Review: Journey into Mystery Vol. 1: Fear Itself hardcover/paperback (Marvel Comics)

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Journey into Mystery Vol. 1: Fear Itself[Review by Doug Glassman, who Tumblrs at Hell Yeah '80s Marvel!]

Even if he hadn’t been the cause of the Avengers’ union in the original comics, Loki would’ve returned as the villain in Joss Whedon’s Avengers film. Tom Hiddleston brought an incredible amount of pathos to one of mythology’s greatest villains in Kenneth Branagh’s Thor film, and Marvel saw the fandom’s reaction to Loki (especially the reactions of the fan-girls) and decided to take a gamble on a Loki-driven series. To make the title character even more irresistible to female fans, they made him a pre-teen boy. Then they tied the entire title into a fair-to-middling crossover, and collected it all in Journey into Mystery Vol. 1: Fear Itself.

This could have gone horribly, horribly wrong. I’m still not entirely sure why it didn’t, but much of the credit has to go to Kieron Gillen for keeping Kid Loki a credible character. Why Loki is a kid is the central mystery of the title, which won’t be resolved until Gillen’s run ends, but after only a few issues, the age of the main character becomes less and less of a sticking point. Loki keeps his arrogance, but he gets put in a rough position in Asgardian society now that he's lost most of his magic. Various characters question why Loki is allowed to walk free in Asgardia (the floating city version of Asgard), and often, he is just barely saved by his guardian, Volstagg.

Putting Volstagg in charge of the young Loki brings back memories of Walt Simonson’s run, and there are thematic and storytelling similarities as well. Like Simonson (and Alex Zalben in Thor and the Warriors Four), Gillen likes using stories nested within stories to keep the plot moving. The origin of Thor’s goats, for instance, leads to a key plot moment about halfway through the book. In order to access his former self’s knowledge, Kid Loki has to go through a series of rituals so complex that it hits ridiculousness; even Gillen-as-storyteller has to fast-forward through some of it to get to the point.

Kid Loki also has the benefit of a strong supporting cast. Along with Volstagg, he gains two pets -- Ikol, an advice-giving blackbird, and the Hel-Hound, a foul-mouthed beast. In the underworld, he adds more allies in Tyr, the now-deceased god of war, and Leah, the handmaiden of Hela. In turn, they recover the Disir, bloodthirsty Norse warrior-maidens. This is where the book's lack of explanation of exterior Marvel events becomes a problem.  The circumstances of Tyr’s death are only addressed in the back of the trade, in a text piece originally published in a Spotlight tie-in magazine.

Even worse, if you assume that reading the Fear Itself crossover will explain any of this ... well, you’d be mistaken. The main crossover has little to do with Journey Into Mystery apart from expanding on some of Odin’s scenes. This ends up being to Journey Into Mystery’s detriment, as Odin is not very well-written in Fear Itself.

However, if you’re patient and can get through the first confusing issues, you’re rewarded with the appearance of the book’s real star: Mephisto. The workings of Marvel’s various underworlds can be confusing, and with Hela literally subletting space from Mephisto’s Hell, Marvel’s king of trolling is brought into the proceedings organically. He and Hela both deal with the arrival of the Tongue of the Serpent, a servant of Fear Itself’s villain and a somewhat blatant rip-off of the Mouth of Sauron from The Lord of the Rings. Dougie Braithwaite’s intricate artwork results in Mephisto having a number of memorable facial expressions.

Journey Into Mystery: Fear Itself ends fairly abruptly in the middle of Loki’s quest to assemble powerful Asgardian artifacts. As the story goes on, Gillen goes further and further into Thor’s past, especially Simonson’s run, so if you haven’t picked up those Thor Visionaries volumes or the Omnibus, now might be a good time to do so. I know it sounds like I’m coming down hard on this book, but as long as you’re fairly well-versed in Marvel’s Thor, you’ll be rewarded with some fantastic storytelling and art.
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