Tuesday, May 10, 2011

136: Journey into Mystery #103

Journey into Mystery #103
February 4, 1964

  • Introducing the Enchantress and the Executioner! (And marvel at Stan's skill in introducing a pair who are effectively "Love and War", yet with powerful and alliterative monikers.) Sent to Earth by Odin to interrupt the budding romance between Don Blake and Jane Foster, this comic has absolutely become a soap opera - though still one told in action-hero plot beats. After all, the Enchantress may fulfill the role of temptress, but superhero readers still need someone for Thor to hit! The comic gets off to a slow start, but soon its 13 pages are fit to bursting with developments, including the plot twist at the end whereby the Executioner wins Thor's hammer, but is then unable to lift the prize. (This special ability was implied by Thor's debut story - "if he be worthy" and all that - then developed in the recent "Tales of Asgard" shorts, but this is the first time the requirement has been made explicit.) So Thor wins the day, and continues to love Jane. And Odin is livid...!

    With visuals like that, there's no question as to what she's about!


  • Speaking of our new antagonists, it's worth taking a moment to talk about progenitors and descendants. These are the first Asgardians Stan & Jack have introduced who are not directly based on figures from Norse myth - but the Enchantress, though newly created, is very similar to the Norse goddess Freyja, who represented fertility, love and war. So why didn't Marvel simply use Freyja then, rather than an invented character? Keith J. Davidsen posits that Stan may have feared reprisal from the Comics Code Authority, in full power after the 1954 Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency which, under the purported guise of protecting the nation's children from unsavory influences, brought about crippling changes which nearly destroyed the comic book industry - and did, in fact, effectively end the output of several publishers. In such an environment, choosing to spotlight a verifiable figure from myth, one who was "sexually attractive and free with her favours", might have been seen as a move no less than suicidal. As John Grant writes in An Introduction to Viking Mythology, "To call Freya a fertility goddess is to euphemize: she was the goddess of sex...for her life...was one of unbridled promiscuity." As a result, Davidsen explains, "To introduce characters such as Freyr or Freyja, no matter how much their sexual prowess was diminished, could cause potential problems for Marvel Comics."

    BAM!  The sequence is enjoyably cartoonish.


  • The Executioner, on the other hand, is far less complicated - as you might expect from a bruiser, even an Asgardian one, whose main feature is that he carries an axe. Oddly, it's that axe which more commands our interest and calls into question any derivation! See, he doesn't just carry a regular axe, but rather one that's so sharp that it has unusual powers of its own - namely, being able to cut space itself, and cleave rifts into other dimensions. That's a genuinely interesting take for Stan to come up with, and one so specific that you wouldn't expect a similar character to pop up. Yet that's exactly what happened less than three years later, when Jim Shooter introduced Legion of Super-Heroes baddie The Persuader as one of the Fatal Five in Adventure Comics #352. Was this blatant copy an intentional swipe? Or simply a common case of having internalized a good idea which is then dredged up from one's subconscious while on a deadline? Whatever the answer, I think we can cut Shooter some slack; after all, at this point he had not only been writing comics for no more than six months - but was in fact only fourteen years old!

    Thor and Gullin may beat around the bush -
    but hopefully you won't be boared.


  • While the character of the Enchantress may have left her goddess inspiration behind, this issue's "Tales of Asgard" backup crams a truly staggering number of mythic characters and concepts into its scant five pages. It begins with Thor visiting the Asgardian Mountains to beseech Sindri, king of the dwarfs, to create for him a flying ship - one tiny enough to carry around, but which can grow to full size with a single thought. Cool! Using this means to travel to the dangerous land of Mirmir, Thor fights both the dragon Skord and the boar god Gullin - seriously, a boar god! - before finally reaching Mirmir's king, seated in his throne "behind the mystic fountain which feeds all the world's oceans". Fulfilling his mission, Thor gives to King Mirmir a branch from Yggdrasill, the tree of life, which the king uses to stir the mystic waters and spill them into the world below, where they water a pair of trees ... which come to life as the first humans! As with many of the Norse stories brought into Journey into Mystery, the stories are much more "loosely based on" (or, as Stan writes, "freely translated") rather than adhering to the source material with a strict fidelity. But then, the origins of many of these tales have been lost to the mists of time, while other parts were later whitewashed by the rise of the Christian world. In fact, one could argue that the very concept of Ragnarok, with its cycles of destruction and rebirth, implies that all stories which have happened before will one day happen again - even if the exact details may change.

    Who doesn't love a good creation myth?