The Rule Of Law? The Sub-Mariner in Marvel Feature #3

On The Defenders: A Titan Walks Among Us in 1972’s Marvel Feature #3, by Roy Thomas, Ross Andru, Bill Everett et al.

At the end of A Titan Walks Among Us, the Sub-Mariner quits his admittedly informal alliance with Doctor Strange because human beings are ungrateful, suspicious and violent. Why should he continue to respond to the magician’s pleas to help save the day when people are so thoroughly unpleasant and dangerous? It’s a commonplace plot device in superhero comics: the hard-done protagonist risks everything to serve the common good and receives little but mistrust, hatred, and, often if not always, weapons fire. Our sympathies are frequently taken for granted: we’re against the system and its rules and injustices and very much for the lone stranger who refuses to bow to the state and/or the mob. Aren’t we awful as a species, these tales underscore, and wouldn’t it be better if we were only brave enough, and powerful enough, to stand our ground and refuse to comply? Whether it’s Spider-Man being chased by citizens inflamed by J. Jonah Jameson’s editorials in the Daily Bugle or the X-Men facing loathing simply because of their genetic makeup, to give but two of innumerable examples, the point-of-view as given is typically that of the long-suffering superheroic outsider and our affinity is assumed to lie with them and not with the broader society.

Often it’s a tradition that can admirably reinforce, or even inspire, a sense of distrust and even outrage against social ills. In such a way has the superhero comic since its very inception been used as a weapon to criticise everything from abuses of power by public officials to entrenched bigotry. But in A Titan Walks Among Us, we can see how dubious, and even dangerous, such conventions are when used in a careless fashion. For the soldiers whose behaviour so outrages Namor in the third Defenders tale are, quite contrary to his interpretation of events, acting in a wholly responsible fashion. The problem is, the story gives no time to them or their mission. We only witness the Sub-Mariner and The Hulk, fresh from saving “millions” of American children from the inter-galactic slaver Xemnu the Titan, feeling hard done by guards questioning the Defenders’ presence at Cape Kennedy.

This theme of Namor attempting to help humanity and being met by thanklessness and viciousness reinforces the beginning of the tale, where his rescue of a space capsule concludes with fisticuffs with irate US Navy personnel. (See above.) And with nothing in the story’s conclusion which puts forward the perspective of those various servicemen objecting, appropriately or not, to the Sub-Mariner’s behaviour, Namor’s closing view of events is essentially ours: how dare the innocent and heroic Hulk and himself be challenged by soldiers with guns? That the soldiers know nothing of the heroic events that have taken place: that they must be terrified to be suddenly faced with two of the most dangerous super-folks on the planet: that Namor and the Hulk have frequently committed crimes of the most disturbing and damaging kind: that neither appear in the slightest bit keen to explain themselves: that it is a serviceman’s duty to challenge intruders in America’s window to space: that the soldiers are massively restrained and express not a single incendiary word, let alone fire a single shot: A Titan Walks Among Us is silent on all these matters. What is presented to us is the hurt felt by the Hulk and the Sub-Mariner. And that’s how the story reads. Haven’t the two poor distrusted super-people saved us? Isn’t the Hulk cute? Isn’t Namor admirably unconforming? Aren’t soldiers questioning the entirely assumed authority of super-people by their very nature bad? Aren’t the two Defenders victims from beginning to end, a little hot-headed but essentially superheroes?

And then, there’s the following scene in which Namor and the Hulk attack those soldiers and, with considerable force, put the servicemen completely out of commission. Those five brave soldiers, who did nothing wrong and great deal right? Well, if these two Defenders felt it was necessary and it made them feel more secure, then, yes, the story tells us, the servicemen should be assaulted and, presumably, knocked unconscious. (Although what we’re shown suggests that, physically and psychologically, the damage could have been far worse: we simply don’t know what the brutal assault resulted in beyond a peaceful moment for Namor and the Hulk to exchange a few words, but I struggle to believe the punch-up was harmless for those not possessing super-powers.)

Namor really isn’t a victim here. In truth, and all for all his part in defeating Xemnu, he’s entirely in the wrong. The Marvel tradition of showing sympathy towards outsiders, as first seen in 1961’s Fantastic Four #1, was a brilliant choice on the part of Kirby, Lee and, perhaps to a lesser extent, Ditko. To emphasise the essential humanity of a comic’s antagonists was to step away from reactionary definitions of good and bad. But in the case of Namor, the model of the noble outsider abused by those he was seeking to help utterly obscures the truth of things in Marvel Feature #3. And in this, we can see, once again, a fundamental weakness with this aspect of the Marvel method: as readers, we’re not only often asked to empathise with those who have terrible things, we’re at times put in a position where we’re supposed to consider them hard-done by and intrinsically laudable. This is surely the world turned upside down. In the last scene of A Titan Walks Among Us, we should be shown how well the brave citizens and servicemen at Cape Kennedy behaved, and how necessary and just the laws they serve in that moment are. For what else are those soldiers supposed to do? They are supposed to secure the facility and challenge intruders. That they do. Good for them. When Namor declares with fury that the soldiers dared to surround The Hulk with weapons and suspicions, he’s arguing that the law simply doesn’t apply to him or his ally, and that he can deny the authority of these officers of the state whenever he wants to. Worse yet, he can brutalise his challengers without any due cause and feel pretty sure that comeback will ever arrive.

A serial invader of the United States, a recurrent criminal who constantly breaks the laws in everything from trespassing to theft, brawling to property damage on a mass scale, Namor is in truth a profound and pressing danger to public order. (And at this point in the timeline, as was, he isn’t the King of Atlantis anymore, which does away with any fig-leaf of Diplomatic Immunity.) That this Defenders story presents him as unalloyed victim rather than a complex mix of public saviour and menace shows how unfortunate the superhero narrative can be. We are not what we believe ourselves to be when it comes to just laws. Our good intentions are rarely relevant when it comes to the deeds that we follow through on, and certainly not where we’re regularly flattening entire city neighbourhoods. We are what we do. When The Hulk first emerges in A Titan Walks Among Us, he wantonly destroys a chemists shop. The loss to citizens, their trauma, inconvenience, the physical damage: the Hulk may not be responsible in a criminal sense, depending on where he might be tried, but he is an appallingly dangerous force of nature. To read his adventures of the time and not be, albeit with a great deal of sympathy, inspired to immediately think “he needs to be securely locked away now” suggests some problematical messages radiating off the page.

If the law itself is unfair, and its agents mistaken or actively corrupt, then a superhero tale needs to focus on that, to explain where the problems are and why it’s important to resist them with cape and chest insignia. It needn’t be a worthily overbearing matter. ‘Relevancy’ rarely works well with broad strokes, although there are times when the most simple and direct approach pays off. But to romantically side with dysfunctional personalities who behave appallingly time after time rather than with the law seeking to control them is to suggest that all authority is tyranny and all its officers at best mistaken and at worst corrupt. In recent years, as the Republic has tumbled further and further into fascism, too many superhero narratives have sidestepped the age’s social problems that by their very nature they ought to have been confronting. Whether under a liberal democracy or a kleptocratic authoritarian state, the act of assuming a second identity and, often, acting without the law’s sanction needs contextualising. Without that, the superhero is no more or less than a wet-dream of vigilante nobility and reactionary justice.

We often talk rightly about how characters such as The Punisher have been used poorly, or indeed in a far more insidious manner, to insist that the rule of law is a danger to the public good rather than the central pillar of its security. But this problem has also been part and parcel of the superhero narrative ever since the genre’s inception. Of course it has. Rather than disapproving of the soldiers who challeng Namor and The Hulk in A Titan Walks Among Us, I’d like to re-emphasise that that thin green line was doing its job and doing it with diligence and bravery. When agents of the state don’t resist law-breakers, don’t stand against dangerous intruders who are convinced that their feelings and their desires trump any extant legal principles, who have invaded state property where matters of the utmost national importance are played out, why, what we have in its broadest outlines is worryingly reminiscent of Washington on January 7th 2021.

We can’t expect Namor to stand still and explain himself, to subject himself to legal authority and collaborate with all due investigations into his presence and behaviour. That’s not who Namor is. That’s why he’s so compelling. It’s not his ankle-wings and pointy ears and green-scale briefs that maketh the Sub-Mariner, it’s his complex mix of dignity and nigh-sociopathic bellicosity. But I believe we ought to have tales which insist that it is right to expect far better of him than he often delivers, even if we’re rarely if ever shown such virtue on his part. Bless every creator who has delivered that very thing. But the Sub-Mariner’s behaviour in A Titan Walks Among Us, no matter how understandable and on occasion admirable, is exactly that which a liberal democracy simply must not turn a blind eye to.

When a super-person takes the law into their own hands, that’s what the story should at least in significant part be about. Not the glorious good that can be achieved by impossible powers and grand intentions. If these past years have told us anything, it’s that stories matter, that stories really do shape a nation’s values and its citizens’ behaviour. Drip by drip by drip. To be constantly careless, and far worse, with the stories we tell and consume is to be, shall we say, careless about the fate of the world we live in. We have all seen where that ends. Stories matter. That’s why we feel compelled to tell them and experience them.

And sometimes, to act on them too. For good. For ill.

Just to make sure: I bring this matter up in connection with this story not because I hold Thomas/Andru et al responsible for any sins at all. As I wrote above, it’s a tradition in superhero comics that I’m concerned with here, and I only mention it with reference to Marvel Feature #3 because it’s The Defenders that I’m currently writing about. I am indeed an admirer of Roy Thomas, whose stories remain not only highly entertaining, but frequently politically astute and engaging too. From McCarthyism in The Avengers to anti-Japanese racism in All-Star Squadron, Thomas’ stories impacted considerably upon my growing mind with his political convictions. If I ascribe a problem to one particular collaboration he was involved with, it is merely to talk about a convention introduced by Marvel that could have both positive and negative consequences, and to the drip-drip-drip of traditions from countless sources that over time can shape our thinking, accidentally or not.

2 thoughts on “The Rule Of Law? The Sub-Mariner in Marvel Feature #3

  1. The most poignant part of revisiting these pages is seeing Bill Everett’s inks on a standardized version of his own creation, Namor. Did he care, or was it just a gig to him by then?

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    1. I believe he cared about Subby very much, although I’ve read nothing about him resenting Marvel owning the character’s rights. Everett’s last run on Namor’s own mag, which began at this time and saw him both writing and pencilling, was one of the finest the character has ever seen. Seriously, those 7 or 8 issues were terrific, really accomplished and ambitious. They were far too good to be the product of anything other than love and conviction. Bless him, Everett had a terrible time with illness, and yet even at his end, his work was excellant.

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