EP0017: Marvel Golden Age Masterworks: Sub-Mariner Volume 2

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It’s World War II and Namor declares offensive war on Japan, sometimes very offensive. He also finds time to work undercover at a lumber company and fighting underwater pirate Nazis because Golden Age. Meanwhile the Angel fights crime in a loud costume that doesn’t enhance his abilities or hide his identity also because golden age.

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Transcript below:

Graham Prince Namor or declares war on Japan. Find out all about it as we take a look at Marvel Masterworks: Golden Age Sub-Mariner, Vol. 1, straight ahead.

[Intro Music]

Announcer: Welcome to the Classy Comics podcast where we search for the best comics in the universe. From Boise Idaho, here is your host Adam Graham.

Graham: The Golden Age of Marvel Comics is not quite as celebrated as D.C. Comics Golden Age and there’s some reason for that. D.C.’s greatest heroes Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman, all had their beginning during those years in the late 30s and early 40s and the Justice Society of America was a big crossover event featuring a lot of heroes who D.C. really, subsequently, kept as part of their ongoing narrative, either as being from an alternate universe and occasionally crossing over or being from the past and continuing in some way in the present day. In addition, D.C. also acquired the rights to such classic Golden Age characters as Captain Marvel and Plastic Man from their respective publishers. Marvel, on the other hand, had one major character who had their roots in the Golden Age, Captain America and their references back to the Golden Age are incredibly infrequent and usually, it’s in somewhat obscure mini-series or one shots. Yet, Marvel’s Golden Age had a lot going for it. There were multiple magazines that put out some great work many by solid artists who would play a big role in the Silver Age of comics particularly in Marvel’s resurgence and they had their own big three of Captain America, The Human Torch and Sub-Mariner.

Today, our focus is on the Sub-Mariner, Prince Namor and volume 2 of his solo series. Sub-Mariner was first introduced in the pages of Marvel Mystery Comics, an anthology feature and in his first issue, he inadvertently killed two divers thinking if they were robots and learned of his origin, as the son of an Atlantean and of an American sea captain and his mother’s desire that he make war on all surface men which I guess could kind of make the Sub-Mariner a bit of an antihero except his wars on surface man were very intermittent. Whether he was trying to help humanity out or trying to declare war on humanity, kind of varied from issue to issue and story to story. Yet, he’s a likeable character because he’s driven by a sense of honur and there’s a decency about him, even if he’s a little bit mixed-up from our perspective as to what the right thing to do is. Probably my favorite story in terms of what the Sub-Mariner is like is one story from Marvel Mystery comics where he decides he’s going to invade and take over New York by himself and he sets about doing it. However, he stops the entire invasion when he sees that a nanny has run away and left a baby carriage unintended and he turns instead to rescue the baby. That’s the Sub-Mariner pre-war for you.
In the first issue of his comic, in his own solo series, the Sub-Mariner and Atlantis as a whole, declares war on the Nazis when the Nazis tried to invade Atlantis and this book continues Namor’s story. I should mention that Marvel Masterworks have a very different approach to the Golden Age than D.C. does. D.C. reprints, as a general rule, bound collections featuring the most popular characters. Its Golden Age collections feature Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman. Even in anthology comics where other characters appear, they’re not going to reprint all those other stories. The Marvel masterworks reprints, as a whole, the entire comic book. So, you get all of the features plus all of the house ads for other features within Marvel. And comics were big. This book only collects 4 issues of Sub-Mariner but each issue of Sub-Mariner was 64 pages long. It included 3 stories that we would consider to be comic book length and get a 20-page Sub-Mariner story, a 17-page Sub-Mariner story, a 20-page story featuring the Angel and also 2 pages or maybe 3 of a humor strip and all for a dime. So, everything your grandfather told you about old comics was true.

So, first we’ll take a look at the Sub-Mariner stories and then we’ll take a little bit of a look at the Angel as well. New to this volume is the Sub-Mariner fighting in Japan and as Roy Thomas notes in his excellent introduction, he hadn’t previously fought Japan but even from a realism standpoint, that’s not hard to explain. Many people who ended up, their countries declared war on Japan or Germany, soon ended up at war with the other. Now, of course, as this book deals with the war with Japan, there are some moments that are quite offensive to modern day readers. Thomas also addresses this in his introduction writing, “One winces to read such words today but at the time they were par for the course and they need to be preserved, not censored and whitewashed. Judge not if you didn’t live through the dark days after Pearl Harbor, December 1941.

That said, let’s take a look at the Sub-Mariner stories. The only story in here that is drawn by the Sub-Mariner’s creator, Bill Everett, is the very first one. Everett would be drafted and as such, the writing and art chores would go to other artists. The first Sub-Mariner story in issue one features him building a submarine with Atlanteans as crew and going to war with the Japanese. He fights for a while in the sub but the Japanese destroy it, which actually sets him free to wreak havoc on the Japanese Navy through the natural strength and power of the Sub-Mariner. However, after about 20 pages, he decides it’s time to swim away because “The Americans have things well on hand”. Of course, in 1942 when it came to naval battles, the Americans never had it well on hand and if they had a superpowered, indestructible, Atlaneans ripping up Japanese ships and he started to swim away, they’d be, “Wait, wait, come back”, but it’s a fairly well drawn story and it’s just pure action, you know, big naval battle throughout.

The second story has him helping some prisoners escape the Japanese. It’s a pretty long jailbreak. I think it’s a little bit too long. You get some padding and repetitiveness and capture and recapture and escape. The third Sub-Mariner story finds him going undercover at a lumber camp to solve a mystery. That’s not a typical thing for Sub-Mariner. The story works as well as you’d expect, maybe a bit better but I don’t know if the writer really understands the Sub-Mariner’s power. The Sub-Mariner is out on the water and he has to get out because it’s getting stormy outside. He has to get to land. That’s not how his powers work at all.

Then we have Periscope Peril. It features the Japanese coming out with the idea of having periscopes floating in the water so that allied ships will fire on the periscopes with no submarines attached wasting ammunition. I’m dubious at how good a plot that is but I guess it works for comic book in the 1940’s. This story does feature probably the most cringe worthy moment in the book.

In the 5th story, Namor fights underwater pirate zombies who are led by a greedy mad scientists and yes, the concept of underwater pirate zombies is as awesomely insane as it sounds. Then the 6th story has Namor on the Mississippi dealing with a ghost ship and there’s an ironic twist in the way that works out. It’s an OK story and Namor works in a request to buy war bonds, In the 7th story, we’re back to the war and he goes undercover with the Marines to catch a Nazi spy, who is probably one of the least bright Nazi spies there was because he got himself assigned to a unit that was heading off into the Pacific and out of the theater of war that the Germans really cared about. The story’s a bit more goofy and unfocused than I typically expect a Namor tale to be.

The final Namor story has him fighting the Japanese in Alaska. It’s got some great action and in fact, it’s another one of those stories that is mostly action. It does also have the second most cringe worthy statement in the book at the end. Overall, I think the Namor stories in this book were good but they’re not as good as the ones where Everett was drawing them exclusively. It’s not known who was doing all the writing on all of these scripts but it seems that many of them didn’t quite get Namor’s powers and often his personality is a little bit off. Still, I think it’s pretty good. The art is generally OK. Although his head begins its journey from being somewhat triangular, as Everett drew it, to almost being the shape of a pizza slice as other artist would draw it through the years. Though it’s not quite that bad in this issue.

Next up we have the 4 strips featuring the Angel. The Angel is a pretty interesting Golden Age charater. He has no super powers but he wears a costume. It’s blue tights and a red cape and a pair of angel wings but one thing I don’t get is why he actually wears a costume. Mostly, he’s just doing detective stuff. There’s no effort as a secret identity. The costume doesn’t really give him any advantage in battle and then the cape gives them something else that they can grab but apparently someone at Marvel thought, hey if it’s a superior book he needs to be wearing a costume. He has four stories in here. Again, each one is 20 pages at length. So, the same as a modern comic book. The first issue in this collection, issue 5, was an all fighting the Japanese issue and the Angel engages in that with a Japanese spy, who uses dreams to control people. It’s actually a really good concept, very well executed and a very nice payoff. It’s also the only story where the Angel gets involved in the War.

The second story is Death Sees a Doctor and in it someone is sending along skeletons to kill people. For example, in the very first section, a doctor is killed by receiving a skull that has to bullets fire on it when the lower jaw is moved. It’s a good and crazy concept, very well realized. Then there’s the firing squad, in which a man is sent to a military prison and when he gets out, he decides he’s going to commit crimes by forming firing squads. To me, this is a story that you might read on a Golden Age Batman book. It’s not bad. It’s 20 pages. It’s a little longer than like a Golden Age tale from Batman or Detective Comics.

Then the final Angel story is Genius for Murder, in which there is a writer whose works keep getting rejected and so he decides to commit murders in order to be able to write about murder effectively. This is a good concept. My big complaint is that it goes on a little bit long. I mean, after the guy is actually caught, the story just keeps going on and on. Still, I think the Angel acquits himself pretty well in this book. The 20-page format does suit him better than some other books such as Marvel Mystery, where he only gets like 8 or 10 pages. The stories are fleshed out and suitably spooky to make them compelling reading. It’s also helped by the fact that his same artist continues on while other writers and creators were having to leave for the war.

The book also includes humor features. The first 3 issues feature Pop’s Whoppers, which is about a police officer who tells outrageous lies in order to make himself look better and gets his comeuppance. It’s kind of a repetitive storyline. The final issue features Tubby an’ Tack, which is a comic strip about couple little boys. There are three separate one page strips in here and I think these are actually kind of cute. They’re not uproariously funny but they’re pretty nice to read. Also, Golden Age comics were required in order to get good postage rates to include a two-page text story. Now, often times comic book companies would just not really care about what went in there. It really didn’t matter because kids were reading it for the comics but the text story was just kind of an extra thing. I think that Marvel included some pretty good ones in here. I think the first three are actually really good. The first two were written by Mickey Spillane, who became famous for writing Mike Hammer. Here he tells a couple of adventure yarns. One about a flight school student having an emergency in the cockpit of his airplane and another about a ruthless German military officer getting his comeuppance. They’re not essential reading but they were actually pretty fun adventures, well told in the two-page format. Overall this collection offers quite a bit. These are not the best Sub-Mariner comics ever but they still provide a lot of action and fun and the Angel comics really are quite good. These are some of the best Angel stories I’ve read and I think the text stories are above average. So overall, I’m going to rate this book as somewhat classy.

All right, well that’s it for now. If you do have a comment, email to me classycomicsguy@gmail.com and follow us on Twitter at classycomicsguy and check out our website classycomicsguy. From Boise Idaho, this is your host Adam Graham signing off.

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