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Thor & Loki: Blood Brothers (Review/Retrospective)

With the release of Marvel’s big-budget superhero action movie Thor this summer, we’re taking a month to celebrate the God of Thunder. Check back each Wednesday for a Thor-related review.

One of the slew of hardcovers released to coincide with Kenneth Branagh’s epic adaptation of the classic Marvel comic book Thor, Thor & Loki: Blood Brothers is basically just a repackaging of the classic four issue Loki miniseries written by Robert Rodi and painted by Esad Ribic in the nineties. Much like Lex Luthor: Man of Steel, the miniseries was repackaged with a slew of extras and re-released in order to capitalise on a hungry market place. (Luthor, as it was rebranded, was released after the success of the another villain-themed graphic novel from the same creative team, the superb Joker). Still, despite the fact that the “Thor &” part of the title was just stuck on there to tie the book to the film, it’s a lovely little story which perfectly captures a lot of the charm and appeal that the Norse backdrop offers to epic comic book stories.

Commander and (mis)chief...

I’ve long held the belief that comic books are essentially a collection of pop culture mythology. The ancient Greeks and Romans had their gods, and we have Superman. As such, they provide a vehicle to explore our society’s hopes and our fears – sometimes conscious, sometimes unconscious. I am sure, for example, there have been books written about Spider-Man as a hangover of atomic age paranoia. There’s a strong connection between, for example, the Justice League and the divine pantheons of old.

Many of these creations represent archetypes, passed down silently from generation to generation – taking the forms of dreams and nightmares we sometimes have trouble articulating. In his superb Danse Macabre, Stephen King suggests that Doctor Jekyll and Mister Hyde represent an expression of the classic werewolf myth, updated for the modern age. It’s tough to argue that the Hulk isn’t a logical continuation of that stream of thought.

Make yourself at throne...

I appreciate Stan Lee’s creation of a comic book version of the Norse god Thor, because it renders that connection explicit. This isn’t a new character designed, like the Flash, to fill the archetype of Hermes. Looking at Superman, Stan the Man (always far more wily than he lets on) decided to confound the opposition by taking an existing mythology and grafting it on to the modern American mythology he was crafting himself (obviously along with countless others – mythmaking is a communal activity). And so Asgard became the myth perpetually reinvented, classic and modern, new and ancient, mythological and science-fiction, all rolled into one package.

It was Walt Simonson’s wonderful run on Thor which made this reinvention explicit. In trying to explain, for example, how classic Norse deities could exist alongside unique creations of Stan Lee, the writer proposed that Asgard itself was locked in a perpetual cycle of rebirth and reinvention. Like that college term paper you’d started early to avoid handing in late, it was never quite done. There was always some detail to be added, or some triviality to remove. The mythos was constantly being revised and redrafted and rewritten. In this Loki miniseries, the sorceress Karnilla alludes to forces beyond the reality of the gods – of which even these divine characters must answer for fear of “retribution.” These are, of course, the writers.

The fault, dear Loki, lies not with our stars...

For Asgard is – more than Krypton or Oa or Gotham – a story that we have been passing down for generations and reshaping to suit our own needs. Just as the Roman pantheon would expand to offer refuge to a few conquered Greek dieties, and Christianity would coopt freely from converted pagan belief systems, Asgard has endured a great physical transformation over a long period of history. It’s fitting, then, that it seems almost aware of itself. More than most of his superhero colleagues, Thor lends himself to stories about stories.

So Robert Rodi recognises that Loki is perhaps the perfect vehicle for metafictional musings about the nature of villains and their co-dependence on heroes. After all, as the story repeatedly observes, good defines itself in marked contrast to evil. Loki, always bitter and wounded, at one stage accuses his father of manipulating the very rules of mythological narrative to raise Thor as a hero. “How best to make a hero?” the god wonders aloud. The answer, he proposes, is to give him an evil brother to define himself against. Odin denies this, but Loki is not convinced. “Then look at me, father, and tell me plain that I was not brought to your court for the sole purpose of galvinizing Thor’s goodness.” Odin can’t.

Brothers at arms...

Alas, poor villain. One feels sympathy for Loki here. Not necessarily because he’s a decent person underneath it all or any nonsense like that – he’s fairly thoroughly evil, through and through. However, one sees moments and accounts from Loki’s side. He isn’t built like a warrior and he doesn’t favour direct confrontation, which leads him to be shunned by his fellow gods. To Sif, he observes, “all those whose beauty did not reflect your own were to know the sting of your ridicule.” If Asgard were a secondary school, Loki is the nerdy teenager put-upon by the muscled jocks and mocked by the beautiful cheerleaders. Indeed, one of his embarrassing memories consists of a bunch of young girls chanting, “Lackeyson”, a derogatory nickname.

Of course, this past doesn’t excuse what he has done. “Thus does the coward place his failed outrages at the feet of others,” Sif dismisses his attempts at excuses, and she has a point. The miniseries opens with that most fascinating idea, one which I have an incredible fondness for. It’s similar to the core concept of the movie Megamind (albeit executed much better). As Loki stands in dominion over Asgard, the miniseries dares to ask what happens when the villain wins? I don’t mean that as some sort of threat or rallying call, just an observation on the medium of story.

It's a Lo-ki character piece...

What happens when the villain defeats the hero, particularly in comic books? Comic books and mythology and various other serialised narrative forms rely heavily on hero-villain dynamic to define them, and villains are clear secondary in that regard. After all, Loki doesn’t exactly have forty years of his own comic to draw upon to define himself, does he? All he does is try to kill his handsome, charming, beloved brother – but has he put any thought into what would ever happen if he succeeded? It’s a fun idea to wonder about. what would happen if Lex Luthor killed Superman or Doctor Doom took over the world? Without that central conflict to define them, what would they do?

They might argue that they would make the world a better place. Perhaps they dream of turning the world into a utopia. However, there’s reason to doubt that. In fact, Loki – the eternal outsider – is singularly unsuited to the role of king and the responsibilities that it brings. When confronted with an administrative problem created by his coup d’etat, Loki is unsure of himself. “I… I will turn my mind to it,” he stutters. When a concubine suggests that she can pleasure him in any way he could imagine, the god of mischief is so tired of the post he always aspired to (after less than a single day in the role) that he suggests, “run this tiresome kingdom for me.” On the subject of evil rulers who don’t know what to do with themselves, it’s worth noting that Doctor Doom has even conquered the world, only to surrender it due to sheer boredom.

A look inside Doctor Doom's head...

See, Loki doesn’t have the character of a leader. His characteristics make him the perfect foil to Thor, not the perfect leader of Asgard. Loki is perceptive enough to see that Asgard (and Loki) have made Thor the perfect hero, but he struggles with the realisation that Asgard (and Thor) have made him the perfect villain. That’s the true tragedy of the character. He accuses his fellow gos of being simplistic and trapped within their own patterns and cycles, but he struggles with his own.

His flaws are made especially obvious when he can’t even see past his brother. He accepts that “only his death, or mine, will end the cycle”, but he hesitates. “I… I have never said that Thor will die,” he protests as those around him prepare for Thor’s execution. It honestly seemed that the death of Thor never occurred to Loki, even in victory. “Yet… what is Loki without Thor?” the villain muses. For a guy who has so frequently devoted himself to the death of his brother, the Norse deity is remarkably reluctant. The wise Baldar taunts him, “It never will be done, attempt it though you must.” Such is the nature of Loki.

Do we get a loki-motive-ation?

And here Robert Rodi does something fascinating. He suggests an idea that ties together perfectly the myths and legends of old with the more modern world of superhero comics. These days, of course, we talk about “continuity” and “shared universes”, we call them “elseworlds” and “what if” – but it is the nature of stories and myths to shift and change with the societies that tell them. It might be as simple as the revision surrounding the militantly anti-communist Captain America, or the changes we made to the fairytales we tell our children, but fiction like this is in a constant state of flux. However, there are constants and pillars that one may identify even as the very sands of time shift around them.

“There are many Lokis,” the stoic Baldar explains to Loki, “just as there are many Thors, and many Baldars. Each one exists apart from the others, yet is conjoined by a shared essence, like branches on a tree. Each one is distinctly himself and yet constrained by certain universalities.” He may be talking about the versions contained in different comic books (referring to that silly practice Marvel have of numbering their worlds like Earth-616), but he may also be talking about the versions of the myth that have changed in the telling. And yet, as distinctive as each Loki might be, there some fundamental cores of his character that cannot shift or alter or change. Baldar has seen many iterations of the character, “but I have never seen him rule.”

It's hammer time!

And so, without any obvious metafictional intrusion (or clear reference to the nature of the comic book we’re reading), Robert Rodi makes a rather wonderful point. Villains fail, they always do. They lack free will, because they are figments of our collective imagination – they can never really be more than they are. This revelation terrifies Loki, and throws him into a rage against his subdued brother. “Must I accept this?” the god demands of Thor. “Must I believe that from this abject state, my brother can, and will, rally? That from this depth of misery he is destined to rise to even greater heights?” It must suck to be a comic book villain. After all, he’s witnessed “a thousand thousand battles, all ending in the same manner: Thor triumphant, Loki vanquished.”

So how can Loki break the cycle?

I would discuss the ending, but I don’t want to ruin it. Sufficed to say, it’s quite brilliant – if a little cruel. The book is a joy to read. Rodi understands his villain, without ever resorting to making him seem downright sympathetic. As his fellow gods remark, his harsh upbringing does not excuse the acts of violence he has committed, nor do they provide a justification. However, Rodi explores the very nature of the character himself, asking if Loki could – under any circumstance – have been better? His character flaws can’t be resolved. The hole inside himself can’t be filled.

Give 'em hell, mate...

The story gives Loki everything he has ever wanted. He rules Asgard, the victory of brains over brawn. He meets his biological mother, after years of feeling unloved by his adopted family. And yet he’s still bitter and angry and… well, villainous. Even as he sits on his throne, his memories flash back to earlier humiliation. “Mock me while you can, brother,” he warns Thor. “My day will come…” His day has come, but he can’t let go of that stuff.

Esad Ribic draws an absolutely wonderful Loki. No longer youthful and cheeky, this is a version of the character who has been rendered ugly by his eternal struggles. His skin is stretched and wrinkled, and more than a few teeth are missing (I suppose from earlier confrontations). Ribic’s painted style is absolutely stunning, and fits the book absolutely perfectly. I looks lavish. Even if you aren’t into the whole meta-fictional aspect, or the focus on Thor’s arch-enemy, Ribics drawings are worth your time.

The hardcover comes packed with extras (after all, it is a four-issue miniseries). There are some other Loki-heavy stories included, and especially worth your time is the origin issue drafted by J. Michael Straczynski from his solid Thor run. There’s also some nice sketch artwork, covers and the original pitch from Rodi. None of it is essential, but I’m always glad to have actual bonus material.

He came, he Thor, he was conquered...

If you’re looking to get inside the head of Thor’s most personal foe (and the villain of the upcoming Kenneth Branagh film), this is the book for you. If you like to play with the notion of comic book villainy (while asking existential questions), then this book is also for you. If you like nice painted interiors… well, you get the idea. Sure, labelling it Thor & Loki: Blood Brothers might have been a tad unnecessary, but it’s still a nie collection and one well worth the reprint.

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3 Responses

  1. It wasn’t just Stan, it was Stan and Jack Kirby!

    • Thanks Jake. I do forget that sometimes, if only because Stan Lee tends to be the guy who offers (or offered) the most insightful quotes on the creative process.

      I also believe that Larry Lieber had a hand in it as well.

  2. Wanted to give you credit. This review is the reason I bought this book last winter. It’s one of my favorite stories now!

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