Review:Journey into Mystery #96

“Defying the Magic of Mad Merlin”,Published: July 2nd,1963
Writer: Stan Lee &Robert Bernstein,Penciler: Joe Sinnott,Inks: Joe Sinnott,Letters: Artie Simek

This issue perplexed me. If you’ve been reading along the last few days,it’s been a little rough. I think that’s why this issue got the better of me at first. I wasn’t too crazy to see Merlin used as a villain and Jane gives a wonderful tongue lashing to Blake about his responsibilities as doctor,but it basically goes unheard.

I decided I wasn’t in the right mood to read it and waited a bit to come back to it with fresh eyes. It turns out that it still wasn’t that great of a story,but it did have some entertaining bits and I’m glad I waited for a better frame of mind to read it.

A rare panel where he's not
lamenting how much he loves her.

The best written part of the book is at the beginning. Thor returns home after saving a school bus to find Jane especially surly. See,Blake left her with an office full of patients when he “locked himself in the lab” an hour prior. I don’t feel like it was meant to be,but it’s the most dramatic part of the book. It touches on the problems that superheroes have balancing the needs of their regular lives. It touches upon his relationship with Jane (although he’s not nearly concerned enough over upsetting her). It was really a fantastic sequence,but it really only served as the lead-up to a flashback about where Thor was for the last hour and to setup a the trite last panel.

Thor spent the last hour saving a submerged bus,but I found myself not caring about the bus. When I came back to read it again,I still didn’t care. I still don’t care. I love reading these old issues – even the bad ones,but it’s time like this,when potential is all but quashed,that I get frustrated. I feel like the writers wanted me to dismiss Jane as easily we Blake was,but she was right. He was being a dick. Running off an office full of patients? Not worrying about the viability &reputation of his practice? Sure,he saved a school bus full of children,but he still needs to be Donald Blake too. That’s what Jane was saying without even knowing what the real problem was.

Let's face facts,they're all covered
in vomit. Happy to be alive,sure,but
happy to be alive and covered in vomit.

And so,as we went into flashback to save the bus,I just didn’t care. And it didn’t help that he saved it by tying it to his hammer,whirling it around [underwater] and throwing it up onto dry land all the way to the east terminal. And,of course,the hammer magically disconnects and returns to him. I almost wish I hadn’t put up the mini-rant about it last issue,because it fits so much better here. That might become my first Thor “pet peeve”.

With that first quarter of the story over,we move on to the main attraction. The cover featured Thor vs. the Mad Merlin! This guy claims to be the real Merlin (and a mutant,ironically),but it’s my understanding he’s later retconned into not being Merlin,but a human who was long ago experimented on by aliens and mutated.

I blame the costume. That moon &
stars motif was lame even back then.

Merlin enters the story awkwardly. First,he’s strangely buried in an ornate sarcophagus. Then,the museum personnel just open it like a Tupperware container to discover that his body is perfectly preserved. And,my favorite,they’re so stunned and amazed,that they all leave. They leave the sarcophagus open too. Merlin,not dead,but in a centuries long slumber,wakes and treats us to a quick flashback that explains he was a mutant with telepathy and telekinetic powers. Then,he puts his plan into its next phase. His plan? I kid you not,it’s becoming a key adviser to the President. He wants his old adviser/string-puller job back,see? But before he sets off to get his job as White House Chief of Staff,he takes a moment to test his powers and throws a rocket off course. This serves two purposes:1) it alerts Thor to something fishy going on and 2) hilariously implicates Loki since he did the same thing not two issues ago. Thor simply stops the missile and heads up to Asgard to bitch at Loki. Creepy,still-stalking-Thor Loki,laughs him off and tells him it was Merlin.

Merlin,meanwhile,is having a rough time sticking with the plan. Hearing that Thor interfered with his rocket test,he switches gears and hits up a police station so get Thor’s attention. The cops laugh him off as a loon dressed like a wizard. Instead of using his powers to identify himself,he gets pouty and leaves to resume his search for the President. He doesn’t just burst in like you’d expect either. No,he shows up the front door and inexplicably gets taken to see the “Press Secretary”who denies his request. He teleports off angry and searches the White House on his own. No alarm is sounded,no alert,no one even bothered to warn the President because Merlin finds JFK (&his daughter Caroline),but dismisses him as too young,and keeps looking.

Look,it's Pierre Salinger!!

Then,Thor arrives. He actually smashes in through a White House window,but this still draws no attention from any of the White House staff. Then again,no one noticed that Gandalf was skulking about the place for the last hour either. The two start to fight and the reader inexplicably finds themselves out on the National Mall with no explanation.

Two issues ago,when Thor was evil,he &Loki smashed iconic landmarks the world over,but for the United States,they kept it simple,choosing to only destroy the Golden Gate Bridge. I had wondered if they were avoiding destroying political landmarks,but here,two issues later,we get to play with those. Merlin throws the Washington Monument at Thor,but he deflects it with his hammer – expertly knocking it back where it belongs with a single blow. Merlin buries him under the Pentagon,but he escapes. Merlin animates Abraham Lincoln to rise from his chair,but Thor blows him back into his chair with a hilarious stone-on-stone “plop!”

And so,Merlin gives up his dream
of being White House Chief of Staff.

Sadly,we’re treated to a familiar foible of these early issues. Just when things are starting to get good,we find ourselves on the last page. Thor decides that he and Merlin are too equally matched (I don’t know how) and gambles on a novel idea to revert to Blake. He tricks Merlin into thinking he’s a shapeshifter (somehow that makes him much more powerful than the telekinetic/teleporting Merlin) and gets him to agree to return to his tomb and sleep for another thousand years (remember when Thor wasn’t content to let the future deal with his problems?).

The story closes with Blake saving a patient’s life on the operating table,amazing Jane,and giving her reason to recant her earlier annoyance.

These last few issues,I keep coming back to the notion of wasted potential. There are two fronts where it’s being wasted these early issues:treating Blake &Jane as important characters and the lack of Norse mythology. I’ve been told that Lee taking on the full writing duties next issue and Kirby’s return in a few issues will really throw the book deep into Norse myth,but I hope they’ll address more of what’s going on in Blake’s personal life. This issue kicks off Thor’s second year and we still don’t really understand where Blake stops and Thor starts nor have we had any development in his “un”relationship with Jane. Normally,I’d accept that in these older comics,but the beginning of this story was so good and it makes me want to see more from that angle,but it was also so easily dismissed in this issue that I don’t have a lot of faith that’ll be revisited soon enough.

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As we close,here’s a bigger look at the cover of #96 along with some selected panels.

The Cover and a look at Thor playing with our national monuments.

10 comments to Review:Journey into Mystery #96

  • Merlin dismisses JFK as being too young? Seriously? That’s awesome! And the image of Thor smashing thru a White House window seems almost too ridiculous,even for a silver age story –Something about it makes me think of a DC book before a Marvel one during this era for some reason.
    This isn’t meant to be critical,because I sincerely enjoy your entire approach –more of an observation:I realize that the exchange between Blake and Foster got your hopes up,but it sounds as if you’re holding the stories up to the standards that would be more in line with the sophisticated books of the late 80s and on. I love silver age stories,but I can’t recall any that adhere to the in depth character study you’re imagining. If it does ever happen,it’s pretty erratic,like the aforementioned scene ‘tween Doc &Jane –not part of a larger vision.
    Anycrap,keep up this massive undertaking –it’s goin’great!

  • Daniel Lynch

    Thanks,Jakethy. Criticisms and observations are welcome! I’m still working out exactly how to approach these articles.

    I’m particularly iffy on how to approach the level of storytelling. I’ve read my fair share of Superman,GL,JLoA,&Spider-Man stories from this period,so I have a general idea what to expect for the next few months as I cover the early years. My conflict is that they could’ve been written with the sophistication found in the opening of this book and so I don’t feel like they should get a free pass completely.

    This issue was a good example of this I think. Either Stan’s plot or Bernstein’s dialogue just drifted too far down this interesting path. I’m fairly certain they intended for me to think Jane was being stuffy and that Blake was in the right,but it just doesn’t read that way anymore –if it ever did. So,in this issue,I definitely wanted to go after it a bit.

  • AdventureVault

    I don’t think it’s wrong to expect more sophisticated story telling elements from these early stories. You have to keep in mind that Will Eisner and Mort Weisinger had already been writing those types of complex stories since the 40′s.

    If the Thor writers are willing to copy certain ideas from Superman,then they should also try to imitate how well it was written.

  • De

    Next issue begins the Tales of Asgard stories,which are pretty cool if somewhat nutty.

  • Allreed

    That Merlin character really gets around. He probably ends up with one of the worst backstories in all of comics.

  • InnoG

    Boy,the egg will be on merlin’s face when he wakes up! O.O

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