It really is something to look at the development of the Marvel line during the formative years between 1961 and 1965. It’s pretty amazing how all of the key strips would take these sudden surges in quality, that the material kept getting better, stronger and more polished, and the ambition got greater and greater as things went along as well. You could put a Marvel hero book from 1962 next to a similar issue from 1965 and it was like seeing the difference between a Golden Age title and a Silver Age one. It all looks a bit old fashioned to modern eyes, but the increase in sophistication and serialization led Marvel to begin telling stories in a way that had never been attempted in comics before. It was an exciting period.

Take this issue of JOURNEY INTO MYSTERY for example. Only a year earlier, the strip was just beginning to find some consistency, with Jack Kirby coming on board to head it up regularly, as opposed to dropping in for an issue every once in a while. But the focus was still very much upon Earthbound adventures. By #120, the world of Asgard was opening up, and the science fiction concepts were becoming more a regular part of the series, and the whole thing just felt bigger and more expansive. Part of that was the decision to have virtually every story dovetail into the next one, making a long-running soap opera type serial. Readers were caught up in the excitement and had to keep reading in order to see what would happen next.

This particular issue is a good example of the steady transition from one storyline into the next one. Several issues earlier, Thor and Loki were forced by All-Father Odin to compete in the Challenge of the Gods in order to prove which one had committed crimes against the Realm. While they were forbidden to use any weapons, Loki secreted a bunch of Norn Stones on his person, and used them to win the contest. Thor pled for Odin to grant him the time to journey to Earth to locate the Stones where Loki had discarded them and prove his brother’s treachery. In order to prevent this, Loki remotely arranged for the unstoppable Destroyer to be unleashed against Thor. And while the Thunder God prevailed, his hammer had been sliced in half by the Destroyer’s awesome energy beam. So this issue opens with our hero in the furnaces of Pittsburgh, mending his broken weapon.

Thor returns to Asgard with the Norn Stones, thus proving his innocence to the All-Father. As punishment, Odin sentences Loki to work in servitude to Ularic, the aged warlock. But Loki isn’t taking his sentence lying down, and he swiftly renders Ularic unconscious and proceeds to use the Warlock’s tools to locate an old cat’s paw of his. meanwhile, Thor has returned to Earth and his mortal identity as Donald Blake. But he’s been gone for a good long while this time, and he finds his office unattended and his beloved Jane Foster missing. With no idea how to find his missing girlfriend, Thor reckons on turning to his allies in the Avengers for assistance. But when he arrives at Avengers Mansion, he finds not Iron Man, Giant-Man and the Wasp in attendance, but rather their replacements, Quicksilver, the Scarlet Witch and Hawkeye. The big Avengers roster-switch happened while Thor was on his godly mission, and so this is the first he’s become aware of it. And Thor’s pride won’t allow him to ask these brash youngsters for help, so he’s out of luck again.

A break here for a Marvel House Ad–and look at the great state of this line at this moment. Like Thor, the Fantastic Four’s adventures have begun to take on a serialized quality, the sluggish Human Torch strip has been replaced by the more exciting Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. in STRANGE TALES, and Spider-Man has graduated high school with new challenges waiting on the horizon. And these covers make you want to buy them all.

Intending to go to a broadcasting office and make a plea for information on Jane’s whereabouts on the News, Thor’s attention is caught by a strange golden sphere descending from the heavens. He watches it alight, and then is shocked when it bursts open from within. For the sphere contains his old foe, the Absorbing Man, whom Thor had last transformed into helium and set adrift in space. But now Loki has seen to Crusher Creel’s recovery and return, and the Thunder God is staring down a mighty battle indeed. To Be Continued! This particular story doesn’t contain any outright fighting, there isn’t an action sequence to speak of. And yet, every moment, every movement, is operatic and suspenseful. There’s a feeling of high drama and excitement throughout–never a dull moment. That’s what the Marvel books of this period offered their readership.

Another House Ad at this point, this one focusing on 1965’s big Marvel Annuals, which were truly special in those days. By this point, the team’s workload was too crushing to make these oversized books fully original material as the earliest Annuals had been. But they still tried to pack them with as many big selling points as they could. The Wedding of Reed and Sue! Spider-Man meets Doctor Strange! Thor battles Hercules! Sgt Fury and his Howling Commandos in post-WWII action in Korea! The reprints in these books, while they were literally no more than four years old, were a bit of a godsend to the new audience who had only just begun to find the Marvel titles.

Even the back-up series Tales of Asgard had gone from featuring largely one-off stories based on legitimate Norse myths concerning the Gods to a sprawling epic adventure story. One gets the impression that, while Jack Kirby was doing the lion’s share of the plotting on both the lead and the back-up, editor Stan Lee maybe stayed on top of him a bit more when it came to the Thor portion, and permitted him to run a bit more wild in Tales of Asgard. Not only were these chapters visually innovative and impressive, but their stories tended to meander all over the place, often coming not so much to a conclusion as to a stop once Kirby’s attention had moved on to some new fresh idea. But they really made the world of Asgard seem a lot more full and interesting.

This story builds upon a couple of players who were introduced the previous month, including the massive warrior Volstagg, who at this point wasn’t the one-note fat joke he’d become in the 1970s, but rather an old warrior whose retirement suited him perhaps a bit too well. We also get our first look at Hogun the Grim in this story, as he prevents Thor from being backstabbed quite literally by the evil-minded Kroda the Duelist and Magrat the Schemer. The whole bunch have been dispatched by All-Father Odin on a quest to learn the secrets of Ragnarok, and this chapter is focused almost entirely on the launching of their flying longboat.

And we close out the issue with THE HAMMER STRIKES letters page, which runs only a single page rather than two in order to clear out the extra room that Tales of Asgard requires. Limited to this length, you can see editor Lee struggling to fit in not only the letters and responses to his fans but also all of the plugs for other Marvel titles and merchandise that he wants to spotlight. This is what ultimately led to the plugging becoming its own dedicated Bullpen Bulletins page in the months to come, leaving the Letters Page proper for simply answering the mail.

4 thoughts on “WC: JOURNEY INTO MYSTERY #120

  1. I’ve spent the past few years rereading the Silver Age (or such as I have available) month by month and I really think 1965 is when everything jumps in quality. Okay, not everything, Daredevil’s still poor — but even the bottom of the Marvel pool is way better than when the bottom was Ant-Man.
    However the reveal on Jane’s disappearance is incredibly idiotic (https://atomicjunkshop.com/lois-lane-would-be-embarrassed/). Given Tana Niles would soon write her out of the strip temporarily, I wonder if this was the same sort of thing as they got ready to shift to Sif.


  2. Every time I see scans like this, I wish Marvel did its reprint collections of a softer, matte-finish paper to capture the way the colors work here.

    There’s something about the gloss paper with over-vivid color that diminishes this work, somehow.



    1. I agree. Ink on uncoated paper stock is generally warmer because the ink doesn’t sit on top of the sheet like it does on a coated/gloss paper. Coated/gloss papers allow for more control and printing accuracy, but they’re slick… and vintage comic interiors aren’t slick. My guess is that the embrace of coated paper is the industry’s reaction to not look cheap and be more like the slick magazines that they were always negatively compared to. Nevermind that high-end art books are generally printed on matte stocks that blend the best of both worlds in terms of a quality paper that is also warm and not shiny. They tend to be a bit more pricey though.


  3. I just read the third volume of the Thor Mighty Marvel Masterworks (the smaller editions Marvel is publishing monthly), and that includes the Trial of the Gods (not Challenge) tale from #116, which I’ve always felt was the beginning of a huge multi-year arc in Journey Into Mystery, lasting until at least issue #136. Having read the other 2 MMMW volumes of Thor recently, the stories were all over the place. And despite Colletta’s universally awful inking on Kirby, I really enjoy this era of Thor and agree it gets better when the stories are away from Earth.


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