[19 March 2014]
PopMatters Comics Editor
Do the mythic, trans-dimensional thoughtforms that consider themselves the Nordic gods (as introduced in the first issue of this limited series) also consider this world as the proverbial dark forest of their own existence? Loki: Ragnarok ‘n’ Roll certainly seems to make that argument, more so in this second issue than the first. And beyond even this abyss-scraping dive into the manifestation of the human psyche, Ragnarok ’n’ Roll rings true at an even deeper level—its mastery of the art of allusion.
Ragnarok ’n’ Roll is a deeply immersive experience, a masterful wrestling with deep philosophical and existential issues, and a veritable Hall of Fame of pop culture’s greatest hits. And while the first issue of this limited series demonstrated proof of principle, this second issue is a tour de force of that latter technique.
We’ve seen this play out in the earlier issue. We’ve seen writer Eric M. Esquivel offer a skillful and graceful and disconcerting reinterpretation of Norse mythography; that Loki is little more than a dark-minded Hamlet trapped by the brutish, unsophisticated ramblings of the Polonius-Ophelia complex that metaphorically comprises his father and older brother. If for no other reason, this book stands out as an innovative recapturing of the very same iconography of Norse myths that in the hands of publishing house Marvel, have for decades now cast Thor as a brooding, uncertain Hamlet and Loki as a deceptive and undisciplined Gertrude. If for nothing else, this limited series alone shows how iconography in the public domain can be remodeled and worked into a new shape that even go so far as to exclude richer publishing traditions.
It’s exactly this tilting at the world of pre-established normative iconographies that makes Ragnarok ’n’ Roll such a masterful piece of pop culture. There can be no doubt that, given its cast, Loki: Ragnarok ’n’ Roll at least at some level speaks to Marvel’s Thor and the character’s relative success. And in that, Ragnarok ’n’ Roll seems to contain the tiniest of lessons, that in pop culture, everything remains unwritten, that just because iconographies have built superior audience metrics over the course of decades, doesn’t necessarily mean the shutting down of that iconography and closing it off to other strains of story.
The exile of Loki to Earth (is it still called Midgard in Esquivel’s work?) and his taking up with a Hollywood rock band is a sure sign of the unending, imperturbable novelty inherent in pop culture. Old things can always be made new, as everyone from Greil Marcus to Italian Renaissance Father of Sociology Giambattisa Vico told us. And we were not lied to. But Ragnarok ’n’ Roll does seem to throw light on a very specific set of issues, and one that pop culture’s been dealing with for more or less the past century. And wading through the fallout of the same, will take much, much longer still.
In his 1923 published “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” Robert Frost ends with the memorable refrain, repeated for effect, “And miles to go before I sleep.” And writing about John Lennon’s murder, Rock Critic in Chief, Lester Bangs, suggests that not allowing John Lennon to escape the cage of his own fame, nostalgia’s become abortively marketable, and an inherent threat to popular culture. You shouldn’t long for a past that needs to die to the point where you tie artists down to what you believe they ought to be, because this is what they once were to you. And you especially shouldn’t tie them down in that way when you haven’t lived through that moment of the artists’ original sin.
Reading those dilemmas one after the other, they seem to run contiguously into each other; like they’re one problem struggling with the same red road of human existence, but by different paths. Frost’s last lines seem to position him as forestalling a well-intentioned suicide we, through the processes of dramatic irony at play throughout the poem, all know must come. The lines scan like an act of supreme fortitude. It is a suicide necessitated by “the village” that lurks at the very edges of a moment of interminable peace found on a snowy winter’s night. Equally, it’s not by chance that Lester Bangs opens his piece with:
You always wonder how you will react to these things, but I can’t say I was all that surprised when NBC broke into The Tonight Show to say that John Lennon was dead. I always thought that he would be the first of the Beatles to die, because he was always the one who lived the most on the existential edge, whether by diving knees-first into left-wing adventurism or by just shutting up for five years when he decided he really didn’t have anything much to say; but I had always figured it would be by his own hand. That he was merely the latest celebrity to be gunned down by a probable psychotic only underscores the banality surrounding his death.
Lester hints at a “village” in those lines, and later in that same piece he will go on to name that “village” a “cage of fame”, something so much larger than the artist it begins to create certain predefined expectations even in generations that had nothing to do with the artist. In much the same way, Ragnarok ’n’ Roll traces a path through that particular dark wood. The problems wrestled with by this limited series (and already there’s a moment of sadness as I type that phrase, “limited series,” emphasis on limited), are exactly those of Lester Bangs’s “cage of fame” and Robert Frost’s simultaneous need for self-imposed marginalization, and yet escaping the consequences of exclusion by one’s community.
“‘Be your own god’ is bad advice,” Hercules says of the acts of self-liberation Loki leads the ordinary people of our everyday world to. But wouldn’t those accustomed to power always say that anyway? Rather than ask us to just accept this on face value, the text itself counters with, “Our lives aren’t like other people’s lives.” Loki: Ragnarok ’n’ Roll, in the end, reads like what it is, a studied, concerted, meditatively postmodern consideration of the deep connection between rock ’n roll and the infinite renewability of pop culture, and in offering this consideration, taps into powerful existentialist underpinnings that roil through twentieth century literature from Robert Frost to Lester Bangs. Loki: Ragnarok ’n’ Roll comes with the highest praise.