This post contains mild spoilers for the end of Fear Itself.

How Kieron Gillen tied Journey into Mystery into Fear Itself, and how I collect it

I believe that my digital (and illegal) collections of Marvel's crossovers are superior to any official collections that can be bought. These stories are so complex and intricately coordinated that each series may be building on what three others have set up, and while the editors insist that you can read a few parts of the crossover and skip the rest, as someone who reads all of what they're putting out I see that it works much better when you read the whole thing. Granted, Fear Itself is not as empty at its core as some earlier crossovers (such as Siege), where the story had no meat on its bones unless you read the tie-ins. But even here there are major themes which fall by the wayside during the main miniseries, and their eventual resolution only feels earned if you've been reading the tie-ins which fleshed out the ideas. So it's not ideal that the official collections collect each series separately instead of collecting the crossover together.

Naturally there are good reasons for this practice. Fear Itself has more than a hundred issues all told. In the usual collection format, that would be around fifteen volumes, and the full set (in paperback!) would cost over $300 dollars. No one would read it. Also, it would not suit the current readers, who read specific series when the new volumes come out and don't necessarily know or care about the goings-on of other series. Marvel hopes that crossovers will get these readers to check out other products, but they don't want to alienate them in the process by requiring all that reading.

So like I say, it all makes sense from a business perspective. But the fact is, the collections feel like they're missing most of the story. I can't imagine what someone would think if they pick up the Fear Itself: Spider-Man collection without reading the rest first. It must seem like a random hodgepodge of plot points, and that's before you even get to the second half of the book where they stuff in a pointless Fantastic Four one-shot and a series of originally internet-only backstories, just to use the rest of the pages they've got. And the Spider-Man story by Chris Yost is in my opinion an essential part of the crossover on a thematic level. As far as I'm concerned, if you didn't read at least the first issue of this three-issue miniseries, your reading of Fear Itself is incomplete because the stakes of the conflict haven't been presented well.

And even if you somehow find all the material that will improve the story, the editors are giving no thought to what the experience of reading it will be like. The order matters. If you start by reading the main miniseries, so that you should understand where the other stories are coming from, you're going to see the ending of the story before any tie-ins at all. Once you read the ending, you have a sense of resolution. If you then start reading a different story which launched out of something from early on in the event, it's going to feel like old news and none of what happens will seem worthy of your time. That effect has nothing to do with the quality of the tie-in - it's just how storytelling works. The stakes of the story matter because there's tension about how things will turn out. Once you see how things turn out, there's no tension and the stories don't matter as much anymore.

If Marvel understood the potential of digital comics, they'd offer rental fees for entire crossovers, where you could read through the entire story in a sensible order. They could present a clear timeline of the story, and you'd move through it reading the parts you're interested in without having to pay an arm and a leg for the privilege. But Marvel's digital department are a bunch of morons and this service does not exist, so I do the next best thing: I edit all the comics into a linear sequence which makes sense logically, emotionally and thematically (as well as I can), and I share it with my friends. It's not always easy, and no writer gives me more trouble to organize than Kieron Gillen. Unlike other writers, Gillen writes for the format his work is being sold in. He expects that Journey Into Mystery will be read on its own.
Next page
Kieron Gillen has only been writing for Marvel since 2008 (and his first comic was released just two years prior), but already he has become a major player in the Marvel Universe, writing Uncanny X-Men for the past year. What got him up through the ranks so quickly was not just his wit, humor and craftsmanship -he has all these in abundance, but so do Fred Van Lente and Jeff Parker and they've never gotten flagship series- but also his knack for taking any editorially-mandated premise and making it seem like it was a brilliant idea. Most of what he's written for Marvel has been either a tie-in to someone else's work, or a bridge between one writer's work and another writer's work. And each time he is handed some random status quo -The Norse gods are living in Latveria! Ares is on a team of corrupt superheroes! The X-Men are living under Cyclops' dictatorship!- he finds what is interesting and entertaining about that status quo and makes the most of it.

With Journey Into Mystery, Gillen was handed an assignment so random and specific that few writers would even be able to do anything competent with it. Gillen had presided over Thor (and the one-shot Siege: Loki) as Loki committed suicide in such a way that even his soul would be lost. And as soon as Matt Fraction took over the book, his first move was to resurrect Loki. It was not a good story. Thor suddenly decided that he couldn't live without his dear brother, and never mind that Loki had only ever caused destruction and pain. So he brought him back in some hand-waving plot device, but now Loki was a teenaged boy with no memory. This was not only a rehash of the teenaged Zeus just two years earlier in The Incredible Hercules, but Fraction had also just given Tony Stark amnesia to erase years of characterization he didn't like. In addition to this awkward status quo for Loki, Asgard itself was a big pile of rubble in Oklahoma. And that's when the editors decided that with a Thor movie coming out, it was the perfect time to have a second Thor book. So they gave Matt Fraction a well-marketed new #1 issue which would appeal to new readers, while asking Gillen to continue Thor's numbering for a story centered on Loki (since the fans had enjoyed his take on Loki so much) to appeal to the long-time fans. "Journey Into Mystery" was the original title of the 1960s Thor comic. Oh, and one more minor detail: this series would come out just as Fear Itself was starting, and Matt Fraction (the writer of Fear Itself) wasn't going to be dealing with that directly in The Mighty Thor. So for those seven months (in which ten issues were needed, because the business guys had just decided that they needed to make up for all their cancelled mini-series by speeding up their other comics) Journey Into Mystery would need to be in the crossover's status quo, where the Gods have left old Asgard for a new Asgard which they don't really settle into and then at the end there's suddenly a new status quo where they're living in a republic called Asgardia. And Loki plays a role in Fear Itself, so that would need to be acknowledged and not tampered with.

To summarize: the editors told Gillen to write a comic about a new character (with the name but little else of an old character), tie it into a shaky status quo where Thor's busy with other things, and sell it to fans as the true continuation of the original Thor comic. It sounds like they set him up to fail, but under those restrictions he managed to produce an epic fantasy so masterful that it has received nearly unanimous praise from critics and fans. There is a wonderful bit of phrasing in the narration to JIM 631 which sums up Kieron Gillen's skill in my mind. After three panels quickly filling the readers in on a bizarre story Fraction is telling in The Mighty Thor, the narrator says this:
"But that tale is for some other bard, and we have our own important and unfinished business to speak of. Because there are other things you should know. Things far from the light. Things others should know, but never will. For these mysteries are only for you..."
He takes the fact that he can only work in the margins of another writer's output, and makes it seem like a stylistic flourish!
There are many frustrations a casual reader will encounter when the comic they are reading enters a crossover. The story may skip forward in time to avoid repeating what another series (unread by said reader) has covered. Dozens of characters may show up with whom the reader has no familiarity (and which the story at hand has no reason to properly introduce). The series' pacing may be choppy, so as to match up with whatever else is coming out in the same month. And sometimes the reader is expected to accept that what's going on is very important because it ties in with some threat or other, when that plotline from the crossover has no emotional weight for this casual reader. A casual reader of the first Journey Into Mystery collection will appreciate that Kieron Gillen skillfully avoids every one of these pitfalls. JIM takes the time to set its own tone and pace, which is slow and thoughtful. A tight focus is maintained on the particular corner of the Marvel Universe that Loki inhabits, made up only of gods and demons. (In order to avoid the stampede of characters and plots, Loki's adventures take place outside any heroes' view.) Events from Fear Itself, when unavoidable, are described with the exciting efficiency of oral mythology, where massive events may happen from one sentence to the next. And rather than assuming that everyone will understand why the Serpent (Fear Itself's main villain) is being treated as an important threat, JIM gives the Serpent a prominent role in the proceedings (even though he is too busy to actually appear here). First the reader hears of the Serpent and the resulting upheavals, then Loki meets (and deals with) a servant of the Serpent (so the reader starts to get a sense of what's being dealt with, as a natural part of the plot), the reader is given flashbacks which flesh out the character of the Serpent beyond what was being done in other series (so that he feels like the main antagonist of the book), and finally there is a confrontation of sorts, which results in the end of Fear Itself #7, helpfully repeated in JIM #629.

In all these ways, Gillen goes farther than any other writer at Marvel at making sure that the story will actually work in the format it's collected in. But for me, trying to find a place for it in the context of the wider crossover, all these techniques make a linear collection more difficult. The entire middle of the story does not rely on any other comics to work -though New Mutants had a subpar tie-in which continued a plot point or two from there. The pacing and sense of momentum are so good that I would not want to interrupt them by switching to other series as I normally do. The tone is so radically different from anything else Marvel publishes that it would feel out of place with most of the Fear Itself comics (New Mutants included!). So I was sorely tempted to place Journey Into Mystery on its own, separate from Fear Itself. But that doesn't work either. If you read the Journey Into Mystery collection before Fear Itself, the ending of the crossover is completely spoiled and Matt Fraction's work (which isn't bad) loses its relevance. And if you read Fear Itself first, all the events of Journey Into Mystery's first volume feel like old news afterwards. Whichever one is read later is going to suffer for it, so they need to be together.

When trying to fit it in, the same problems of spoilers and mismatching styles are encountered on an issue-by-issue level. The first issue of Journey Into Mystery starts out presenting itself as an artful continuation from the end of Siege, which makes sense for Loki because that's when he died. It then depicts the relationship between Loki and Thor pre-Fear Itself, which illustrates how much of an outcast Loki is by showing us that there is only one person who doesn't despise him. And the story continues by setting up Kid Loki as an entertaining and fascinating character in his own right, before tying into the ending of Fear Itself #1. What do you do with that? It can't go before FI #1 because Fear Itself has nothing to do with Siege and the style of JIM would create the wrong expectations for the crossover, plus it would spoil the ending of FI #1. If it goes right afterward, it's slowing down the momentum of Fear Itself by going on about past crossovers and what life was like in the days before this crossover. The later after that, the more out of date it seems. And Journey Into Mystery is the best thing to come out of Fear Itself, so it needs to go somewhere.
My solution presented itself in the October 2011 solicitations:
• The critical Fear Itself prequel that couldn't be told until now!
• Discover the true story behind the Serpent & Odin's past!
When I read the issue, I was happy to find that it was exactly as advertised and would serve the function neatly.

(The first six issues of The Mighty Thor, featuring the story "The Galactus Seed", were released alongside Fear Itself, even though the Galactus story was set before Fear Itself. In an earlier post, I noted confusion about a prophecy referenced in the middle of Fear Itself that seemed to come from out of nowhere. That's because the issue of The Mighty Thor which introduced that plot point had not yet been published. I bring up this sidenote only to reflect that reading the monthly issues as they come out can be as awkward as the trade paperbacks.)

Because Fraction took the industry-standard six issues to tell a story that only needed two, The Mighty Thor (which you'd think would be the primary tie-in) did not deal with Fear Itself until the crossover was over, and then we got this "epilogue" that's actually a prologue. In this one issue, the entire mythological underpinning of the Asgardian conflict is spelled out in a way that actually increases the reader's investment in the crossover. (One reviewer said it should have come out months earlier.) I placed this issue in the middle of the crossover, after the story has been going for a while and is starting to lose its freshness. In that context, the changed tone and pace is a breath of fresh air, building on curiosity the reader already has about these characters. Once the reader has been lifted out of the linear narrative with this extended flashback, the story can start over from Loki's perspective without being too jarring. And then JIM's story can run uninterrupted.

This approach dictated a format for the rest of the crossover. The model I used in Civil War, where most of the tie-ins were fairly lightweight, was to constantly jump back and forth between series in ways which worked dramatically. For instance, the issue of Amazing Spider-Man where Spider-Man found out about government corruption was immediately followed by Black Panther where foreign leaders discussed the implications of American corruption. Jumping around made the story feel bigger and more interesting. But this time, JIM is not the only tie-in which works best when kept separate. A number of participating series are harmed by interruptions because they are so complex: specifically Gillen's Uncanny X-Men, McKeever's Youth in Revolt, and to a lesser extent Thunderbolts. So I found a middle ground between isolating stories and connecting them: stories which were designed with a crossover mentality were positioned issue-by-issue, and self-contained stories were unbroken. Complicating matters further, most tie-ins did not belong entirely to one camp or the other. Youth In Revolt #1 had to be very soon after Fear Itself #1 to not feel outdated, but I held the rest of the series for the middle of the crossover and made a new recap page in Youth In Revolt #2 to quickly reorient the reader. Then I ran through that entire series, all the way to the epilogue which was set after Fear Itself (with a spoiler which I don't think takes anything away). That was followed by Mighty Thor #7, and those two issues together thoroughly broke the linearity so as to lead in to Journey Into Mystery.
I decided to cut off Journey Into Mystery after just four issues. Then I wrapped up all the other battles. Avengers Academy switches halfway through from a heavy crossover to a self-contained plot, so I put the self-contained part here. The Uncanny X-Men battle with the Juggernaut works best on its own, though I was very careful with the order of the individual issues of other series where he makes his way toward them state by state, so that by the time he gets to San Francisco it already feels like a climax. Black Panther was uninterrupted (though it was hardly necessary), but I had put the first few pages earlier in the crossover for thematic reasons. I burned through the rest of Home Front and Spider-Man which I'd been spreading out through the crossover. After all these series, all that was left for Act 3 (and this was very deliberate) was four issues each of Fear Itself, Journey Into Mystery, and Invincible Iron Man, and I titled the folder "Humans and Gods".

Now here is a perfect example of why I love doing these complicated fan-edits. For the climax of the crossover, I switched back and forth between the story of Loki and the story of Pepper Potts (in Matt Fraction's Iron Man). This is a pairing which none of the writers or editors at Marvel intended, but which is such a perfect juxtaposition that (I hope) it enhances both stories and the crossover as a whole. Both characters are living in the shadow of famous Avengers. Both are new to the hero business, and both are in way over their heads. But there is a huge difference in tone between these two stories, because one character is a god and the other is a human. We expect Loki to make it through all the epic trials that come his way, because that's just how mythology works. Even the maneuvers he makes up on the spur of the moment feel like there is a precision behind them. Meanwhile, Pepper is just struggling to survive. The other humans in the story are a bunch of idiots who get themselves killed. Even for Tony, who knows what he's doing, the progressions of the plot seem fairly random and chaotic.

Now, of course this is really because the differences in how Kieron Gillen and Matt Fraction write. If Gillen were writing the tales of Pepper Potts I suspect she'd be a lot more capable and clever so that the plot would keep moving along at a brisk pace. But the fact remains that we have these two representatives of their planes of existence, and while one of them seems to revel in the randomness of it all the other is struggling to maintain her sanity. The difference between gods and superheroes (though they have similar mythologies) is that superheroes are ultimately just people, and even Captain America -who's usually shown in the most positive possible of lights- here is completely powerless and ends up yelling at gods and getting nowhere.

In the end it comes down to the non-powered humans standing up and turning the tide. But for the reader of the entire crossover, there's a problem in that: humans had already stepped up in Home Front #5, and the last two issues of that tie-in (which I deleted) moved past that. For FI #7 to go over the same thematic territory runs into the same problem of post-resolution irrelevance I've talked about, where the real ending ends up feeling like old news. This problem is mitigated by the order I chose: by creating the Loki/Pepper connection after Home Front #5, I built up new tension along the same thematic lines, for FI #7 to resolve.

The final threat of post-resolution irrelevance here was at the very end. JIM #629 can't be before FI #7 because it spoils the main story. And it can't be afterward because FI ends with a lovely little epilogue about the days afterward (I cut out the four other epilogues, which were just ads for other comics bearing little connection to the Fear Itself story.), after which it feels out of date to go back to the final battle. My solution? I split Fear Itself #7! The JIM issue goes in between the ending and the epilogue.

2012, January 30th

0 comments for this post