With the return of superheroes to Marvel Comics’ publishing plate in 1961, Marvel Editor Stan Lee found himself with an unexpected success on his hands in the burgeoning hit series THE FANTASTIC FOUR. While the initial conceit had been to do a superhero book that wasn’t like superhero books, without costumes and secret identities, Lee soon found himself falling into old habits, and by the third issue had dressed his characters in matching costumes and given them a flying car to tool around in. Having already started to tread familiar ground, Lee delved full-force into nostalgia with issue #4, which would revive one of Marvel’s most popular characters from the Golden Age of Comics, Prince Namor, the Sub-Mariner.
As discussed last week, Namor made what looked to be his final appearance in 1955, with the cancellation of his solo comic series after plans for a SUB-MARINER television series fell through. Now that Lee was comfortable doing superheroes once more, and after the revival of the Human Torch had worked so well for FANTASTIC FOUR, Lee and artist Jack Kirby went right back to the oldies with “The Coming of the Sub-Mariner!” in the May 1962 issue.
After a big dust-up with the Thing, the Torch had quit the team, and was on the run from Reed, Sue and Ben, who were searching New York City to ask him to reconsider. Hiding out in a Bowery flophouse, Johnny finds an old SUB-MARINER comic from the ’40s, which attracts the attention of a fellow vagrant. (It’s long been established in the Marvel Universe that superheroes, while real, also have comic books published which recount their exploits.) The bum tells Johnny that there’s a fellow there who’s supposed to be as strong as the legendary Sub-Mariner, and points out a bearded drifter slumped against a table.
After the amnesiac drifter wallops a roomful of attackers, the Torch’s curiosity is piqued, and he uses his flame powers to give the fellow a shave and a haircut, revealing the unmistakable trapezoid-shaped head of the Sub-Mariner.
Thinking that a quick dip in the ocean might restore Namor’s memories, the Torch impulsively grabs him up and tosses him into the drink, and sure enough, after splashing around for a minute, Namor’s identity is his own once more, and he takes off like a shot for his kingdom, only to discover radioactive ruins; Namor surmises that the surface-dwellers’ atomic tests had destroyed his kingdom, and his people were forced to flee, perhaps never to be found.
Namor returns to the waiting Torch, and gives him a piece of his mind:
While the Torch returns to the FF and warns them, Namor heads off to get a little muscle, namely Giganto, the largest living creature in the world. Looking like a whale with arms and legs, Giganto heads for New York and begins busting up the place, thanks to Namor’s hornblown instructions.
After the Fantastic Four’s initial attempts to stop it fail, the Thing comes up with an only slightly more radical plan: to march down the creature’s gullet with an atomic bomb strapped to his back, then set the timer and get out of Dodge.
Amazingly, this plan works, and Giganto is killed, thanks to a massive case of atomic indigestion.
Before Namor can summon more monsters, Sue Storm tries to invisibly intervene, but the Sub-Mariner is able to grab her, and we see once more what really is the Atlantean’s ultimate weakness: a pretty face.
Immediately smitten with Sue Storm, Namor offers to spare the human race if she’ll become his bride. Say what you will about Namor, but at least he’s not afraid of commitment. Sue’s grudging acceptance seems to offend the Sub-Mariner, and at that moment the rest of the FF attack, only to again be bested by Namor.
Finally, the Torch creates a huge vortex of heat over Namor and what’s left of Giganto, pulling them into the air and hurtling them deep into the ocean.
Lee knew immediately he had a good thing with Namor, as well as a rare commodity from a storytelling standpoint in a truly sympathetic antagonist, and also seemed to sense that the best way to utilize him was not to give him his own book and push him to the heavens (although with the insanely restrictive distribution deal Marvel had in those days, adding another book might not even have been an option, but that’s another story…). Instead, Namor was apparently given the position of “unofficial shit-stirrer of the Marvel Universe,” and Lee would move Namor from series to series in misguided altercations with various Marvel heroes. A good example of this can be found in “The Avengers Meet Sub-Mariner!” from THE AVENGERS #3 (January 1964).
Namor enters the story about halfway through the issue, as we see the Sub-Mariner monitoring from afar the increasingly hostile clashes between the Avengers and their recently resigned member the Hulk. Namor has designs upon recruiting the Hulk for his war on humanity, and meets up with the Green Goliath on a deserted island where the Hulk has fled for refuge. After a first conversation turns violent, Namor manages to best the Hulk by throwing him underwater and draining his strength with a whirlpool.
Impressed, the Hulk agrees to team up with Sub-Mariner and “bring humanity to its knees,” starting with the Avengers. Of course, both Namor and the Hulk have their own plans for the new alliance:
Sub-Mariner sends a radio message to the Avengers, challenging them to battle on the island of Gibraltar. Naturally, the Avengers accept, and soon arrive ready for combat. Namor has prepared well, though, and in an uncharacteristic move, pulls a gun on Iron Man, firing an “emery dust pellet,” stiffening the joints in Iron Man’s armor and rendering him immobile.
But Namor’s not done with the hardware; next he tries to fire off a modified air raid siren which he promises will “destroy any living being who comes too close.” What it will do to the two guys standing behind it seems just as worrisome to me, but before he can fire it he’s grabbed by Giant-Man, who then chucks Namor to Iron Man. However, Iron Man definitely takes the worst of the exchange, receiving a devastating blow to the chestplate, which at the time was the only thing keeping his damaged heart beating.
Namor tussles with Giant-Man and Thor for awhile longer, before realizing that the Hulk had abandoned him. (Actually, the Hulk had succumbed to the stress and reverted to Bruce Banner, who quickly high-tailed it away from the battle.) Namor is cornered by the Avengers, but a few drips of water from a cracked cave wall rejuvenates him enough to allow him to smash through the stone and escape, swearing never again to trust any human.
Namor made a brief but significant appearance in the following issue, just hours after his losing battle with the Avengers. Stumbling across an Eskimo settlement in the North Sea, Namor grows infuriated at the Eskimos’ worship of what looks to be a petrified corpse frozen in a block of ice.
Outraged, Namor picks up the ice block and hurls it far out to sea, before destroying the ice floe upon which the Eskimos had been holding their ceremony. As for the block of ice, it drifted into the warmer waters of the gulf stream, gradually melting and revealing its occupant, who is then fortuitously discovered by the Avengers on their way back from Gibraltar. That occupant?
None other than Captain America, frozen in suspended animation since 1945. Just as the Torch revived Namor, so did Namor revive Cap; a nice bit of narrative refrain on Stan and Jack’s part.
Another good example of Lee’s clever use of Namor can be found in DAREDEVIL #7 (April 1965), in “In Mortal Combat With … Sub-Mariner!”, by Lee and artist Wally Wood.
Here we see Namor, by now reunited with his people and reigning over them as king, struggling with how to regain the surface world for his people. Spurred into action by his scheming warlord Krang, Namor decides to head to the surface to present new demands to humanity.
Marching through midtown Manhattan, Namor resolves to engage a human attorney, so as to press the Atlanteans’ claims for territory legally, through the laws of man. All things considered, this is an unusually rational course of action for Namor, even if he does show little patience for certain human customs, like doors and elevators…
Through the kind of luck that only manifests itself in the Marvel Universe, the first lawyer’s office that Namor finds just happens to be the offices of Nelson and Murdock, workplace of Matt Murdock, a.k.a. Daredevil himself. Namor informs the startled lawyers that the citizens of Atlantis demand their rightful place on the surface (even though they can’t breathe the air, but who wants to pick nits, right?), and that he intends to “sue the entire human race for depriving [them] of [their] birthright!” A born shyster at heart, Murdock’s law partner Foggy Nelson informs Namor that they’d love to take the case, but without any evidence or standing, they’d be laughed out of court. Namor then decides to force mankind to take him to court and listen, and embarks on a good old-fashioned rampage, tearing up New York once again (although this time seemingly without any casualties) in the hopes of forcing them to arrest him and give him his day in court.
Soon Daredevil arrives in the hopes of calming Namor down and convincing him to turn himself in, although perhaps kicking him in the ribs might not have been the best way to open the conversation.
This first encounter is brief, as Namor pulls Daredevil underwater and quickly knocks him out. Impressed with Daredevil’s bravery, Namor returns him to the surface, then surrenders to the military, so as to get the court appearance he was after all along.
Namor enlists Nelson and Murdock as his counsel and soon Namor’s trial is under way, with Murdock hoping to file a counter-charge against the whole human race. Before things can really get going, Namor’s betrothed, Lady Dorma, shows up with bad tidings: the warlord Krang has begun a rebellion in Namor’s absence, requiring Namor’s immediate return to retain his throne. Murdock manages to convince Namor to stay, to finish what he’d begun, but when Murdock tells his client that the trial won’t officially start for a week, Namor’s patience runs out, and he busts out of jail, intent on returning to Atlantis.
Hoping to keep Namor from being attacked by the military on his way home, and seeking to stop bloodshed on both sides, Murdock switches to Daredevil and convinces the military to let him try to talk Namor into returning peacefully. The following six pages are an exercise in ass-whooping, as the decidedly non-superhuman Daredevil desperately tries to slow down the massively more powerful Sub-Mariner, using everything from smokescreens to a wrecking ball to a steam shovel to massive voltages of electricity.
Along the way, DD takes quite a pounding, such as this moment where Sub-Mariner clocks him with a lamppost.
Ultimately, though, it’s all for naught, as the much stronger Sub-Mariner is out of Daredevil’s league, pure and simple. Still, DD never gives up, a trait that the honorable Namor duly notes:
Next time: a rematch with the Hulk, tours of duty with the Defenders and Avengers, and why it’s a bad idea to swim in alcohol. See you then.