There's a nearly perfect book bearing the title Fear Itself on the shelves, and it's being written by Kieron Gillen.
Have I mentioned before how much I'm digging this book? Well, then allow me to continue to heap praise upon it. Journey Into Mystery isn't simply one of the best Fear Itself books on the shelves but one of the best titles Marvel is putting out right now. Writer Kieron Gillen brings such a great mix of elements to the book--humor, danger, strong characterization, actual mystery--that it creates a pang in the reader when you realize that at some point, Gillen's profile will rise and he'll likely leave Loki and Journey behind.
Let's look at why the book continues to work so well and why I think Gillen and Fraction should have switched roles in terms of who's writing what for Fear Itself.
One of the many virtues of Gillen's writing is his ability to juggle his plots and subplots. I first got a real sense of this in the short-lived, generally terrific S.W.O.R.D., where in short order, the writer put Abigail Brand and her E.T.-policing organization on a collision course with a sociopathic super computer, Brand's conman alien brother, the bounty hunter Death's Head, Norman Osborne's H.A.M.M.E.R., and a potential alien invasion over the course of four issues. S.W.O.R.D. was an iffy prospect, almost doomed from the start by being a kinda-sorta X-title (with the tenuous link of Hank McCoy), featuring mostly new or underutilized characters, and being the only space title not being written by Abnett and Lanning at the time (if I recall). Still, Gillen brought his A-game and the result was four pretty terrific issues.
The stakes are noticeably much higher with Fear Itself--this is Marvel's big Summer (leading into Fall) thing and Journey Into Mystery is supposed to put a bow on a lot of stuff that happened with Loki at the end of the last big thing. And Journey Into Mystery does both of those things in as much as they are things that need to be dealt with. But where he excels, and what makes this book work so well, is its sheer scope. Page count aside (22-pages, max) this is one of the biggest books Marvel's putting out right now, and it's that scope and revelry in the space god cosmology of the Marvel U that make it feel more like an Abnett and Lanning-style mini-event book.
I get the purpose of an event like Fear Itself: this is where you bring out all of the toys and smash them into each other to see what kind of noise they make. Sometimes, when you're picking up all of the scattered bits at the end you find new and interesting configurations for all of the bits. Sometimes you simply end up with a mess and just kind of hope no one notices. But no matter what, it's got to feel like a big deal. The problem with Fear Itself up until this point is that it really hasn't feel like much a big deal at all, despite several characters telling us that it is.
Consider this: Journey Into Mystery is working off some of the same plot basics of Fear Itself, i.e. the Serpent is back, Odin's flipping out, Earth and Asgard are in danger because of it. Fear Itself takes an Earthbound view of events, working mostly from what feels like a disaster film template of "bad things happen, then the heroes react, some characters you like die." Despite a couple of asides to Broxton, Oklahoma and Asgard, most of the action is confined to a couple of very well-rendered city streets in mid-town Manhattan.* Even now, five issues in, it's impossible to tell what the big bad thing is that the Serpent is going to do without going back to reread the book.
Contrast this with Journey which has zipped around locations as diverse as Hell, Hel, Newark, Limbo, and Asgard as Loki puts into motion his plan to combat the Serpent and stave off the clear terms of the destruction of Asgard. We haven't even seen the villain on-panel in this book, but we know his intentions and what the bad thing is that will happen if he's not defeated.
And here's where this book wins: as a reader, I care what happens to the new, improved, teeny Loki and his band of companions. Gillen clearly set the character up at the beginning of his run on a path to avoid becoming the Loki he was before. Absent all that baggage and history, he's got the potential to use his powers of mischief for good (or at least less evil). The thing is, everyone else still thinks he's up to something, which sometimes carries weight with fellow manipulators like Mephisto, and sometimes leads to old grudges being reawakened (particularly in this issue, where Surtur, the agent of Ragnarok remembers vividly how the trickster played him so thoroughly in the past). As with Fear Itself I know the principal characters in this book are unlikely to die, but then again, something much worse might happen: he might remain a slave to his reputation or worse, fall right back into his old ways. He might even get a little girlfriend out of all this.
The worst that could happen in Fear Itself: another death and likely resurrection for Cap, Iron Man, and Thor (although it'd be playing the same old game again since each character has taken their turn through the revolving door of death and "death" in the last couple of years).
You'll get a reader like me hooked when the consequence isn't simply New York getting smashed to bits (again) or throwing the Avengers in it and calling it a big deal: you'll win with me, you'll make me loyal to your story when you figure out--as Gillen has so masterfully done here--how to make it clear that the story not only matters to the character, but that it may change them by its conclusion. Dirtying them up in some kind of contrived conflict as the lead in to your next big thing... doesn't do this.
*I'm cheating here a little, of course, in omitting the scene in Paris and one, I think in the Himalayas, which are almost all confined to the second issue and kind of forgotten about in the main book.
Journey Into Mystery #626 is on shelves now.