Comic Book Curious

Doing the Trickster: A Low-Key Examination of Marvel's Mischievous Scamp

July 23, 2021

Currently, on the streaming platform Disney+, Marvel Studios is airing a six episode series starring British actor Tom Hiddleston as fan-favorite MCU baddie Loki, the godlike being from the realm of Asgard who, unwittingly, led to the banding together of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes (TM). He’s the first bad guy of the MCU to get his own show (unless you count the very funny but out-of-continuity M.O.D.O.K. over on Hulu), and its tale of the Tesseract-stealing, timeline muddying Variant trying to uncover the mysteries of the Time Variance Authority and find his place in the Multiverse has been a delight because if there’s one thing most MCU fans agree on is “more Loki = a good thing.” A brilliant character, that Loki, and I hope whoever created him held onto those rights because they’ve gotta be rolling in dough right about now.*

Of course, the character we know and love as portrayed by Hiddleston has been a part of the fabric of Marvel Comics since very nearly the beginning. The debate over exactly who chose the (very public domain) Norse gods of ancient mythology as likely players in the Marvel Comics universe - be it writer/editor Stan Lee or artist/writer Jack Kirby - will probably never be definitively settled. As with the case of every major, early Marvel character, there are claims and counterclaims by Lee and his artistic collaborators; although, in this particular instance, I’m gonna lean towards Jack who had already brought two previous versions of Thor to the pages of different publishers before that hunky hammer-swinger and his no-good adopted brother debuted under the Marvel banner in 1962.

That’s been fifty-nine years of Marvel’s Loki - plus two thousand and change more years that the collective we have enjoyed the legends of the O.G. Loki - and during that stretch of time he’s been a hard fella to pin down.

Oh, we’ve seen him mustache-twirlingly evil as he’s plotted death and destruction for gods and mortals alike; we’ve seen him brooding and defeated, with his head in his hands (probably to help prop up that magnificent Kirby-conceived helm with the overcompensatory golden horns); we’ve seen him, wallowing in godly self-pity, soliloquize about the unfairnesses heaped upon him; and we’ve seen him defy every expectation to stand alongside the heroes of myth and longjohns to selflessly save the day. We’ve seen him as adult, child, man, woman, Asgardian, Frost Giant, and alligator? And the beauty of a character like Loki is that every single one of these contradictory characterizations is completely in character. Because Loki, you see, is one of that rare breed of divinities: a trickster god.

Many faiths and mythologies around the world lay claim to a version of the trickster god. Such a figure was important to embody the whims of Fate and Chaos. Where many deities (usually the biggies) represented primal forces of Nature and Environment - sky, sea, wind, storm, sun, moon - early peoples also decided to give names and stories to embodiments of human activities and characteristics, both their strengths and faults. So we have gods and goddesses representing love, war, hunting, farming, paryting, art. But there had to also be a deity of deceit and cleverness, who represents the cosmic curveball, the randomness of the bad day, the bird shit on your best suit, the brand new watch that you can’t find that you then begrudgingly replace only to later randomly stumble across in an unlikely spot and now you’ve got two identical watches - and who the hell needs two identical watches? The Akan peoples of Africa had Anansi the spider, the First Nations Navajo tribe had Coyote, the indigenous First Nations tribes of the Pacific Northwestern US and Canada had Raven while the indigenous Aboriginal people of Australia had Crow, and from the literary tradition of ancient China came the Monkey King. For the Norse people of ancient Scandinavia, that trickster god would be an abandoned prince of the Frost Giants raised by Odin the All-Father of Asgard called Loki and his stories, like most of those that make up the mythology of the Vikings of old, are bizarre and amazing and oftentimes absolutely contradictory.

18th century illustration of Loki.

Credit: public domain

Loki, who fathers Hel (not Odin, as the movies have it), the goddess of the underworld, and such legendary creatures as Jormungand, the giant serpent, and Fenrir, the great wolf, and mothers Odin’s horse Sleipnir after shapeshifting into a mare (genderfluid before it was cool, that Loki) and seducing the legendary stallion Svadilfari, is the same guy who out of cleverness(?), spite(?), fulfillment of prophecy(?) masterminds the murder of the beloved god-hero Baldur by way of the one “harmless” plant that he was vulnerable to - the mistletoe. In the myths, Loki pays for his many misdeeds by being bound by chains made of his own son’s entrails (yikes) in a cave beneath Yggdrasil the World Tree while a venomous serpent drips poison on him. Forever. Or until he breaks free at the Twilight of the Gods: Ragnarok. His convulsions of pain are how we get earthquakes and now I know I have Loki to thank for several memorable instances in my life in Los Angeles.

But this same conniving villain is the god who saved all of Asgard from the wrath of the vengeful Frost Giant princess Skadi by making her laugh, which he accomplishes by tying his ballsack to a goat and enacting a buffoonish (and one can imagine very painful) tug-of-war. Of course, Skadi was pissed at the gods for something Loki did in the first place, but that’s beside the point.

(Sideways recommend: if you haven’t already, check out Neil Gaiman’s delightfully rendered versions of some of those tales in his 2017 collection Norse Mythology. Cue the rainbow star: “The more you know!”)

In those myths, as in the tales of the Greek pantheon, we see that the gods are just as human as their mortal worshippers and Loki, in particular, is, as Daniel McCoy, author of The Viking Spirit An Introduction to Norse Mythology and Religion, puts it “a scheming coward who cares only for shallow pleasures and self-preservation. He’s by turns playful, malicious, and helpful, but he’s always irreverent and nihilistic.”

Surprisingly (or not - again, he’s a tricky one), that personality profile and many of those mythic touch points have found their way into the comics and the MCU films and TV shows. (Not the birthing of a horse or the junk vs goat contest, sadly, but if anybody could make those scenes work, Hiddleston could).

Much like The Joker (DC’s own sorta trickster god) when viewed through the long lens of cumulative comics continuity, you never know which Loki you’re gonna get. Coldly homicidal? Cutely bungling? Ravingly insane? Whimsically prankish? One from column A, one from column B? When a character’s entire persona is built on Chaos, anything goes and no comics scribe or screenwriter can get him “wrong.” Perhaps because of that cupidity, Loki has not often been taken too seriously as a threat within the Marvel Universe, certainly not as reliably driven and unswervingly serious as Doctor Doom, Thanos, Apocalypse or the Red Skull. His cleverness, humor and long history of humiliating defeats have perhaps diluted his stature as an A-level villain. That, and his primary focus on conquering/ruling/destroying Asgard - a fantastic realm far removed from NYC, USA, Earth/Midgard - may have led to his (until recently) lower profile. But it would be a mistake to ever disregard a trickster who routinely spells near-disaster for one of Marvel’s most powerful heroes, the mighty Thor, not only his arch-nemesis, but his brother. Their parallel paths, in myth and comics, have provided rich fodder for story. And, refreshingly, a very relatable conflict (brothers, amiright?).

Whereas Thor’s arc within Marvel Comics (especially in his earliest days) was all about an arrogant hero learning humility, Loki’s own journey has been one not necessarily of “evil” but of insecurity, ambition, envy, and a struggle to find a place where he belongs. Sad then that when Odin’s adopted boy looks for his place, the only seat left to be filled is that of the “villain” who will bring about Ragnarok. If that’s to be his role, Loki has always been game to fill it. The very essence of these lines of Shakespeare delivered by the character of Don John in the play Much Ado About Nothing:

“I had rather be a canker in a hedge than a rose in his grace, and it better fits my blood to be
disdained of all than to fashion a carriage to rob love from any: in this, though I cannot be said to be a flattering honest man, it must not be denied but I am a plain-dealing villain.”

Yes, but a charming one who refers to himself (in episode one of Disney+’s series) as “a mischievous scamp.” Wouldn’t have you any other way, pal.

[Loki7.jpg] Credit: Marvel Comics Alt text: Loki spread out on throne with his head back.jpg

*I’m picturing some lady named Gudrun Torgrimsonsdottir walking out of her thatch hut in 400 BC Tønsberg, Scandinavia and finding a residuals check from Disney.

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