“It’s not who you are underneath, but what you do that defines you.”
Rachel Dawes, Batman Begins
Spencer: If there’s one character who’s taken these words to heart even more than Batman, it’s Loki. From its very first issue, Loki: Agent of Asgard has been about Loki attempting to change his destiny by erasing the sins of his past and replacing them with noble missions. If nobody could remember his crimes, then surely that would make him a good person, right? On that same wavelength, King Loki poses a threat because his actions threaten to trap his young counterpart in the role of “villain” for all of eternity. It’s this idea of a narrative defining a character, established over 12 issues, that makes King Loki’s big twist hit so hard: actions mean nothing. Loki is Loki, and nothing can change that.
This revelation comes at the end of King Loki’s issue-length grand speech, a speech that finds him recounting how, once upon a time, he actually fulfilled his mission as Agent of Asgard. All his crimes were stricken from the record, but despite his newly clean ledger, he was still known and looked down upon as the God of Lies. After ten years Loki could take it no more and again became a god of evil; he destroyed Midgard before escaping to the past, infecting Thor and setting the events of Loki: Agent of Asgard into motion, all with the explicit intent of changing the past and creating a situation where Loki could destroy Thor and take control of all Ten Realms at once — something he now intends to achieve via our Loki!
In many ways, the conflict writer Al Ewing creates here boils down to the idea of free will vs. predestination. Up until now, this new Loki has been a fierce proponent of free will, knowing that the actions he takes can change his life — in a sense, he believed that he had the ability to write his own narrative. Old King Loki, though, believes that their story is completely out of their hands, cruelly written without their consent and with no chance to change it. The past few issues have put Loki through the wringer, having him hit rock bottom and then somehow continue to fall further and further, but discovering this fact may actually be Loki’s lowest point — note how he has no reaction to King Loki’s story until this reveal, after which he starts squirming and screaming. After all, it was unlikely, but still possible, that maybe Loki could someday redeem himself in the eyes of Asgardia for what he did to Kid Loki, but if Loki will indeed always be the maligned God of Lies, then any chance of redemption, of being seen as anything other than a villain, is gone forever. It’s no wonder that, in the face of such harsh facts, King Loki embraced his role, becoming a villain equal parts monstrous and hilarious (in fact, King Loki’s tales of his days as the Agent of Asgard are the only humorous elements lightening up this [understandably] grim, depressing storyline).
As I mentioned at the outset of this article, Ewing deploys this reveal masterfully, crushing his characters’ hopes and subverting everything he’s been building towards in one fell swoop, and I couldn’t be more fascinated by this turn of events. That said, I still have one small problem with King Loki’s reveal: I don’t necessarily think it’s true.
Or, at least, it’s likely not the whole truth. I mean, we have no reason to trust King Loki. He is, after all, the God of Lies, and one who has fully embraced his role at that. Furthermore, while it could just be a coincidence, it does seem notable that King Loki made sure to get rid of Verity Willis, the human lie detector, before telling Loki his story. Even the magic whammy he puts on Loki to convince him of the story’s truthfulness seems to be a trap, transforming Loki into a weapon instead of proving anything (and don’t think the irony of King Loki turning his younger self into a weapon the same way Ikol did to murder Kid Loki has escaped me). King Loki could just be spinning lies, or perhaps he thinks he’s telling the truth, but doesn’t fully understand the situation himself?
Or maybe I’m just spitballing because, after everything he’s been through, I don’t like seeing Loki this defeated. As fun as King Loki is as a villain, a Loki with a glimmer of hope is a much more intriguing character. Whatever Ewing does next will no doubt be as fascinating as ever, but after a story this grim, I can’t help but look for some sort of light at the end of the tunnel.
I love discussing the deep, metatextual areas of Loki: Agent of Asgard, but in doing so, I always seem to neglect artist Lee Garbett, and that’s criminal. Garbett’s been a consistently excellent presence on this series since issue one, and his acting especially has always been exceptional, but between King Loki’s eccentric affections and Loki’s non-verbal communication, this issue finds this aspect of his work at its best.
Our Loki never utters a word the entire issue, but we’re never at a loss as to what he’s thinking. Likewise, this issue features some of Garbett’s most innovative layouts, with King Loki at one point hoisting himself into the gutter to escape Thor’s wrath.
With work this good Garbett certainly doesn’t deserve to be trapped in the narrative of “underappreciated artist” anymore than Loki deserves to be forever the villain. Patrick, do you have anything to add to the Garbett praise-pile? What’s your take on King Loki’s tale? Which of the “Untold Stories of the Agent of Asgard” did you like the most? I got the biggest laugh out of “Actually it’s about ethics in hammer-wielding!” myself.
Patrick: Oh man, my answers to both of those questions dovetail nicely, so I’m going direct much of my Garbett praise to those “Untold Stories.” I know we give Al Ewing a lot of credit for weaving this endlessly recursive tale of mindfuckery, but Garbett does the heavy lifting of implying entire sagas, told and untold, in single panels. That’s obvious when Loki’s rattling them off at four-per-page, but consider how Garbett only has one opportunity to make the Skeleton Avengers make an impression.
Check out the implied narratives here: Cap’s costume looks way future-y (but missing wings so… who knows who that is?); Kamala Kahn as Ms. Marvel appears to be on the team; so does Magneto?; who’s the pig-headed character behind Spider-Man? I don’t have answers to any of this, nor do I recognize all the costumes in this picture, but it is clear to me that Garbett is capable of telling stories incredibly efficiently.
I’d actually argue that that aesthetic is what drives this whole issue. It’s like Loki gets to have his own private Secret Wars and Battleword, where dozens of What If? stories are played out in concert with events from strict, modern continuity. This issue is of full of editor’s notes, pointing the reader back to previous issues of this series, to Angela: Asgard’s Assassin, to Bucky Barnes: The Winter Soldier. But why? It’s fascinating to consider the psychological effect of seeing these references to the second issues of series that started after Ewing put King Loki’s long con into action. Not only does King Loki need to convince Loki that his story is true, KL, and by extension Ewing, need to convince the reader. We’re being bombarded with little bits of story — some of it “true” and some of it “untrue” (i.e., some of it verifiable in other issues, some of it not) — to the point where we don’t know what’s what. It’s like that ol’ lawyering trick, where the jury is overwhelmed with the sheer amount of information they’re presented — in those cases, the jury looks to the only person who seems to already have the facts sorted out: the attorney.
That’s what King Loki is doing: he’s building a case for “you will always be the God of Lies.” I think my favorite page in the entire issue is that pile-on of friends telling Loki that they know they can never trust him. Again, I recognize some of these moments from this series, but that’s immaterial: all that matters is that these moments each ring true in their own right. It bears reiterating, Ewing and Garbett are essentially showing us five different stories on this single page.
I’m intrigued by that third panel, where a casually dressed Loki seems to be lounging about in a field with a bare-chested Fandral. If this is a story I should know, I’m afraid I don’t, but it almost reads as romantic. Whatever Fandral is responding to here must have been something very kind or flattering that Loki just said — hence the “silver tongue” comment. Loki’s sexuality also isn’t something that I know a lot about, but like: I’d believe that he’d be in to hooking up with Fandral the Dashing. Regardless of whether there’s anything sexual happening there (and: there is), there’s clearly some intimacy between the two. So, let’s look at that page again — it’s not just a ton of different stories packed into a single page, it’s several types of stories. Loki succeeds in his official business, but is called a liar regardless; Loki helps out some villagers, but is called a liar regardless; Loki gets close to a friend, but is called a liar regardless; Loki tries to make amends with his family members, but is called a liar regardless. His reputation for being the God of Lies poisons every conceivable kind of relationship Loki can have — that’s why the revelation hurts so much.
Hey, so here’s something I hadn’t considered until this very issue: I didn’t realize that King Loki had been through this trial with the All-Mother. It’s fascinating to think that, as much as “always being a liar” is part of who Loki is, trying to find a way to make up for it is equally a part of that character’s DNA. Right? If King Loki and our Loki both tried to atone for their sins of the future, how bad can they really be, deep down? Plus, they tell Bugs Bunny jokes at the end of time — I can’t stay mad at that.
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