From Marvel's Greatest Superhero Battles' (1978) reprinting of The Silver Surfer vol. 1 © 1969 Marvel Comics. ART BY JOHN BUSCEMA AND SAL BUSCEMA.
Loki (pop culture)
Many cultures have produced myths of divine tricksters, tempters, and schemers, a fact that may explain why the tale of Loki possesses a universality that translates so naturally into comic-book storytelling. Although more than one comics publisher has used the Norse God of Mischief —Loki's public-domain magicks propelled the exuberant mayhem of the eponymous artifact from Dark Horse's The Mask (adapted to feature films in 1994 and 2005)—Marvel Comics has embroidered the legend of Loki far more elaborately than anyone else. Released into Marvel's superhero pantheon by the seminal storytelling combine of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in Journey into Mystery vol. 1 #85 (1962), long after Loki's much earlier, barely remembered debut pre–Silver Age (1956–1969) era of Marvel/Atlas Comics in Venus #6 (1949), Loki is the son of King Laufey, ruler of the frost giants who dwell in the mythical Norse world of Jotunheim, and Queen Farbauti. After Laufey dies in battle against the forces of Odin, ruler of the home of the gods known as Asgard, Odin discovers the infant Loki—whom the frost-giant king had hidden out of shame over the child's decidedly nongiant size—and raises him as his own, alongside the young thunder god Thor. The Lee/Kirby take on Loki employs a classic dramatic device as old as the tale of Cain and Abel: the sibling rivalry, which also colors a great many other archetypal love-hate relationships between comic-book heroes and villains, such as Dr. Doom and Mr. Fantastic, or Lex Luthor and Superman. True to this pattern, Loki grows up resenting his clearly more-favored adopted brother, dons his sinister trademark green-and-gold ram's-horn-helmeted costume, and thoroughly applies himself to the study of the mystic arts, developing sophisticated powers of hypnotism, illusion-casting, telepathy, and even the ability to change form at will. Determined to destroy the hated Thor, Loki vows to become the most powerful god in Asgard, maturing along the way into the very embodiment of evil and mischief— generally of the sneakiest, most covert variety. Indeed, the Loki of myth is often referred to as the Sly One, among other similar appellations. Just as Thor and Odin are embodiments of the forces of order in the universe, Loki represents the eternally countervailing influence of chaos. Like the world-consuming fire-demon Surtur, Loki perpetually threatens to bring about Ragnarok, the long-prophesied end of existence itself. According to the Ragnarok myth, recounted with reasonable accuracy by Lee and Kirby in Thor vol. 1 #127 (1966) and by such notable successors as Walter Simonson (Thor vol. 1 #337–#382, 1983–1987), Loki's side is fated to win, just as the real universe of planets, stars, and galaxies is destined, billions of years hence, to succumb to the eventual ravages of entropy and final heat-death. And Loki is fated to lead the forces that are to lay waste to Asgard. Aware of this reality, Odin magically imprisoned Loki within a tree with a spell that could not be broken until someone shed a tear over his plight; by causing a leaf to drop into the eye Heimdall, the guardian of the Bifrost Bridge, Loki brought this circumstance about and escaped. Despite his best efforts to foment chaos, Loki was chagrined early on to discover that he had inadvertently caused a great deal of good. Using his sorcerous powers to cause a train wreck that he blamed on the Hulk, Loki hoped to draw his adopted brother into a fatal battle against the superstrong, gamma-spawned monster. Loki ended up not only temporarily in Thor's custody, but also accidentally caused the formation of the Avengers (Avengers vol. 1 #1, 1963). Despite this setback, Loki continued striking against Thor, and grabbing at power by employing surrogates such as the Absorbing Man, whom Loki's magic enables to take on the properties of anything he touches; the magical Asgardian robot known as the Destroyer; the X-Men; and Alpha Flight. The Lee/Kirby version of Loki entered the world of (extremely) limited animation in the short-lived The Marvel Super-Heroes half-hour series (1966), tangling with his storm-wielding sibling, appropriately enough, every Thursday. Back on the four-color page, Loki's machinations earned him Earthbound exile at the hands of an angry Odin in a 1967–1968 storyline, but the god of mischief was soon able to free himself. He even managed to seize control of Asgard on numerous occasions, but generally fled in characteristically cowardly fashion after enemies such as the monstrous Mangog (the physical manifestation of the anger of an entire race of Asgard's enemies) or the hellfire-spouting Surtur laid siege to the kingdom of the gods. Like the tricksters of many world legends, Loki often assumes a variety of guises in pursuing his eternal blood-feud against Thor and his never-ending quest for power. He even switches sides when it suits him, as he did when assisting Odin in driving the invader Tyr, Loki's former ally, out of Asgard and when battling Surtur on behalf of Odin and Thor for his own arcane purposes. As part of one bid for power over Asgard, Loki temporarily exchanged bodies with Thor in order to steal Thor's power, thereby making the ultimate transformation. Fortunately, this metamorphosis proved not to be permanent. Loki's reliance on underhanded tactics didn't preclude his taking direct action against his enemies, however. Under Walt Simonson's stewardship, Loki's magic temporarily changed Thor into a frog—a spell that the Frog of Thunder eventually forced Loki to reverse once he laboriously recovered his hammer and his godly powers. As the years and decades rolled on, Loki's actions became increasingly violent and nasty, no doubt owing to his many frustrating defeats at the hands of his brother. Embittered by the knowledge that his own actions had created the Avengers, Loki finally sought to destroy them by means of assassination; this effort proved to be yet another failure. The Avengers were entirely too canny and well-established to be undone, even by the being whose mischief brought them together in the first place. Loki's escalating viciousness finally forced Thor to execute him (Thor vol. 1 #432, 1991), although the trickster's death can't be relied upon to be permanent. Later in the 1990s, Thor writer Warren Ellis offered a unique take on Loki and the other Norse gods, interpreting them with an Arthur C. Clarke–inspired sensibility. Ellis' Norse gods are not deities, but are rather merely supremely powerful alien beings whose technologically created powers are indistinguishable from magic—even to the gods themselves. Under the innovative creative custodianship of British writer Mark Millar and illustrators Bryan Hitch and Paul Neary, Loki has transformed further, becoming a study in existential ambiguity; in The Ultimates 2, the second miniseries in Millar's reconceptualization of the Avengers, the very existence of Loki is open to debate. After Thor is arrested and confined by S.H.I.E.L.D. on eco-terrorism charges, is the being who appears to him in his cell—sometimes as a young aide to S.H.I.E.L.D.'s Colonel Nick Fury, sometimes as a talking serpent—really there? Apparently visible only to Thor—whom Millar portrays as a former mental patient as well as a selfstyled thunder god and wielder of the storms—the trickster can't resist teasing his imprisoned nemesis about the slippery nature of perception. “What if this is just all in your head?” taunts Loki (The Ultimates 2 #5, 2005). Whether constructs of folklore or concrete reality, tricksters such as Loki have endured for countless centuries in human societies, and will doubtless persist as long as people tell tales, on or off the four-color page.