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Saturday, February 11, 2012

A most epic and entertaining journey deserving of a tribute

When you've been reading superhero comics for as long as I have it's almost inevitable that you'll get a bit jaded about the whole thing.

You think, a bit conceitedly, that - "There are only so many stories you can tell about men and women fighting crime with superpowers while wearing tights.". And while it's true that a lot of the stories throughout the decade share many of the same beats that doesn't mean that all superhero comics are just repeating themselves or that they're doing a bad job. But sometimes you just want something a bit more fresh, in lack of a better term. Just something that stands out a bit from the usual stuff and gives some variety oto your monthly reading.

For me personally that comic is the ongoing comic called Journey into Mystery (JiM) written by Kieron Gillen and publish by Marvel comics. So now, let's go for the obligatory pic before going into the background for the series.

The title Journey into Mystery used to belong to an anthology series published by Marvel and its forerunner Atlas Comics from June 1952 to Febuary 1966. Initially it featured various monster, horror and sci-fi stories. In issue 83, published in -62, readers were introduced to the myth-inspired superhero Thor by writer Stan Lee and artist Jack Kirby. At that point the stories started veering more towards science fiction and Thor and his world got more and more focus until the title was renamed Thor in March 1966. Marvel revived the JiM title a few times over the decade. The current run is the fourth and continues the original series issue numbering, which is a matter that's too boring and complicated to talk about really, beginning with issue 622.

A few years ago Thor ended the cycle of death and rebirth that had forced the asgardian gods to more or less live out the same lives over and over. After being awaked from the grip of death once again Thor and his fellow gods are given a chance to live out their lives in the way that they want to, free from pre-desination and stuff like that. Among the gods revived we could naturally find Thor's brother and nemesis Loki, god of mischief, chaos and other such things.

After a few evil plots and similar concoctions Loki comes to a, for him, disturbing realisation. Despite being given an entirely new lease on life and a chance to form their own destiny none of the gods have truly embraced this opportunity. They're still living out their lives as if nothing had changed.

For Loki this pretty much meant that he'd stagnated. That he wasn't fullfilling his duties as a god of chaos. So he did the only thing that came naturally to him. He made up a plot that ended up destroying Asgard, currently residing on earth, and killing him without the chance to being picked up by any of the death gods. Instead he was truly reincarated into a younger version of himself without any memory of his previous life and with no magic at his disposal. Thor welcomes the young Loki, affectionately called kid Loki on the internet, with open arms. The other asgardians are less benevolently inclined towards the revived trickster.

The current JiM run begins with this status quo of Loki... well not trying to fit in, but just living together with the people who hate him and whose home his previous, more evil, self in-directly collapsed. In the first issue of the series Loki is drawn to the ghostly remains of the previous Loki who informs the younger one of his motivations for getting himself killed. The young Loki has the left-overs of his previous self reformed into a magpie named Ikol who is to act as his informant and advisor, Ikol himself is very open that we probably shouldn't trust him entirely.

In later issues Loki embarks on a secret journey behind the scenes of the underwhelming Fear Itself crossover event to protect the greater world from Odin's evil brother the Serpent. Unfortunately this mission requires our young protagonist to make deals with demons of the highest order, trick various less than morally admireable people and ultimately cause the demise of a great hero.

There are three things that makes JiM stand out in the Marvel line-up as far as I'm concerned.

First of all it is one of the few titles, at least in the superhero market, that can be considered a pur fantasy title. Other titles have a focus on fantasy but most of them still retain that superhero feel that's really difficult to describe. In JiM dragons leave riddles spoken in an ancient language before turning to dust, the devil walks into to a bar to vent about his problems, the shadow of a giant world-killing sword is turned into a pen and the way to defeat a dark god is to litterally rewrite the story of his life. It's really quite unlike any other title out there, at least to y knowledge, and it's always a thrill to see what other-worldly concept that Gillen and co will give us each month.

Then there's the general attitude of the narrative. It doesn't take itself too seriously but handles the serious aspects of the story with a level of maturity that is very much appreciated. Stuff like Loki's woes over living in a place where just about everybody is suspicious and hostile towards him as well the guilt he feels over the more questionable things he does is handled in an adult manner and every major character gets a fine level of complexity and depth. At the same time the more outlandish things like the strange crossbred hell hound that Loki adopts later on in the series and the way the narrator refers to other things going on at the same time in other titles are given a healthy dose of sillyness. It creates a wonderful contrast in the series without making the different elements clash in the least.

Lastly, the reincarnated Loki is just such a brilliant protagonist. In this young form he has no magical powers and his physical abilities are the same as a normal asgardian of his stature, which is still more than a normal human but far from really heroic, so he has to rely on his considerable wits and lying to get things done. At the same time he can be rather naive about people and they're reactions. While his slate was technically wiped clean when he was reborn the shadow of his predecessor hovers over him and he has to prove himself to be a good person. But he can't really do that because the things he does for the greater good are morally gray and will eventually come back to bite not just him but everybody else around him in the ass. His is a story of redemption that so far seems impossible to achieve because of the things he has to do to save the world. Despite his fairly unfortunate lot in existence Loki keeps a chipper attitude and a good sense of humor. He's a wholly new character when compared to his old self and yet one can't help but wonder how much of that old self might slip through and how far he's willing to go at times. He's just a wonderful character like that.

Those three reasons are the things that make JiM stand out as something else than just another superhero comic. But they're not the only things that make it awesome. The writing is sharp and always of high quality, the cast of characters is diverse and makes the best of Marvel's rich mythological stuff. And while the rotating artists have been inconsistent in style they're all pretty damn good at what they do.

For these and many other reasons I salute Journey into Mystery and thanks Kieron Gillen and his team for the continued excellence they provide.

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