By Kayleigh Hearn
Horror can be born anywhere. As commonly as it is conceived on cold laboratory slabs or nursed in festering tombs, horror can grow even in paradise — in sun-dappled beaches and shivering coconut trees and soft beds of moss. For Sergeant Nick Fury and his Howling Commandos, trapped in a burning plane over the Pacific, the island of Krakoa seems like salvation. But Krakoa’s sunny skies are blackened by the long shadow of The Bomb, and the island offers the Commandos only mutation and madness.
We can’t discuss this comic without first dissecting the title. Journey into Mystery: The Birth of Krakoa is a 2018 one-shot aimed at the past like a missile. It harkens back to the original Journey into Mystery series of the 1950s; before introducing Marvel’s Thor, it was a giant monster book featuring behemoths with short, percussive names like ZOG, RORGG, and SHAGG. Introduced as the first adversary of the All-New, All-Different X-Men in Giant-Size X-Men #1, Krakoa (“The Island That Walks Like a Man!”) does feel like Zog and Shagg’s long-lost brother.
The Birth of Krakoa is a homage to the standalone horror stories that predated the Marvel Universe as we know it but framed as a missing piece of Marvel lore. Continuity strangles it like a vine. This is a title closely associated with Thor, set on a location from X-Men, and starring Nick Fury and the Howling Commandos. Got all that? This could generously be called that most horrific of things, a crossover. Or, in the case of one ill-fated Commando, a mossover.
Scripted by Dennis “Hopeless” Hallum, The Birth of Krakoa begins with Nick Fury piloting a military transport ship in 1945. Fury changes course to give the haggard Howling Commandos a chance to sleep – but they wake up to a nightmare, as Fury has flown them close to the American military’s latest nuclear testing site: Krakoa. As the bomb obliterates the island’s surface, Fury’s plane catches fire; the Commandos parachute into the sea, but their sergeant lands the plane somewhere on Krakoa. Only Izzy Cohen understands the danger in front of them. He’s seen top-secret photos of the bomb, and says with deadly urgency, “The last place on Earth we want to be right now—is on that island.”
As the Howling Commandos straggle onto the beach, they exit a war story and enter a horror story. Djibril Morissette-Phan illustrates this transition seamlessly; his art has a muscular, classic style that could sit on the stands next to the Silver Age Journey into Mystery comics without sliding into pastiche. Nick Fury is fittingly square-jawed and unshaven, and Morissette-Phan establishes an ominous mood with thick, heavy swatches of black.
Howling Commando Gabe Jones makes the first eerie discovery on the island, namely glowing mud (a Hulk-ishly gamma-green, courtesy of colorist Rachelle Rosenberg) oozing out of the ground. Jones thoughtlessly wipes the mud on himself; by morning, half his body is covered by a scaly, regenerating moss. From ecological horror to psychological horror: Izzy Cohen cracks under the fear of contracting radiation sickness and imagines that his fellow Commandos are the walking dead—pale, blistered, mutated. Cohen is a stock horror character here, The “I Tried to Warn You” Guy, known for holding his head in his hands and muttering “We’re already dead” to his clueless friends. Still, it’s hard not to sympathize since the Howling Commandos should be well and truly fucked.
Or they would be, if their leader wasn’t a famous Lee-Kirby character deeply entrenched in the Marvel Universe.
And what of Nick Fury? Our hero falls into the belly of the beast after being swallowed by a black pit. Morissette-Phan draws underground tunnels like arteries as Fury is swept away by the water that makes up Krakoa’s blood, finally reaching the green growing mass that is the living island’s heart. In keeping with the origin presented in Giant-Size X-Men #1, the atomic bomb’s radiation has mutated Krakoa into a living hive mind, creating an island that walks (and talks!) like a man. “YOUUUU DID THISSSSS!” Krakoa howls in Fury’s face. Fury grudgingly admits his culpability in the dropping of the bomb as a member of the U.S. military. Fury being Fury, he’s also able to cut a deal with the island, and just in time. Because above ground, Gabe Jones has been subsumed by the irradiated moss, terrifying a trigger-happy Izzy Cohen.
Perhaps it’s apparent at this point that as much as Journey into Mystery: The Birth of Krakoa is indebted to giant monster comics of decades past, it also owes a lot to a more recent piece of science fiction. Enter Annihilation – either Jeff VanderMeer’s original 2014 novel or Alex Garland’s film adaptation, released to theaters in 2018 only a few months before this issue saw print. Both stories feature a small, same-sex group of soldiers entering an ecosystem where an outside force has mutated plants and animals. In both, characters mutate into plant hybrids or psychologically disintegrate, and they climax with the protagonist making contact with an intelligence at the source of the mysterious power. I am making an observation, not an accusation – there are significant differences between Annihilation and The Birth of Krakoa – but the similarities are hard to forget.
Thinking about Annihilation compared to Journey into Mystery: The Birth of Krakoa leads me to the comic’s ultimately disappointing ending. Annihilation exists within itself (as either a book series or the film) to tell its story; there are lasting, terrifying changes to the characters and the world they inhabit. In The Birth of Krakoa, Nick Fury and the Howling Commandos are protected by an invisible but ever-present plot bubble, even in an irradiated hellscape. As well-established Marvel characters with their final fates far ahead of them, there’s no doubt that they will survive the ordeal. This isn’t necessarily damning to the story (it comes with the territory in long-running superhero fiction) but the tossed-off happy ending does a disservice to the horror that preceded it, blowing the uncanny atmosphere away as if it were smoke.
In the end, Fury pops out of the ground, having struck a bargain with the living island. Krakoa will absorb all the surrounding radiation in exchange for the Commandos keeping Krakoa’s powers a secret from other humans. The scene then transitions to their eventual rescue, and…they’re fine! Everything’s fine! How did Gabe Jones, last seen consumed by a mutant plant and screaming “It’s behind my eyes! It’s in my mouth!” get better? No idea. Did Izzy Cohen recover from the psychotic break that led him to shoot at his friend? I guess so! Weren’t the Howling Commandos already exposed to Godzilla-levels of nuclear radiation? You would think!
This neat, pat ending lacks the ironic bite or the stirring pathos of the best 20th century giant monster fiction. In spite of its artistic strengths, the story feels rather moot, even before we acknowledge the irradiated elephant in the room that is House of X and Krakoa’s brand-new origin. The Birth of Krakoa isn’t actually the birth of Krakoa – in 2019, Jonathan Hickman established that it wasn’t born by bomb; it has been a sentient mutant island for thousands of years. (Not that you can blame Krakoa for still being pissed that we nuked it.) As a piece of Marvel history, Journey into Mystery: The Birth of Krakoa is its own strange little island, alone in a big blue sea.
Journey into Mystery: The Birth of Krakoa
Writer: Dennis “Hopeless” Hallum
Artist: Djibril Morissette-Phan
Colourist: Rachelle Rosenberg
Letterer: Travis Lanham
Kayleigh Hearn is the comics reviews editor for WomenWriteAbout Comics, and has written for publications including The MNT and Deadshirt. You can drop some money in her Ko-Fi account right here, and follow her on Twitter here!
This post was chosen by Shelfdust Patrons! Each month we hold a vote to see which comics we’ll cover next – to find out more (and to make your own suggestions), head to our Patreon page here!