The House of Eddas: Loki Debuts with Journey Into Mystery #85

Journey_into_Mystery_Vol_1_85The first and second Mighty Thor stories were essentially generic superhero yarns starring a character who happened to be loosely patterned after the Norse thunder god. With Journey into Mystery #85, meanwhile, the series started making a stronger effort to engage with mythology. The title of this issue’s story says it all: “Trapped by Loki, the God of Mischief!”

What do the myths have to say about Loki? Well, the Prose Edda introduces Loki as “fair and beautiful of face, but evil in disposition, and very fickle-minded” before providing several narratives in which he plays a significant part. Across these, Loki emerges as a strikingly ambiguous figure. The first of these stories (second, if we count an earlier narrative that discusses Loki in relation to his family tree) casts him not as a villain as such, but as a member of the Aesir who gives the others bad advice which nearly results in the sun, moon and goddess Freya falling into the hands of the giants. Whether he does so as an honest mistake or in for the purposes of mischief is unclear. In the next narrative he is not a troublemaker at all, and simply Thor’s companion in Utgard; although intriguingly, the story includes a separate character named Utgard-Loki who does serve as a trickster.

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(Loki, as depicted in a 17th century Icelandic manuscript)

After this comes a story with a villainous Loki. He engineers the death of the beloved god Baldur through seemingly no more than sheer spite; the story later establishes that Loki is “generally believed” to have been the true identity of the giantess Thok, who prevented Baldur’s subsequent resurrection. Loki then goes on the run to escape punishment, turning himself into a salmon to better escape, but the other Aesir track him down and give him a particularly nasty punishment: they bind him over some rocks with the intestines of his own son, and arrange for a serpent to drip venom onto Loki’s face. There, Loki is doomed to remain until Ragnarok, when – as detailed in another narrative – he will join the Fenris Wolf, the Midgard Serpent and other foes of the Aesir for an apocalyptic battle, during which Loki and Heimdall will kill each other.

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(Loki, as depicted in an 18th-century Icelandic manuscript)

The above are all presented as stories-within-a-story. Separate from them is another story in which Loki again is shown to be a rather ambivalent figure. While travelling with Odin and Honer, Loki encounters a large talking eagle (actually a shapeshifting giant named Thjasse) that makes off with the band’s food; he hits the bird with a pole, only to end up carried off himself. Pleading to be freed, the eagle agrees to let Loki go in exchange for the goddess Idun and her Asgardian apples.

Loki obligingly coaxes Idun to enter the forest with her apples, whereupon Thjasse spirits her away. The loss of Idun causes the other gods to age physically, and they force Loki to rescue her. Turning into a falcon, Loki pursues Thjasse and eventually drives him to his death at the hands of the other gods. Thjasse’s daughter, Skade, later heads to Asgard looking for vengeance. The Aesir try to make peace with her by – amongst other things – making her laugh; this job falls upon Loki, who is cast in this part of the narrative as a sort of court jester, tying himself to a goat to amuse the visitor.

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(Loki, as depicted by Mårten Eskil Winge in 1890. A certain Promethean influence…?)

Loki seems to have a habit of making hasty promises when in captivity. One story has Loki fly to the home of the giant Geirrod in the form of a falcon, and once again is captured. This time Loki’s bargain involves persuading Thor to travel to Geirrod’s home without his hammer or belt of strength. Thor does so; as he borrows equipment from a giantess named Grid along the way, he is able to stand up to Geirrod’s giants.

Another story opens with Loki cutting off the hair of Thor’s wife Sif. The understandably irate Thor grabs hold of Loki, who promises obtain new hair made by the swarthy elves (dwarfs) from gold. While in the land of the dwarfs, Loki literally bets his life with one of them, – and upon losing the bet, tries to cheat his way out of it. The altercation ends with the dwarf’s brother sewing up Loki’s mouth.

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(Loki, as depicted by Arthur Rackham in 1910)

Loki also factors in the story of Siegfried. In this tale, Loki kills an otter as it eats a salmon, and brags of having claimed both otter and salmon in one blow. But the otter turns out to have been the son of a magician named Hreidmar; as payment for his transgression, Loki hands over a quantity of gold and a ring. Unbeknownst to Hreidmar, the ring (which Loki obtained by mugging a dwarf) is cursed, and the curse prompts Hreidmar’s surviving sons to kill him for the gold; one of these sons, Fafner, later becomes the gold-guarding dragon slain by Siegfried (fragments of this narrative can be seen in Tolkien’s stories).

So, this is the Loki of the Prose Edda. Now, let’s see how Marvel handled the deity…

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The comic’s first page shows us Asgard, connected to Earth by the rainbow bridge Bifrost; here, Loki is trapped inside a tree, having been imprisoned there by the gods for unspecified crimes, while Bifrost’s warder Heimdall keeps an eye on things. Loki’s only hope for escape is if his plight causes someone to shed a tear, there by freeing him.

This is a mixture of actual Norse mythology and the comic’s own invention. The myths do indeed identify the rainbow as a bridge to the home of the gods (“Have you not been told that the gods made a bridge from earth to heaven, which is called Bifrost?” asks Ganglere in the Prose Edda. “You must have seen it. It may be that you call it the rainbow”). They also state that the divine warder Heimdall lived nearby (“He dwells in a place called Himinbjorg, near Bifrost. He is the ward of the gods, and sits at the end of heaven, guarding the bridge against the mountain-giants”).

However, while the myths do include Loki being imprisoned by the other gods, he was trapped underground rather than a tree. The tree in the comic is possibly meant to be Yggdrasil, the world-tree of Norse myth; but if so, this is never specified.

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It turns out that Loki has spent so long in the tree that he is now able to control it, and sends one of its leaves into Heimdall’s eye. This causes the warder to shed a tear in pain, allowing Loki to escape thanks to a loophole in his enchanted punishment. I’m pretty sure this is total invention – certainly, I’m unaware of any Norse myth that involves Heimdall getting a leaf in his eye – but somehow, it feels like an element from a myth or folktale. Shades of the mistletoe that slew Baldur.

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As depicted by artist Jack Kirby, Loki cuts a distinctive figure. His helmet sports a pair of enormous horns, which evoke the (popular but erroneous) image of horned Viking helmets – and also the horns of the Devil. Other aspects of his costume, namely the gaudy colours and jagged neckpiece, suggest the outfit of a medieval jester. A good fit for a mischievous Norse deity.

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The Prose Edda tells us that, upon escaping captivity, Loki will engage Heimdall in a fight to the death; but Marvel’s Loki is more interested in tracking down Thor. “Thor has not been in Asgard for ages”, he remarks; “no one knows where he is”. This is the first time the comic indicates that its protagonist is the Thor, rather than a mortal man who happens to have obtained Thor’s hammer and the powers it bestows.

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Just as Thor has a mundane alter-ego in Dr. Blake, Loki slips into modern dress when he arrives on Earth. He sets about causing a commotion so as to attract Thor’s attention, and at this point the story abandons recognisable Norse mythology altogether in favour of silver age comic book oddness. Loki’s first move is to turn a group of bystanders into black-and-white negatives – a scene that would only really work in a comic, and which feels like a shout-out to the contemporary pop art movement.

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Thor solves this problem with superheroic pseudo-science rather than mythic magic. He twirls his hammer so fast that it emits anti-matter particles, reversing the atoms of the victims and “transforming them back into ‘positive’ people again”.

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Loki then throws off his disguise to confront Thor. “Loki, the Norse god of mischief”, muses Thor to himself. “According to the ancient legends, the most cunning and wicked of the gods!” Bizarrely, while Loki knows Thor personally, Thor apparently knows Loki only from mythology; this inconsistency would not be cleared up until later in the series.

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The two commence a magical battle. Loki takes to the skies on an enchanted carpet; Thor follows by twirling his hammer like a helicopter blade. The sun’s reflection on the spinning hammer allows Loki to hypnotise Thor and control his mind – but even in this suggestible state, Thor is unable to hand over his hammer, its magical attachment to him being too strong. Even when thrown, it returns boomerang-fashion to its rightful owner.

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Loki’s next trick is to create a magical double of Thor, and tricks the real Thor into thinking that the false Thor is the real Thor so that he will give his hammer to the false Thor. Surprisingly, this actually works.

The false Thor then vanishes, leaving the hammer on the ground unprotected while the hypnotised Thor saunters off to commit more mischief at Loki’s behest.

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Some passers-by attempt to pick up the abandoned hammer, but are unable to get it off the ground. The first Mighty Thor story had established (via the engraving on the hammer) that only those worthy could wield the hammer, but this is the first time we see what happens when the unworthy try to wield it. The scene bears an obvious resemblance to a very different legend – that of Arthur and the sword in the stone.

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Unfortunately for Loki, there’s a pretty big flaw in his plan: when Thor gets too far from his hammer, he turns back into Dr. Blake, and this happens to snap him out of his trance. Loki goes on the run, riding a flock of pigeons, delaying Thor by magically hurling a theatre curtain at him, causing a distraction by pushing two bystanders into the path of a train (“Hah! I knew the soft-hearted Thor would stop to help the useless humans!”) and making off with his very own Pegasus. “He’s brought the winged horse of a gasoline sign to life” exclaims the God of Thunder.

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At this point we’ve seen all of the superpowers that Marvel’s Loki has to offer in this issue: he can create illusions, bring inanimate objects to life, and conjure up images to spy on his foes; he has mastered the time-honoured supervillain art of mind control and – to top things off – can turn people into black and white negatives. These are not drawn from mythology but, rather, are the kind of powers that are stock-in-trade amongst evil magicians in comics.

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Thor eventually defeats Loki by picking up a large segment of pipe, hurling it at the wayward deity, and successfully lodging it over his head, which causes him to fall off his horse into the sea. “According to legend, Loki’s magic powers are useless in water”, Thor tells us. This idea does have some mythological justification, as certain 19th-century writers (Jacob Grimm amongst them) theorised that Loki was originally a fire-god.

After rescuing Loki from the water (“I cannot stand by and let anyone perish! ..even you!”) Thor gives the soggy god a hefty fling from atop the Empire State Building. Loki lands back in Asgard, “before Odin, Balder, Tyr, and the other astonished gods” – a single-panel cameo marking the first time that any of these deities have appeared in the comic.

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The debut story of Marvel’s Loki ignores the more ambiguous aspects of his mythical counterpart and instead portrays him as a straightforward villain: he is established as Thor’s “eternal enemy”, with no reference to the myths that had them as companions. We never learn exactly what crime resulted in Loki’s arboreal incarceration, but we are left to infer that he was bad enough to deserve it.

Once on earth, he appears to have two motivations: one, a desire for revenge on Thor; and two, a juvenile impulse to cause mayhem. “He is running amok”, comments Thor as Loki flies his winged horse into the marquee of a cinema; “smashing the displays… like a spoiled child in a fit of anger!” This is the last act of mayhem that Loki causes before being apprehended, and indicates some pretty low criminal ambitions – no world domination for this supervillain, simply an urge to break stuff.

Of course, Marvel’s villains from this era generally had no more than the most basic motivations. The bullpen tended to put thought into what drove their heroes – witness Spider-Man’s complicity in the death of Uncle Ben – but villains were usually cyphers. Even Magneto, who later became the poster boy for partly-sympathetic supervillainy, was a common-or-garden moustache-twirler in the 1960s.

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In this context, Loki’s preoccupation with using his divine powers simply to annoy everyone makes him fetchingly odd. Notably, Loki he shows no particular desire to hurt people: even when he pushes two bystanders in front of a train, he does so merely to distract Thor, knowing full well that the hapless pair will be rescued. His intentions change on a whim, as when he tries to get Thor’s hammer for himself in one moment, but on the next page is content to simply leave the hammer lying around on the floor. Admittedly, this is because the comic’s target age demographic wasn’t especially picky about such inconsistencies, but such moments succeed in giving the character a rather strange aura.

The Thor comics had still not quite found an identity – but they had at least introduced a worthy archvillain.

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Finally, given his recent passing, I could hardly let this post go by without a tribute to Stan Lee, who worked alongside scriptwriter Larry Lieber, artist Jack Kirby, inker Dick Ayers and letterer Artie Simek to create this comic. Hope you’re having a good time up there in Valhalla, Stan.

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