WC: JOURNEY INTO MYSTERY #91

One of the myths about the Marvel Age of Comics is that it pretty much happened all at once–that as soon as FANTASTIC FOUR #1 hit newsstands coast-to-coast, the paradigm of comic books changed completely. And that’s clearly not the case. In fact, it took a few years for the Marvel approach to storytelling to completely crystalize into a unified approach. Prior to that, while it was clear that certain strips–FANTASTIC FOUR and AMAZING SPIDER-MAN in particular–were being given a lot of love and attention, much of the rest of the line was simply being churned out in assembly line style, much like the interchangeable fantasy stories whose positions in several ongoing titles the new Marvel heroes had taken over. This issue of JOURNEY INTO MYSTERY is a good example of that phenomenon in practice. It wasn’t particularly memorable in any respect, nor was it all that different in style and execution from what all of the other super hero publishers of the time were putting out. In summary, it was just another crummy comic book designed to fill some young reader’s time for ten or twenty minutes and be forgotten. But here we are, six decades later, still looking at it.

The Thor strip was an addental series to begin with. The first Thor story had been crafted as a one-off, with the potential for a sequel (the Marvel monster stories had been doing occasional sequels at that time, it was easier than coming up with a new monster every month.) But when super heroes were hitting, it was immediately launched as the first of a series. What this means is that nobody involved with that first story–not artist Jack Kirby, not editor Stan Lee, and now scripter Larry Lieber–had given much thought to what an ongoing Thor strip would be like. And so the early Thor adventures are pretty rocky affairs. Thor battles a lot of Communists, the creators decide on the fly that he’s not just a guy who found Thor’s hammer but is the actual Norse god, a cookie-cutter love interest is introduced in the person of nurse Jane Foster. But it wasn’t a series that anybody was using a lot of brain cells on. The fact that it was Lieber who was called upon to script these stories rather than Lee doing it himself gives a clear indication as to how important the assignment was viewed. And then, Kirby was needed elsewhere to launch books with more potential, and he stopped drawing (and largely plotting) Thor.

After a disastrous outing from Al Hartley, who saw the writing on the wall in terms of the coming success of the new super hero strips and wanted to transition over to being an adventure artist even though he wasn’t really suited for it, Lee assigned Joe Sinnott to the Thor strip. Joe had made a splash among the nascent super hero fandom when he had inked FANTASTIC FOUR #5 over Jack Kirby’s pencils–the artwork took a quantum leap for that issue, and people noticed. But Marvel’s publisher Martin Goodman was still tight-pocketed, and he wouldn’t approve the additional five dollars a page it would have cost to make Sinnott the permanent inker on FANTASTIC FOUR–that wouldn’t happen for another four years as a consequence. But penciling paid more per page than inking did, and so Lee was able to inveigle Sinnott into taking on the Thor assignment. Joe was always a solid craftsman, but he didn’t really have the storytelling chops of a Kirby or a Ditko, so working in the new Marvel idiom was a bit challenging for him.

I would be willing to bet that the plot editor Stan Lee handed to Leiber and Sinnott for this Thor adventure was the cover image, created by Jack Kirby. That cover pretty much tells the whole tale. In this adventure, Loki, the God of Mischief, has been confined to Asgard by All-Father Orin as a punishment for his many crimes. But he seeks to still lash out at his brother Thor, and he contrives to do so through an intermediary. Finding a mentalist with a corrupt nature, Loki uses his magic to increase Sandu’s power a hundredfold, certain that he will use his new abilities for evil and that this will bring him into conflict with the Thunder God. Lieber and Sinnott absolutely telegraph the ending to this story in the very first panel, wherein Odin contemplates Thor’s Best of Strength. This was an actual item found in the Thor mythology, but this was the first time it was mentioned in an actual Thor comic book story. And it would disappear for another twenty years after this, until first Roy Thomas and then Walt Simonson brought it back in later years.

Sandu’s primary super-power is telekinesis, the ability to move objects with his mind, and he uses it to drop a building on top of Thor, thus trapping him. But in answer to his mental prayer, Odin dispatches the Valkyrie to Thor’s side with his Belt of Strength, and with it girding his form, he’s got enough muscle-power to shift the building off of him. Sandu rallies, using his force of mind to project Thor’s hammer into another dimension, robbing him of it. But when the mentalist attempts to use his power to actually lift the hammer, he’s unable to do it, and burns out his mental force in the attempt. Thor is able to recover his hammer just in time before he changes back into powerless Don Blake, the cops arrive to take Sandu into custody, Loki’s scheme is thwarted, and all is well in the world. One could imagine this tale appearing in one of Mort Weisinger’s Superman titles, or a Gold Key or ACG book. There really isn’t any of the characterization or humor or drama that Marvel would become known for. That wouldn’t happen for another half a year or so, when both Lee and Kirby returned to the strip, this time to give it a bit more attention and bring it up to snuff with the rest of the line. This effort worked, and for most of the 1960s, JOURNEY INTO MYSTERY/THOR was the #3 selling Marvel title, behind only FANTASTIC FOUR and AMAZING SPIDER-MAN.

At this point, Marvel was still a company in transition. While the Marvel Comics Group corner box had been adopted across the line with this month, the firm was still transitioning away from having a bevy of titles that contained one-off fantasy stories. So the back of this issue of JOURNEY INTO MYSTERY contains two of these, only one of which is really of any note. The next story is not only written by Larry Lieber but penciled by him as well, with production man Sol Brodsky providing the ink finishes. It’s another boiler plate jaunt in which evil, mind-controlling plants from space seem poised to take over the world from the remote farm onto which their seeds fell when they are eaten by crows–the selfsame crows that the hapless farmer had been chasing off his land when the story opened. How’s that for irony? Variations on this same approach would show up like clockwork every single month in a bunch of comic books.

The final story is teh best thing in this issue, thanks entirely to the atmospheric artwork of Steve Ditko. As was the pattern, it was also scripted personally by Stan Lee–Lee loved working with Ditko on these short twist-ending stories at the time, and he pretty much kept them all for himself. The story is another boiler plate job, so it’s really Ditko’s art that makes it stand out. At this time, Ditko produced the loveliest and best-designed splash pages in the business, as seen above. The story? It’s a riff on a Twilight Zone episode, where a mysterious man shows up looking for a job at a department store. He’s a whiz at window display, but things get weird when he professes his love for a particular manikin. Thereafter, he disappears, only to reappear as a manikin himself in a window display in which he is marrying the female manikin that he loved. See, he was a manikin himself!

11 thoughts on “WC: JOURNEY INTO MYSTERY #91

  1. I hadn’t previously read about Thor not being intended as an ongoing series from the start, although as I’m sure you’re aware that first Thor story was a bit of a rehash of previous Thor stories drawn by Kirby for DC in 1957 and by Ditko for Charlton in 1959, both featuring a mortal magically obtaining the powers of the Norse god of thunder. Maybe it was just going to be simply another short story but then Lee got a directive from Goodman to come up with more costumed superheroes pronto and they quickly shifted the Thor story to be one; took the Hank Pym in the anthill story to be the focus of another, putting Hank in a costume and shrinking himself and taking command of a bunch of ants to help him fight crime; and then refashioning Kirby & Simon’s Silver Spider concept for a third, as discussed in one of your earlier columns.
    I’ve only ever read maybe three or four of the Thor stories from the first year or so of his series, but like many of the early Iron Man, Human Torch and Ant Man stories, most were pretty bad, seemingly rushed into production without much deep thought for meaningful characterization or good plots. The FF and Spider-Man were typically far better crafted, although even the FF occasionally showed signs of being cranked out quickly in the era when Kirby was working on several titles every month. Circa 1963 to early ’65, Amazing Spider-Man was consistently the best comic published by Marvel as far as I’m concerned. But I think it was in 1965 that Marvel overall rose up several notches in better quality stories and art over most of its line. Thor, in particular, significantly improved as Kirby seemed more inspired (and less-overworked) than ever, mostly jettisoning old-style costumed mortal baddies and bringing on far more formidable foes, involving more Asgardians in the main stories, taking greater inspiration from Norse and Greek myths. The FF also more consistently lived up to its boast of being “The World’s Greatest Comic Magazine!” Seems Lee got much more serious about the super-hero line by late ’64, taking over scripting all of them and only gradually relinquishing scripting to Roy Thomas on a few titles over the next couple of years (as well as briefly to Denny O’Neil on Dr. Strange).
    FF #1 was certainly a game-changer in superhero comics, but it did take a few more years for Lee & his collaborators to really apply the changes in characterizations and better plotting and writing throughout most of Marvel’s output, to really showcase their significant differences from what DC and other publishers of the period were doing, event that were purposely trying to ape Marvel but utterly failing to “get” what I believe Lee was striving for, more compelling stories featuring protagonists readers could more easily relate to Even Thor, for all his powers, had to deal with his conniving and evil adopted brother as well as his perpetually difficult father who staunchly disapproved of Thor’s romance with a woman who was not of their kind. True, those were aspects of several early Thor stories, but were very poorly done before Lee took over scripting and Kirby returned to the art & plotting, and they better refined Thor’s disputes Odin over Jane Foster and finally did away with aping the Superman/Lois/Clark Kent triangle by making Jane fully aware that Donald Blake was Thor’s mortal identity. I think by about issue 114 of JiM, Thor became the third best Marvel series, after the FF & ASM, during the next several years.

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  2. A fascinating insight into early Thor, but my interest / concern with the stories of that era has always been much more prosaic: the size of Mjolnir (and you won’t believe how much thought went into phrasing that). In these early stories the shaft tends to be drawn a lot longer than the iconic design – more a war hammer than a mallet – and I’ve often wondered what led to the reduction in proportion.

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    1. Really Mjolnir should be proportioned like a sledgehammer and Thor should swing it with both hands, and hit his opponents with it rather than using his fists. But the Comics Code Authority would have taken a dim view of that.

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  3. It’s easy to see Sandu as the villain in one of the one-off stories, similarly tricked by the clever human protagonist into burning out his powers. That said, I’m surprised nobody ever brought him back when equally uninspired villains such as the Mad Merlin and the Miracle Man got to return.

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      1. Well, if you look at any of these pages without balloons and copy, the visuals don’t really tell the story—it’s all in the copy, with the images illustrating. Also, the composition of many panels leaves relatively precise space for a lot of copy, an indicator that the artist was roughing in balloon shapes and sizes as part of his compositions—something he could not do if there were no script.

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