When a story is about magic, it has to make a choice. Is magic answerable to supernatural rules, or scientific ones?
Any story is based around cause and effect. It’s based on choices and consequences. We feel cheated when characters don’t face consequences, when human nature and human lives contradict what our experience of the world is. In dealing with a stories’ magic, the same thing holds true. If the magic rules are scientific, that gives us clear cause and effect. You want to cast this spell? You’ll need this much energy, plus everything that goes in the cauldron. Boom. Everyone knows the rules. The audience never feels cheated.
But, if you’re dealing with magic that holds supernatural rules, it’s far more difficult to keep the audience’s suspension of disbelief. If magic works simply because it’s magic, then why can’t the hero snap their fingers, and solve every problem in one fell swoop? Which brings us to the question, how can we make magic consistent, when it doesn’t have any obvious rules?
Which brings us to Al Ewing and Lee Garbett’s Loki: Agent of Asgard.
Magic here is centered on three things.
- And Identity.
The first issue sets the stage for the Agent of Asgard’s central conflict, in the process defining magic for us. We open watching Loki, invisible, running up the side of a building.
If his magic is so powerful, if he can run up buildings, why doesn’t he just magic everything better?
“Imagine you had a big red button that could save you from anything. But if you pressed it too hard, you’d have to spend the rest of forever in chains. On fire. Burning. Every thought, an endless burning.”
The consequences of magic are the same as the consequences of life. You can do whatever you want. You can be whoever you want.
But then you have to live with yourself.
And that’s the central conflict. That’s who Loki fights against, and for. He fights to be himself, and to be happy with himself. And we see a hint of who he’s fighting against. Of who he’s afraid of becoming.
If you’ve only seen the charming Tom Hiddleston Loki, then you’ve been missing out. Loki as tragic, dashing sibling hasn’t always been quite right. Once upon a time, Loki wasn’t known for being god of mischief. Instead, he’d be more accurately called the god of evil. Over time he became more sympathetic, shifting from villain to tragic hero, then into morally grey rogue, perhaps, on a generous day, hero.
And now, we see him trying to stay as close to hero as possible. Trying to keep from falling back, into the kind of person who’s burning. In pain, because of who they chose to be.
The first arc is a lead up to a classic heist. Except of course the team involves a host of figures mythic and magical. This gives Ewing the chance to flex all of his considerable meta-muscles, and really show us the strategic, manipulative aspects of magic. Call in favours? Get yourself an inside man? Have your friend direct you through the castle blueprints? Check, check, and check.
The heist is where the magic lies, and the fact that you’re carrying around a magic sword and your best friend can see through any lie, that’s just icing on the cake.
“Telling a story to the universe so utterly, cosmically perfect that for a single, shining moment, the world believes a man can fly.”
Storytelling as magic suits the meta themes of the book, and we’ve already seen it a few times. We’ve seen Loki travel through panel barriers to reach the past, and we’ve seen a tongue-in-cheek, conversational narrator who manages to be funny, speak directly to us, the reader, and never quite be obnoxious. But it’s with the appearance of Dr. Doom that we really get an idea of story as magic. Like the opening rule of the big red button, storytelling as magic smacks of existentialism, and the whole idea of projecting meaning onto reality.
“True magic is the imposition of a narrative upon reality.”
The magical duel between Loki and Dr. Doom takes cues from magical duels throughout literature, but manages to be wholly its own thing. If you’re a fan of Merlin and Madame Mim’s battle in Sword in the Stone, or the one Morpheus and Choronzon have in the opening arc of Sandman, then this is for you. This duel asks, Who are you?
You’re a conglomerate of the stories people tell about you, and the stories you tell about yourself. The way you move through the world, the way the world affects you and the way you affect the world, it’s an interplay between who you believe you are, and who others believe you are. It’s these stories, these points of view, that allow the world to be shaped. It’s these stories, that are magic.
We’ve talked about magic. Magic as manipulation, magic as storytelling. At its core, magic is choice. It’s self-determination. And ultimately, those first two aspects feed into the final one, magic as identity.
The villain of this piece is an older Loki, angry and embittered, and he’s come from the future to make sure our hero Loki becomes him. So the question is, what is Loki’s identity? Can he choose to be better? Can he control his future? Or will he always be the god of evil? Will he always be burning?
Our hero is strapped to a chair, while his older self tells him about his future. Magic is storytelling, and young Loki is muzzled, while older Loki tells him stories, tells him over and over again that he’ll fail, so there’s no use trying. So our hero faces a choice.
What is his identity?
Is victory found in embracing the future, becoming what his older self and, let’s face it, everyone else, expects him too?
Or is victory found in dying as who he is?
Or maybe, just maybe, is there another option?
Ewing pulls of a neat trick in the series conclusion. He gives us Ragnarok. He gives us a huge battle, including Odin at his best, clutching a machine gun, epic and enraged at the forces of evil. We get nobility and honour and sacrifice and terror as the world comes to an end. And then we get the whole thing turned on its head, because the conflict at the stories heart was never huge, the conflict was always about one character, and who he chose to be.
We discover that this last issue has been narrated by Loki, as he tells the story of the end times. And he can do that, because at last, he’s discovered who he is.
Ewing suggests that magic is based around choices. Sometimes, that requires guile and manipulation, as it does at the beginning. But more often? More often magic is based around storytelling, and the stories that are important to us. It’s based around who we want to be, and who we think we are. And it’s based, ultimately, around who we are, and the choices that take us there.
It’s a magic that anyone can do.