Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Journey Into Mystery #116

Journey Into Mystery #116, May 1965, Marvel Comics
writer: Stan Lee
penciller: Jack Kirby
inker: Vince Colletta
letterer: Artie Simek

Aide from the dates of their initial distribution some forty years ago, the original works of Stan Lee – the hundreds of Silver Age comic books that founded the Marvel Universe – have never been more available. The first dozen issues of The Amazing Spider-man have been repackaged and freely distributed through the Sunday editions of the Orange County Register, in a makeshift marketing countdown to the release of Spider-man 3. Bookstores boast volumes of inexpensive “essential” compilations, offering old and new readers alike a chance to get on the ground floor of their favorite titles or characters. Still other classic comics are packaged with the action figures they’ve spawned, as was this issue of Journey Into Mystery #116. While some characters came with more recent stories, I can understand the consensus behind including an old classic with Toy Biz’s Loki action figure. After all, what mature fan could deny a Stan Lee classic, albeit a reprint, and what child – they are still buying toys, too, aren’t they – wouldn’t read such a seemingly timeless tale with wide-eyed wonder?

Indeed, for a story written forty years ago, the simplicity of “The Trials of the Gods!” best captures the essence of its starring characters, i.e. the nobility of Thor and the converse trickery of Loki. Again, through the eyes of a child whose parents purchased Loki on a whim, Journey Into Mystery is a valiant introduction into the world of Asgard, and in fact, only leaves its readers (of any age) wanting more. Thor and Loki are plummeted to the deadly realm of Skornheim, having potentially offended their father Odin, and the first to return from its trenches will be cleared of his crimes. While Thor gives up his legendary hammer to face Skornheim’s carnivorous plants and blistering boulder-roads, Loki smuggles some ancient gems into the realm, which both bestow him with the abilities to overcome the treacherous land’s obstacles and distract Thor by simultaneously tormenting his lady love on Earth! Although other Asgardian champions come to Thor’s lady’s aid, Loki still beats the Thunder God to the interdimensional doorway, which, according to the next issue blurb, may not be all that it seems! Leave it to stammering Stan Lee to mislead us into expecting such a prompt conclusion.

Seriously, reading a Lee/Kirby classic for review is like a Christian reading the Bible for a book club – it’s an unexpected treat every time despite the material’s frequent repackaging. And, yes, these old comics can be found everywhere, if one looks hard enough, from the toy aisles to CD-ROM anthologies, overcoming the potential dangers of constant regeneration to preserve the original raw spirit their masters intended. Such bold, melodramatic narrative coupled with dynamically choreographed visuals may seem dated to some, but it’s still charming and energetic, the relevant foundation of a whole new era of comic book storytelling.

In fact, Lee and Kirby’s characteristic campiness is what makes this old content so historical complex; while these stories were retrospectively groundbreaking and then adult-friendly, they are in truth suitable for all ages, the first mainstream sequential art that father and son alike could mutually enjoy. Journey Into Mystery is the natural result of the industry’s journey out of the Comics Code controversy, when superheroes turned too juvenile to be taken seriously and the horror genre went too underground to be easily available for a general audience. Lee, Kirby, and their peers combined these qualities into an acceptable compromise for all. Like Thor, these pioneers entered the depths unarmed, but also like Loki, they certainly smuggled in a few tricks up their sleeve. It’s a journey we’re still taking, with an old but reliable roadmap.

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