Journey into Mystery
(Written by Kieron Gillen
Art by Dougie Braithwaite, Richard Elson, and Whilce Portacio)
“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,” says the Devil, as he feeds some poor innocent into a meat grinder to make ink. “You will live forever. You’re becoming part of a story far bigger than you could possibly imagine.”
As statements of intent go, it’s hardly the most subtle.
Yet coming from the mouth of Mephisto, resuscitated by writer Kieron Gillen as a wonderfully theatrical, mutton-chopped vessel of hot bubbling charisma, it is entirely charming. And he’s not even the main character. Not in the top ten, probably.
Comics are so singularly ruled by superhero stories. Naturally, the focus is on action scenes – which, oddly, is something I’ve never thought think the medium handles particularly well. With time in the hands of the reader (for those of you haven’t read Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics, a clumsy recap: each panel represents a single moment, and by moving your eyes between panels, you push time along, at your own pace) there’s no room for the fluidity of movement of, say, a Bruce Lee film. Only two moments truly exist: the one before a punch lands, and the one after. Action scenes work on such a primal response that the effort of stitching these together yourself into a single action – so often the magic of comics – often strips away the effect.
So it’s nice to see Journey Into Mystery is a superhero book dedicated to solving its problems – the same, world-threatening problems – with violence of a more wordy sort. The first arc, spanning a suitably epic 10 issues, ended with Loki besting The Serpent, Fear Itself’s Big Bad, by merely changing the story. introducing a detail to the Serpent’s legend that gave his character a weakness. He did this, of course, using a magic pen.
As I say, it’s never been particularly subtle about its themes: the end of the first issue (#622, this being comics) dove into that black hole at the bottom of a question mark. The most fearsome monsters in the story are summoned by speaking their name. The Devil, to recap, turned some unfortunate bloke into ink. It’s a book about magic which reminds you that spells are just a series of words.
Compared to Gaiman’s Sandman, say, which it occasionally feels similar to (its love of meandering mini-plots), and often feels like a reaction to (see Nightmare, a clear parody of Sandman’s protagonist Dream), the focus is less on the power of stories and more specifically on the power of words. Perhaps unsurprising, given that Gillen spend the last decade working as a journalist. But it’s an interesting choice, in a medium that sits at the crossroads between text and image, and it could mean the former overwhelms the latter – after all, there are rather a lot of caption boxes.
But the art is always given the space to tell the story. It’s not the reason to buy the comic – given my preference for clean cartooning, Braithwaite, Elson and Portacio all lean a little too much on the side of scratchy pencils for my tastes – but Braithwaite and Elson in particular are a perfect fit.
Still, you come to Journey into Mystery for the words. And on that front, it’s bloody good value – those gloriously florid captions and sharp, slightly-too-witty-to-be-thought-up-on-the-spot speech balloons fill the pages. At its best, this is a comic which feels like the finest pub conversation, insightful and incisive, with a friend who has drunk two or three of their chosen tipple. And only rarely does it have that ill-advised next drink, and allow things to spill over into dreadful, boring fisticuffs.
This isn’t about that Thor chappie, after all – it’s a story about Loki. And when he’s such good company, Journey into Mystery is enough to make you wonder why he wasn’t the star all along.