Wednesday, August 6, 2014

When Enemies Become Frie... Well, Not-Quite-Enemies

It's interesting to think what direction Timely (later Marvel) Comics would have gone in if not for the Second World War. Would Captain America be the icon he is today? Would he have been created at all? Would the Sub-Mariner have morphed from anti-villain into a more-or-less hero?

When we first meet him, Namor ruthlessly kills a couple of deep-sea divers and considers himself to be at war with the surface world. He and the original Human Torch are arch-enemies, tangling with each other within the pages of Marvel Mystery Comics.

But the war changed all that. In what is one of my favorite Golden Age stories, Namor and the Atlanteans fight off a Nazi invasion fleet. He becomes a de facto partner with the Allies--he might not like us annoying surface dwellers in general, but he's particularly displeased with the Axis.

This changes his dynamic with the other Timely superheroes, particularly the Human Torch. The two still openly disliked each other, but they were willing to fight together against the Germans and the Japanese.

Their first big team-up came in Marvel Mystery Comics #17 (March 1941). Like many other Timely stories, this one was published before Pearl Harbor and the United States' entry into the war. One of the things that always impressed me about Timely is that they made no bones about being anti-Nazi early on, making no effort at all to tone things down to avoid annoying isolationists. (Though they weren't the only pop culture outlet to do this--Warner Brothers, Charlie Chaplin and the Three Stooges also deserve credit for slamming the Axis before it was politically correct to do so.)

In their first team-up, the Torch is surprised to get a message from Namor asking to meet. Though they do fight for a couple of panels, Namor finally manages to convince the Torch that he needs help fighting the real bad guys. (In a nice bit of continuity, Namor mentions that his Atlantean forces were badly decimated when the Germans attacked his homeland.)

Namor has information that the Axis are digging a tunnel across the Bering Strait to invade the U.S., something that confirms information the Torch had obtained in the previous month's issue. The two investigate and are soon tussling first with a U-Boat and then a torpedo boat.

They find an entrance into the tunnel through a volcano. What follows is an extended and very entertaining fight scene, with both the Torch and Namor getting chances to kick some Axis butt and earn their own individual Crowning Moments of Awesome. For the most part, the German and Japanese troops they encounter don't stand much of a chance, but the situation gets more dangerous
when an explosive and incapacitating gas leaks into the tunnel. Namor is knocked out on two different occasions and briefly captured once, but in the end the two heroes (with a little help from the remnants of the Atlantean fleet) manage to breach the tunnel walls and flood it, preventing the invasion.

When they find their way out of the tunnel, they end up in Juneau, Alaska, where Namor promptly annoys and then slugs a cop. But stopping an Axis invasion is an effective Get-Out-Of-Jail free card, so nothing comes of that.

Carl Burgos (the Torch's creator) did most of the pencil work, though Bill Everett drew his creation Namor. The shared art looks great, helping to move the story along at a fast-pace with one effective action scene after another.

And so Namor and the Torch, if they never really become friends, at least become allies. They fought together on the All-Winners Squad and were later retconned as teammates on the Invaders. So we'll never know what would have become of Namor had the Nazis not forced him to become a hero. Maybe the character would have been largely forgotten; maybe he'd be a major villain in the modern Marvel Universe. It's an interesting path for a character to take--from a killer in his first appearance to a hero before two years have passed.

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