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Kieron Gillen’s Journey Into Mystery – Fear Itself (Review/Retrospective)

This March, to celebrate the release of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, we’ll be taking a look at some classic and not-so-classic Avengers comic books. Check back daily for the latest updates!

Whatever about the quality of big “event” comics like Secret Invasion or Fear Itself, they typically serve as the launching pad for a variety of new series. Using the sales power of a tie-in to a big event, comic book publishers are more likely to convince readers to try something a bit new or a little outside the norm. It doesn’t always work, but – if used cleverly – these tie-ins can serve to draw attention to low-key books that might otherwise be flying under the radar. Or, you know, “Loki books.”

Kieron Gillen’s Journey Into Mystery is a contemporary classic. Even if one is unsatisfied with Fear Itself – and I’m quite fond of it, to be honest – Gillen’s Journey Into Mystery is enough to justify that juggernaut of an event.

Ghosts of gods of mischief past...

Ghosts of gods of mischief past…

Gillen is one of the strongest young voices writing at Marvel at the moment, and he’s a tremendously flexible talent. Like Peter Tomasi over at DC, Gillen has a wonderful knack to tailor his voice to complement a more high-profile collaborator. Tomasi has done excellent work writing solid and consistent second-tier books within the popular Green Lantern and Batman lines over the past decade, effectively supporting top-tier talent like Grant Morrison, Scott Snyder and Geoff Johns.

Gillen’s underrated Uncanny X-Men run was both a spiritual successor to Matt Fraction’s run and a nicely pitched counter-point to Jason Aaron’s Wolverine and the X-Men. His Thor was a fantastic bridge between the work of J. Michael Straczynski and Matt Fraction. His work on Journey Into Mystery weaves seamlessly around Matt Fraction’s more high profile work on The Mighty Thor and Fear Itself.

Dire straits...

Dire straits…

At the same time, Gillen’s authorial voice is much stronger than Tomasi’s. Tomasi does a wonderful job of pitching the stories that you might expect to fit between the events of larger books. In contrast, Gillen’s stories are very much his own – even as they meet all the obligations of a supporting tie-in comic book. Gillen has a wonderful knack of using editorial-driven crossovers as a way of advancing stories that he wants to tell.

Most obviously, his Uncanny X-Men tie-in to Avengers vs. X-Men was also the climax to the Mister Sinister story he began earlier in his run, just with a bit more baggage attached. Even his Uncanny X-Men tie-in to Fear Itself served to advance his character work with Colossus and Magick. So while Journey Into Mystery launches against the backdrop of Fear Itself, there’s a very clear sense that Gillen is charting his own course within the confines of this event.

Please allow me to introduce myself...

Please allow me to introduce myself…

As with so many great Thor writers, Gillen approaches Asgard as a study in myth-making. This particularly corner of the Marvel Universe lends itself to stories about stories, powered more by metaphysical laws of narrative than anything more rational. Gillen embraces this mystical and magical aspect of the mythos, and just runs with it. He is telling a story about stories, about words and letters and meanings.

The obvious comparison here is Neil Gaiman, and it’s probably a little bit too obvious. The overlapping use of Norse mythology (right down to the use of talking sidekick ravens) and superficial similarities between Gillen and Gaiman (both former British journalists who broke into comics) makes it seem like Gaiman’s celebrated Sandman seem like the logical companion piece to Journey Into Mystery. Both are stories about stories, tales of characters trapped within narratives.

Throne for a loop...

Throne for a loop…

The difference is that Morpheus embraces his foretold fate, while Loki seeks to escape it. Perhaps that’s a nod to the obvious differences between the two types of stories. Sandman was a finite Vertigo comic book using a character that Neil Gaiman effectively invented from scratch. Morpheus could die and fade into memory without worrying about the shared demands. Loki has no such freedom.

(This makes his desire to escape his fate so much more ironic. Loki’s escape from death itself is just as inevitable as he planned, but the same thing that makes his revival inevitable is what makes any serious long-term effort to change impossible. Loki might be a character seeking to transcend the limitations of the role the narrative has forced upon him, but forces that exist outside the narrative exist to reinforce that role. It’s a wonderfully wry set-up.)

Burn with me...

Burn with me…

Despite the events of Siege, Loki cannot die. He is, after all, the popular supporting character in a massive billion-dollar movie franchise. Kieron Gillen and Matt Fraction were lucky that they were allowed to resurrect Loki as a child, and that Marvel waited until 2014 to revive Loki as a comic book character sharing a remarkable similarity to Tom Hiddleston. Journey Into Mystery exists as a rather bold piece of work, one that seems at odds with the cross-media synergy that led to the introduction of the Samuel-L.-Jackson-esque Nicholas Fury Jr. in the same event.

So Journey Into Mystery is about fate and stories, and how the two intertwine – the relationship between fighting towards fate and fighting against fate. The Fear Itself tie-in arc opens with the ghost of the older Loki compelling his younger self to fight against fate and inevitability – to throw off the role that fate has cast for him. The same arc ends with the revelation that Loki spent the entire arc fighting for Thor to have a chance to fulfil his destiny. It’s a wonderful juxtaposition, and a clever contrast between the brothers. Thor is the character who must fight to be all that he can be; Loki must fight not to be.

"Well, at least he parked it back where he found it..."

“Well, at least he parked it back where he found it…”

After all, Loki is the god of mischief. After so many eons in Asgard and so many decades in comic book publishing, that must exhausting. “But in my capriciousness, I was totally predictable,” the ghost of elder!Loki concedes to his younger self, “no god of chaos worthy of the name could stand such a thing.” So Journey Into Mystery is the attempt by a younger Loki to becomes something different from what he has been – to become something new. The “mystery” in the book’s title is an existential one – Loki must become something new and unknown and unpredictable.

“We cannot change history,” the narration offers at one point. “But gods do not have history. They have story. And that is something a writer always has the prerogative to twist.” Gillen’s Journey Into Mystery is fascinated by the idea of story. In fact, the last issue in the Fear Itself tie-in is dedicated to Volstagg’s storytelling. He returns from battle, prompting his children to ask if he brought anything back with him. “Little Gudrun, I brought you the greatest gift of all,” he explains. “I brought you a story.”

A Thor spot...

A Thor spot…

When he wife wonders about how he can lie to their children to protect them from the evil in the world, Volstagg offers, “They’re just stories. The world is not always good. I tell them stories to make them feel better. I tell the stories to make myself feel better too.” In a way, this is probably the smartest way to approach writing a book about Loki. It’s very hard to treat a compulsive liar as a heroic protagonist, unless you re-frame his lies as stories.

Similarly, Gillen argues that Loki can’t be seen as cheating, if cheating is simply re-framed as a slightly different way of playing the game. Loki is simply playing by his own rules, rather than breaking the accepted ones. When Loki explains that he won money to buy a phone from some trolls, Thor asks, “… Were you cheating, Loki?” Loki responds, “Yes! but they were, too! Cheating was the game, and I triumphed unfairly most fairly!” Loki won because he was the best cheater – at the game of cheating, he was simply the most worthy player.

The devil you know...

The devil you know…

And, appropriately enough for a story about stories, most of the cheating and under-handed dealing involves playing with words. There’s an endearing playfulness to Journey Into Mystery as various characters find ways of probing the limits of various oaths and vows and promises, with Loki being an expert at twisting words to suit his meaning. However, he’s not alone, with various other characters manoeuvring around Loki. It’s not wonder that the most high-profile agent of the Serpent to play a key role here is “the Tongue of the Serpent”, an obvious shoutout to “the Mouth of Sauron.”

The Hel Wolf swears on his soul to obey Loki, only to quickly reveal that he doesn’t actually have a soul. The beast turns on Loki as soon as possible, after a trip to limbo renders void the oath he swore. “I swore I’d serve you for as long as I lived. I’ve had the life cut out of my by those slattern bitches of Mephisto’s. Where does that leave us?” Words are very troubling and tricky. As Loki acknowledges, finding himself navigating the dispute between Hel and Hell, “… What a lot of trouble a single consonant can cause.”

The all-seeing (one-)eye...

The all-seeing (one-)eye…

Words are important. Words are what lead Loki to his quest in the first issue, with a key leading to another key leading to a poem, “Which caused young Loki some consternation until careful analysis revealed that buried in the poem’s rhyme and meter was a further message.” Later, Mephisto offers a bartender immortality, by transforming him into ink. “Ink is how words are chained to paper. Words are ideas, cast down from the Platonic firmament to this Earthly Hell. But even so, no matter how far they’ve fallen, words and what we can make of them are eternal. You will live forever.”

Like the tie-in issue featuring Volstagg, there’s a sense that Gillen uses the Mephisto issue to expand on his big ideas – the link between words and stories and identities. Reflecting on the crisis that Fear Itself has spurred among the deities of the Marvel Universe, Mephisto explains that the central Throne of Hell sits empty – an acknowledgement of the somewhat confused Marvel continuity surrounding the realm.

Ramming speed!

Ramming speed!

Most of the powerful demons may call themselves Satan, but evoking the word yourself is only part of the journey. “I’ve learned that it matters little the name you call yourself,” he explains. “All that matters is the name others call you. Anyone can claim a thing. Getting others to agree with you… that’s the trick.” It feels like a nice commentary on Loki’s own identity issues. He Loki, he is called Loki, and yet he must try to transcend that.

As Mephisto explains – and one of the key ideas of Fear Itself – is the idea that even gods have their own myths and stories. Explaining how the Living Tribunal’s Embassy works to a layman, Mephisto offers, “They say that all realities’ embassies are one and the same. And if you know the way, you can emerge anywhere and anywhen. Which just proves that gods and demons are just as likely to make up myths about things they haven’t a clue about.”

Surtur yourself...

Surtur yourself…

Appropriately enough, Loki is able to play some small role in the defeat of the Serpent by re-writing the creature’s story. Using a pen fashioned from the shadow of a world-breaking sword, Loki is able to re-write the pages of the Serpent’s life. The Serpent is effective undermined by some retroactive continuity, with Gillen even recycling some words and art from an earlier issue to help make the point. (Journey Into Mystery is acutely aware of its own status as a story. The first issue even closes with Loki peering out at the reader, musing, “… I’m sure someone will make sure we’ll all absolutely fine.”)

It helps that Gillen has a knack for this sort of storytelling. His narration and dialogue have a very playful feel to them, striking just the right tone – somewhere between wry and poetic. The opening alludes to the events of Siege, speaking of Loki and “a creature he brought down upon Asgard… a creature which brought down Asgard…” There are moments when Gillen’s prose seems almost lyrical, with the opening charting the course of seven ravens travelling from the destruction of Asgard, journeying “seven-time-seven days” only to return and discover that “the heroes won shortly after our magpies left, as heroes tend to do.”

Cleaning up Thor's mess...

Cleaning up Thor’s mess…

At other points, there’s a deliciously snarky undertone to the banter. Cleaning out the stables of Asgard, Valstagg observes, “Let’s put it like this — it’s pleasing to see you shovelling what I’m more used to hearing you talking.” Gillen’s dry sense of humour, bleeding into the book, remains one of the more interesting aspects of comic – punctuating anything that might seem too pretentious or ridiculous.

“The humans of the internet are uncouth,” Loki remarks in the first issue, while studying the new phone he purchased from Broxton. “When I said I was an Asgardian God, they called me a troll!” Thor pauses, “But you’re a half-giant.” Loki agrees, “Exactly! They wouldn’t accept it!” At other points, Gillen is willing to let his artists carry the visual puns. “Lo–“ the last raven declares, before exploding and leaving only a key in his wake. (It was a low-key, or “Loki”, entrance… geddit?) The answer to the question “Why did Loki do it?” is hidden in the period under the question mark itself – a full stop, or just a stop.

That was Hela uncool...

That was Hela uncool…

There’s an incredible sense of fun to Journey Into Mystery, as Gillen seems to relish charting the schemes and games of his young would-be-villain protagonist. After managing to exact necessary information from the Tongue of the Serpent, Loki concedes, “Oh, Tyr! I do so enjoy this villainous talk!” At one point, even the word “disir” is used by Loki as a weapon of war against the serpent. It an absolute joy to read.

Journey Into Mystery is one of the best books published by Marvel in the last few years. It’s a massive shame that the company hasn’t seen fit to release a suitably awe-inspiring omnibus edition to tie into the release of one of the massive multi-million dollar films currently being released by Disney. In fact, the same is true of a lot of Gillen’s work – it’s worthy of high-profile collection that it never seems to receive.

The heat of the moment...

The heat of the moment…

 

Still, despite the fact that book has yet to receive the treatment it deserves from the publisher, Journey Into Mystery stands as a fantastic piece of work.

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