By Taylor Anderson and Patrick Ehlers
This article contains SPOILERS. If you haven’t read the issue yet, proceed at your own risk!
Taylor: There’s a scene in the excellent new Thor movie where the titular character comes face to face with Dr. Stephen Strange. At the time, the scene struck me as kind of weird, even if I enjoyed it greatly. What seemed odd to me at the time was the idea of Norse gods meeting a sorcerer who seemingly hails from a completely different mythology. But as the rest of the movie showed me with its zany and fun plot, there’s no reason why the two mythologies shouldn’t meet. At the end of the day, both Thor and Dr. Strange have super powers, and whether one is or isn’t magic doesn’t seem to really matter. Once I crossed the cognitive divide that these two characters shouldn’t interact, I was totally hooked. The same is true of Doctor Strange 381, because it operates in much the same way.
Loki is the new Sorcerer Supreme after Stephen stepped down from the job. As such, Loki goes about doing pretty much what you would expect him to do if he were to find himself granted a new set of powers. One of his first stops is the “The Bar With No Doors,” a wizards-only speakeasy. There, Loki begins to upset the regulars by questioning the very nature of the give-and-take balance cut by magic users.
As Loki sees it, why should wizards and witches have to pay a price for using magic? Being a god, Loki is able to use magic without having to pay a price. His divinity, it would seem, protects him from such things. He then offers to eat magician’s “sins” for using magic in exchange for the spell “The Exile of Singhsoon.” The very nature of Loki’s proposition highlights the bizarre union of Loki’s godhood with Stephen’s powers because he upsets the balance of each mythology respectively. As a god, he now enjoys powers beyond those of his peers. As a sorcerer, he doesn’t have to pay for using magic, which similarly makes him overpowered. Still, this union somehow works well for the story presented here.
One reason this mish-mash of mythologies works is that Loki is so damn charming. Loki has always been a seductive character, and his stories are almost always entertaining, because of his mischievous personality. While still mischievous, Loki is decidedly out of his comfort zone as the Sorcerer Supreme. This imbues him with an adorable self-consciousness. After his confrontation at the Bar With No Doors, Loki texts (yes texts, as in using a phone) Zelma for advice.
Loki is perhaps one of the most powerful beings in the universe at this moment yet he has to text friend in a moment of crisis just like the rest of us schlubs. And like so many of us, he’s texting someone after going to a “bar thing” that “got all weird.” This situation is so damn relatable and Loki walking down the streets of New York in full magic regalia while doing so is a real hoot. If not for Loki’s charm and likability, it’s difficult to say if the mixing of his powers with Stephen’s would work. However, just like Chris Hemsworth in Thor Ragnarok, Loki has charm and that makes the whole thing work.
As if to telegraph the importance of Loki in this issue, letterer Cory Petit literally has his lines cover up other narration. At the beginning of the issue, Strange narrates the changes that have taken place recently. As he does so, he answers questions from an invisible audience wondering what the heck is going on. However, Loki literally cuts this off with his own narration.
Petit arranges the narration boxes in such a way that while they can still be read, Loki’s begin to cover up Strange’s. There’s no clearer way than that to get the point across that Loki is the main character and driver of this issue. What makes this little bit even more enjoyable is that it’s totally in Loki’s wheelhouse to steal the narrative thunder of an issue from someone else. In this, case the theft is perhaps a tiny bit more blatant than in other issues, but it’s just as arresting.
Patrick, do you dig Loki, Sorcerer Supreme? I found his interaction with Jane Foster just as delightful as everything else. Do you feel the same way? And do you think Stephen uses magic as veterinarian? You know, transmogrify that weird lump on your dog into a guinea pig or something?
Patrick: Hell yeah — then you’ve suddenly got two pets for Strange to take care of. Good thinking, T. I love seeing Strange in such a mundane environment at the end of this issue — it goes a long way toward grounding a story that so relentlessly stacks weird specifics. In fact, it’s a good narrative example of what I think artist Gabriel Hernandez Walta communicates so well visually: something that is normal and measured but also totally fucked up. Walta is amazing, so he gets this idea out there on the first page.
That’s Strange’s trademark brownstone, rendered in geometric detail, hovering 20 feet off the surface of the street. I absolutely adore the composition of this second panel — everything is so meticulously to-scale, and every line of the masonry is honored, heightening the verisimilitude of this image. Of course, the most double-take-worthy bit of perspective work is only there because of the broken logic that comes with Loki as the Sorcerer Supreme: the Sanctum Sanctorum is floating.
Walta is, of course, no stranger to mixing the mundane with the supernatural. We’re inside the Sanctum for all of two pages, but I could help flashing back to his achingly detailed work on The Vision. The difference here is that writer Donny Cates does not appear to be interested in anything resembling normalcy… er, at least not “normalcy” as any one in the real world might describe it. The normal that’s getting fucked with here is Loki’s life, which is already a whirlwind of gods and space battles and feuds with brother-surrogates. I mean, Loki’s shit is complicated, even before he gets this new title. Nothing drives that home better than his brief meeting with Thor.
Loki’s family drama, complete with Jane Foster swinging his brother’s hammer, is wearying. Check out his face in the third panel! Through the course of this exchange, Walta bounces back to some variation on this beleaguered-Loki face, at times stretched out into an angry screams, at times scrunched into a knowing smile. Loki can bluster and bargain all he wants for some forbidden magic, but his real drama comes from this kind of basic, familial interaction. Again, Walta takes a scene that should be unfathomable — two gods discussing their roles in the universe — and sets it against an architecturally obsessive background. Everything everything everything is grounded.
Which makes me think we should probably start looking for clues, right? Because he is who he is, Loki is obviously Up To Something. Taylor mentioned that there’s a moment early in the issue where Loki’s narration boxes literally over take Strange’s, which is a cool transition of focus, but one that ultimately doesn’t carry forward into the rest of the issue. Loki’s interested in stopping Strange’s narration, but isn’t really interested in continuing one of his own. That would give away too much of his plans to the reader. Instead, we are kept at arms’ length, trying to divine his intentions from strange, muddled actions, like leading Thor to the army of invading Frost Giants.
“What’s Loki up to?” is an intriguing mystery, but I think it may be just a touch too ill-defined here. It’s the classic mystery problem that the readers know that there is a mystery before we know how to care about that mystery. Like, what are the stakes here? Loki wants to learn this spell that no one thinks he should, fine, but there are two necessary “why”s that are missing. Loki gives his reasoning to Thor: “I just wanted to help.” But like, literally no one believes that, right? Every Loki story takes a little while to establish its character’s true goals and values, but with such an acrobatic mix of high-flying mythologies, I’m finding that to be maybe one question too many.
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I was planning on dropping this after the Aaron run, but when I saw, “Loki: Sorcerer Supreme” I thought I’d give it a go. I’m glad I did. I enjoy Walta’s art and I like that this is me getting to see him draw his style in a bit of a different world than Vision (where I knew him from).
Reading Gillen’s Loki (especially in Journey Into Mystery), the mysteries were deep and multi-tiered. The answers were almost never what they seemed to be. Shoot, even the questions were sometimes confusing. Given that, I’m not too concerned about my lack of knowing what the plan is here. I can wait – I liked this, I’m ready for another.
Like GE Scott, I was planning on dropping this comic. Didn’t have a lot of hopes for post-Aaron Doctor Strange, especially with Legacy approaching. But then I saw the premise, and thought I’d give it a go (especially as Legacy was nowhere near as bad as threatened).
What I really liked is how well Cates uses Aaron’s run as a foundation for his own ideas. The hard thing with followign a run like Aaron’s is finding the balance between finding something new, and making sure that a run like Aaron’s is given the chance to be character defining so that the character actually evolves. Characters like Doctor Strange need runs liek Aaron to update them to modern sensibilities, which creates a unique challenge to writers like Cates.
But this run uses Aaron elements really effectively to keep all the great elements that now make a good Doctor Strange story, while making clear this is something new. Walta’s art leans into a vibe similar to Bachalo’s, while Cates references Aaron’s run in many ways to cement those ideas into the fabric of Doctor Strange’s mythology even as he uses those same ideas to establish his own, unique take on Doctor Strange. The disruption of the book’s premise – Loki as Sorcerer Supreme – is reflected in how Cates subverts all of Aaron’s defining features. Even the Sanctum has been tamed.
And it creates such a fantastic sense of disruption to really make Loki sing throughout this issue. Cates leans into the wrognness, which makes Loki a compelling protagonist to follow. We can see that this isn’t a mere palatte swap, and that creates a tension throughout the narrative. One that builds and builds as we don’t know what the cost is going to be for this wrongness.
In fact, I don’t think it matters that Loki is a bit vague and mysterious as a protagonist. First, he is Loki. He should be mysterious, in a careful balance between good and evil. But more importantly, this issue is framed around a conversation between Strange and Wanda. It is ultiamately a Strange story, with him as the lead. Loki is just the mystery/antagonist that Strange has to face. And in true Loki fashion, he is a more complex antagonist than you expect. And that creates a unique challenge for Strange, as we meet him at the end. One that I can’t wait to see continue.
Also, I really, rally have to praise Walta’s art in that final section. He truly, truly makes Strange look square. Like a man who has lost that magic, and become painfully ordinary. THe whole sequence is amazing, with the perfect anti-punchline as Cates makes the joke go on a bit too long to really force us to embrace the… almost patheticness of this. Strange really does feel like he has fallen
Comparing Walta’s art to Bachalo’s is a bit like comparing apples to demons. There’s a sense of normalcy to Walta’s art that breaks down as you take a deeper look. It’s great for stories like this and for Vision – it can be quite unnerving in a story that’s not going as planned. Bachalo, on the other hand, requires looking deeper to find a sense of normalcy, which was absolutely perfect for Aaron’s run. I agree that there’s a similar vibe, which is weird considering how different they are (and how identifiable).
What’s most remarkable to me is that this is yet ANOTHER Marvel comic that I want to see what happens next. That’s amazing – this is a really, really good time to like Marvel comics.
Walta and Bachalo’s art is very, very different. But I think it is also fair to say that Walta is tailoring his art to remind you of Bachalo. The linework is essentially completely different, but Walta is taking a lot of inspiration from Bachalo’s design. Things like the snakes, or Loki’s story, or Zelma’s design, or the Sanctum’s look are very, very Bachalo inspired. THe linework is all different, but we are supposed to look at it and see Bachalo.
ANd yeah, I’m surprised how many books of Marvel I’m looking forward to. I was coming into things quite cynically, especially after Marvel Legacy did not do a lot to give me faith. But books like this or All New Guardians of the Galaxy keep finding ways to draw me in and excite me just when I start having doubts. It is a really good time for Marvel