Even gods can be surprised by the tumultuous nature of the Marvel Universe. For example, the gods of the Asgardian pantheon were recently caught off guard by the sudden return of one of their long lost members, the malevolent fear god known as the Serpent in the pages of “Fear Itself,” which chronicled the Serpent’s return and the war he waged against the people of Earth and those in Asgard.
The Serpent War cost Asgard its favorite son, Thor, the God of Thunder. It would have been even more costly if not for the intervention of Asgard’s most despised citizen, Thor’s brother Loki, the God of Mischief, who had recently been reborn as a teenage boy. Loki’s actions during the Serpent War and the secret role he played in helping to end it were chronicled in the first ten issues of the ongoing “Journey Into Mystery” series, which was recently relaunched with issue #622.
Loki’s intentions during the Serpent War were pure, but many of his actions were morally gray. In “Journey Into Mystery” #630, in stores now, writer Kieron Gillen starts examining the consequences of those actions. CBR News spoke with Gillen about the most recent issue and his plans for the series, including a special done-in-one holiday issue and an arc that pits Loki against Damion Hellstrom, the Son of Satan, and the monstrous dream lord known as Nightmare.
Gillen’s plan for “Journey Into Mystery” is to tell a long form story with a beginning, middle, and an end. Now that the first arc is complete and the series seems to be resonating with readers, the writer is excited for his readers to see more of his planned epic.
“‘Journey Into Mystery’ is going to be a story that runs about thirty issues if sales hold up. So we’ve done a third of the book now. If this was ‘Lord of the Rings’ we would have just reached the end of ‘Fellowship of the Ring.’ The themes I’ve set up so far are the themes of the book,” Gillen told CBR News. “This book could almost be called ‘Loki’s Response to the Serpent War and its Unfortunate Consequences.’ That war had enormous stakes for these characters and subsequent stories will spin out of the ripples caused by it that run through the various mythical realms.”
One of the biggest ripples is that Asgard is no longer ruled by Odin. At the conclusion of “Fear Itself” Odin took the body of the Serpent, who was his brother, and absconded with it to the original dimension the city of Asgard occupied. In his absence Asgard is now ruled by three female goddesses known collectively as the All-Mother; Idunn, Gaea, and Freyja.
“Before, the world of ‘Thor’ was quite male-centric. We did have some female points of view in the form of characters like Sif and Kelda. In the wake of the Serpent War, though, there’s very much a feeling of, ‘Let’s change Asgard and its way of doing things,” Gillen said. “The All-Mother is three great characters and ‘Mighty Thor’ writer Matt Fraction came up with the idea for them. When he started talking about it with me it made perfect sense for what I was doing in ‘Journey Into Mystery.’ It pushes us in some different directions. After the death of Thor, we’ve got a change of regime. Since ‘Journey Into Mystery’ is essentially a political book that’s something we’re very interested in. We’re going to be looking at the after effects of political change and what that means.”
One of the political changes the All-Mother has brought on is a willingness to embrace Loki and his cunning. “Loki is Asgard’s secret weapon. Asgard’s new rulers know about his actions during the Serpent War,” Gillen explained. “Odin had a sort of, ‘screw off and leave me alone’ attitude towards Loki. They’re trying to help him, but they’re also manipulating hi. I find that a very interesting set up.”
Freyja, one third of the All-Mother, is trying to help Loki because she is his step mother and harbors some genuine affection for him despite many of the misdeeds he carried out in his previous adult incarnation. “It’s worth remembering that Thor isn’t actually her son either. So her line to Loki in ‘JIM’ #631, ‘That doesn’t change how I feel,’ says that she cares for both Thor and Loki,” Gillen explained. “She’s someone who has a devotion to duty as well though. The conflict of duty versus emotion seems to define her. That’s also reflected in her title in the All-Mother, Empress. So like her title suggests, she’s the tough one.
“Gaia, the Mother, is a bit friendlier and Idunn, the Maiden, scares the living shit out of Loki,” Gillen continued. “She’s sort of the seductress archetype and Loki essentially being a boy just entering adolescence doesn’t know how to deal with her. Inside he’s screaming, ‘AHHH!'”
Loki may be an agent of the All-Mother now, but his new employers are keeping their arrangement a secret. So he’s still one of the most despised gods in Asgard because of his villainous activities in his past life.
“Issue #632 is a special Christmas issue with with art by Mitch Breitweiser. The first thing that happens in the issue is that Loki gets the only present that anyone in Asgard would give him and that’s a fist. So I pretty much have the entirety of Asgard trying to punch Loki because they think it’s funny. Loki is quite depressed about this,” Gillen explained. “Then he receives another, but very different gift and the issue is basically about how he deals with it. With ‘Journey,’ we look at archetypal stories and their structures and play games with them. That’s one of the reasons why I wanted to do Christmas story. Plus we get to put Volstagg in a Santa suit and any opportunity to do that should be embraced.
“It’s a great introduction for readers who want to try ‘Journey Into Mystery.’ We’ve done 10 issues that were part of a crossover and there’s been no trades. It was hard to give readers a jumping on point and I wanted to do an issue that explained everything and also happened to be a Christmas issue,” Gillen continued. “So I wanted to write something short that summed up the book and wasn’t tied into a crossover in anyway. If anyone wanted to they could pick it up now and dive straight in with no problems. I’m very proud of the issue. I think it’s one of our best so far.”
“Journey Into Mystery” #632 helps catch new readers up when Loki receives several rather troublesome Christmas gifts and has to find a way to dispose of them. “He gets rid of six of them, but the last one is problematic. That allows me to go around and introduce new readers to the cast of ‘Journey Into Mystery’ as he tries to give them one of the gifts,” Gillen remarked. “The Death Goddess Hela turns up in this story. She’s going to be one of the more important characters in this series. She’s not in our next arc, but she’s in the one after that and will probably appear in all of the remaining arcs.
“Hela has been one of the major characters from both my runs on ‘Thor’ and ‘JIM.’ I wanted to make her more than just Hela with a bunch of skeletons. She’s obviously been used as a force of nature and she’s got this interesting relationship with the war god Tyr. That image of her and Tyr marching hand to hand out of Hell and back into Niffleheim in issue #631 has something perversely romantic about it,” Gillen continued. “I’m really interested in playing with characters that could be even more than they currently are, like Tyr and even Hela. You’re constantly trying to improve these characters and hopefully leave them in a better state then when you fond them.”
Hela and her infernal realm played a major role in the first arc of “Journey Into Mystery.” While Loki was there setting schemes in motion to take down the Serpent he came face with one of Hela’s handmaidens, a girl about his own age named Leah who assisted him in his assault on the Serpent’s headquarters. Now that Loki is working for the Asgardian All-Mother, Leah will serve as his partner and reluctant BFF.
“In issue #631 Hela told Leah to stay with Loki and help him take care of the tasks he needs to complete. She’s keeping the reasons for Leah’s assignment a secret though. So now ‘JIM’ will follow the adventures of Loki and Leah as they save Asgard and do things like drink milkshakes,” Gillen explained. “Leah is now Loki’s best friend much to her chagrin. In issue #631 she lets out a big sigh because her ‘unlife’ is not treating her well. She lives in a dirty great hole in the ground. The interaction between her and Loki [is] very charming. They’re two kids and they have that ‘don’t like each other, but like each other’ dynamic. Their banter is a lot of fun.
“She’s also handy. She’s much more capable than Loki is. Loki has no magic at all while Leah can actually cast some spells,” Gillen continued. “They’re both smart and capable of delivering great one liners, but their motivations are so different. Loki is so mischievous and Leah is like her mistress in that she wants to do a proper job. It’s almost kind of like Susie and Calvin in ‘Calvin & Hobbes.'” the writer said with a laugh.
The timing of Loki and Leah meeting and becoming friends was very fortuitous for Loki. At the end of “Fear Itself” he lost the other major positive relationship in his life when his brother Thor was cut down in his final battle with the Serpent. After Thor’s death the memory of the Thunder God was wiped from the minds of seemingly everyone in the Marvel Universe. Those memories were replaced by memories of a mysterious new Thunder God named Tanarus that suddenly burst onto the scene. Loki may not remember his fallen brother, but he knows something is not right with Tanarus.
“The story of Tanarus and his relationship with the Asgardians is something that Matt is going to tell over in ‘Mighty Thor,'” Gillen said. “One of the problems when you’re telling a story in a shared universe is that important things can happen elsewhere and we won’t always have time for them. The great joy with “JIM,” though, is we’ve got a narrator who is slightly sarcastic. In the first three pages of #631 we set up Tanarus, but then we say, ‘Yeah we’re not going to talk about that. We’ve got something else going on.'”
Loki may not remember Thor, but Gillen will get a chance to examine what the loss of Thor means to him in a new story arc titled “The Terrorism Myth” featuring art by Rich Elson starting in January’s “Journey Into Mystery” #633. “Nightmare, who was introduced to our series a few issues ago, has been watching fairly enviously as the Serpent and his followers tread across the globe essentially feeding on human fears. Now that the Serpent is gone Nightmare is going to try and exploit this opportunity,” Gillen explained. “Basically, it’s our weapons grade nuclear waste story; our Cold War era loose Soviet nuke tale. Essentially, Nightmare is after all this toxic junk and is trying to weaponize it in his own way. Our heroes are trying to stop that.
“A lot of our action happens inside the dream realm and involves elements from Loki’s head. So there’s stuff involving Thor and his subconscious. In the waking world he doesn’t remember Thor but his unconscious mind feels the guilt of everything,” Gillen continued. “With Nightmare and his realm I can really explore the concept of guilt in a way that really compliments what Matt’s doing over in ‘Mighty Thor.'”
Nightmare will be an especially dangerous foe in “The Terrorism Myth” because, after what the Serpent did in “Fear Itself,” the malevolent lord of dreams feels he has something to prove. “If I was the guy in the pub who could impress people with my ability to juggle glasses or something and then a guy came in who could juggle tables, I might feel like I have something to prove,” Gillen remarked. “Plus Nightmare has a bit of an ego there too. That makes him quite compelling. I think the fickleness and selfishness of Nightmare makes the story more human. He’s despicable, but you can understand why he’s doing this. He’s not being the mustache twirling villain. Well, not just being the mustache twirling villain.”
Another major player in “The Terrorism Myth” is the Son of Satan, Damian Hellstrom. The half-demonic exorcist soon becomes embroiled in Loki’s quest to stop Nightmare from weaponizing the psychic waste generated by the Serpent.
“With Hellstrom I wanted to do something more ground level. I think ‘JIM’ works best when it’s bouncing between the world we recognize and the mythical and magical world and Hellstrom is much more — for want of a better word — edgier type of fantasy character,” Gillen said. “The way I write Hellstrom is he’s basically using his demonic ability to drag demons back to hell and keep them there. He’s a cool, adult character that kids might want to be. He’s basically a good guy, but he’s obviously tormented by his dual nature. He’s also completely in leather trousers mode. I describe him as Jim Morrison as an exorcist.
“He’s a bit of a rockstar and probably cooler than Loki and Leah. That’s kind of fun. The adults they’ve dealt with so far are kind of like, ‘Yes we are the adults. We’re serious. We’re running countries.’ And Damion Hellstrom is a different kind of guy,” Gillen continued. “That’s what attracted me to him. He’s a guy who can give a fantasy story a more human feel, but still has this demonic side. I sort of foreshadowed his appearance when I mentioned Marduk Kurious’ kids in our issue that focused on Mephisto.”
A story that involves Loki and the Son of Satan battling a dream lord for control of the toxic psychic waste generated by “Fear Itself” also affords Gillen the chance to examine how the events of the massive story line impacted the real world.
“After any big event or world war people tend to have weird dreams. I wanted to do a story that was set in these weird dreams. So we get to look at things like what everybody who was turned into stone in Paris by the Gray Gargoyle is thinking and dreaming about,” the writer explained. “It’s almost sort of like Kurt Busiek’s ‘Marvels’ in a way because you get these tiny glimpses of what it’s like to be caught up in the middle of ‘Fear Itself.’ It’s not one of the major themes of the book, but the global aftermath of ‘Fear Itself’ is definitely an idea that informs the story. It’s a story about causality and how THE END is rarely that.”
“The Terrorism Myth” arc is jam-packed with ideas, character beats, and action, but it’s not as long as Gillen’s initial “Journey Into Mystery” arc. “‘The ‘Terrorism Myth’ is four issues. The arc after that is five issues. Then we’ve got another four-issue arc followed by a one-off. After that we might have a six-part story, or it might be four issues again. I’m keeping the arcs tighter, which allows people to jump in easier and allows us to motor a bit more. I’ve got a lot of stories I want to tell.
“I can’t say much about the arc after ‘The Terrorism Myth’ except that it’s a big story that will have people saying, ‘That’s interesting. I wonder why they’re doing that.'” Gillen continued. “The arc after that is set in Otherworld; the realm of Captain Britain and the mystical subconsciousness of Britain.”
Gillen’s long term plans involve a number of elements from “Journey Into Mystery”#631 including eventually revisiting the tragic fate of the ghoulish warrior women known as the Disir. In the series’ initial arc they agreed to help Loki in his quest against the Serpent if he agreed to relinquish the hold on them he established in his previous adult life. In #631, Loki agrees, but unbeknownst to the Disir, the adult Loki gave the demon lord Mephisto a hold over the undead valkyries. After Loki freed the Disir Mephisto dragged them down to his realm and imprisoned them.
“I always wanted to show that there was more to the Disir. I’ve told their origin several times, but there’s definitely something sad about them. I believe they made their first appearance in ‘New Mutants’ and there they were literally just monsters. You got to see more of how they talked and acted in subsequent issues, and then in issue #630 you finally got narrative captions for them,” Gillen said of the characters. “You got to see them talk and think things like, ‘Do you think we’ll finally get to go home?’ At the end of issue #631 the Disir named Brun says, ‘Forever makes liars of us all.’ That’s a key line with the Disir. We will see more them again. I don’t want to leave them like that, but at the moment things don’t look good for them.”
Things aren’t looking good for the inhabitants of Asgard either. At the end of “Journey Into Mystery” #631 the giant, fiery demon Surtur returned to his realm Muspelheim. The last time he was there, during Walt Simonson’s legendary “Thor” run, he forged a sword to destroy Asgard and most of creation. Surtur’s unique method of forging caused the word “Doom” to ring out every time his hammer struck a blow and the final panel of “JIM” #631 is one word — “Doom.” Gillen’s plans call for following Surtur and what his return means for Asgard and the rest of the Marvel Universe.
“Surtur is the ticking clock. He’s there and he’s back doing his ‘Doom’ thing. The fall of his hammer is the clock on the doomsday device in our story. So he’s back and he’s a wonderful character. The visual alone allows you to do so much with him. That first panel of him returning to Muspelheim in issue #631 is just fantastic,” the writer remarked. “In that scene I wanted to establish that Surtur’s return is big trouble. I was trying to refresh the beat that Walt Simonson started as opposed to just doing a straight pastiche of it.”
“Journey Into Mystery” is a book that allows Gillen to examine the political ramifications of the epic lives of gods and demons. Something that large involving intricate ancient and modern mythologies may seem a little intimidating to new readers, but Gillen encourages anyone curious about the book to give it a try, especially in the coming months.
“I think it’s quite unlike any other book Marvel is putting out. It’s much more in the fantasy area and it’s a book with its own voice. As complicated and sophisticated a book [as] ‘JIM’ is — and I use sophisticated in the literal sense as in the book can be read on a number of different levels — it’s still very accessible,” Gillen said. “In some way it’s my most accessible book, which is a weird thing to say. I think people will be able to pick up the Christmas issue and find it charming on several levels. So I hope people try it because it’s not terrible. Honestly. I’m not Loki. I wouldn’t lie to you. Well, that often anyway…”