Tuesday, October 15, 2013

A freak in the service of chaos

What I find most remarkable about the Golden Age of Marvel Comics, or Timely as it was known back then, is the violent, anti-social nature of the heroes. I think readers in the modern era have these notions about the Golden Age heroes being friendly and good-natured and the relative simplicity of the artwork and storytelling seems to support that in some strange way. In fact, the earliest Marvel heroes were monsters and outcasts, with the exception of the Angel, who was really more of a stock, pulp-inspired character meant to fill some imaginary quota of crime stories in a magazine full of science fiction weirdos.

Yesterday I took a look at Carl Burgos' Human Torch, a flaming man-monster whose earliest adventures read like Shelley's Frankenstein, albeit without any real subtext. The character itself preyed on some very prominent fears of the time. While a great portion of the population looked to science as salvation for the brutal daily life of the working man, the unexplored frontiers in scientific discovery also created a mild hysteria in the minds of some. The comic book greats of the time were almost notorious for latching onto those cultural insecurities and crafting a story or character to exploit them in the most extreme fashion. Today, I'm looking at Bill Everett and Namor, The Sub-Mariner. Everett's undersea conqueror seemed to spring from another set of fears. The fear of a foreign superpower.

Unlike the Torch, Namor didn't appear to be American, and his adventures often didn't take place on American soil. He was a distant threat, lashing out at man on the high seas and biding his time until he would strike Manhattan with a massive tidal wave. He was already on a collision course with the other Timely characters. Namor was a powerful character though, not just a two-fisted crime buster or a wild man of the jungle. No sir, only one other Timely character of the time was even close to a match for the Sub-Mariner's power and ferocity: The Human Torch. Their clash was inevitable.

Before diving into (see what I did there) what is possibly the first comic book crossover, if not the first really action-packed one, let's look at Bill Everett for a moment. Everett was as rich a character as any of his creations, and with just a quick glance at his personal life and adolescence, it's easy to see that Namor's rage against the world comes from a very real place. As a child, Everett was stricken with tuberculosis at least twice and moved back and forth between his father's estate in Maine and Arizona to recuperate. Young and sickly, Everett's transition into his teen years led to a menagerie of bad habits including alcoholism and a hefty smoking habit. By his late teens, Everett was an accomplished drinker and a three pack a day smoker who wouldn't allow his body to properly bounce back until decades later.

But young men were simply made of different stuff back in those days, and Everett's health issues and various dependencies didn't hinder his entrance into the world of comic books one bit. Like Burgos, Everett dropped out of art school, in this case the Vesper George School of Art. As a reckless teen who lashed out against his proper upbringing, Everett was a handful, bouncing from school to school and burning those all-important bridges of a young socialite. Maybe his father envisioned he would take over the family trucking business or seek a professional career in the fine arts, but it was not meant to be. Everett himself claims his father wanted him to be a cartoonist, but died of appendicitis when Bill was only 16 and never lived to see his son break into the world of cartooning.

Everett's early forays into professional art fit the profile of a young man who was raging and restless, and he was once let go of his position as art editor of Radio News publications for being "too cocky". Already, in the first twenty-some years of Everett's life, the character of Namor is forming in his psyche. I'd imagine the chronic drinking didn't help either. He made his bread and butter producing a strip called Skyrocket Steele for Centaur Comics. Not long after this, Everett went to work for Lloyd Jaquet's studio and crossed paths with Burgos and other emerging comic book makers of the Golden Age. Marvel Comics #1, and the official debut of the Sub-Mariner came immediately after (Everett produced a prototype story for what was going to be a giveaway mag at movie theatres, but it never went into production). The character was derivative of Everett's favorite stories, Coleridge's Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Mercury by Giambologna.

Unique to the Sub-Mariner and his future rival the Human Torch is the fact that they were presented as enemies of society. Prince Namor even looked at America with disdain, far from the jingoistic pinings of other mystery men of the time. His appearance was foreign and his head had an odd shape. He wasn't the least bit dashing. Namor's early adventures saw him terrorizing anyone who dared sail into his territory, and his ruthlessness and power were rivaled only by a few other comic book characters of the time. Only Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster's Superman may have been a match for the angry Prince of the Seas at this point but alas, fans even then knew a National character would never meet a Timely character.

Not long after his debut, Namor is seen by readers sinking German U-boats and his slow transition into a reluctant ally of the other Timely heroes has begun. The enemy of my enemy is my friend was clearly the mentality, and Namor would set aside his grudges to join in the Allied effort, at least temporarily. Like the Torch, Namor would later team with Captain America on the battlefield, and their collective Nazi-stomping strike force would come to be known as The Invaders. Namor would even develop sidekick types in the form of Atlantean cousins Namora and Dorma. While Namor never stopped being a destructive force, attaching these superhero tropes to the character did seem to soften the edges a bit.

Let's get back to the really pure, angry Sub-Mariner that I like so much. Before the U.S. would enter World War II, Namor was simply a menace to society and the character arc would culminate in Human Torch's own title, issue number five. "The Human Torch battles the Sub-Mariner as the World faces DESTRUCTION" cried the title page. It was a sixty page rampage, an epic of an issue even in the days of jumbo quarterly comics. Manhattan was leveled in the battle, and Namor rode in atop a flying horse, poised with ghoulish figures of Hitler, Mussolini, and Death herself at his sides. The Torch, who had so far been transitioning from a monstrous mistake of science into a defender of the underdog, was the nation's last real hope. And thus, the shared universe aspect of Marvel and the idea of a crossover was born in one massive issue.

In classic crossover fashion, the battle ended in a draw of sorts. The two characters were both gaining steam with readers and there was more value in teasing another battle between the two (or perhaps a team-up?) than in having one slay the other or even win in any decipherable fashion. This was a watershed moment however, as comic books were becoming more complicated in their approach. The precedent had been set for stories to intersect and characters from separate strips to meet. The books were from Timely publications, but these advances would come to be known as Marvel's. The Marvel universe was a thing before it had a name.

Namor retreated to the seas at the end of the story, vowing revenge and some such. Unbeknownst to them and possibly even Everett and Burgos, the next time they met it would be as allies. For that brief moment though, still stinging with defeat, Namor the Sub-Mariner would remain angry at the world, with all of Bill Everett's self-destructive, alcoholic rage pent up inside him.


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