Story I Read: "Defying the Magic of Mad Merlin" (Journey Into Mystery #96 Sept 1963)
I am now a good way into the early mythos of Thor and many questions are beginning to flood my mind. Of the many niggling ones, one over arcing macro query haunts me every time I read Mighty Thor. That question is: what is the nature of an Asgardian? Are they aliens as later comics attest, other dimensional beings or Gods and therefore divine? Thankfully this story begins to expand upon the difference between the legend and actuality.
Stan Lee presents us with two characters, that are quite well known throughout literature, and attempts to subvert our understanding of them. In the comics thus far, we have already come to know one of them, Thor, and have only vaguely heard of the other, Merlin. The Norse Thor is the benevolent and sometimes wrathful thunder god; an oxymoronic character, but show me a religious icon that isn’t. His religious self is infallible and unable to be faulted. Marvel’s Thor however, speaking from only what has been offered in Silver Age Marveldom thus far, is a heightened being that is in no way divine. In this story we learn that he needs to breathe. This seems like a self evident idea but serves as a revelation considering he does occasionally venture into space without the aide of oxygen. We learn, here, that Thor can hold his breath for a long time. Lee successfully busts this god’s divinity with this one idea and puts him on a playing field that is equal to the other mortal superheroes with which he shares Earth-616. He is not omnipotent and therefore able to have other nemeses other then his own kind.
When Merlin vacates his sarcophagus in 1963, we are presented with a second character that not only equals Thor in his supernatural powers, but also, what is more important, in his legend. Merlin, up to this point in literature, the 60s the being time of the renaissance of T.H. White and the popularity of the musical Camelot, is often depicted as a kind and wise magical sorcerer that prompted the mythical King Arthur to ascend and found the throne of England. Lee on the other hand depicts him as a malevolent Machiavellian wizard who uses human puppets to consolidate his “master plan,” which appears to be world domination. What a fantastic idea and wholly creative. Not only does this story call Merlin’s oft-believed motivations into question, it also suggests that there is nothing magical about his composition but that he is a human mutant, like the Fantastic Four or Spider-Man. Some suggest he is a maybe forerunner to the genetic mutants of X-Men. I’m not sure the back story presented here proves claim. Not to mention Uncanny X-Men is still very far in the Silver Age future and the idea of mutants in that sense is not yet present in Marveldom. The conjecture in the creation of Merlin as the first genetic mutant and therefore the basis for his later X-Men appearances is the work of over zealous fanboys.
Subversion of Legend vs. Reality is further used in the climax of the story. Thor usually beats his non divine enemies by using brute strength or some fancy hammer play. A strategy like this against Merlin is easily shot down, literally. After this failure, Thor instead uses his dubious human identity, Dr. Donald Blake, to fool Merlin into thinking that Asgardians are omnipotent and can change into any form they see fit. This not only causes the mad wizard to prostrate in surrender it more importantly plays with the power of icons. Thor’s possible and largely unsubstantiated divinity defeats Merlin. Thor’s reputation is more mysterious and ancient than Merlin’s so it causes the wizard to doubt himself. Thor’s legend is stronger. What an idea.
I know I spend many of these reviews harping on the hasty and often poorly thought out writing of Stan Lee but do not assume that these criticisms come from a disrespect for the father of Marvel. Sometimes he writes stories like these that show the far reaching literary power that comics can possess. This one is a 5 out of 5. It is an essential read that explains the difference between Marvel and DC. Whereas DC is all about the legend, Marvel is all about the reality. This story has far reaching impact and should be on all essential reading lists.