Friday, November 27, 2009

Tales From the Vault: JOURNEY INTO MYSTERY #89

Welcome to another edition of Tales From the Vault, where we read and review random comics from our back issue file. Today's selection: Journey Into Mystery #89. Some of you may recall that the cover for this issue appeared at #7 on our list of the Top 70 Marvel Covers, a decision that split the internet community nearly in half. Some dedicated fans, such as those here at the Vault, believe this is the iconic Thor image and is a picture of grace and power from the unparalleled pen of the legendary Jack Kirby. Other uncultured mendicants disagreed, voicing contrary opinions that are barely worth the words it takes to acknowledge them. But since we clearly welcome debate, we thought it would be an interesting exercise to review the actual contents of that issue. As a bonus, these early Journey Into Mystery issues feature a number of non-superhero short stories from a legion of classic comic writers and artists, which gives an interesting time capsule look at the development of early Marvel.

So what are we waiting for? Let's get right down to it!

Details: This issue swings to us with a cover date of February, 1953. This puts us roughly 15 months after the first issue of Fantastic Four kicked off the Marvel Age of comics; this is the seventh issue of Thor, who first appeared in Journey Into Mystery #83. Plots by Stan, pencils by Jack, but we also get credits here for inker Dick Ayers and scripter L. D. Lieber, who is, of course, Stan Lee's brother Larry Lieber and who probably doesn't get enough credit for his contributions to early Marvel; he also scripted the first appearance of Iron Man, among other key comics. These are the credits for Thor; some of the back-ups have other creatord, who we'll talk about when we get to them. So hold your horses, jack.

Story One Synopsis: First up is, of course, Thor. The story starts out with Thor flying back to his office after his latest adventure, whatever that was; there's no footnote tying this to the last issue. Marvel must not have created their massive footnote archive yet. Anyway, Thor gets concerned that people will see him going into Don Blake's place, so he comes up with a quick distraction: he grabs a mannequin from a storefront, whips up a quick Thor costume using, I dunno, his amazing sewing powers, and then heaves the Thor dummy completely out of Manhattan and into the ocean. This fools onlookers into thinking Thor is flying overhead, and while they are distracted, Thor turns back into Don Blake. Wow, nice one, Thor. It's not quite as good as the "fake vomit" trick from the 80's Captain America movie, but it's pretty good.

This is followed by a quick recap of Thor's origin for people new to the series (which at this point was pretty much everyone) and we get a bit of early Marvel character stuff; Don Blake is thinking how much of a sap he is and that Jane could never love him, while Jane is thinking... that Don Blake is a sap. Well, sort of; she's just irritated that he won't hit on her, so instead she goes into a daydream of how awesome it would be to work for Thor instead (and, of course, be his girlfriend). This involves her ironing his cape and giving him a haircut so he won't be so hot during the summer. Ah, the 60's.

Meanwhile, famous mobster Thug Thatcher busts free from the feds and escapes into the country after a shootout. I don't get too much into nature vs. nurture here, but naming your kid Thug is probably not the best idea. He's in a bad way, so his gang rushes back into the city to find a sawbones. You guessed it, they end up picking Don Blake. After tying up Jane, they drag Blake off into the countryside, where Thug's doting moll begs Don for help. Don gets to work saving Thug, due to the Hippocratic Oath, but is in a real fix when the goons take his magic cane away. This really presents a problem because, after he finishes the operation, Thug orders them to kill Blake. Uh-oh!

Luckily, Blake is in possession of a giant deus ex machina. Or, in this case, a deus ex thought balloon: Blake sends a prayer to Odin for help, who zaps the goons with lightning. Nice one. Why does he even need his hammer if he can just ask Odin to zap everyone? In fact, what do we need Thor for at all?

Regardless, during the minor confusion, Blake grabs his stick and becomes Thor even though he's technically useless. Then he.... uh... well, he uses his super breath to blow a tablecloth so hard that it wraps all the goons up in a giant bundle that they can't break free from.

As if this wasn't enough, Jimmy's signal watch then goes off and... oh, wait. Got confused.

Anyway, next, Thor cuts off escape by knocking down a whole row of trees with his hammer, blocking in the cars, which would really piss off Al Gore if this wasn't 1963. But it's too late; Thug and his moll have already escaped. Naturally, they rush right to Blake's office, where, after all, they already have a tied up hostage waiting. Sure enough, when Thor flies in, Thug forces him to relinquish his hammer or else the girl gets it, see?

But Thug failed to consider Thor's super ventriloquism! Personally, I don't blame him, since Thor doesn't actually have that power. Yet, somehow, he uses it anyway, throwing his voice out into the hallway to convince Thug that the cops are there. Thor takes this opportunity to create a whirlwind with his hammer that whips him and Jane right out the window to safety! Nice job, Thor. Add precision tornadoes to Thor's arsenal.

Thug and his moll (who is named Ruby) flee on foot to a construction site. At this point, Thug ditches Ruby, jumps onto an elevator, and proceeds to fire a hail of bullets back down at the doting Ruby. Jeez, dude, way to be a total prick for no reason. Luckily, Thor saves her, then fires a lightning bolt at Thug, which blasts the girders Thug is standing on.

This seems to be a miscalculation, though, because it superheats a bucket of rivets, which Thug then threatens to dump on the crowd below. Whoops! Not sure why the bucket isn't also superheated, but whatever. Thor pretends to give up, but that's because he can see that the girder has been compromised by the super-heat, and sure enough, it collapses. Thor catches Thug in midair and delivers him to the police.

After quickly mind-wiping Jane to make her forget the whole thing -- why he needs to do this, I have no idea; maybe he's just a fan of the Justice League -- Thor flies around bemoaning his fate like an emo whiner.


Story Two Synopsis: Next up is a one page text story with perhaps the most original title in the history of science fiction, "From Outer Space". Seems that the UN built a space station and suddenly, an alien spaceship appeared. A commission was sent up to meet the aliens, who turned out to be humanoids with weirdly shaped lips. They explained that they were going to conquer Earth and enslave everyone if humanity couldn't give a good reason why they should be spared. Luckily, the head of the commission had a secret weapon: he used his wonderful human lips to whistle, something that the aliens couldn't do and were shocked at. Yes, turns out that, due to the shape of their mouths, the aliens never developed music at all. Soon, dumbfounded by our amazing composers, they agreed to spare Earth in exchange for a steady supply of music.

This craptastic non-story doesn't have any writer credited, for obvious reasons.


Story Three Synopsis: Next up is a short story with plot from Stan, script from Larry and art from Sol Brodsky. It's called "Barker's Body Shop!". Seems that Barker (not Bob Barker, unfortunately) is a shady mechanic who uses shoddy materials and bilks people at every opportunity. Seems it's his lucky day when he gets two strokes of luck: the richest guy in town drops his car off, and a mysterious drifter stops by looking for work. The drifter turns out to be a brilliant mechanic, so Barker has him fix up the rich guy's car. When he's done, though, Barker refuses to pay him. So, the guy jumps in the car and flies off into space; turns out he was an alien looking for a car to modify for spaceflight. Now the joke's on Barker, who is going to get put out of business by the rich guy. Moral: don't screw aliens.


Story Four Synopsis: Lastly, we have a story called "When the Switch is Pulled..." By Stan and Steve Ditko. A guy makes a time machine, but his colleague is skeptical. So they jump in it and activate it. When it finishes doing it's thing, they step out only to find themselves in the exact same place. Devastated, the scientist smashes his machine. The joke's on him, though, because it turns out that the machine works -- it just did a complete circuit of all history and ended up back in the same place when it was finished. Whoops!

This story is mostly interesting for the Ditko art, which shows some hints of his later techniques; he uses a lot of colored circles here in a way that suggests Dr. Strange or, more embarrassingly, Speedball. But it's kind of interesting from an art standpoint, anyway.


Extras: Wow, that Thor story was lame, huh? But despite the fact that it is lame (or perhaps because of it), this issue is a perfect example of why Journey Into Mystery is one of the most interesting early Marvels for comics historians and fans. People often have an idea that the Marvel Universe sprung fully formed from the minds of Stan and Jack, but in truth there was an evolution process that took place over the psan of several years. Nowhere is this more evident than in the pages of Journey Into Mystery, because unlike other creations such as Spider-man or Hulk, Thor was pretty much a cipher when he first appeared, little more than a Superman rip-off with some vague mythological trappings. It wasn't really until they added the Tales of Asgard back-up feature that Thor began to round into shape, and so these early stories are a perfect glimpse of how Stan experimented and almost fumbled his way from the initial germ of an idea to the polished, fully realized version of Thor that eventually would emerge and become a fan favorite.

That would take several years; while there are glimpses here and there, things don't really begin to resemble the Thor we know today until the mid 110's; for my money, the fight with Destroyer that begins in #118, combined with the introduction of the Warriors Three in #119, really ushers in the classic Thor we all associate with the character. To see him use weird-ass powers like super-ventriloquism in #89, then, is a real shock to the system for Thor fans and speak to how much work went into the gradual development of the character.

Also of interest in this issue are the appearances of Ruby and Thug Thatcher. Other than Stan and Jack's epic tenure, the most famous and acclaimed run on Thor belongs to Walt Simonson, and it's clear that he did his homework, as he frequently brought back obscure characters from these early issues that had been forgotten for decades. One of these was the dragon Fafnir, who played a fairly prominent role in the build-up to the Ragnarok storyline during the mid-340's, but he also later brought back Thug Thatcher and Ruby during an odd two-part storyline in Thor #371-372. In this story, Thug gets out of jail only to be consumed by the Zaniac parasite (itself a fairly obscure reclamation), which transforms its host into a misogynistic serial killer; in this guise, he hunts down and murders Ruby. This actually becomes an important plotline later, as Thor takes Ruby's orphaned children under his wing and finds a surrogate family for them, leading to them becoming supporting characters in the series for years to come.

My Grades: The Thor Story gets an A for historical interest and a C- for the Action Comics plotline (though even so, there's more humor and Marvel-style "we're all sort of in on the joke" touches than DC had in the entire decade); the backup stories likewise get a B+ for existing and a C- for actual readability. But the cover gets an A+++++.

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