The official number on the front cover of this week’s issue of Journey Into Mystery is #622, but it’s effectively the first issue of a new series by Kieron Gillen and Dougie Braithwaite. It’s yet another event-driven revival of an old title, the kind of trademark-protecting gesture that big publishers have to do all the time. What Gillen and Braithwaite have come up with, though, is an enormously enjoyable piece of pulp. It’s dense, gaudy and smart, and they’ve found room inside a tightly coordinated mega-event to develop something with a very distinctive tone–even if that tone isn’t entirely original.
A little history is in order here. Journey Into Mystery began its initial run in mid-1952, as a horror anthology series from the pre-Marvel Comics imprint Atlas, edited by the young Stan Lee. In the late ’50s, Lee started experimenting with its format, eventually throwing in a bunch of the monster stories he was working up with Jack Kirby, Don Heck and Steve Ditko, featuring gigantic antagonists with seemingly random letter-combinations for names: Rro, the Monster from the Bottomless Pit; Rorgg, King of the Spider Monsters; Orogo, the Thing from Beyond; Gomdulla, the Living Pharoah; the Hulk (not that Hulk).
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Finally, with August 1962’s Journey Into Mystery #83, Lee, Kirby and Larry Lieber introduced their version of the Norse thunder god Thor (reconceived as an Earthbound superhero), who promptly took over the series. Within two years, “Journey Into Mystery” was the small type on the cover, and “Thor” was the large type; in 1966, Thor became the official title, as of issue #126. Marvel published a relatively short-lived incarnation of Journey Into Mystery, once again a horror anthology series, in the early ’70s; the title popped up again in 1997-1998, briefly assuming the numbering of Thor while the character himself was out of action.
And now that Thor’s main series is being relaunched with a new #1 in a couple of weeks (as The Mighty Thor), Thor‘s title is once again reverting to Journey Into Mystery. (The cover logo, in fact, makes it look like it’s called Journey Into Mystery Fear Itself, which is unfortunate–confusion is the price it pays for typeface consistency.)
Gillen’s an ambitious, versatile writer who’s been slashing his way through mainstream comics’ fill-in/tie-in/co-credit underbrush for a few years. This month, he’s suddenly gotten a lot more prominent, between this series and assuming the full reins on Uncanny X-Men. (I wrote about his series Phonogram here last year, and the Comic Book Club discussed his Captain America and Batroc one-shot a few weeks ago.) Journey Into Mystery could have been a secondary Thor title, another subfranchise salt-mine; Thor pops up repeatedly here, but Gillen’s clever enough to treat this series as a Loki title, in much the same sense that Paul Cornell has made Action Comics Lex Luthor’s series. And his take on the character seems to be that Loki is not just untrustworthy, he’s an endless mirrored hall of untrustworthiness: The moment you think you’ve got his motives figured out, three more levels of deception open up beneath your feet.
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I’m not the first person to note that the tone of Gillen’s writing in Journey Into Mystery resembles Neil Gaiman’s–my first reaction to it was that it was the best issue of Sandman since #75–but that’s what you get when you build a story around this kind of raconteur-like, fabulistic voice and slightly purple prose. The opening scene, for instance, involves seven magpies (not ravens, as they take pains to point out) flying from the fallen Asgard to deliver a message to Loki. If it’s not adapted from a particular piece of folklore, it might as well be, but the language itself is rather Gaimanesque: “The first magpie stopped to mourn. A god’s death–even a wicked god like Loki–was no small thing, and a bird’s heart–the smallest of things–couldn’t help to contain it.”
The resemblance is intensified by the issue’s visual technique: Braithwaite’s tight pencils are uninked, and paired with Ulises Arreola’s colors. That’s not something that’s done very often in mainstream comics, and one of the few times it has been done was Michael Zulli’s artwork for the Gaiman-written Sandman storyline “The Wake.”
Still, high-Gaiman is a tone that’s easy to botch, and hard to pull off as gracefully as Gillen does here. As with his Beta Ray Bill: Godhunter miniseries a couple years ago, he also packs a lot of plot into relatively few pages: the story’s form echoes the convolutions of its protagonist’s mind. At one point, an explosion leaves behind a key that opens a box containing another key that inspires a poem that encodes a hidden message that summons a demon that… and so on, up to a caption in which Gillen cheerfully waves away “traps too diverse and various to be recounted in this humble telling.” As he points out a few pages in, this incarnation of the series actually does concern a journey into mystery. That’s a cute gesture–hey, the title that’s been around for 59 years finally pays off!–but also a narrative trick that’s unique to long-running franchises like this one: Noticing a part of the story’s apparatus that’s been in plain view for ages and breathing new life into it.