Monday, November 25, 2013

Marvels: Strange Tales #107

"The Master of Flame vs. the Monarch of the Sea!" by Stan Lee, Larry Lieber & Dick Ayers
(April 1963)

One of the things that's so interesting about the Marvel Universe in its infancy is just how willing Stan, Jack and company are to look back and pull forward great elements that worked back in the Timely and Atlas days. And they weren't shy about admitting it, either. One of my favorite things about the re-introduction of Namor the Sub-Mariner back in Fantastic Four #4 is that the entire reason Johnny was able to restore Namor's memories was that he had read the old issues of Sub-Mariner Comics that Timely and Atlas had published when he was a child. Namor was both real and a comic book, just like the Fantastic Four were revealed to be both real and a comic book. Stan Lee basically said hey, remember those old comics we used to publish? We're bringing that guy back.

Namor's not the last character from Marvel's past that will return. And heck, even some of the great one-off Marvel monsters from issues of the sci-fi/monster anthology books will make their appearances in the future, like Groot, Goom, or Fin Fang Foom. And, of course, Captain America and Ka-Zar, both characters from the early days (Ka-Zar, like Namor, made his first appearance in Marvel Comics #1), are coming back.

The Human Torch himself is a modernization of the original Human Torch, who also first appeared in Marvel Comics #1. The original Torch was an android created by Professor Phineas T. Horton. Johnny Storm is an update. One that would cause legal issues, actually.

In the spirit of those old days, Stan and Larry have cooked up a story that serves as both an exciting spectacle and a nod to the past. The Human Torch and the Sub-Mariner have faced off before, but in this issue of Strange Tales, the entire Torch solo story is devoted to the two matching their strength against one another. It's a nod specifically to Marvel Mystery Comics #8 and 9, when the Marvel Universe sort of really begins. Then editor-in-chief Joe Simon, apparently inspired by National's All-Star Comics #3 (which pulled many of the company's characters into the same story as the Justice Society of America) decided to have the Sub-Mariner and the Human Torch fight one another, and the idea of a shared universe was born back in 1940.

I love Stan Lee and Larry Lieber and Jack Kirby and everyone involved for bringing it back, modernizing it, and making it special.

Just for the hell of it, here's the splash page from Marvel Mystery Comics #9:

Click it and look at it full-size. Isn't it fantastic? Look at those signatures. The story was written by Bill Everett, creator of the Sub-Mariner, and drawn by Carl Burgos, creator of the Human Torch.

Jack Kirby's nod to it on the cover:

This is the 46th installment of Marvels that I've done so far, and this handily replaces Fantastic Four #3 as my favorite Marvel cover so far.

So... can you tell that I really enjoyed this issue?

The story itself is pretty lean. Johnny, tired of being left out of the rest of the team's business (because he's a teenager and they're adults), decides to show everyone he's their equal by challenging the Sub-Mariner to a fight, itching to give the guy a definitive defeat.

The fight itself is pretty neat. The whole fight takes place over and in the ocean itself, so Namor's powers never start to wane, and each of the two has the upper hand at various times. Neither one holds back, either. Johnny tries to drive Namor into an iceberg, which Namor avoids by puffing up like a puffer fish. Namor uses an ancient statue to hypnotize the Torch and then punches him hard with an asbestos-wrapped fist. (I have no idea where Namor just found a piece of asbestos cloth under the ocean, but who cares? This story's too darn fun to nitpick.) Then the Torch actually chases Namor through the water, burning so hot that the water around him evaporates, giving him an air pocket to breathe in. (Why not?) The Torch buries Namor in rock, but almost drowns doing it. And, of course, Namor frees himself. But both have been pushed to their limits and come away with a new respect for one another's powers and determination.

It's not a story that really changes anything, but it's a lot of fun. Every so often, you just need a story where the creators go all-out with the action, and to see both Johnny and Namor shaken by the experience is a nice character touch.

Definitely a favorite issue.

Stray observations:

:: Sue's still got that signed 8x10 of Namor, although I notice it's framed now.

:: The catalyst for Johnny's anger at always being left out? The rest of the FF were writing up their notes for the next issue of Fantastic Four!

:: I wonder when time consciously gets slowed down in Marvel storytelling. In this story, Reed mentions last issue's misadventure with the Acrobat as having occurred "last month," and the FF are beginning to refer to themselves as having been around for a year.

:: Johnny gets off to a bad start when he tries to find Namor, having to land and rest on a ship in the middle of the ocean because he's exhausted his flame. The captain, believing he's a stowaway and not the Human Torch, puts him to work swabbing the deck!

:: I always imagine Sub-Mariner with a voice like Michael Ansara's. Not sure why. That kind of works, though, right?

:: I love the bit where Namor knocks out Johnny, then ties him to the back of a dolphin and orders the dolphin to take Johnny back to civilization.

:: That ancient statue is pretty amazing.

:: Dick Ayers' artwork in this story is fabulous! He's so perfectly suited to this title and to the Torch's style of stories. At this point, with the artists shifting a little bit, I think they've got a few of the "right" artists for some of their books. Jack Kirby's clear style is perfect for Fantastic Four and their science adventures, Steve Ditko is doing a bang-up job on making a scrawny kid a believable hero in Amazing Spider-Man (and would have been doing a hell of a job on Incredible Hulk, I believe, if they'd kept going), I love the way Don Heck is starting to draw Ant-Man stories as though they're pulp spy stories, and Dick Ayers' Human Torch is a great mix of kinetic action and character. I love it!

:: Check out some of the World War II era covers of Timely Comics sometime. There's a lot of insanely creepy racial caricaturing, but it's neat seeing Namor, the Human Torch, and Captain America fighting side by side.

I usually run the gamut from ambivalent to dismissive with the Human Torch's solo stories, but I really love this one. Great work, all around.

Next time: Iron Man gets a paint job.


bliss_infinte said...

"I wonder when time consciously gets slowed down in Marvel storytelling"

One of my favorite aspects of these comics as well was how much 'in the real world' they were. There's a great and slightly obsessive analysis on the FF, the Marvel universe and take on that very subject. It's interesting because it ties in with the sale of Marvel comics in 1968 (and the emphasis on 'brand') and the birth of Franklin Richards (the most powerful mutant?). It's a great read (if you have a couple of hours or days to kill) and centers on the FF.

bliss_infinte said...

A slightly more accurate link to the Real Time and Marvel Time elements in the post above:

Mike_D said...

Did you see the recreation of this fight in Alex Ross' Marvels?

SamuraiFrog said...

Bliss: Thanks for the link!

Mike: Oh, yes. I loved the way that series recreated so many milestones as a linear history.

Slightly off subject, but I wish someone at DC would do something similar in a miniseries, giving us the history of the DCU, the milestones, but with real-time aging and tying in historical events. Just seems like a neat idea.