Editor’s Note: This week we have a guest post from Tiffany Babb, her second contribution to The Middle Spaces, and her first essay for us after her fantastic interview with Melanie Gillman back in 2019. In this essay, Babb uses the changeable figure of Loki in 2011’s Journey into Mystery to consider the liminality of identity and how it is shaped by expectations and a great complement to my own 2018 post, “YA = Young Avengers: Asserting Maturity on the Threshold of Adulthood.”
The Marvel Comics series Journey into Mystery introduced the Norse gods Thor and Loki into the cast of Marvel characters in 1962. The return to and relaunch of the series in 2011 presented a fresh look at Loki, capturing the fun and chaos of the character while sidestepping the more sinister aspects of his past. The “old” Loki had died at the end of the Siege event (2010), sacrificing himself to stop an apocalypse he had started. Now, in Journey into Mystery, with the help of Thor and some magic, Loki is back, but this time in the form of a child dubbed “Kid Loki” by fans. Kid Loki is not only a younger version of his former self, but he also has no memory of who he was as an adult. Even his appearance has changed. Instead of scaly armor and that huge golden horned helmet, Kid Loki sports a simple outfit in green and gold and a small golden headband.
Stories that feature recognizable characters will always grapple with the tension between the character’s behavior in the story and the reader’s previous knowledge of the character. The 2011 return to Journey into Mystery takes that tension and embeds it into the story’s actual plot, so we see Loki struggle between who he is trying to be and what he is known for. At its very core, this is a story about the fight for agency, for identity, and for the ability to change. Whether or not Kid Loki is actually successful within the story, his existence has made enough of an impression to influence portrayals of Loki since (including recently in the Disney+ LOKI television series). By letting Kid Loki actually acknowledge and engage with the challenge of battling expectations, Journey into Mystery allows him to exist outside of the legend of Loki (albeit temporarily) but also as a new and integral part of it.
While Kid Loki is, more or less, a new take on the character, he isn’t completely new. He’s still mischievous and relies on tricks and isn’t afraid of lying, but his goals are decidedly not sinister. He’s well-meaning. But even though Kid Loki is arguably a new character with new goals, he doesn’t function in a world that treats him as new. The world around him remembers his former self, and that memory informs how people treat him, both inside the story and outside of the story. Most of the Asgardians treat Loki with distrust and some even resort to bullying and violence. Similarly, familiar readers know who Loki is, and while Kid Loki is a new iteration of the character, his existence doesn’t wipe out our understanding of “Loki.” Every step that Kid Loki takes is inevitably seen through the lens of his reputation. He’s trapped by his own former existence.
Kid Loki’s struggle against his own urtext mirrors how depictions of well-known, recognizable characters are influenced by their history. For example, a comic could avoid mentioning that Clark Kent is Superman until its very last page, but almost anyone reading that comic would still read it with the understanding that Clark Kent is Superman. If Clark makes a seemingly selfish choice, the reader might assume that there’s probably some backstory or reason, because they think they know who the character is and is not. In the same way, if Loki makes a selfless choice or acts like a hero, the reader might assume that his motivations may not be wholly altruistic. Loki’s reputation not only precedes him, but it also shapes the way we read his actions.
Readers coming into Journey into Mystery probably know that Loki is Thor’s brother-slash-antagonist, and thus, a side character. Over the years of Marvel Comics storytelling, Loki has been present, but as an antagonist, meant to stay on the sidelines until the plot requires a little chaos and drama. The few times before Journey into Mystery when Loki has taken the role of the protagonist—like the Loki limited series from 2004 and 2010—have focused on his being a villain boxed into playing a role.
Taking a supporting character and making them a protagonist shifts both our understanding of the character and the way that the character functions in the story. Not only does the reader spend more time with the character, but the reader is also presented with the world as that character sees it (as opposed to only being present for the actions that affect the protagonist). When it comes to Kid Loki, we see that his actions are driven by a general desire to fix things and make things better, and this allows readers to connect with the new version of this character instead of assuming he is simply “bad Loki” undercover, as many characters within the story believe. Still, while the reader can see the reasoning behind his altruistic actions, other characters within the story see only the impact of Loki’s actions, an incomplete picture that is an echo of how he has historically been seen by readers familiar with his character.
Loki’s long-time role as a supporting character and antagonist stays with him throughout his time as Kid Loki, shaping the way his story proceeds. Because superhero comics rely on recognizability to sell books, massive change is usually temporary change. While the status quo doesn’t quite prevent a character from changing, it does limit how far (or for how long) behavior can change and how that change is interpreted by readers. Kid Loki’s existence as a new person and his relationship with the pre-existing notions of who Loki is functions as a central theme in the Journey into Mystery arc, “The Manchester Gods” (issues #639-641 from Kieron Gillen (W), Richard Elson (A), and Clayton Cowles (L) with covers by Stephanie Hans) in which Loki decides to turn against a group of gods with whom he is allied. This time, however, Loki’s motivation behind betrayal has less to do with chaos and mischief and much more to do with what he thinks is just.
Journey into Mystery “The Manchester Gods” begins in Asgardia (a replacement for Asgard, which fell due to old Loki’s actions) with the All-Mother pressuring Kid Loki into getting involved in stopping the rise of a new type of god in Otherworld (a pocket dimension where the gods of legend live). Technically, the government of Asgardia is not supposed to meddle in Otherworld matters, but Loki has a certain reputation for breaking the rules. He doesn’t particularly want to get involved, but he’s the one with the reputation that fits the bill. Because Kid Loki is supposed to be on the “right side” now, he’s also obligated to do what the All-Mother wants, which means stepping in to provide plausible deniability. So, Loki heads off to Otherworld, bringing his friend Leah along with him.
Loki is supposed to help the traditional rulers of Otherworld get rid of the Manchester Gods—gods of the city and technology. The old gods, however, are initially suspicious of his offer of help. When Loki cheerfully introduces himself to Otherworld’s champion Captain Britain saying, “My brother told me all about you,” Captain Britain responds, “Alas, your brother didn’t need to tell me about you. I’m watching, you understand?” This is clearly not a warm welcome for someone who is ostensibly coming to help. This short conversation (as well as other conversations throughout the arc) illustrates the double expectation that Loki is expected to do what’s right but is also expected to betray at any moment. Loki lives both in and against his reputation. This double expectation reappears when Loki offers to pretend to plot with the Manchester Gods and serve as a spy for the traditional gods. When Captain Britain questions Loki’s plan, asking “Will they believe that you’re a traitor to divinity?” Leah responds immediately, “Oh Captain… Do you think anyone would believe he’s not?” This expectation is useful for Loki, as he crosses over to spy on the Manchester Gods, but it’s also a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy, as Loki fulfills this expectation by truly becoming a “traitor to divinity,” though not for the expected nefarious reasons.
During his espionage trip to the world of the Manchester Gods, Loki begins to realize that he might be working for the wrong side after all. The Manchester Gods argue that the traditional gods are simply too old and steeped in tradition to accept any sort of change, no matter how good for the people of Otherworld it might be. Luckily for the Manchester Gods, Kid Loki—as someone who is obsessed with technology and human culture—does believe in progress. So, he and Leah switch sides, helping the Manchester Gods destroy symbolic places of the traditional gods’ power in order to shift the balance of power to the Manchester Gods, who seemingly want to change the Otherworld for the better.
Before blowing up one of those symbolic places (Stonehenge), Loki and Leah don Guy Fawkes masks because, according to Loki, “It’s symbolic. And symbolism is important.” In a world of magic where symbolic sites hold energy, what Loki says is very literally true. But within a full page of Loki exploding things while wearing the grinning mask and saying things like, “I have become death! The destroyer of the Otherworld!” and “I am the Lightbringer!” and “And similar satanic exclamations,” his statement about symbolism takes on a different tone. Especially after we see him remove his mask to reveal a solemn, very young face.
While Loki is wearing his mask, he’s doing the things that Loki is expected to do. He’s saying the things—if seemingly by rote—that Loki is expected to say. But once he removes that mask, we realize that he’s just a kid who carries the weight of those expectations. He confides to Leah and his bird Ikol, “I suspect this is the worst thing I’ve ever done,” and the reader is reminded that although Loki has a lot of power over the circumstances in front of him, he isn’t the coldhearted chaos maker that old Loki was. The reader is also reminded of the many worse things that Loki has done in his past. Though everyone seems to expect Kid Loki to blow things up, he doesn’t really have the stomach for destruction. He is still a child. And he’s still sort of treated as a child when he returns to the traditional gods, reflecting the complexity of the way he is seen through multiple lenses.
Though Captain Britain had previously treated Loki with suspicion, he mostly expresses concern when asking if Loki and Leah are okay after their capture by the Manchester gods. While Captain Britain may not trust Loki, that doesn’t stop him from worrying about the state of two children who have been kidnapped by his enemies. For a moment, Loki and Leah are treated as regular kids, though they have just proven (to the readers at least) that they are worthy of Captain Britain’s suspicion. Though the character of Loki’s past has tainted Kid Loki’s interactions with nearly everyone he comes across, his presentation as a child similarly colors the way people see him. His transformed appearance and childish attitude support the idea that he has changed in a manner that would be far less likely if he had still looked like an adult.
Within this arc, the traditional gods don’t learn about Loki’s betrayal, but Loki doesn’t let the lie sit completely. After leaving Otherworld, Loki and Leah visit their ally, Daimon Hellstrom, who Loki had previously recruited to help with the original plan against the Manchester Gods. Loki fills Daimon in on how he has changed sides and why. In response, Daimon asks why Loki has decided to tell him at all, and Loki responds, “I’m Loki, yes. I can only be Loki. But as much as they’re able, I want people to trust me.” The language that Loki uses here is telling. He states his identity as Loki twice, and then he adds another element, an attempt to get people to trust him “as much as they’re able.” Loki recognizes that there are aspects to how people treat him that he can’t control, but he isn’t resigned to it. Instead, he seems to be trying to carve a space out for himself under the overarching umbrella of “Loki.” This need to be trusted and understood as “Loki” despite how the “legend of Loki” negatively influences his life is important enough to risk Daimon’s ire or the possibility of Daimon telling others about what he’s done. But even beyond garnering trust, telling Daimon about what really happened is a way of telling the real story to someone, even though the rest of the people involved are not privy to it. Loki cannot tell the traditional gods that he’s betrayed them, but he can tell someone who might understand, and telling Daimon is a way that Loki is able to relay his own story in its entirety.
The question of who knows which part of what Loki has done later plays a large role in Kid Loki’s eventual demise (Journey into Mystery #645), and this caching of truth is act of self-preservation. Loki’s confession to Daimon is a declaration of self against what people expect from him and how they understand his actions. Because Loki tells Daimon what he has done and why, that knowledge exists outside of him and outside of how others might read what his actions look like. This confession also serves as a careful reclaiming of identity through storytelling.
Whatever Loki does, the echoes of his past and the reality of his present are at war with each other. It’s not necessarily a surprise that later on in the series, Loki falls prey to the expectations that the world (both diegetically and our own) has for him. Though Loki is, in this story, a protagonist and a hero, the world around him and the structure of his genre resist this change and continue to read his actions as those of a villain and a secondary character meant to flesh out the world around a protagonist. Still, the story creates a space for a Loki who seems like he might change, one who seems like he has a real chance at it. Throughout the “Manchester Gods” arc and the rest of Journey into Mystery, Loki fights against expectations in hopes of building a better future for himself and gaining some sort of control over his own story. Loki’s struggle against the seemingly inevitable foregrounds his humanity, and this struggle draws our attention to how a character’s history shapes how readers understand a character’s actions.
How many times has a villain said that they’ve turned over a leaf only to betray everyone at a crucial moment? Would we believe they had actually changed? What if they turned up as a young person claiming that they had no memory of any previous dastardly events? (Heck, even Lex Luthor tried it once!) While Kid Loki may seem “good,” or even prove his goodness at times, readers, and characters familiar with his history are just waiting for that other shoe to drop, and in doing so, they secure his fate and stifle his ability to actually change in any permanent way.
Tiffany Babb is a poet, essayist, and cultural critic. You can find her cultural criticism in PanelxPanel Magazine, The AV Club, Paste Magazine, and The Comics Journal. You can follow her on twitter @explodingarrow and sign up for her monthly newsletter at tiffanybabb.com/puttingittogether.