In the Marvel Universe, the Asgardian god Loki isn't just a god of Mischief. His fellow gods view him as a god of chaos and evil because, since his first modern appearance in 1962's "Journey Into Mystery" #85, he's been hatching villainous schemes to gain power and rob others of their freedom, safety and lives. During Norman Osborn's "Dark Reign," Loki launched perhaps his most ambitious and despicable scheme ever when he goaded Osborn into launching an all-out assault on the city of Asgard. The siege on the city was repulsed by the combined might of several Avengers teams, but when it was over, many Asgardians lay dead and Asgard was in ruins. Amongst the dead was Loki himself, who surprised many by changing alliances and helping to defeat Osborn.
Loki's sacrifice seemed hollow to everyone but his brother Thor, who arranged for him to be resurrected. Reborn as a young boy with a guilty conscience and no memory of his past misdeeds, Loki has been granted a second chance at life, but it's come at the worst possible time. "Fear Itself" has encompassed the world as an ancient and powerful fear god known as the Serpent has turned the mythological corner of the Marvel Universe upside down. To restore balance, swift and cunning action is needed, the kind only a god of mischief is capable of.
In "Journey Into Mystery," writer Kieron Gillen and artist Doug Braithwaite are chronicling Loki's challenges in the messy and morally murky work of culling the chaos in the mythological corner of the Marvel Universe. CBR News spoke with Gillen about the series, the latest issue of which hits stores tomorrow, June 8.
Loki and the Asgardians are familiar characters to Gillen, whose body of work includes 11 issues of "Thor" and two "Siege" tie-in issues. However, the writer is approaching the characters' story differently in "Journey Into Mystery."
"'Journey' came about when my editor, Ralph Macchio, asked if I had any ideas for a second Thor title that was in the works. I thought about it and decided that I wanted to do something Loki-centric since I knew Matt [Fraction] was bringing him back in the main 'Thor' book. I also wanted to explore some different story telling traditions. In 'Mighty Thor,' Matt is doing the more cosmic/epic take. I wanted to go the other way. Fundamentally, 'Journey' is a fantasy book, and I'm very much writing it as a fantasy book. I'm embracing things that aren't often used in the modern superhero idiom, like extensive narrative captions. I'm using folktale structures and embedding stories within stories so some books are all about people telling stories," Gillen told CBR News. "I'm interested in the language of and way people tell stories as well as the stories they tell. Gods are basically living stories. History for them is actually story for us. That was the sort of thinking that was on my mind. So with 'Journey,' I've fully considered what it is, where it's going and what its purpose is. It's probably my most carefully considered book for Marvel, I suspect."
In "Journey Into Mystery" #622, his inaugural issue, Gillen was thinking about stories like Shakespeare's play "The Tempest" when he had the youthful Loki fall through a question mark in a book about the siege of Asgard and come face to face with the ghost of his older self.
"The truth is in the final question mark, so that's where they meet. Loki is a character who's very much a living question mark. So to dramatize the problem of his new self, I dragged his old self along. I'm still writing someone who's a lot like Loki; he's just a little quieter about it," Gillen said. "In that scene, you've got old Loki there, this creature of spirit and wroth, and then you have young Loki who hasn't done any of these things yet. That's the core and key of the drama.
When the shade of the old Loki and the young Loki come face to face, old Loki informs his younger self that a peril is coming and he must combat it. The old Loki would have met the coming threat with magic, but the new one must confront it with nothing but his wits.
"For Loki, magic is basically just weaponized wit. It's an idea made flesh and the new Loki can't do that -- yet. Young Loki only has ideas. So every single time he's got to find the right tools for the task at hand," Gillen remarked. "That makes things very high stakes. He's an Asgardian boy. So he's not exactly a weakling, but he's surrounded by people who don't trust him and would absolutely break him apart. That makes him an underdog as well, which is one of the great joys of seeing him striving and trying to learn stuff. He may only have his wits, but his wits are enormous.
"I thought about what intelligence means in different cultures, and in his tradition Loki is about as smart as it gets," Gillen continued. "He's also quite dim and naive in a sweet way. He lacks wisdom, not intelligence. You'll see him falling into traps, and it's because he doesn't quite know the person he's up against."
To help his protagonist get to know his enemies and the world around him, Gillen transformed the shade of the old Loki into a talking magpie known as Ikol. As Ikol, the old Loki serves as both a traditional magical familiar animal and a living information database.
"I wanted to have access to someone that would keep Loki from blundering around stupidly. The next two issues deal with a lot of previously existing relationships, and rather than blunder into it, I wanted him to have an adviser who can give him some important information. That allows us to move towards the more political plot quicker. If I remove that, it becomes more a 'boy's own adventure' book, which has its appeal, but is not exactly what I want to do with it," Gillen stated. "So Ikol is basically old Loki, but he's sort of become an enslaved familiar, which means he's not pleased with young Loki," Gillen continued with a laugh. "And that's a lot of fun."
Ikol's displeasure with Loki and the fact that he's the transformed spirit of Loki's older and more nefarious self has many wondering if the young Loki should trust the information provided by his pet magpie. Gillen has an answer -- kind of. "One of the first things the spirit says to him in issue #622 is, 'I am Loki who you must not trust.' And he's been warmed several times about doing it. So that's a pretty dramatic question which I don't have interest in resolving. It should hang over the book because if Loki doesn't trust Ikol, where does that leave him?" Gillen said. "Can he use the information he gets from Ikol in a different way for a different cause? The presence of Ikol leaves that question hanging. Can you use everything you learn? Or is some knowledge intrinsically tainted?"
Ikol isn't the only talking animal character in "Journey Into Mystery." In issue #623, Loki used a magical bridal to take control of the monstrous beast known as the Hel Wolf.
"He's not my creation. Matt introduced the Hel Wolf in Thor, which I don't think many people have noticed. Odin was fighting the Hel Wolf in Limbo when he was summoned back to the world of the living by Thor. He's named as the Hel Wolf in that scene and I thought, 'He's an interesting visual.' Also, he's currently in Asgard -- an easy person to bring into the story because he's already there. And, in the visual, there's a sense that he's a suitably crazy steed, to allow Loki to get about a little. And, basically, it's a boy and his dog and that just makes me smile. Especially since Hel Wolf is just a real bastard," Gillen joked. "He perhaps ends up being funnier than I actually wanted him to. He's vicious. He's done wicked things and Loki now has him on a leash. And while there's tension there, there's always going to be some humor in this huge monster on a tiny boy's leash. I think there's something quite funny about that. I hope there is anyway."
While Loki's relationships with his talking animals are important to him, he's most interested in family. In fact, it's his relationship with Thor that set the whole series in motion. In issue #623, Loki learns of the Serpent's existence and what he must do to stop the fear god. He then seeks out his brother and asks him if he would make sure something bad happened to prevent something worse from happening, no matter what it might cost him.
"I think Loki, quite rightly, does not trust himself. He plays things lightly, but he's aware of what his old self did. So he says, 'If I can't trust myself, I'll ask' what would Thor do?' He asks Thor a series of impossible questions -- and Loki doesn't really tell Thor what he's actually going to do -- which is a very Loki thing to do. If the situations were reversed, I think Thor would have told him what was going on," Gillen explained. "Still, Loki would like to have Thor's moral compass. That's what that scene is about. Of course the question is now, is he acting in a way that Thor would? We know Loki examines and solves problems differently than Thor does, and a lot of the conversations I write are loaded. The implications of what everybody says kind of echoes down through the first ten issues, and in certain cases, the whole run of the book."
Five of the next ten issues will involve Loki's quest to gather the team and tools he needs for his mission against the Serpent. "I love the idea of 'getting the crew together.' It's one of my favorite storytelling conventions," Gillen said. "So we'll see some of that, and then we'll get two issues of the actual mission. The meta structure of the story is similar to 'The Dirty Dozen' or 'The Magnificent Seven.'"
In "Journey Into Mystery" #624, Loki heads to the underworld on the next leg of his quest to assemble the team and tools he needs for his first mission. "I wanted to do a story that specifically engaged Loki's past wrongs. In my 'Fine Print' arc of 'Thor,' Loki was dead. He wasn't there for it, but he was still manipulating everybody. I wanted to put young Loki into the middle of a mess that old Loki had created and see how he reacts to that and how he might try to remedy it," Gillen said. "Also, dropping him into Hell gives you an immediate contrast between how Hela acts, how Loki acts and how Mephisto acts. That happened in my 'Siege: Loki' one-shot. You got to see how Loki compared to two different underworld gods, Hela and Mephisto. Doing that again with young Loki immediately shows the differences in how his old and present selfs work. Plus, you've got some interesting and fantastical scenery."
Hela is Loki's daughter, but her appearances in "Journey Into Mystery" will have to do more with her role as queen of the Asgardian underworld than her relationship with her now youthful father. "The question of Hela and Loki's relationship will be very tricky. I don't think you'll see any response from her about their parental relationship for a while, because to be fair, Hela has a duty. She's a villain and in a real way has done abominable things. To set the geek engine for the heart of the sun, if the Marvel Universe employed the alignment system from 'Dungeons and Dragons,' she would be Lawful Evil. Not because she keeps her word, but because her duty is important to her. She won't sell out Hell. She's queen of the dead and would prefer that everybody was dead. Therefore, she would be queen of everybody. But the dead are her people. She will protect them. Someone like Mephisto would sacrifice every demon in Hell. He genuinely doesn't give a toss. I think in the long term I'd like to do some more stories with Loki and Hela because it's an interesting relationship."
Loki's sojourn into Hel will bring him face with some other familiar faces as well as a couple of new ones. "The Asgardian war god Tyr is in Hel now. Hela and Balder have made a deal which made Tyr a general in Hel in exchange for some support in his policing of Limbo. Tyr died because just couldn't bear living because of his cowardice in 'Siege.' Now he's got a new life in Hel, and there's a bit of romance between him and Hela which is all sorts of weird," Gillen said. "Then there's this new character named Leah, who's the handmaid/servant of Hela. She's on the cover of issue #625. She's picked up many of Hela's traits in that she's very much about duty and has nothing but contempt for Loki. That she's so different from Loki makes her a lot of fun to write."
Loki isn't just making a stopover in Hell to pick up a team member and some equipment. The Infernal realm will also be where he carries out his mission against the Serpent.
"The Serpent's forces are in Hell. I want this to be a political thriller and a spy/espionage book, but through a fantasy filter. So the Serpent is playing diplomat. He's sent a servant to Hela and asks for an alliance. He says, 'Join us. You never liked Asgard anyway. And if you don't, we'll destroy you.' So we're examining the mythological Realpolitik," Gillen said. "There's a scene in the fourth issue, which is almost the classic black ops assassin style scene, when you stage that scene in Hela's fortress though it changes it fundamentally."
Gillen also plans to use his inaugural arc to examine the impact the rise of the Serpent has had on the other mythological pantheons in the Marvel Universe. "There's this war between the Serpent and the forces of Asgard, but what on Earth are the rest of the pantheons thinking? There's the entire council of godheads -- what are they thinking about Asgard deciding to scour the Earth as a way to try and defeat the Serpent? That's kind of the stuff I'm dealing with," the writer explained. "Essentially, it's kind of like the history of the Second World War. You can look at the battles and who did what and where, but the politics are also something which you study. Why did this country decide to join the Axis? And why did that country decide to join the Allies? There's a little bit of that in what I'm doing. That's not to imply that this is a dry history lecture, but that part of the history books is where some of the inspiration for this story comes from though."
The political aspects of godhood and demonhood will be explored further in an upcoming issue which sees Mephisto's perspective on things. "My sixth issue is literally Mephisto sitting in a pub telling someone a story. It spins out of the idea that there is a council of godheads that meets in this large extra-dimensional, UN-style building where all their political business gets done and everything is overseen by the Living Tribunal's servants. And the Serpent's war has just got everyone talking, registering on a cosmic and mythological scale and we're going to see how Mephisto and some of the gods and demons feel about it. Is Mephisto happy that the Serpent has tried to form an alliance with Hela? Does he profit from that? Or does that hurt him? These types of questions lend themselves to some fun and interesting stories."
Loki's mission against the Serpent is just the first of many espionage assignments that Gillen has planned for the young god, but the writer ultimately views "Journey Into Mystery" as a finite series with a beginning, middle and end. "I've broken down the arcs to about a series of 30-40 issues. I want to have a strong structure of stories, but still leave room for improvisation. There are stories inside of stories, so there's a freewheeling nature to the book. It's like a raconteur going on diversions and asides. Like how in the first issue where we did a Loki adventure in two pages or in the second where Volstagg tells Loki about the goats. That's also the nature of Loki. If this book had an Alan Moore style clockwork plot structure, it would play against the nature of its main character. The main character wants to rebel and disobey. I have a structure in place where I can move the book forward, but Loki surprises everyone around him, and I don't think I'm immune to that. I suspect Loki is going to surprise me in ways I would not have guessed."
If Gillen's plans come to fruition "Journey Into Mystery" will have been a story about many things. Its central story, however, will be about whether or not Loki's morally murky machinations will cost him his soul.
"In order to do what needs to done, there's a good chance that he may become what people think he is. That's part of the dramatic tension. Even if Loki has a good reason for what he's doing, if you look at it from the outside, it does appear that he's just up to his old tricks. That's part of the appeal of the book. Everybody hates Loki. He's still trying to do 'good,' whatever that means, but he's still Loki. He's very likable, but you worry for him. To me, that's totally the heart of the book," Gillen remarked. "Doing that sort of work does corrupt you. So how much corruption can Loki take? Can he stay innocent and do what's required? Because if he wants to save people, his only choice is to use the abilities he has. The abilities he has are not to summon thunderstorms or stand up to a 1000 foot demon. He outwits people. How far can a smart mouth get you?"
If the sales continue to do well for "Journey Into Mystery" Gillen should be able to take Loki very far, perhaps even to the end of the journey he has planned for the young god of mischief. "I'm very pleased with how well the book has been received," the writer stated. "With this book, I thought, 'Instead of trying to second guess yourself and come up with what you think the audience needs or wants, let's just do what you think is best.' I've been especially true to myself on this. It's the most 'me' book I've ever done for Marvel and it's very gratifying that it's the one that seems to have gotten the best reviews. That's not only pleasing, it's a useful message for Loki: 'For god's sake, listen to yourself!'"