By Steve Morris
I thought the battle for England’s soul would have to be a little more complicated than “countryside good/citypeople bad”, and issue #640 of Journey Into Mystery provides a nice sprinkling of difficulty into Loki and Leah’s, well, interference in foreign affairs. Previously we learned that Otherworld – the centrepiece of all England’s tradition, magic, and myths – was being threatened by the arrival of Manchester, a city-turned-steampunk God which set up roots in the heart of the countryside and started to spread outwards, converting everything in its path. The traditional paths of England’s pleasant pastures were paved over, and the faerie-folk turned to Asgard for aid. Instead, they got Loki.
Last time round, the issue set this story up as basically a semi-pantomime, a chance for the creative team to make fun of both tourists walking round England and the English themselves, buffering the readers up for a comedic story before twisting to suggest this was going to be a little darker than expected. The darkness didn’t really come through, though, leaving the issue feeling a little lopsided. That doesn’t go away particularly in this middle chapter of the story, but we do get to indulge in something which is a little more complicated, mainly because Loki goes full-on America and starts bombing overseas places of power in a literal destabilisation of the power balance.
With the help of Daimon Hellstrom, Loki establishes the idea that the Manchester Gods have sacred places of power, areas which help fuel their forces and give them strength. It’s a neat concept, the other side of the well-established idea that “traditional” magics in England are centred around ancient lay lines, Stonehenge, Glastonbury, etc etc. In this case, the centring of industrial cites of power comes in the form of literal landmarks in human industrialisation: the birthplace of hydroelectric power in England; the location of the first commercial passenger trainline, created by George Stephenson. The areas where human development took over from the ‘natural’ way of things and created progress for the future.
So Loki blows them up. Doing so weakens the power of the Manchester Gods and their spokesperson ‘Master Wilson’ essentially a metallic version of Tony Wilson, owner of the Hacienda nightclub in Manchester and the man responsible for much of the cultural revolution in Manchester throughout the 1980s and 90s. The idea seems quite clear here: Loki destroys progress in order to retain the natural order of things, allowing the forces of Otherworld a foothold against the greater power of its new enemy. His plan continues with a fake attack on said Hacienda (or the apartments which were built on top of the sold-off site) so he can get in with Master Wilson and embed himself as an agent of chaos with the enemy.
That’s where things get really fun, as the issue then allows Wilson the chance to explain his stance, which has the unexpected effect of converting Loki across to the other side. Wilson’s lengthy monologue takes up most of the issue, and can be boiled down to “we’re trying to give power back to the people”. Wilson looks at how Otherworld’s legacy is one of the haves and have-nots. The poor live in the woods, scrounging for food, working all day for the Kings, Knights, and Barons, who don’t have to work for a living but are handed everything to them. By creating industrial progress, Manchester and other cities like it provide people the chance to build a future for themselves. Rather than live in the past glories of an era which doesn’t exist anymore (or maybe never existed), Wilson’s approach offers the chance to move forwards.
I’m not going to boil things down to “Wilson is pitching a Britain which doesn’t follow Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage and Ann Widdecombe and all those other politicians who think evoking the past is a substitute for progressing the present”, but there’s elements of that sentiment present here. After all, we’ve not really seen a strong reason for why Otherworld is actually important. In fact, long-term Marvel readers will probably associate Otherworld with ‘oh no, more boring Captain Britain stories’ and welcome its destruction! So when Wilson tells us all that he represents change, and change is good, it seems like he’s the “good side” all along.
But at the same time, the comic keeps seeding in the understanding that human progress does come at a cost. The first place that Loki blows up – which is classed as terrorism by Captain Britain, it needs to be noted – is Cragside, a mansion built inside the forest. The first house to run on hydroelectric power, it seems like a great example of human progress within nature: a modern house, for sure, but one which works in tandem with nature to ensure as much assimilation as possible, and as little destruction. Yet tucked aside into grace notes are the facts that the man who built Cragside, William Armstrong, made much of his money from warfare. He created the Armstrong Gun, which was a crucial part of the British Army’s munitions report. Although he came from a relatively humble background, the son of a corn merchant, his money didn’t exactly come from a benevolent business plan.
When walking Loki and Leah around, Wilson’s narration is omnipresent, and it’s tempting to follow that without looking at the situation behind him. But when you look, you do see there’s a lot which remains unspoken here. Wilson sure does have a nice big house, with two large guards on each side of the door, for example. If Wilson is a prophet of change and progress, he doesn’t offer much different from the traditional Kings and Queens of Albion, and their monarchy. As many of us in modern-day Britain have realised in recent years, there isn’t much of a difference between a monarchy and a democracy, and Wilson doesn’t want to get rid of the chains of power which were draped over the citizens of England.
The police – the Captain Britain Corps – will still be in charge of maintaining law and order, for example and Wilson will allow King Arthur to keep his throne, only as a figurehead of Otherworld rather than as a figure with any real power. Wilson’s idea of progress is to make sure there are more efficient ways for the citizens to work for the people in power, but without actually getting rid of the symbolic features of Otherworld, and the traditions it represents. We see trolls and fairies and other mythological creatures in Manchester: they’re doing the manual labour of building the city further, selling apples on the streets. There’s no transfer of power to the people here; just the understanding that if you let all the poor people die off quickly, there’ll be nobody left to man the engines.
Oh, and there’ll be more pollution now, of course.
To slightly paraphrase Wilson midway through the issue: “Mild misery is one of the prices we pay for progress”. With that one line Gillen essentially sums up the entirety of contemporary British thinking. Loki is won over by the speech from Wilson, and subsequently realises he wants to change sides in the war that’s being fought here. But we’ve already established that Loki isn’t the all-knowing, all-wise agent of chaos he thinks he is: when it comes to the affairs of England, Loki is just a tourist. His short-term way of thinking is going to cause far more problems than he realises, and he shouldn’t be so quickly won-over with a nice speech.
Usually Loki is focused on the wording of things, the arrangement of lies. The smartest part of this issue is how there are no lies arranged in what Wilson actually says! Instead you have to look beyond his words, and actually pay attention to what’s happening to the people, in order to understand what his promise of change actually boils down to. Loki is so tuned to his elite literary Asgardian way of doing business that he can’t see the engines of fate driving him down the wrong road.
Journey Into Mystery #640 “Manchester Gods, Part Two”
Writer: Kieron Gillen
Artist: Rich Elson
Colourist: Ifansyah Noor
Letterer: Clayton Cowles
Steve Morris runs this site! Having previously written for sites including The Beat, ComicsAlliance, CBR and The MNT, he can be found on Twitter here. He’s a bunny.
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