Saturday, November 5, 2016

So, it's come to this...

Disclaimer #1: For any of my readers who may be actively avoiding US politics this election season, let me give you a trigger warning. This entry is going to be addressing a politically driven satire that pokes fun at both major party candidates. If that is not your cup of tea, I advise you to give this read a pass.

Disclaimer #2: I'm an intractable bleeding heart liberal and I'm totally in the tank for Hillary and will probably be more prone to noticing the Trump jokes than the Clinton ones. If you don't want to sit through someone taking glee in and/or analyzing social commentary about your candidate of choice, you may want to sit this one out.

For those of you who are still reading this, let's all be honest: the election season has been a bit of a bear and both parties have ended up with candidates that are not without their detractors from within their respective parties as well as from their traditional opposition. But for every dark cloud, there is a silver lining: political satire. Yup, nothing takes the sting out of a particularly unpleasant election cycle quite like all of us gathering together as one to heal by taking the piss out of our entrenched political system. And for that, Marvel has given us this little boon that is Vote Loki.

One thing I love about this book is that it's pretty apparent early on that it's extra-canonical. It's certainly set in the world and basic status quo of the artist formerly known as Earth-616, but there really only a scant few wonky continuity things you need to know going into this book:
1. This is not your father's Loki. In the past decade, Loki has been revived twice, once as a woman (although that didn't take), and a second time as a child (aka my favorite Loki). Kid Loki eventually magically aged up more or less to make him about the same age as Tom Hiddleston around the time of the first Avengers movie. These days, he straddles the fuzzy area between being an anti-hero and anti-villain, but I think you can sum him up best as being a character who uses villainous means with theoretically heroic altruistic intent.
2. Thor is a woman now. Don't worry, the actual son of Odin and Freyja/Gaea is still roaming around somewhere, but the actual person now worthy to lift and wield the enchanted uru hammer Mjolnir (and all the powers that go with it, including the superhero persona) is Thor's original love interest, Jane Foster. And it's slowly killing her. She has cancer and every time she becomes Thor, it undoes the effects of her chemotherapy.
3. Loki and Thor have a new half-sister from another company. In a dispute with Image Comics, Neil Gaiman was awarded the rights to winged warrior woman Angela and he allowed her to be brought into Marvel's pantheon of characters in a wacky timeline-wonky story. To better weave her into the universe (and don't ask me the fine details because I haven't gotten around to reading that story yet), it was revealed that Angela is their long-lost sister. She's basically a hyper-aggressive She-Ra wing wings.

Well, now that I've covered the basics, on with the story of Vote Loki. Years ago (no specific time is given because characters only age when editors and/or Franklin Richards wills it so), the Avengers donated a large sum of money to rebuild a neighborhood in NYC  that had been utterly pulverized following one of their epic battles. If only scenes like this were featured prior to the events of Civil War... I'm sorry but I know it's considered a contemporary bench mark for Marvel, but on a basic conceptual level it's just not that good in terms of logistics and solid character-driven motivation on either side of the divide.

I can't help but notice the character lineup. Cap, Iron Man, Black Widow, Wasp, and... the Hulk? Okay, the Hulk's presence here means this would have to be either very early days or very recent. I could quibble about the details, but I'd rather just skip all that and arrive at the conclusion that this is not in-continuity and the MST3K mantra is in full effect: it's just a comic book, relax.

That money never got where it was supposed to because NY Governor Hitt funneled the donation from the Stark Foundation into his election campaign. Yeah, we are two panels into this book and we are not holding back when it comes to pointing out the deeply skeavy practices we've learned of in recent years in which charitable donations don't end up helping who they're supposed to.

One of the people effected by this morally bankrupt decision was a young Nisa Contreras who couldn't be more than maybe a high school freshman based on her appearance. From here we have a time skip. The book describes it as "a few years later," which in my mind means "not many." Of course, Marvel's timeline is weird, so a few years gave the tween enough time to get a journalism degree and establish herself as a reporter for the Daily Bugle. Of course, when your titular character is a millennia-old deity, what qualifies as "a few years" may be relative.

Nisa doesn't pull her punches and it's a great way of establishing her character as our deuteragonist as she uses her journalistic prowess to publicly take down Governor Hitt, exposing his wrong-doing from her youth. I'm not going to pretend that she didn't have vested interest in seeing him get his comeuppance, but she doesn't seem to gain satisfaction with it. The juxtaposition of the past and present scenes implies that she does have an inherent sense of bias, but it also frames her as a social justice crusader. As much as I think the internet has maligned that expression, I think it's fitting. After all, I think, particularly when speaking in terms of US politics, we are culturally hard-wired to associate truth and justice... and the American Way, whatever that implies.

Sometime later, Nisa is on the presidential election beat and she finds herself in the Spin Room, where she befriends a fellow named Lucas who finds the idea of the Spin Room amusingly subversive and I envy Lucas for remembering a time when a Spin Room was a bit of a distasteful novelty and not the sad truth of our endemic suffering. Yeah, I can hardly remember the Before Time, but for the past 3-4 months I've had to live in a world where Trump has nearly constantly been spewing offensively bigoted incendiary remarks unashamedly, only to have to hear his talking heads explain what he really meant by his latest characteristic racist/islamophobic/jingoistic/xenophobic/misogynistic/politically obtuse statement. I miss those halcyon days...

Our two leading candidates are never named in the series. Marvel has a history of not naming the presidents, at least when they factor into a story instead of being mentioned off-hand, Despite this, they do resemble their real-world counterparts, at least in broad strokes and without playing into their caricatured features. Keep in mind, this book was first announced in March and hit shelves in June, which means that even while we were still in the thick of the presidential primaries, the creative team had the clairvoyance to know that Clinton would end up clinching the democratic nomination and the Republican candidate would be an old white guy. While they are never named, the secret service refer to them as "Enterprise" and "Buffalo." When elected, I plan to address Hillary as President Enterprise and I advise you to do the same.

Nisa, being an observant journalist, spots someone with a concealed weapon in the audience and manages to alert the audience just as a small cadre of Hydra agents reveal themselves. Before they have time to enact their mission, Lucas reveals himself to be our titular character, Loki. He employs irony, besetting magical gold snakes on them. Their bite puts the Hydra agents into a coma.

Now, keep in mind, this happened in the spin room of a presidential debate. There are cameras and reporters everywhere, and with the candidates having been whisked away by secret service agents, the media all train their focus on Loki. This does seem a little odd because you'd think the safety and security of the presidential candidates would be a top priority. On the other hand, this title has a pretty flippant attitude about both candidates and aren't all that fond of the media either, so I guess it's easy to write it off as the media would rather focus on a shiny thing rather than cover the two major party candidates if they can help it.

It's pretty clear that he's toying with them and being fairly coy, but at the same time he's being refreshingly transparent about who and what he is. When asked who he's voting for, he says neither, since they're both liars. Then he declares that if he were president, he'd lie to them brazenly and they'd love him for it. I fail to see the difference is between what he's suggesting he would do and what the candidates do, but this is the basis on which buzz around his campaign is formed, so you just have to roll with it. Throughout the book, you'll see his appearances on media outlets be met with approval from hoi poloi, but you'll notice that the audience we see skews pretty young, and very urban. They're reactions sound more like they want to buck the system or praise a rockstar. This book has some opinions about millennials and/or hipsters.

Despite claiming to not be interested in running for president, he's doing a press junket, including an appearance on J. Jonah Jameson's talk show. Yeah, for future reference, it's actually been a while since he's been the EiC of the Daily Bugle. Between now and then, he's had a stint as the mayor of NYC. Now, however, he's been reduced to being a paper-thin Rush Limbaugh/Bill O'Reilly analogue. The studio has the stripes of the American flag in the background, giving it that extra jingoist touch. And like any conservative talking head, he turns out to be a birther.

Of course. The joke is on him however as when Loki reincarnated, he was born with a US birth certificate. I vaguely remember Thor finding the reincarnated Loki in Paris, France. It's been a while since the Fraction run, so I may be wrong. Even if I am wrong, Loki has been magically aged up. He was maybe 12 before, then was aged up to be about 18-21, and yet the minimum age for US candidacy is 35, so I guess the actual qualifications don't matter in this book. Even so, I wonder how he'd go about proving his birth certificate's authenticity.

Basic logic aside, it is worth it to see Jameson get caught on national television looking like a fool. Worth it.

This public humiliation is cut short however when the show gets a call-in from who else but intrepid reporter, Nisa Conteras. And she is clearly not on #TeamLoki. Remember that fight the Silver Age Avengers had in her old neighborhood? Well, it just so happens that they were battling against none other than our man, Loki. Gasp! Twist!! As we've learned about Nisa, her job as a reporter is to take down everyone who ruined her childhood. And not even death and rebirth is enough to wipe the slate clean for her. However, it's incredibly fitting considering one of our real world analogues has spent the past few decades ruining the financial futures of contractors and his own employees while getting away scot free.

Loki magicks himself into her apartment, which I have to imagine left Jameson scrambling to fill the time until the commercial break, He want to have a candid tête-à-tête with her, even while she pulls a gun on him. I suppose a single woman in NYC needs to be able to protect herself, but on the other hand making her a gun owner keeps her from being a read as an completely liberal anti-NRA strawman.

He admits to her that he is planning to run, and asks her to visit his campaign headquarters to write a story about it. Despite her better judgment, she goes.

This really has to be a whirlwind campaign because he already has a building full of pollsters making cold calls. The building is called the Ophidia research center. Ophidia is latin for snake or serphent, by the way. That's a nice touch, since most people wouldn't make the catch. It's a dumb mistake because I think the writer assumes that all religions and cultures have the same connotations. No, the god of lies is not the same as the father of lies. He's not the devil, therefore has no association with snakes. The only snake in Norse Mythology is the World Serpent, which surrounds the world, swallowing its own tail until the end of the world. Sidebar: In the Marvel Universe, the World Serpent is a guy and technically Odin's great uncle... because choices.

And of course, there are protesters outside who are crazed out of fear of what a Loki presidency would look like and inside, the pollsters are also crazy because that's what happens when an on-again, off-again villain runs for office. With all that insanity, it only makes sense that Loki hired some protection, so his sister Angela (see above, re: new continuity) has been employed to run security.

Oh, and did I mention Loki is a woman now? Don't think too much about it and don't get too invested in female Loki. Basically, Loki took this form for the day in an effort to throw whatever he can at the wall and see what sticks. They could have done more with this considering how much gender has played into this campaign, but this book is really avoiding getting bogged down with actual issues. Why talk about that when you can settle for ragging on the political process itself? That being said, female-presenting Loki actually does look presidential, as opposed to his default form, who looks like a scruffy rockstar. My boyfriend and I can't seem to agree on who, he does have a late 80's glam affect to his appearance. Steven Tyler? Keith Richards? Steve Tyler?

I don't think Nisa had any intention of coming away from this visitation with anything but an excoriating article, which she sends to her editor with a headline of "Loki Will Burn Washington." Mainly this is because of the ramblings of one crazed pollster. However, she ignores the fact that Loki has some sound ideas about bolstering the economy by providing large businesses who stay stateside with an incentive. Of course, why would she be balanced when she has an ax to grind? I think publicly declaring on national television that she has a beef with him should have automatically disqualified him from covering this story.

That becomes a moot point however the following morning when she wakes to her phone blowing up and discovers that her article has been altered, now reading the headline, "Loki's Campaign Something to Get Excited About." She's barely found out about this change when there is a knock on the door and suddenly she finds herself face to face with Thor the Goddess of Thunder. This lady must seriously be getting tired of Asgardians dropping in before she has a chance to put on something other than sleep clothes.

The next issue opens up with Loki's political ad and then running commentary from a couple of conservative news pundits. I'd say their interaction is a babbling waste, but I think that's the joke. More importantly, when I watch Loki's commercial, all I can think of is the best meme of all time.

I don't know where this fits in the timeline because this was aired maybe a day and a half after Loki announced his candidacy. When we cut back to Thor and Nisa, it's right where we left them.

Thor is not happy, thinking that Nisa is working for Loki. And being extra-canonical, Thor gets to speak like her old-school bombastic quasi-Shakespearean self and it's delightful. When Nisa points out that Loki only changed her headline and Thor actually reads the severely anti-Loki article, she delivers my favorite line of the issue: "Wow. Indeed thou dost indeed burn him."

Thor departs but not without dropping a clue for Nisa to follow, which leads her to returning to Loki's headquarters. Of course she goes while Loki is out at a rally, which only adds to his rock-star status. And everyone seems to be out of the office, as she finds abandoned... save for the cultists in Loki-robes sacrificing a goat. I don't find this as upsetting as the scary looking temple situation Loki has set up in the back of his campaign headquarters. It's an office building and that chamber has to be at least two, maybe three stories high. It makes no sense. And now my brain hurts.

Nisa makes sure that it makes it to the news and we get another visit with the talking heads, this time we have a riff on all the times politicians get caught in a scandal. In previous years, this sort of thing would be career-ending (not necessarily the fact that his constituents are non-Christian, but the fact that their ritual would probably get animal rights/welfare groups galvanized into action). But like certain politician who have been caught on tape bragging about being a sexual predator, Loki seems to be made of Teflon. He pulls the "I'm a god" card, which again, wouldn't fly in other elections and would probably be grounds for a psych eval, but here it becomes a triumphant mic drop for his supporters.

In issue #4, Nisa is going to greater lengths to expose Loki, this time investigating the Hydra agents who just happened to strike at a debate Loki just happened to be attending. They have all recently woken up from their comas and were being transferred to a medium security facility. Nisa intends to go to their new location to interview them, but the truck transporting them just happens to end up crashing in a fiery accident. So much for that idea.

But wait, why is Angela at the scene of the accident? Hm...

She knows that Loki was responsible for the Hydra attack and dispatched Angela to dispatch his catspaws. but before she can snap a picture on her phone, Angela is gone.

Back in the bizarre alternate reality known as news media outlets, a grown woman posing as a journalist (and wearing a large silly bow in her hair) is reporting on the deaths of the Hydra agents and rhetorically asks-- on national television-- who can blame them for trying to kill presidential nominees.

Okay, that does it. What the hell is up with this book?
 I mean, seriously...

There are people laughing so I can't tell if this is supposed to be some sort of Daily Show parody or if this book really thinks that poorly of American TV journalism. Regardless, this lady then suggests that Loki "sends some prison buses" to the now Doom-free Latveria. She also says she misses having Doom there because at least the trains ran on time. Is this supposed to be funny or overt support of fascism? I am so lost...

The next thing you know, Loki is partaking in a debate at the Iowa State Fair (and pulling off "folksy" quite well), and charms the viewers even as he eats one of the most improbable snacks I have seen in a lifetime of eating things nobody in their right mind should attempt to eat (one day. I will replace that Yankee Candle, mom. I promise), and now I think my life won't be complete until I have a caramel apple onion ring cheeseburger cone.

His political rivals are going for the jugular because Latvaria has become the new buzz topic in the debate and Loki has spoken out both against "Buffalo" being too accommodating with them and Enterprise skyping with Doom's children. To be fair, Doom's kid Kristoff is an expatriate living in America last I checked, so he might actually be a viable social contact.

Loki explains that he will deal with Latvaria without risking a single American life. It is such a big shock that even Nisa puts her hunt for Loki's birth record on pause to hear his declaration as he declares the only right thing is to keep boots off the ground in Latvaria and that fighting will not resolve the problem. This is actually quite reassuring to everyone else.

Nisa on the other hand, had a different takeaway from that broadcast.
She immediately buys herself a flight to Latveria, which I assume is can only lead to good things. After all the only thing safer than a dictatorial state ruled over by a egomaniacal techno-wizard is 
a former dictatorial state that has been left utterly destabilized by the sudden removal of a long-standing oppressive regime.

She passes herself off as a member of one of the factions vying for control of Latveria. Elsewhere another faction is searching for one of Doom's special hidden weapons caches. A man leads them past the mystical security door and this guy is totally not Loki guys, I swear. No really, scout's oath. When the rebels come out armed, they are confronted with the armed forces of the current controlling regime and like a bunch of idiots, they use Doom's secret weapons without testing them first and the whole battle scene goes up in a puff of smoke. The man who couldn't possibly have been Loki turns into Loki and I can't help but read this like the end of a Bugs Bunny cartoon. Except that Nisa was in the right place at the right time to catch Loki expose himself on video.

This has already made the news before Nisa's plane lands in the states and the news outlets are dragging Loki across the coals. Of course, this book hates millennials and thinks they're stupid contrarians about everything and by the time Nisa arrives, the hipsters have become convinced that if the media hates Loki, he must be a real threat to their establishment and must therefore be the only candidate for them.

At this point, Nisa's about ready to give up.

By the time we open on our final issue, Nisa is looking to flee the country rather than abide by a Loki presidency. All the while, she watches footage of Loki being saved by a mentally unstable superhuman by Angela followed by whispering between the two. The next thing you know Angela has pulled out her phone and sets up a meeting with Nisa. Thor is there, as well. Apparently, the two had been in cahoots the entire time. Angela had been waiting for an opportunity to save Loki's life in order to compel him to tell her some crucial information... and she happily gives that information up to Nisa in exchange for a lifetime subscription to the Daily Bugle. It's the little things in life...

It turns out they are standing in the base of operations of the Hydra sect that attacked the debate and pulling up their computer revealed "Lucas From Buzzfeed" as their leader. Lucas? Remember him? That was Loki's disguise way back in the beginiing of the mini-series.

This gets published and of course, the millennials are completely fine with it because this book hates everyone too young to remember wondering about who shot Dallas, despite being comics' target demographic. It does however further galvanize the anti-Loki movement, causing the two opposing sides come to blows.

Chaos is erupting in the streets as Loki's fans have not been dissuaded (sound familiar, guys?) and the sitting president and congress even unanimously voted to strip the office of the president of many of its more recently acquired powers in anticipation of a Loki presidency.

Nisa is watching tenuous fabric of American life rip itself apart and the seams when there is a knock on the door and does she ever wear anything around the house besides booty shorts and a camisole? I'm guessing journalism pays the rent, but not the AC. Loki needs help-- he's doesn't want to be president, not if it means causing the nation to tear itself apart. He needs her help getting him get him discredited... which has worked so well in the past. Still, he promised not to tell a single lie in the process, and trickster deities know how sacred promises and deals are.

He instantly transports her to a live studio, changing her wardrobe in the process thankfully. He is expecting Nisa to ask all the best questions and expose him, although it's fairly obvious that he knows it would backfire, presumably to bring both sides of the aisle together in support of him. Nisa has a trick of her own however and causes and upset by handing the mic over to his supporters in the audience to ask questions, this apparently has not happened before. Not a single question has been asked by anyone other than the press. Unable to lie and unexpectedly confronted by his supporters, he's already been thrown two curveballs, However, as the questions go on, it seems like Loki has no concrete plan to address many of the problems facing the nation. Not only that, the supporters who thought he would buck the corrupt system are gobsmacked to find out he'd be working in the interests of all Americans, not just the rebellious fringe.

Nisa sums it up beautifully by asserting the only message his campaign has really delivered on was declaring "the other two candidates are bad" and that's not enough for any candidate to get even close to the presidency.

One particular audience member calls him out, feeling betrayed because Loki would rather work with the government than bring it down and Loki reaches his breaking point. You know when you're the oldest member of your social circle by a significant stretche and you finally have had enough of pretending to be cool and want to let your friends know what's what? Yeah, Loki has stopped being cool uncle Loki and calls his supporters out on the idiocy that has carried his campaign this far.

The next day is the election day and the only states that Loki ends up winning are Nevada, Nebraska, West Virginia, Mississippi, and New Jersey... because if any state will vote for someone who lies nearly all the time and treats everyone like they are morons, it's New Jersey (mwahahahaha.... Trump isn't the only one going down, Chris Christie).

We see a montage of celebration from our cast. Jane Foster in chemo looks up at the hospital television with a staid grin on her face while Angela celebrates alongside Rocket and Groot in the only bar in NYC that will serve the Guardians. Although, probably not for long since Angela's jubilant excitement causes a waitress's face to get smashed with a plateful of pie and drinks. Nisa gets tapped to appear on J Jonah Jameson's show on the Fact Channel and turns around to find Loki in her apartment. Again.

He's fairly certain he's going to lose, but he twists it into a win by suggesting that this whole story was all an overly elaborate ploy to give Nisa the chance to right the wrong that Loki caused in her childhood. Of course, she calls it for the slapdash bullshit it is, but it's more friendly than any interaction they've had thus far. Maybe it's because he's no longer a threat, or maybe it's because tricking him like she did took him down a peg enough for her to humanize him a bit, but this conversation feels genuine and less like the satirical posturing that much of the book has felt like. It's actually pretty charming.

Loki floats away as he pulls out a flip phone (he can join Cap in the anachronistic phone club) as he calls to concede to his winning opponent. Of course being Loki, he frames it like his blowup the previous night was a gift for his/her campaign. And he literally disappears into the horizon as the story ends.

This isn't a bad story by any stretch of the imagination. It's fun and moves at a good pace, but it feels unfocused. This book tries to do too much, mainly because it had too much of a good thing. There is a lot that goes into a US presidential election and this current one has been an insane cycle, so there was no shortage of material for them and in trying to genuinely capture what it feels like to be an American following the election process faithfully, the creative team ended up with a book that feels unbalanced and unwieldy in certain places. I also question the angle the satire took. The crux of Loki's campaign was because everyone thinks the candidates are so bad. We never learn why. They are super generic to the point that they could have been cardboard cut-outs. As a result, the focus of the sature becomes the inanity of the organ grinder monkeys TV news pundits and spending an incredibly large amount of time poking fun at the Bernie or Bust movement. Yeah, with all the material Trump's primary constituency has going for it, the book kept going back to the hipsters/millennial well whenever they wanted to lampoon the American public. And poking fun at millennials and the Bernie or Bust movement is fine, except for the fact that they seem to be the only ones targeted in this piece. I somehow suspect that the writers feared they'd get threats if they aimed their satire at the deplorables, and because of that I feel like the book doesn't have the courage of conviction needed to write truly spectacular social satire.