This essay contains enormous spoilers for the 2010s run of the Marvel comic Journey Into Mystery. If you haven’t read it – the Kieron Gillen run, at least – and you have any interest in doing so, don’t read this first. Seriously.
A theme of Sean Howe’s Marvel: The Untold Story – unavoidably, since it’s a theme of most superhero comics storytelling over the last 30-40 years – is “the illusion of change”. This is Stan Lee’s formula for what readers want – dramatic developments which are always reversible, and it’s what Marvel has always been so very good at.
But it gets harder and harder to do. The readers are wise to it, after all. Certainly death doesn’t work any more – so how about defeat? Marvel’s most recent kink is to have its heroes turn on one another – if the outcome of a hero versus villain battle is predestined, then the only battles its heroes can really lose are against other characters with their own books and fans.
Even here the arc of Marvel comics storytelling bends towards the status quo. And their emotional arcs reflect that too. In the House Of Ideas, change first brings disruption, excitement, thrilling uncertainty. Then a second act of steepening peril, and then – crescendo! – the return of the familiar once again. But renewed, cleansed through ordeal: there’s something almost mythic about it, isn’t there? Or “iconic”, to use a word comics writers began to lay claim to in the 90s, when the transparency of this cycle started to become apparent. The iconic Captain America has returned. The iconic Thor.
If readers like the changes? Well, nobody need lose out. You package them up, spin them off, put them out as their own comic, and everyone is happy. Because readers might like changes, but they like the familiar more.
In here, though, are the seeds of something different – a way to write a superhero comic, a modern, corporate superhero comic, which doesn’t have a happy ending. Or maybe, if happiness is really an endless cycle, it’s enough to say which has an ending.
What would you do? You take a property, a great big corporate property, one which is there in plain sight – maybe it’s in the most successful superhero film ever made. And you change it in a way which any old cynic is likely to see could never stick. And you sell the change. You sell it and sell it and make it work so well that even the cynics (even this cynic) thinks, my goodness, they’ve done it, they’ve really changed that character. You write the change so well you make everyone need it to be real, and then –
But however skilful you are, that would merely be cruel. If you’re going to fool everyone and have it end up tragic, not a misanthropic tease, you need to pick just the right character. You need a character where the trickery, and the lying, is central to who they are – so when the world ends you realise it was always going to. And even more, you need a character who’s on the readers’ side, not yours. You need a character who knows what’s at stake. You need a character who wants to change, so that when the world ends you still want it not to.
Illusions – in the stage magic sense – are lies we volunteer for, and the illusion of change is no different. This is Marvel’s promise, but also its prophylactic – nothing will really matter. What if that could be a lie too, of the other kind, the ones we don’t expect?
Let’s meet our liar. A big one – Loki, the God of Lies (or Mischief), Marvel villain in good standing since 1963, half-brother and pest to the Mighty Thor, a rangy sneerer in yellow and green. He schemes, he plots, he brings on Ragnarok, he gets reincarnated as a woman, he schemes some more, he causes a crossover event, he gets blown up, the end of Loki. This is where the comic we’re interested in starts.
Journey Into Mystery, by Kieron Gillen and an assortment of artists, is the story of Loki back from the dead as a smallish and apparently innocent boy. He is still the God of Mischief, nobody really trusts him, but – as he occasionally says – “I only wanted to help”.
He does help. It’s a kind of Ponzi scheme heroism, where every victory is won by striking some horrendous bargain or kicking some frightful can further down the road, but they are won nonetheless. And Journey Into Mystery, for most of its 20+ issues, is a delightful comic – well-plotted, twitching with good lines, stuffed with a gleeful excitement that feels like creator and protagonist daring each other on. Old Loki was malevolent, Kid Loki – as he’s known – is a layer cake of cunning and wonder, a “loveable godling”. As the comic proceeds he gets a supporting cast, all perfectly weighted for a fandom’s needs – his best and only friend, the unflappable disdainful Leah; his comically bloodthirsty dog Thori; and Ikol, the last remnant of old Loki manifested as a magpie. Ikol mostly didn’t do much. Sometimes you forgot he was there.
Journey Into Mystery is great. I remember reading an issue on a flight to America and thinking, “God, Gillen’s really cracked this, he’s done something nobody’s managed to do – he’s done the ‘teen version of me redeems myself’ story and it’s worked”. I mean, Marvel has something of a history of this. Even while JIM was going on you had a teen Apocalypse in X-Force who might turn evil and a teen Wingless Wizard (really!) in Fantastic Four who might turn evil, and a few years ago we had a teen Kang who wanted to not turn evil, not to mention all the superHEROES who get teenified.
Why all the teens? Who knows – Kid Loki beat them all. He owned the comic, he was charismatic and adorable and infuriating, his supporting cast were a joy. His adventures were ridiculous and fun from the first storyline – a careen through myth and fairytale with Loki and crew as secret stagehands for a crossover event. Later on a kind of robot ghost of Anthony H Wilson turned up. “What?” I thought. “What?” and then “WHAT?” again when Ghost Robot Tony Wilson became the plot lynchpin of a crossover event himself.
That event teased the readers – maybe Kid Loki was bad all along, no, maybe he isn’t but everyone will believe he is. But he’s fine. He wins and the universe is saved. Everyone knows he’s a good guy now.
So of course, that’s when the wraith of Old Loki turns up again, and tells us that the whole thing – the whole comic, everything you’ve been reading, was a ploy to get people (you included! Except now you’re on the other side of the fourth wall shouting NOOO) to trust Loki. It worked, and now, by a scheme, Kid Loki will be wiped from existence, while Old Loki takes over his life, and gets the second chance for real we thought we’d already been reading about.
This happens in a page or two, by the way. One of my favourite things about JIM is how Kid Loki’s schemes teeter like mad jenga towers which take issues to unravel. Old Loki springs his trap in a couple of panels, cuts off Kid Loki’s routes of escape, and we spend the rest of the issue seeing our hero’s options dwindle and run out. There’s none of the joy of manipulation in Old Loki, he’s too good at mischief for it to be fun.
And that’s the end of the story, more or less. It’s a Twin Peaks kind of deal, not quite as harsh but it leaves you gutted nonetheless. Old Loki is in Kid Loki’s body, and maybe he’ll change but maybe he won’t. We had a wonderful character, a loveable prince of lies, and he was a weapon all along, a lie-in-waiting himself.
(If you want a blow-by-blow account of what’s going on in the last issue of JIM there’s an excellent one here.)
Journey Into Mystery is a superhero comic with an unhappy ending – unusual enough in that. There’s an awful lot going on in it – ideas about myth, about storytelling and lies, about friendship – fans and writers will be picking over it for a long time. And the ending is very special.
But one of the things that’s certainly in it is this: Journey Into Mystery is a comic explicitly about the illusion of change. The illusion of change creates bubble realities that break out from the status quo and then are reabsorbed into them, and Journey Into Mystery kicks against this, gives you a bubble so good that it snaps the emotional arc. “The House always wins”, says Old Loki to Kid Loki, and in that moment you know he’s right and you hate the house, you hate the status quo, the realities that mean a comic which sells 20,000 can’t whip its sling and fell the expectations laid by a 40-year history or a movie that banked $1.5 billion. You don’t want the real Loki, the lean old fuck with the horned helmet, because you’ve been reading about the real Loki for the last 30 issues.
Kid Loki goes to oblivion saying just that. He won, because he got to change. The Old Loki won’t. No, I will, Old Loki says, and Kid Loki replies, “They won’t let you”.
Who? Not the other characters – that’s the story we’ve just been reading, about people who do (in the end) let Loki change. Who are “they”? The executives, the audience, the readers, the creators, all of the above. Sooner or later when Journey Into Mystery is safely filed away at #4 on a list of cult classics of the 2010s, or more likely before, someone will want to use the Old Loki unthinkingly, as a trope of villainy, a moustache-twirler in a horny hat. And they will, and Kid Loki will have won. Not the best of victories really. As Loki says, at the end, looking straight out at us through his newly hateful child’s eyes, “Damn you all.”
There is a phrase I see sometimes when I read comics blogs. “Putting the toys back in the toybox”. It’s said with approval – this is a good thing to be doing, you can mess around while it’s your go with a character but the toys aren’t yours and at the end things go back as they were. Another child will want to play with them. It’s a sort of twisted version of “put away childish things” where nobody gets to grow up. Kieron Gillen has, formally at least, and under subtle protest, put the toys back in the toybox. He may also have arranged the toys in the toybox so they spell out a terrible curse. And he’s taken a favourite toy with him – Loki, Kid in shape only, is heading for now to a new comic called Young Avengers.
Has nothing really changed, though? I’m not so sure. Stan Lee did not always believe in the illusion of change, and nor did the comics company he fronted. Lee laid the doctrine down when he became a Hollywood guy more than a comics guy, and meant it to stop what its creators were doing to Marvel’s properties, not to encourage a practise already installed. Marvel boiled with change for years anyway, and then it died down.
One reason change fitted Marvel is that the company seemed to have a mandate for it. Marvel had a fanbase very unlike anything comics had seen before – college students, self-aware literary nerds, hipsters even. It had that fanbase for, I’d guess, around a decade, 65-75, maybe longer – and then it lost its grip on it. By the time other comics pulled it back in the mid-80s, Marvel was nowhere. Then DC fell away too.
By the mid-90s the cool kids had long departed. Now teenagers – speculative, obsessed with violence and tits – were seen as the ones who had killed the form. It was commonplace for fans to shake their heads wearily over the ‘adolescence’ of comics fans (in attitude not age – these were ‘boy-men’, ‘fanboys’ and so on). This went hand in hand with a desire to recover a lost world of fandom – the true kids, the ones who used to buy off newsstands. (All-ages comics have been critical hits ever since).
All through this time, teenage superheroes were launched, briefly rose, and quickly fell. And the teenification of existing heroes began – Iron Man was a kid for a while. The endless launch of new teen characters – Good Teens to fight the Bad Teens who ruined everything – feels like a confused howl of frustration. While all-ages titles at least appealed to someone – if only via pester power – the new teenage superhero comics were a kind of cargo cult response to a vanished audience: erect spandex effigies of the lost readers and they will return. The mildly rebellious, essentially clean-living teens featured in them were utterly irrelevant. The real Marvel core – slightly older, college-age, knowing and itching to share their obsession – had drifted away.
But one of the things that stood out for me about Journey Into Mystery was its fandom: Kid Loki found that audience again. The average age of the mainstream comics reader is terribly old, and “adolescence” has been ceded to the guns’n’gams crew for years now. Real teenage and college-age fans went off to TV, films, anime, Potter, anywhere but American comics, and built fandoms which lived online. And Journey Into Mystery grabbed a fandom like this, mostly on Tumblr, which loved it, hated it, created around it, did all the things that living fandoms do. The Avengers movie helped of course – guarantor of authenticity on the one-hand, it also introduced a ton of open-minded fans to its characters.
I would say – though I’d love to be wrong – that Marvel or DC hasn’t published something which got that kind of intense, concentrated, creative young fandom in years. A week before the last JIM, news broke that the debut issue of My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic had shifted an outrageous 90,000 advance copies (something very few regular Marvel books have done this decade). Cue much talk about “bronies” and the show’s weird subcultural fanbase. But bronies – smart, geeky, happy to look for nirvana in what others consider trash – are the Spider-Man fans of the 60s, five decades on.
Journey Into Mystery felt special not just because of its storytelling but because of the way its readership lived that storytelling. Which makes the ending all the harsher, perhaps. But I don’t think the wild fandoms of the Internet have that toybox mentality, for the most part. Maybe they can read tragedy as tragedy and accept it, not long for the wipe-clean caress of the reset button. I think an eye and ear for those fandoms were what made Marvel great, long ago. Perhaps they might again. Journey Into Mystery opened a door to them – the question now is whether anyone takes it.