Golden Gods and Vintage Children

Marvel 65th Anniversary Special

I’m pretty glad I managed to get this book for one dollar, rather than the $4.99 cover price, because boy is the visual quality low. I’m unsure of the condition of the source materials, but the restoration work done on these comics often leaves lines frayed or incomplete. Letters and background details are hazy, and distinctly fuzzy when viewed up close. Occasionally facial expressions are almost entirely obliterated, leaving a few blotches of black ink to indicate eyes and a mouth. Small background characters suffer the worst, with their outlines looking like they’re being disintegrated by some off-panel supervillain’s killer ray, and only their color left to differentiate them from their backgrounds, like human-shaped jellies poured out of human-shaped jars into an indistinct world. I am not up on the details of this restoration, and Marvel might be doing the best they can with low-quality sources, but this doesn’t make for a great advertisement for their “Golden Age Masterworks” collection, which I’m guessing this release is meant to hype, and it’s certainly not providing five bucks worth of quality on its own. But for a dollar, my mind can sometimes escape the sub-par presentation to tackle the content of the book itself, the clouds of financial reality blown away every so often.

The 48-page no-ads release reprints selected stories from Timely’s 1940 “Marvel Mystery Comics” #8-10. The cover art for these books are also reproduced, giving the reader a glimpse into the superheroic world of Pre-Marvel; issue #8 features a mustached (or at least that little black blot sort of resembles a mustache) caped crusader called The Angel, pitting his iron (not steel) muscles against a Frankenstein’s Monster sort of villain. But we won’t be hearing about him (or, I’m saddened to report, Terry Vance, Boy Detective) in this collection; it’s all about the first-ever crossover between The Human Torch and Namor the Sub-Mariner, each of whom had their own 12 or so page slot in “Marvel Mystery”, so it's not as much a crossover as we know it today but an inter-anthology fight meeting. And the execution of that meeting is tackled with not a lack of charm, though hampered by all of the constrictions of the Golden Age.

I mentioned a few days ago that captions have essentially replaced thought balloons as the tool of choice in conveying a superhero’s interior thoughts within today’s comics. But back in these early days of the superhero pamphlet, captions also played a dominant role, but instead of the potentially overbearing ‘writerly’ domination of the hero’s interior monologue, we have the definitely overbearing presence of the omniscient narrator, filling up the top area of nearly every caption with remarkably unhelpful commentary on exactly what we can all see perfectly fine for ourselves. This sort of technique can also be seen in newspaper adventure strips of the time, but it becomes far more distracting when plastered over page after page of an ongoing story. But the use of captions is strictly reserved for the narrator here; thought balloons are also present at this time to reveal the characters’ interior musings, though they are rarely used in these particular comics. Most of the characters simply speak their thoughts aloud, helpfully explaining each use of their powers to nobody in particular, at least when their good friend the narrator isn’t picking up the slack in that department. Superhero comics (though read by various age groups) were designed mainly for children at this very early point in their history, so a bit of over-explanation can perhaps be understood, condescending at it may seem to today’s eyes. For the modern reader (including, I’m guessing, most modern children), these comics come off as clunky and inefficient. The plotting, at least for here however, radiates an uncertain energy, a joy in appealing straight to its intended target audience and damn the consequences.

Namor, as presented here, resembles nothing less than Chris Ware’s occasional characterization of Superman-as-God in “Acme Novelty Library”. Utterly capricious in his sense of morality, Namor spends much of his initial short story engaging in vaguely terrorist acts like smashing bridges and tunnels, along with more child-like havoc such as releasing all of the animals from the zoo; these exploits probably have deadly consequences, although none are shown to us. He has little motivation for doing these things, aside from a general hatred for humanity, but he doesn’t seem to have hatred for individual humans. Spotting an infant about to be trampled by elephants (which he just released himself), Namor snatches the child up and spirits him away to safety. Later, he pulls the parachute cord on the pilot of an airplane he‘s hijacking, mentioning to himself that “Killing this poor fool won‘t accomplish anything.” It seems like Namor has no problem with killing people in a general, detached sense, but he can’t bear to do it face-to-face. I was instantly reminded of Ware’s “God” strip involving his own superheroic deity causing disasters and terrorizing people, only to rescue the occasional citizen and sometimes just loaf around; who needs to make human sense when you’re greater than human, after all? God works in mysterious ways. As does Namor, although all of his often faceless carnage has the glee of a child knocking down a tower of blocks, though the effects of Namor‘s actions aren‘t entirely ignored. This initial story of his concludes with a very brief clash with the Human Torch, but its mostly all about confused, angry destruction, giving the intended child reader the opportunity to vicariously play God, in all of the oft incomprehensible contradictions that come with the position, rather than simply pretending to have amazing powers that must always be used to Do Good with Responsibility. Namor does sometimes Do Good (as I suppose he must in a children's book) but only on his own terms, when the fancy strikes him.

The next story, in a cute little twist, retells the events of the first short from the Human Torch’s point of view, as he races around trying to undo much of the harm that Namor has caused, although he can’t help every “mangled body” as the narrator puts it. While not as strident an all-powerful avatar for the reader as Namor, the Torch does threaten to pop the Chief of Police in the face for giving him lip, and generally displays his dominance in every rescue situation. He does good works, but he does it better than any of the so-called Authorities that try to tie him down; he‘s somewhat more responsible a hero for kids, but he‘s still loaded with rebellion fantasy, doubtlessly appealing to certain young readers.

So by the next issue’s Torch and Sub-Mariner stories, which are joined together as a mega-sized fight-o-rama, the Torch is asked by the parental figures (which he can barely stand) to stop the rampaging hissy-fit of Namor. Neither character is aided much by others, and the two fight to a standstill, the plot whipping from one scene to the next, all of them devoted to one-on-one combat. Finally (and the final page of the conflict is printed only in “Marvel Mystery” #10 as a sales ploy; that page is the only one of that issue besides the cover reprinted here), Namor’s only human friend, a lady police officer, tells him that the Torch (and one assumes Authority in general) will leave him be if he’ll only stop his rampage. With all of the anger out of his system, Namor walks away scot-free, the Torch also delighted at having such a worthy fight. So it always goes with deities, and if only it could be the same for every amped-up child! These stories do not benefit from their presentation (doubly so given this particular reproduction), but their appeal can be appreciated from across the decades, at least for a sufficiently low price, with superhumans acting as both gods and children, utterly unconcerned with the affairs and consequences of the reading public’s lives. It's not the sort of thing I could read all the time, but it's nice once in a while.