Tuesday, July 28, 2009
What’s So Cool About the Sub-Mariner?
As long as I’m digging into Aquaman’s past, it might (I hope!) be interesting to check out how Marvel worked with Sub-Mariner about the same time. And by “about the same time” I mean that it was only a couple of years after Aquaman reappeared in the ‘60s that Namor also made his Silver Age reappearance in the pages of The Fantastic Four.
I know even less about Namor’s Golden Age stories than I do about Aquaman’s (which is limited to a couple sentences I read on Wikipedia), but from Marvels and similar stories that talk about his WWII career I get the sense that he’s always been an anti-hero at best. The exceptions being the times he was an outright villain.
His encounters with the Fantastic Four paint him mostly as a villain, if a sympathetic one. That automatically makes him more interesting than Aquaman, who – in those days – was really nothing more than a cookie-cutter superhero with a water theme. None of this is surprising of course. It was absolutely typical for DC to create iconic, high-concept heroes and simply come up with wacky, high-concept adventures for them. Marvel, on the other hand, made its name by creating fascinating characters and then developing them over the course of their series.
Not that Aquaman had no character development (his meeting Aqualad and forming a relationship with Atlantis are two early examples) or that the Fantastic Four never had wacky, high-concept adventures (in fact, most of them were exactly that). But for the most part, Aquaman’s early stories can be read completely independently of each other and in practically any order without making you so much as blink in confusion.
The Fantastic Four’s adventures, on the other hand, built on each other. If a particular high-concept was successful (like Namor or Doctor Doom or the Skrulls were), then you could bet that not only would they return, but that their next story would so heavily reference the previous one that it would really just be a continuation of it. In short, Marvel had discovered serial fiction while – generally speaking – DC was just telling continuous stories with the same characters.
All of which is a very high-level view at the difference between the two characters. Having already dug into Aquaman a little, I want to do the same with Namor, if even more so. In looking at his early appearances in the Silver Age, I’m not going to focus much on his personality. One reason is that I’ve just covered that above, but a better reason is that that’s where everyone goes when discussing the difference between him and Aquaman. I think it’ll be far more interesting to look at Namor as a water-themed character. In other words, regardless of how grumpy he is, are his powers and his story more or less interesting than Aquaman’s?
Namor’s first Silver Age appearance is in Fantastic Four #4. In the previous issue, Johnny Storm, the Human Torch, left the group due mostly to the Thing’s constant pissing and moaning. I’m going to try to stay focused on Namor in these posts, but it’s worth mentioning that the Thing was extremely whiney in the early days. Not pleasantly grumpy like he can be around Johnny these days, but constantly complaining about everything. Everything was always about the Thing and how rough he had it.
You have to cut the guy a little slack, because physically he got the worst of the cosmic rays that gave the team their superpowers. But I quickly got tired of the Thing’s personality and I had the advantage of being able to close the book whenever I wanted. I don’t blame Johnny for taking off on his own.
Johnny knows that the others are going to look for him, so he heads to the roughest part of town he can find to lie low there for a while. Spending the night in a men’s hostel, he finds an old Sub-Mariner comic to read and coincidentally meets an amnesiac with incredible strength who bears a striking resemblance to Namor. Johnny figures out that it is Namor and takes the disoriented Atlantean to the ocean to jog his memory.
He drops Namor into the water and sure enough, Namor recollects who he is. He returns to his underwater city and finds it destroyed, the glow of nuclear radiation still pulsing from atomic tests. Namor doesn’t believe his people were destroyed, but he doesn’t know where to begin looking for them either. Ticked off, he returns to the surface and vows to take revenge on humanity.
As strong as he is, he’s not so cocky as to think he can go to war against the surface world all by himself. Fortunately, he knows the location of a sleeping, underwater behemoth named Giganto. And the Atlantean trumpet that will wake the monster up and control it.
Here’s an important difference between Namor and Aquaman. Aquaman fought his share of alien or mutated sea monsters, but they were always presented as the menace he was trying to overcome. And more importantly, they were always presented as being strange and irregular. Aquaman would use his mundane sea creatures to fight these things, ultimately sending them back to whatever world or dimension they came from. For Namor, Giganto is something that exists in his world all the time. It’s certainly not commonplace or mundane, but you get the feeling that Namor lives in a much more exciting place than Aquaman.
In fact, Namor says as much when he reveals that Giganto is just one of many sea monsters at his disposal. When the Fantastic Four defeat Giganto, Namor claims that it’s no big deal. He says that he can use the trumpet to “unleash a horde of undersea monsters such as mankind never dreamt of.” It’s only by disorienting Namor and making him lose the trumpet that the Fantastic Four are able to temporarily defeat him. The issue ends with the Thing’s worrying over Namor’s escape and Mister Fantastic’s bravely stating that the Four will be ready when Namor returns.
It’s not going to be so simple though. Namor proves a couple of times in this issue that he’s more than a match for the group in a straight-up fight. He appears to be stronger even than the Thing and at one point knocks all three of the Four’s men out at the same time. There’s really a lot of attention given to how powerful Namor is; another difference between him and Aquaman, who needs to call in some whales if he wants any heavy lifting done.
The final difference between Namor and Aquaman from this issue is that Namor falls in love. Aquaman’s too much of a bachelor-hero to have time for icky girls, but Namor’s smitten by Sue Storm, the Invisible Girl, as soon as he sees her. He calls her the loveliest human he’s ever seen and immediately offers to consider forgiving humanity if she’ll marry him. He may be in love, but he’s still a butthole.
Sue actually consents, but Namor senses that she’s only doing it because he’s forcing her and that ticks him off even more. Which is how we know that he really likes her. He’s in no position to romance her, but he’s not going to take her by force as an alternative. In his own, jerky, prideful way, refusing her reluctant agreement shows that his jerky, prideful proposal was at least genuine.
Namor does of course return, and only two issues later when Doctor Doom asks for his help in defeating the Fantastic Four. We’ll take a look at that next week and also see what kind of effect – if any – Namor’s had on Sue Storm.