Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Comics, Radio and the Prelude to War, Part 3

Like Warner Brothers, Timely Comics (the company that would eventually become Marvel Comics), made no concessions to isolationists at all. As far as they were concerned, the Nazis had to be fought and stopped--the sooner the better.

Captain America is the most overt example of this, as he and his teenage sidekick Bucky battled Nazi spies right from the get-go. (Cap's first issue was cover-dated March 1941, months before we entered the war.)

But other Timely characters did their share for freedom as well. The Sub-Mariner joined the fray when a fleet of German U-Boats attacked the undersea kingdom of Atlantis in Sub-Mariner #1. Namor, who until then had been an anti-hero, takes charge of the defense when his Emperor is apparently killed in the initial blitzkreig.

What follows is a well-told war story that covers the tactics Namor and his people use against the invaders. Small submersibles fight a desperate underwater dog fight with the U-Boats. When the German craft are driven to the surface, cannon mounted atop icebergs and inside artifical whales open fire on them. It's all very well crafted. Writer/artist Bill Everett presents the action effectively and comes up with some nifty designs for the both the German super U-Boats and the Atlantian craft. We understand the tactical situation perfectly as the battle progresses.

It's also interesting that Everett presents the Atlantians as having suffered huge casualties, including innocent civilians. He's giving us a fantasy version of warfare, of course, but he's not letting us forget the real-life cost of battle.

In the climax, a single U-Boat tries to escape. Namor pursues it alone. He fights hand-to-hand with some Germans in diving suits, damages the U-Boat severely and then finishes it off by pushing down below its crush depth. It was primarily a well-told science fiction/war story. But it was also one of many strong comments from a number of comic book artists and writers that there is indeed evil in the world and that evil must be confronted.

Other pre-war Timely comics also hammered at this theme. Namor even called a truce with his arch-enemy--the Human Torch--so that the two of them could team up to stop a German/Japanese invasion of Alaska (with the enemy using a tunnel to sneak their troops past the border.)

These issues aren't always as clear-cut as they were in 1941--today, people of good conscience argue both for and against our presence in Iraq. But the Timely World War II stories (with a little help from Superman, Milt Caniff, and Harry Warner) remind us that sometimes we have no choice but to fight for our freedom. As George Orwell once said: "We are free because rough men stand ready in the night to do violence on our behalf."

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