So there’s this comic called Journey Into Mystery. Written by Kieron Gillen, and illustrated by a rotating roster of artists (but most notably Doug Braithwaite and Rich Elson), it’s actually been going since the 1960s (hence why its issue numbering is in the 600s), but back in 1966 it was renamed The Mighty Thor. Relaunched in 2011 under its original name and numbering, the series now focuses on Thor’s reincarnated brother Loki.
Gillen’s run has been a consistently clever, witty and entertaining series since the word go – but with the beginning of the latest arc, “The Manchester Gods”, it’s started to feel that bit more special. It’s started to feel like there’s a hell of a lot more going on beneath the surface (and, indeed, on the surface) than in the majority of Marvel and DC superhero comics around at the moment – in fact, if anything, it feels like a Vertigo comic would if they were published by Marvel rather than DC. Following some casual discussion of a number of the deliberately-planted references in the latest issue, #640, James and I (Seb) came to the conclusion that here was a comic that could stand to be annotated – for the enlightenment of readers who haven’t quite caught everything, and the general entertainment of those who have. Gillen has, of course, written a comic that stands up to detailed annotation and analysis before – but with Phonogram, he rather spoils the fun by doing it himself in the backmatter before anyone else can get the chance.
Journey Into Mystery, however, doesn’t yet seem to have had that sort of attention. And in the absence of Jess Nevins – who presumably is quite busy with something else at the moment – we thought we’d give it a crack. So this week we’re rolling back to last month’s issue #639, the first chapter of “The Manchester Gods”, because there’s really quite a lot to talk about in that one as well. We’ll then catch up with #640 next week, so that we’ll be nice and well-prepared for part three when that comes out. So, without further babbling nonsense, let’s get mythical (mythical)…
The Asgardian God of lies and mischief, reborn as a young boy. Freed from the crimes of his previous incarnation, Loki seeks to follow a new path in life. His reputation, however, frequently precedes him.
Hela’s Handmaiden and Loki’s BFF, although just to be clear, she doesn’t like him all that much and anyone who says otherwise is lying. The coolest person in Asgard.
THE STORY SO FAR:
Loki and Leah, working (secretly) under the orders of the ruling All-Mothers of Asgardia, have done much good in the world. They helped foil the Serpent. Defeated Nightmare (sort of). Freed the Disir from their curse. And re-homed a whole bunch of puppies! Unfortunately, along the way they managed to release Surtur, piss off Mephisto, and get on Daimon Hellstrom’s bad side (if, indeed, the son of Satan can have a side which is any badder than the other). So it’s not all good.
Page 1, Panel 1:
“It rose in the North. A God called Manchester.” – If you somehow didn’t know, Manchester is a city in the North West of England. As its history and significance are going to prove quite important to this story, the Liverpool-born half of Alternate Cover will refrain from passing comment on it at this point.
Page 1, Panel 2:
“No-one knew whence it came.” – “Whence” is a somewhat archaic word, meaning “from where”. We mention it here, because it’s quite frequently misused as part of the phrase “from whence” (which therefore translates as “from from where”). We like that Gillen got it right, here. This makes us imagine that he’s not the sort of man to say “PIN number”, either.
The Red Lord, aka Bodb Derg (yeah, we know) is a mythical creature – a demon dedicated to chaos and destruction. He (it?) was introduced in Marvel’s Knights of Pendragon #17 (1991), by Dan Abnett, John Tomlinson and Gary Erskine, and is the opposite number of the Green Knight (himself a reference, we presume, to Sir Gawain and the).
Page 2, Panel 1:
“The Otherworld was the subconscious of the British Isles, the home of all magic.”
Well, that sums it up, really. In Marvel’s long established “mystical British stuff”, the Otherworld (aka Avalon) is basically the parallel Britain where all the magic happens. It’s where Arthur, Merlin and everyone (and, by association, the source of Captain Britain’s powers) come from.
This is, incidentally, why the “Manchester” you see here is a “God”, rather than a grim and extremely rainy conurbation full of people with an inflated sense of self-importance. It’s parallel, innit.
Page 2, Panel 3:
The Trolls – Real ones, not people being rude about celebrities on Twitter.
Page 2, Panel 4:
Engels – This one’s a new one on us – and it seems on everyone, as they appear to be a new creation of Gillen’s. Winged creatures that spawn from Manchester, it seems. Maybe called “Engels” ‘cos they’re like Angels, but from England? Your guess is as good as ours. We don’t think it’s because they’re responsible for a swathe of early 1990s US teen sitcoms, anyway.
EDIT: Or, you know, this guy. Whatever. Technically, making the link with Engels-the-person should only really become obvious upon having read part two, though, which technically we shouldn’t pay attention to just yet.
Page 3, Panel 1:
“It is a God called Birmingham, the first child of Manchester.” – A child that’s outgrown its parent, you might say. Birmingham, the second-most populous British city after London, is located approximately in the middle of England. It’s the sort of place that everybody should get the chance to pass through without stopping on their way to somewhere else.
Page 3, Panel 2:
“Manchester sired a spawn that headed west. Another marched to the northeast…” – Liverpool and Newcastle respectively. Really, if you’re a non-Brit reader struggling with the geography of all this, you’ll want to get yourself on Google Maps.
Page 3, Panel 3:
“The Speaker for the Silent Ones” is new. But we’ll learn plenty more about him next issue, so let’s leave him with his air of mystery for now.
Page 3, Panel 4:
“Gods should rule us no more. We rule our gods. We live in them. Your time of power is over.” – And we’ve got a theme. It might be around this point that, having read the quite superb gently-Sandman-nudging previous arc “The Terrorism Myth”, you might be wondering whether Gillen is also familiar with American Gods.
Page 4, Panel 2:
Caber (as in “tossing the“?) is essentially the Marvel Universe’s personification of Celticness. First appeared in Thor #398, by Tom DeFalco and Ron Frenz.
Page 9, Panel 1:
The caption “Heathrow, London” is a slight misnomer, as there isn’t actually a place called Heathrow any more. The hamlet was demolished in 1944 to make way for the building of London Heathrow Airport – the airport Loki and Leah are arriving at, if you hadn’t figured it out – but the airport itself is technically considered to be in the area now known as Hillingdon.
God, we’re pedantic.
Page 9, Panel 2:
The names being held by various greeters at Heathrow – er, not counting Loki’s, obviously – might seem random, but upon closer inspection they appear to be in-jokes planted by Birmingham-born artist Rich Elson. Because they’re all the names of former Birmingham City footballers from the 1970s: Bob Hatton, Bob Latchford, Paul Cooper, Trevor Francis and Roger Hynd.
Page 9, Panel 3:
Herne the Hunter is a character of English mythology who is closely associated with Windsor Forest. The first reference to Herne was committed to paper by William Shakespeare (in The Merry Wives of Windsor) although that hardly makes him unique. There’s a fairly good chance he existed prior to that, since Shakespeare frequently appropriated existing stories to use in his work. The Marvel version of the character hasn’t appeared before, although the Pendragon spirit which possessed Peter Hunter (aka Albion) in Knights of Pendragon #8 was said to have previously belonged to both Herne the Hunter and Merlin, so he has been kicking around for some time.
It’s also worth noting that “The Great War” (as Herne describes events in Otherworld) was what people called World War I when they hadn’t considered that there might be a second of similar scale just around the corner, the crazy optimists. And that’s “great” meaning “large” or “immense” (it’s used here in the perjorative sense).
Page 9, Panel 4:
“I must be properly prepared” – Kieron Gillen has a growing army of young women the world over who show their dedication to his cause by dressing up as Teen Loki. He is giving them tasks to fulfil by issuing hidden instructions in the pages of Journey Into Mystery. We’re on to you, Gillen.
Page 10, Panel 1:
“Do you know the Queen?” – At some point between now and 1066, every country outside the Commonwealth got together and agreed to make sure that all English tourists were asked this question at least once per visit. The answer is usually no.
Page 10, Panel 2:
“He is a genius of little brain.” – Leah references A.A. Milne’s popular ursoid pictograph, Winnie-the-Pooh, famously “a bear of very little brain”. Pooh Bear was said to reside in Hundred Acre Wood, a fictional location based on Ashdown Forest in the southern English county of East Sussex. This continues the theme of forest folklore established for this arc. Also, he’s currently licensed to Disney, who own Marvel. Coincidence? Or the first signs of Disney’s creeping editorial intervention? You be the judge.
Page 11, Panel 3:
The “beef-eating men” Loki refers to are Beefeaters, or to use their full title, The Yeomen Warders of Her Majesty’s Royal Palace and Fortress the Tower of London, and Members of the Sovereign’s Body Guard of the Yeoman Guard Extraordinary. No-one knows quite where the name “Beefeaters” originated, but you’ve got to admit it’s much easier to remember than the alternative.
Page 11, Panel 5:
This panel appears to depict the M25 motorway, which is consistent with the route from Heathrow Airport to Stonehenge (M4 West, M25 South, M3 West, A303 West). It’s around 90 miles, or 140 kilometres. Getting a cab to take you that far out outside the M25 would require the full negotiating skills of an Asgardian trickster god. Listening to Heart FM for that long, however, would require stamina beyond any mortal or immortal endurance.
The M25 was famously immortalised in Chris Rea’s popular soft-rock MOR ballad, “Road to Hell“. Apt, no?
Page 12, Panel 1:
For reference, the fare for this journey, according to WorldTaxiMeter.com, would be £222. And that probably assumes he can find someone to pay for the return journey.
Page 12, Panel 2:
“This place” is Stonehenge, a famous British monument permanently erected in Wiltshire in 1984 as a tribute to the mockumentary masterpiece This is Spinal Tap. You can’t actually get this close to the stones without special dispensation because there’s a bloody great rope-fence forming a 30-yard perimeter around the monument. To be fair, you could simply step over it, but luckily it’s located in Britain where everyone’s too polite to actually do that.
Page 13, Panel 4:
Captain Britain, an aristocrat named Brian Braddock given powers by Merlyn, exists variously in Marvel’s superhero and magical worlds depending on who’s writing the story at any given moment and what their agenda is. More recently seen in Paul Cornell’s excellent Captain Britain and MI13 and making appearances in Secret Avengers, Cap was created by Chris Claremont and Herb Trimpe and was rare in that his first appearances were (appropriately-enough) in UK-only comics – back in the glorious days when Marvel considered that such a thing was a worthwhile venture. He eventually appeared in US comics by virtue of a team-up appearance with Spider-Man, but saw his best use in Alan Moore and Alan Davis’ stories of the early 1980s. In his appearance here he’s reverted to the costume seen there, despite having been given a natty redesign in MI13. The fact that he’s from an aristocratic background is, as we’ll come to see, somewhat relevant to this particular story.
“Bally” is an exclamation, a softer synonym for “bloody” (itself a softer synonym for “fucking”). Like the other two words, it is an expletive attributive, meaning that it can either be used as an intensifier (“bally good show, old boy”) or to express (a usually negative) strength of feeling about someone or something (as here, as Cap declares “Bally Loki”).
Page 14, Panel 3:
“Yes. Several.” – Well, his wife, for one thing. In the absence of the (temporarily) deceased King Arthur, Brian served as ruler of Otherworld for a while.
Page 14, Panel 5:
We refuse to believe that the inclusion of the words “common people” in a comic written by Kieron Gillen is in any way accidental.
“Behold, Camelot! None of the obvious jokes, please.” – If you need Monty Python and the Holy Grail explaining, then you don’t deserve to have it explained to you, as Loki discovers. Kids today, eh?
Page 17, Panel 4:
The Holy Grail, according to Arthurian (and later, popular) legend, is a vessel used by Jesus at the Last Supper (either to drink from or pour from, depending on your particular flavour of myth.) Sent to Britain for safe-keeping by Joseph of Arimathea, it is said to have healing properties. But then again, so is homeopathic medicine. The Marvel version (or something believed to be it) was previously kept in London’s Museum of National History until it was taken to Glastonbury by the vampire Baroness Blood, used to give her immunity to vampiric weaknesses, then crushed. (in Union Jack Vol. 1 #3) Presumably, someone was able to recover the remains and take them to Otherworld so that it could be protected by something less easily negotiated than a velvet rope.
Page 18, Panel 1:
This assemblage contains various characters from Arthurian/celtic legend, many whom were first introduced into the fledgling Marvel Universe in The Black Knight #1, an Atlas comic from 1955. We can speculate, but you can definitely see Merlin (long beard, purple robes), King Arthur (er, in the crown), a (the?) Green Knight (first appearance: Knights of Pendragon #6) and The Lady of the Lake (first appearance: Hulk Comic [UK] Vol.1 #18)
Page 19, Panel 3:
At the bottom of the panel you can see a rout of Green Knights, presumably somehow associated with the original. We’ve got no larger point to make, but the chance to use the collective noun for Knights is a rare one that demands to be taken.
Page 21, Panel 4:
“I suspect there’s a smarter way to win this war than just having everyone take turns hitting each other in the face with hammers.” – Yeah, Loki doesn’t really like hammers.
Page 21, Panel 5:
“Evil me” – Oh, yeah. Ikol (flip the name), the magpie, is what remains of the spirit of the deceased, significantly more malevolent incarnation of Loki. Just go with it.
Camden! Trains! Devious plotting! And, er… Tony Wilson?