“Imperius Rex!” is the war cry of the Sub-Mariner (known as Namor to his friends), who greeted comic book fans on Aug. 31, 1939, in Marvel Comics No. 1. (I am aware, my fellow geeks, that Namor was previously seen in a handful of prototypes of Motion Pictures Funnies Weekly, a comic created for movie theaters.)
The Sub-Mariner was one of a parade of characters who followed in the wake of the 1938 arrival of Superman, who had comics publishers scrambling to find their big hit. Other characters premiered in Marvel Comics No. 1, but Namor, whose mother is from the sunken city of Atlantis and whose father is human, arguably has the richest history.
“He was comics’ first antihero,” Mark Waid, a veteran comic book writer and editor, wrote in an email interview. “Namor’s goal wasn’t to rescue kittens or punch criminals — it was to lead an Atlantean army against the air-breathers of America.”
That was true of his origin story, but over the years, Namor, who was created by the writer-artist Bill Everett (who came up with the name from the word Roman, written backward), has also been a hero, a film studio mogul, a corporate tycoon and an environmentalist. His shifting alliances are still explored in comics today. Here are some important issues in his swim-up to his 80th.
Marvel Mystery Comics No. 9
Both the android hero known as the Human Torch and Namor were in Marvel No. 1, but they did not meet until a story in Marvel Mystery Comics Nos. 8-10 found them at odds. (The bulk of the story unfolds in Issue No. 9.) The Torch is out to stop Namor from wrecking the city, and their battle takes them to the Statue of Liberty, the George Washington Bridge and the Bronx Zoo. (In an early sign of his mercurial mind, Namor releases elephants — causing a stampede — but then rescues an infant from their path.) The clash ends in a stalemate: Namor agrees to leave New York City and the Torch drops his pursuit.
Do not feel too bad for Torchy, as some fans call him. He would have more decisive exploits ahead. “Perhaps his most important one came in 1945,” Waid said. “According to Marvel continuity, it was the Torch who finally killed Adolf Hitler!”
Fantastic Four No. 4
Namor makes a permanent return to comics in this 1962 issue by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. (He had starred in his own series from 1941 to 1949; then he had a short-lived revival in 1954.) Here Johnny Storm, the new Human Torch, finds Namor — who has amnesia — in a men’s hotel in the Bowery. Namor regains his memory and rage. The Fantastic Four repel him, but he turns up again in Issue No. 9. Enter Namor, movie mogul. He uses sunken treasures to finance a film starring his four favorite enemies, who sign on despite having no script because of financial troubles. Namor’s true goal: to make Invisible Girl his bride. He fails, but profits from the film restore the wealth of the Fantastic Four.
Sub-Mariner No. 67
Namor gets a new costume in this issue, but the reason is medical, not sartorial. A nerve gas explosion leaves him unable to retain moisture while on land. This could free the world from his tyranny, but Reed Richards of the Fantastic Four designs this suit, which recycles the moisture in Namor’s pores, to help him survive. Richards explains: “He’s a ruler of a nation — concerned for his people. And he’s a human being — almost — with a right to live.” Namor returns to his classic look a few years later — the suit stops functioning, but Doctor Doom, the villain with whom Namor is temporarily allied, finds a new cure — which leads to this thought balloon from the Human Torch: “We haven’t seen Subby in his swim-trunks in a long time. You know something …? He looks good!”
Marvel Age No. 84
Marvel Age, a monthly magazine about upcoming Marvel comics, previewed the 1990 Namor series by interviewing its writer-artist John Byrne in this issue. The cover was a harbinger of Sub-Mariner’s next evolution: a tycoon running Oracle, a company specializing in ecological issues. “Namor’s concern is that the surface world is rather sloppy in taking care of the planet we all share,” Byrne said in the interview. Byrne also set out to address Namor’s unpredictable moods. Namor learns that, as an Atlantean-human hybrid, spending too much time in sea or on land makes him irrational. By monitoring the amount of time he spends in each domain, he can avoid any dire side effects.
Invaders No. 1
These days, Namor is back in a conquering mood. In this and subsequent issues, he is pitted against some of his former allies from World War II — including Captain America. Later, he transforms some humans into Atlanteans against their will, and he learns that Charles Xavier, the leader of the X-Men, inadvertently allowed an evil presence to enter Namor’s mind and exert control, suggesting that he may not have always been responsible for some of his evil deeds. Namor takes the news hard but continues forward on his destructive path.
George Gustines is a senior editor. He began writing about the comic book industry in 2002. @georgegustines • Facebook
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