Friday, July 19, 2013

Marvels: Fantastic Four #4

"The Coming of... Sub-Mariner!" by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby & Sol Brodsky
(May 1962)

Jumping back in where we left off in the previous issue: the Fantastic Four seem to be falling apart at the seams without Johnny around. Tensions are running high, with Sue a mess and Reed and Ben at each other's throats. It's almost too intense, until the three split up to track down Johnny and Stan and Jack show us invisible Sue being mistaken by an onlooker for some kind of ghost, which is a cheesy gag but the boys seem to dig it. (Second time they've used it.)

Of course, Johnny's just hanging out with his hot rod buddies, working on engines, and of course it's Ben who finds him first, leading to another of their fights. Ben's so angry he actually brandishes a car at the Torch, and you'd be forgiven for worrying that Ben's just going to go ahead and kill him. The Thing's anger in this issue is so palpable it's actually scary. And then Ben actually turns human again in yet another of those brief instances that are so depressing. This poor guy! God damn it, it's just... it's not fair, man.

I just want to cry every time it happens! That's three times in four issues now. Look how sad he is. That's an emotion Jack Kirby is crushingly good at conveying.

The big news for this issue, of course, is the return of Prince Namor, the Sub-Mariner!

The Sub-Mariner, created by Bill Everett, first appeared in the very first Timely Comics publication, Marvel Comics #1, where the company will eventually adopt as its name. (Technically at this point, FF is being published by Canam Publishers Sales Corp, one of 59 shell companies for Atlas. Technically, Marvel Comics as the actual company didn't start until 1973, true believer. Bully has an interesting write-up of the whole thing here.) Namor began as a villain, often facing the original Human Torch (the android one), and then began aiding the Allies during World War II. He starred in his own comic throughout the forties and into the fifties and was quite popular. Here, he's going to be a villain once more, but a complex one with a lot of shading to him.

I really like the way he's re-introduced. Johnny, wandering through the Bowery and staying at a transient men's hotel for the night, finds an old Sub-Mariner comic from the '40s. (Once again, one of my favorite things about the Marvel Universe is how Marvel Comics exist within it.) Johnny, a fan, wonders whatever happened to the Sub-Mariner and finds an old bum living in the place who, like the Sub-Mariner, also has superhuman strength. After applying a bit of fire to the bum's hair and beard (no burns--he's good with that thing), it turns out the transient is the Sub-Mariner, but with pretty bad amnesia. So, Johnny simply flies Namor over the water, drops him in the drink, and Namor's memory and vigor is restored. That's how it works, right?

But, in a '60s sci-fi touch, Namor excitedly returns to his undersea kingdom, only to discover his people gone and the city in radioactive ruins, unknowingly destroyed by undersea atomic bomb tests! Namor is instantly filled with hatred and anger, holding the surface world responsible for the loss of his people, and uses an ancient trumpet to raise a monster called Giganto to go on a rampage, declaring war on mankind.

Good work, Johnny!

The real drama of the issue comes, though, when Sue tries to steal the trumpet and Namor instantly falls in love with her, offering to call off his rampage if she'll only return to the ocean with him and be his bride. The fun thing here is that you can tell she's really conflicted about her answer.

Here's the thing about Namor: he's an old-fashioned sexist. He basically demands right away that Sue be his bride, and if she doesn't, he vows to drive humanity back to the caves. When she does agree to a marriage in order to save everyone, Namor's offended that she's not honored to be in the position she's in. I mean, what kind of guy just forces that choice on someone? Right now, he's not in love with Sue the person, the way he is later. Right now, she's a consolation prize for losing his kingdom, his people, and years of his life. She's an object. I know my wife is Team Namor (because, let's face it, Reed's a jerk), but you can see why she feels like she's making a huge sacrifice: she is!

Namor's so offended that he can't go through with it, vowing now to take the world and the girl (he says it like that), pissing an already volatile Johnny off so bad that we see the strongest use of his powers yet: he creates a powerful tornado (air pressure and heat) that blows Namor back into the ocean. The trumpet is lost in the flight, so Namor can only swear to return. And he will, of course, having become the first great villain of both the Fantastic Four and the embryonic Marvel Universe!

Other observations:

:: Mr. Fantastic is a pretty high-handed jerk in this issue, more so than in the previous three. At one point, he wants to asking a passing motorcyclist if he's seen the Human Torch, so rather than flag the poor guy down, Reed merely reaches out and plucks him off his moving bike. He also simply grabs a passing helicopter by its wheel to question its occupants. Thanks, jerk!

:: Giganto, by the way, is one of my favorite Kirby monsters. He looks like a giant sperm whale with arms and legs. I also love the way they fight and kill Giganto: the Thing straps a giant nuclear bomb to his back, walks down Giganto's throat, and sets it off. That's just charmingly audacious. (Also, the Thing can apparently survive a nuclear blast.)

:: In the letters page, Stan offers $5 to anyone who can explain an error that a reader pointed out back in issue #2. Like a precursor to the No-Prize.

Also, this letter threw me off:

Lousy printers: I thought the reader was asking for BLOGS. How weird would that have been to find, eh?

:: This is the first issue explicitly set in New York City. This is also the first time Johnny Storm yells "Flame on!"

:: This was the Sub-Mariner's first appearance in a comic book since the final issue of Sub-Mariner Comics in 1955. What I love about his reappearance here is that it gives the Marvel Universe a larger sense of history. So now we know for sure, from a continuity standpoint, that the Fantastic Four are not the first superpowered beings in this fictional world. There's the Sub-Mariner and any character he was involved with, including the original Human Torch. And this, of course, sets the stage for the eventual return of Timely's most popular character of the '40s, Captain America. On the one hand, this is Atlas using a character it already owns and reinvigorating him; on the other hand, this is a great way to enlarge the universe we're seeing, making it more than just the Fantastic Four. (Ant-Man isn't even official yet!)

This issue of Fantastic Four is the best one yet, offering the FF a real threat that will pay off for years to come. It's actually--no pun intended--pretty fantastic.

Next: the answer to the question plastered all over this issue:


Roger Owen Green said...

The Sub-Mariner was my favorite character. Started reading Sub-Mariner with the return of Bill Everett to the character. Loved The Defenders.

SamuraiFrog said...

I always thought the Defenders were really neat. Every time they've tried to relaunch The Defenders in the past 20 years, it's been as a comedy for some reason, and that approach only worked once (because it was Keith Giffen and JM DeMatteis).