After four months of fun, "Loki: Agent of Asgard" cuts to the heart of the matter in issue #5. Ewing, Garbett, Woodard and Cowles deliver an ab workout of an issue that starts off with the expected laughs and ends with lines that hit like a punch to the gut. As stylish as it is devastating, this one's the lynchpin for everything that comes next, and it sets up fascinating stakes for both "The Tenth Realm" next month and "Agent of Asgard's" return in September.
The issue starts with the promised heist -- which of course is not actually a heist, because what would be the fun in that? It's structured as a delightful series of plays on that time-honored comics tradition, the retcon. Lorelei repeatedly says what she thinks happened, and she is repeatedly proven wrong with a flashback to what actually took place. The call-and-response flashback structure could have been tiresome, but Ewing's script moves quickly enough from gag to gag that it's quite fun.
Garbett, Woodard and Cowles really make the heist work, though, because the visual structure does so much of the work of establishing the cadence. At the height of the action, it's all busy, full pages that give the caper verve and pace. The panels are arranged in maze-like structures that make the reader's eye dart up-down and left-right all over the page. It was easy to know when the book wanted me to slow down, because it would transition into long, wide panels, and even easier to know when to pick up the pace again. Clayton Cowles continues to astound me with what he can make work.
As with the previous four issues, #5 is a Katamari Damacy of MU allusions, sliding in sly references to events of the past, present and future wherever it can. Some readers, especially the event-weary, may find this smarmy, but it never fails to make me smile.
However, all good fun must come to an end, and "Agent of Asgard" gets quite serious quite fast. I'll keep the spoilers to the next paragraph, but they're a big part of what makes this issue so effective, so they do need a little attention.
Spoiler Alert: When old Loki reveals that he is actually future Loki, Ewing establishes the futility of a character arc that's been going since at least "Siege," and it's rough reading. Usually, I'm irritated when the big plot reveal is invalidating everything that came before, but here the meaningless is the meaning. (That said, the mechanics of how exactly old/future Loki survived and/or exists still haven't been fully explained, which needs to happen pretty soon.) Present Loki obviously feels pretty sorry for himself, and coming from a child (okay, child-self) murderer, that self-pity could have grated had it been at all indulged. Ewing wisely gives it weight by having no one indulge it, from the cold pronouncements of the All-Mother to the vicious, incisive taunting of alpha-omega Loki. (Yes, I'm calling it alpha-omega.) Since the entire premise of this series is that present Loki has been working to erase the acts and possibility of alpha-omega Loki, I'm very curious to see where it goes now that he knows he can never escape that fate.
"Loki: Agent of Asgard" #5 is, in sum, remarkably well done -- even more remarkably so given its editorial calendar. This never feels like an issue that's dropping its main plot to make way for a three-month event tie-in. It's measured, technically beautiful and makes phenomenal use of the material that's come before it.