played in driving a wedge between Thor and himself; yet he's nevertheless enraged enough to declare that Thor will be executed at dawn.

Fleeing another wretched encounter with Karnilla sends Loki taking sanctuary where Balder is confined--an unplanned visit, yet perhaps proving to the most enlightening to Loki. Balder, as opposed to others in Thor's inner circle, never subjected Loki to either derision or humiliation, but only indifference--though it was enough to drive Loki to attempt his death, by way of the bow and arrow wielded by blind Hoder. Yet it's due to that act that Balder can offer Loki perspective on his state that no one else can--for Balder, in those moments he spent between the states of life and death, was able to learn of all the different realities where mirror images of the gods of Asgard existed--and Loki's fate in all of them is shockingly the same.

After receiving confirmation of Balder's insight from Karnilla (who finally receives her audience, if only to be coerced to cast one more spell in Loki's service), Loki realizes he is faced with two likely truths: that Thor is destined to be triumphant, while Loki is continually vanquished. Interestingly, he gathers his thoughts on the matter by facing Thor once more, who remains in dismal captivity and who shows no signs of rallying himself--a sight which provides Loki with the resolve he needs to disregard what he's been told by two separate sources who, under other circumstances, might have been given credence.

From there, a chance encounter with Frigga, wife of Odin, provides Loki with the impetus to confront one last central figure who has played a major role in his aggrieved existence in Asgard--Odin, the god who set all of this in motion when he slew Loki's father on the fields of Jotunheim. Whether inadvertently or not is something that Loki means to find out, once and for all.

Odin's answer is only silence, seemingly dejected on the matter--but whether in guilt or in further reflection of his failure with Loki, Rodi isn't saying. Yet Loki needs only the silence to spur his resolve even further and firmly embrace the destiny that had stopped short with the conquest of Asgard but which now appears to be imminent.

There is more material that Rodi provides in leading up to Thor's execution. In his frustration, and with the hour of the execution approaching, Loki makes the rash yet nonetheless well-reasoned decision to deal with the now-unguarded Rainbow Bridge (due to Heimdall's incarceration) by giving the order to destroy it, coinciding with Thor's death. There is also the surprise arrival of Farbauti, Loki's mother--long thought dead, and an unwelcome reminder of Loki's bovine origins that have always cast such a shadow on him and set him apart from the gods of Asgard. Yet it seems to be the jolting sight and state of Farbauti which returns Loki's thoughts to Thor, and the realization that ironically it was Thor who was the most charitable to him, the one who gave him one opportunity after another to take hold of his life and to redeem himself--the one who paid attention to him when the opportunity arose. As Loki notes, that behavior eventually stopped--but the memory is enough to once again cast doubt in Loki's mind as to his course of action. And at the worst possible time, with Hela once more appearing in his chamber to receive a "yea" or "nay" to her earlier demand.

Loki's final answer, its implementation, and its brutal result are what give this series its powerful, immediate ending. Loki offers more of a diversion for the reader, rather than proposing a radical change to a longstanding character whose history and deeds (as well as his temperament) have been established and practically set in stone; it's perhaps only because Loki's conquest of Asgard has been so sweeping here that Rodi is able to put him in a position to pause and confront those who otherwise wouldn't have indulged him. There is also the vivid, more realistic picture that Rodi and Ribic present of Asgard, the environment which birthed and nourishes these blunt, rough warriors who hone their spears and swords out of habit and and who live amongst stone and wood rather than glistening floors and lavish surroundings. The world they present, and their take on characters you're well familiar with but who have depths yet to explore, is well worth your time.

Loki #s 1-4

Script: Robert Rodi
Pencils and Inks: Esad Ribic
Letterers: Cory Petit and Randy Gentile


Anonymous said...

"Enow!" cries poor M.P. stuck in the upper midwest in blowing snow and freezing temperatures! Call off the wrath of the frost giants!

Comicsfan said...

Well, M.P., if you've read Part 4 of this story, you probably realize it's pretty fruitless to appeal to Loki for a reprieve!

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