Wednesday, May 21, 2014


The first important crossover of comic-book superheroes appears in the pages of MARVEL MYSTERY #9 (August 1940), a 22-page battle between the comic's reigning stars, the Human Torch and the Sub-Mariner.  It was also a collaboration of the two artists who invented the respective characters, Carl Burgos and Bill Everett, and it's a credit to their creative power that both characters shine equally.

In addition to the story's primacy in the annals of crossovers, it also sets a pattern for a type of story that Marvel Comics would mine to great effect in the 1960s and ever afterward: the "clash of superhero titans" between superheroes. Although the Golden Age barely ever utilized this trope, Marvel's raconteurs speedily realized that their readers enjoyed seeing physical matches between regular characters, and they played it for all it was worth. A cynic might observe that these could be very easy stories to write: just set two heroes against one another-- usually as the result of a misunderstanding-- and watch them tear up the city-streets, and each other.

"Human Torch vs. Sub-Mariner" doesn't have much more plot than that, though there's no misunderstanding involved: the characters dislike each other at first sight, even without knowing much about one another.  The Human Torch, an android with the power to assume a flaming form and to use fire as a weapon, plays the part of a law-keeper. The Sub-Mariner, a.k.a. "Namor," a half-human hybrid with the powers of flight, titanic strength and equal survival in air or water, was comics' first true outlaw-hero, who attacked humanity due to encroachments on his subsea people.  As others before me have pointed out, Namor had been attacking New York off and on for several issues of MARVEL MYSTERY, making one wonder where the Torch had been that whole time.  On occasion Namor's wrath had been averted by his more-or-less girlfriend Betty Dean, a policewoman who knew that Namor wasn't all that bad, and in this story too, Betty plays a pivotal role in reconciling the brawling titans.

In contrast to many of the Marvel battles of the 1960s, Burgos and Everett constantly find ways to spice up the clash of heroes, rather than leaving it to a simple clash of powers. In one sequence, Namor, knowing that his strength can't harm the flaming Torch, uses a compressed-air canister to extinguish the Torch's flame. The Torch later responds by trying to broil Namor when he takes refuge in a lake, and later still, the flaming hero becomes unusually bloody-minded when he asks a chemical company for "a chemical that will burn Sub-Mariner off the face of the earth!"  This is pretty hardcore given that we're dealing with two rather juvenile-sounding adults who call each other names like "water rat" and "fire bug."

Strangely, though the Torch is nominally the hero in that he's defending humankind, the Sub-Mariner comes off as more inherently decent. He spares the Torch after extinguishing his flame, albeit with the thought that he may be able to use the hero's flame-power somehow. Later Namor, attacked by a pilot who shoots at him, commandeers the plane but allows the pilot to parachute to safety despite the latter's attempt to kill Namor.  Such touches display the authors' consistent attention to the heroes' respective characters, even down to the somewhat comical denouement, in which they agree to live and let live, and then go their separate ways.

I gave some consideration to another contretemps between the characters: HUMAN TORCH #5, in which Sub-Mariner assumes the military command of all the subsea races, using them to strike back against the warring humans who have caused so much chaos. The Torch and his partner Toro join the Allied forces in trying to end Sub-Mariner's threat, and there are even some token appearances from other heroes in the Timely Comics stable: the Angel, the Patriot and the original Ka-Zar. However, as ambitious as this 60-page story is, it doesn't show the conflict of Namor and the Torch nearly as well.  Rather, given the story's emphasis on all the wild spectacle of Namor's war on humanity-- in which almost no one dies-- the story seems more focused on a sort of "future-war" scenario of the type popular in H.G. Wells' day. And so, despite that story's pleasures, MARVEL MYSTERY #9 shows the two heroes at their cantankerous best.

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