They had done monsters; they had done aliens; they had done illusions. Still struggling for story ideas, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby struck gold: they revived an old character from when Marvel was called Timely Comics – and created the shared Marvel Universe we all know today.
It was a stroke of genius – more so because the character they brought into play had – has – so much, well, character. Prince Namor (pronounced Nay-more for the benefit of those like me who were never sure) has plenty of reason to take issue with the human race that is only half of his heritage, and the Fantastic Four’s Reed Richards and Sue Storm were soon to have plenty of reason to take issue with him.
But the start of this issue follows on immediately from #3’s cliffhanger, with the team’s most volatile member, the Human Torch, missing after he literally flew off in a rage because the Thing didn’t want him to take credit for defeating the so-called Miracle Man.
Reed and Sue are concerned; Ben (still in bad-tempered mode this early in the run) couldn’t care less. So Reed browbeats him into joining the search: “You were jealous of the Torch’s achievement, and so you picked an argument with him — an argument which made him want to desert ALL of us! Well, we’re not going to let it END that way!! We’re going to FIND that boy!! And that means YOU TOO, Thing!!”
Revolutionary stuff, at the time. Characters actually behaving like human beings. Especially Ben’s reaction when he realises he’s not going to be let off the hook: “You BET it means me! And when I DO find ‘im, I’ll teach him to run off on us that way!”
He’s toeing the line soon enough, taking off in the (gadget alert!) Fantasticar with the rest of them. Modern readers may have a giggle at Sue’s comment: “This is the first time – sob – that the TORCH’s section was left behind!” He’s run off in a huff, not dead! I don’t think for a moment that a woman of the 1960s, even, would react that way, unless she’s wetter than a haddock’s bathing costume – and we were being asked to believe that Sue was a woman of action. So it’s a sexist sign of the times when the piece was written.
The trio split the Fantasticar into sections and head for different parts of town, to carry out their search more quickly, providing Stan and Jack a narrative opportunity to remind us that the floating bathtub is designed to split into four independent parts, and to remind us off the team members’ powers.
So we see Sue drinking a milkshake while invisible, freaking the delights out of the punter sitting next to her, while Reed demonstrates apparent super-strength by using his stretching power to reach across a road and yank a biker off his hog while he’s driving it. That would require a heck of a lot of strength, you know! Plus, the guy would have legitimate reason to be furious, because his bike would undoubtedly suffer damage; either it would fall onto its side and skid down the tarmac (bad for the metal- and paintwork!) or it would carry on rolling until it hit something – possibly causing a road traffic collision in the process. And Reed is supposed to be the brains of this group?
Of course, narrative necessity means it has to be the Thing who finds the absentee Torch – using his flame power to fix a car at his friends’ garage. In story terms it has to happen, because the animosity between them meant there was bound to be a fight.
Chapter Two begins with the Thing threatening the Torch by lifting the hotrod he was fixing and threatening to flatten him with it. Johnny can’t do anything in any case, because the place is covered in flammable fuel, so it’s looking like he’s going to get a nasty beating…
But then – isn’t this about the perfect moment for another ongoing plot device to make an unexpected appearance? As if by magic, the Thing metamorphoses back from the rocky orange monster he has become into his human alter-ego. He’s so surprised and delighted that Johnny takes the opportunity to run out, flame on, and escape into the skies.
The incident doesn’t end well for Ben, though. Within moments the change reverses and he collapses to the ground, overcome with a grief with which the reader might justifiably sympathise.
So far, this has been scripting-by-numbers: arguments, demonstrations of super-powers and the appearance of what we might reasonably expect to be regular plot devices.
But now we – and Johnny – move into uncharted new territory, and I don’t just mean the bowery flophouse he checks into as a means of escaping his erstwhile team-mates! Settling down on a bed among the bums, he idly flicks through an old comic book starring “the Sub-Mariner”. That’s no surprise, as Namor’s featured on the cover (running into the sea with Sue Storm in his arms).
The next bit may have come as a bit of a shock to 1960s readers, though. One of the other residents spots Johnny’s reading matter and boasts that another inmate is “as strong as that joker was suppose to be!” But exhortations for this bearded bedmate to rip a phone directory in half only provoke the stranger into violence, throwing men around like matchsticks before sagging into a chair, muttering, “If only I could remember who I am! WHAT I am!”
Hearing this, Johnny steps in to stop the others ganging up on him again: “Can’t you see he’s ILL? He’s got AMNESIA!” And let’s be honest – we really needed to see this act of humanity from Johnny, who had been acting like a proper little git until this point.
To stop the others from attacking again – they claim they’ll beat the memories back into the strong stranger, Johnny ignites one of his own fingers and, claiming there’s a better way, gives the man an impromptu shave.
Of course, the removal of all that facial hair reveals what we readers have suspected since Johnny picked up the comic: “It IS! IT IS! He — he’s the SUB-MARINER!”
And so he is. We see the triangular head that was familiar to readers of the 1930s, 40s and 50s, and the pointed ears that, in future, would provoke many comparisons with a TV character who was still a glint in Gene Roddenberry’s eyes at this time.
Judging (correctly) that this would be exactly the sort of moment when a reader would want to know what happens next, Stan and Jack flip the story back to the other members of the FF, who are blissfully ignorant of developments and still looking for Johnny. Cue more examples of Reed and Sue using their powers – including, in a good display of narrative irony, a moment when Sue – invisible – walks past Johnny’s flophouse just as he emerges from it with Namor; she doesn’t see him and he can’t see her.
Instead, Johnny checks the coast is clear (no groaning at the back because of the sea-going figure of speech, please!) then flames on and whisks Subby into the air – and then into the sea. Immediately on being submerged – as Johnny suspected – the waters revive the Sub-Mariner’s memory and restore his full strength (the latter would become a common plot point in future Namor stories).
With memory comes realisation, and Namor races off through the waters in search of “my undersea kingdom” – which he had abandoned years before, due to the loss of his memory.
Of course, there wouldn’t be a story if he could be instantly and happily reunited with his people, so Namor finds an undersea kingdom that has been reduced to rubble. He concludes: “The HUMANS did it, unthinkingly, with their accursed atomic tests!”
In these few panels, Stan and Jack set up the Sub-Mariner’s conflicts with humanity for many years to come – and introduced environmental activism into their comics, years before it became a burning political issue.
Namor lives (habitually) in the sea – and the sea is humanity’s dumping ground for all the rubbish and pollutants that we can’t be bothered to tidy up. We really don’t care if the inhabitants are harmed, so Subby is well within his rights to be incandescent with rage at our irresponsibility.
That’s why he returns to the spot where he left Johnny. Rising from the ocean his statement of intent is clear to all – and a warning to Johnny that the road to Hell really is paved with good intentions: “You young FOOL!! Do not feel PROUD of what you have done!! For by returning my memory, you have signed the DEATH WARRANT of the human race!!”
Announcing that he is “the mightiest living mortal on Earth” (an accolade he would enjoy for around a month, until the first issue of The Incredible Hulk hit the stands), he vows revenge on mankind.
It’s another exciting moment, so it’s time to change scene again – again, to the other members of the FF. Johnny has fired an emergency flare into the sky and they’ve spotted it. They arrive to find Johnny alone, so of course it takes him a while to explain that he didn’t let off the flare frivolously, that the Sub-Mariner really has returned and that there really is deadly danger.
Meanwhile, Subby himself has had plenty of time to find a way of wreaking his revenge – and here, Stan and Jack let themselves down a bit: it’s a giant monster. Well, the sea is supposed to be full of them, if you believe grizzled old sailors in bad pirate stories.
Get ready to groan because even the creature’s name is a cliche: GIGANTO!
Oh, and he could only be roused by a (gadget alert!) “trumpet-horn” that Namor pulls out of his fundament (well, where do you think he gets it from? His “undersea kingdom” has been destroyed, remember?) ready-to-use.
I know. After nearly 15 pages of quality stuff, it looked like Stan and Jack were losing it at the last hurdle.
It gets worse. We get a few pages of mayhem, with Subby directing… Giganto… to battle human beings and beat them before the beast climbs onto the land and (improbably) takes a nap.
Then – get this – the Thing, in a moment of insane heroics, gets the troops to strap a nuclear bomb to his back. His plan? Walk into the belly of the beast, like Jonah into his whale, drop the bomb and get out before it goes off.
It starts well… “He’s RESTIN’ now! Good thing he breathes through his mouth!! Well, here goes nothing!!” And with those words, Ben strolls in.
Chapter Five begins with his odyssey inside… Giganto. It’s a sequence that – dare I suggest it? – may have inspired John Byrne when he sent Ben searching for the brain of Ego, the Living Planet in his fourth issue writing and drawing this comic, nearly 20 years later.
It is a sequence that deserved to be fleshed out much more than the couple of pages it received, even with the addition of a monster living in… Giganto…’s stomach for Ben to fight while the timer on the bomb starts ticking, meaning he has to run to get out.
A few panels later and: “He DID it!! The monster is DEAD!!” Oh great, because the image makes it look like he’s still sleeping. I would have hoped to see the landscape spattered with whalemeat. But then any Geiger counters in New York would have been chattering like typewriters and the city would have been rendered uninhabitable – so it seems… Giganto… flesh is immune to nuclear apocalypse.
And the threat isn’t over! Namor’s still there, still brandishing his horn (sorry). As long as he’s got the horn he can summon countless other sea monsters (he says).
How do you sort out the man with the horn? Send in a good woman, apparently. Sue invisibly nips in and grabs said horn, then does a runner. But of course, while she can’t be seen, the horn still can, so Namor gives chase and catches her. And when she becomes visible…
“Well! HERE is a prize worth catching!” Yup. Loss of actual horn triggers rise of euphemistic horn. If you don’t understand what that means, ask your dad. “If you will be my bride, I might show mercy to the rest of your pitiful race!”
There’s a bit of dispute about this. Reed has his own plans for Sue, after all. Seeing the way the wind’s blowing, Namor gets properly batey and decides he’s going to have the girl and his revenge. So Sue interjects: “I-I’ll do anything — I’ll become your bride! One life such as MINE doesn’t matter — but HUMANITY must be spared!!”
Even that’s not good enough for our subsea royalty! “You speak as though you are SACRIFICING yourself!”
There’s no satisfying these haughty royal types. Fortunately, before Namor can do anything, the Torch steps up in a display of filial loyalty. He’s just worked out that he can use his flame to create an artificial tornado and whisk Namor and his… Giganto… out to sea.
In the process, he loses the horn. It’s happened to a lot of us in such circumstances (I’m told). And the device is “lost in the depths of the murky sea… forever!” Or indeed, until a future Sub-Mariner writer (like Roy Thomas?) feels the need to dig it out.
Weaponless (for the time being) and temporarily lost at sea, Namor is left with nothing to do but vow to return. It is a threat that would be fulfilled sooner than readers may have expected…
So what’s the verdict?
Of course it’s a classic – albeit a flawed one. The ideas run out around 10 pages before the story does and there is an over-reliance on monsters, still. That may have been remedied by the very next issue…
Everything else is a solid step forward, and the creation of the Marvel Universe with the crossover/revival inclusion of Namor was seismic.