Now, I don't want to get to maudlin or sappy, but if there are two things I love, they are history and America. And my wife. And food. And – well, let's just say I have a lot of love and leave it at that. But, yeah, I love history and America – the good, bad, and ugly of both. And when those two come together with comics, Hootnanny, yer speaking my language! And when it comes to writing speculative history, there is nobody – and i mean nobody – better than the original fanboy himself, Roy Thomas.
Born in 1940, the title “original” might be a bit of hyperbole, but Thomas, an avid comic reader in his childhood, grew from the fandom of the Alter Ego fanzine to a staff editor position at Marvel Comics after a dinner with Stan “the Man” Lee! Excelsior!
Roy entered Marvel with a bang, and over the course of the next two decades, he was editorial assistant, editor-in-chief, and a freelance writer. He brought Conan the Barbarian and Star Wars to Marvel and created such remarkable concepts as The Kree-Skrull war, adamantium, Ghost Rider, Iron Fist, and the Invaders! The Invaders were the retro-active WW2-era super team, which included Captain America, Bucky, Namor the Sub-Mariner, the original Human Torch, and his mutant pal Toro. In these stories, Namor had given up his attacks on America and turned his angry eyes on the deserving Nazi threat.
See, Marvel didn't really have so much of a Golden age as their Distinguished Competition – no super teams and almost no crossovers. (There was the post war “All Winner's Squad,” but let's not talk about that at the moment!) Each hero or anti-hero pretty well stayed to his own balliwick. That was, of course, not the case with the Torch and Namor, but they had been real enemies, and their battling ended with loads of property damage and an invasion of New York! Nevertheless, on the covers, our heroes fought the same causes, the great Axis, and so Roy Thomas was able to take us back in time to flush out a few details of the 616 Golden Age, both as a writer of Namor and through retro-active history in the pages of the Invaders series, which ran for around 40 issues.
A little aside, but the leap in Namor from card-carrying Axis member to defender of the West is a little nuanced, but here are the nuts and bolts: Namor is the Prince of the Atlanean People, and he has sworn to do battle and throw the pesky air-breathers from the Oceans – especially the Americans. On his way to hunt down the “enemy,” who should he run into, but a U-Boat full of Nazi's who, guess what, also hate Americans. Using some old fashioned enemy-of-my-enemy, a bond is formed, and Namor, believing the Americans to be instigators, begins his series of attacks on New York and its nation.
Well, all of this is really just setting the stage for the real review, a little book from 1994: Captain America #423. In a lull between story arcs in the then-modern era, Roy Thomas was invited back to treat us to the first 1941 meeting of Cap and Namor the Submariner. With pencils by M.C. Wyman, it starts like this:
So, Cap and Bucky find themselves in the middle of foiling a sabotage attempt by Nazi sleeper agents, and we get treated to some olde-time Nazi beating. After wrapping up the unwanteds, out heroes have to bolt into Washington D.C. to meet with a very special dignitary (Spoilers: it's FDR). Meanwhile, in New York, Namor is having another throw-down with the Human Torch. Things go badly for Subby, and he is forced to flee to the harbor. While looking for his “Air-Ship,” he overhears some sailors discussing politics and the power of the Chief Executive. Namor figures that if he holds Roosevelt hostage, he should be able to negotiate the Americans' departure from the oceans, especially the polar ones. He flies to D.C. and is able to kidnap FDR from the White House, and right in front of Cap, Bucky, and the secret service. But Captain America never quits. He grabs a plane and gives chase.
Atlantean Airships are super fast, and so Namor has more than enough time to get away and secret himself on an abandoned island to radio the US and make his demands. FDR tells the sea-prince plainly that the US does not negotiate, leaving Subby with a need to rethink his plan. “I may die,” FDR says, “but America will go on.” And as they chat, Cap is hot on their trail.
I want to stop for a moment to talk about FDR. No, not the man himself. I have to confess that I tend to agree with Archie Bunker on FDR. Nevertheless, In Thomas's work, whether in the All-Star Squadron or here, FDR is reflected as being the best version of himself: the pro-values, pro-exceptionalism voice of the fire-side chats. And that picture is not out of place, as the real FDR was not without charm and efficacy, a trait Namor makes specific mention of. Nevertheless, Thomas's FDR has perhaps the greatest trait of any Comicbook President—the ability to inspire the very best in the hearts and lives of hero and civilian alike. The real FDR did a bit of that as well. Anyway, back to the comic.
Namor, in his ranting, reveals that his hatred for America stems from a sense of revenge as the Americans had, many years before, attacked Atlantis with explosions from above. Roosevelt counters that he's heard about this, and he looked into it. The attack, he explains, had actually been the explorations of Captain Mackenzie, who had not known about the underwater civilization when he used explosives to free his icebound ship. This takes Namor aback, remembering his mother's words that a “Mackenzie” was his father. As Namor tries to sort out his anger and confusion, Captain America shows up and gets between Namor and the President. It is a battle royale, and one in which Cap is far out-paced, and Stevie-boy takes a good beating. Despite this, Namor is pretty impressed by Cap's tenacity and dedication, despite the brutal beating he is taking. But, while these two are distracted, President Roosevelt is kidnapped again, this time by some eavesdropping Nazi U-boaters. Once our heroes spot the interlopers, they stop their brawl, taking off after the escaping sub.
With his mighty strength, Namor fights into the sub, only to find the Nazi commander using FDR as a human shield. This earns some serious disrespect from the Prince of the Blood. See, Namor is a big fan of fighting his own battles, even when battles are not so necessary. As he turns to Cap to state their now united cause against this particular Nazi, FDR surprises everyone by taking the commander out by himself with a well placed elbow-to-the-ribs just as the US Navy sails in to the rescue.
The story ends with grudging respect between all concerned: Cap learning Namor was not the mindless brute he had believed, Namor learning there was more to learn about his own past, and FDR lamenting that he could not make an Ally of Namor and Atlantis. And, in a final closing, Thomas adds the editorial note that it was a few months from that time when Hitler's navy used U-boats to attack Atlantis, causing Atlantis, like Moscow later that same year, to leave the Axis and join in the cause of the Allied nations.
Honestly, this has been my favorite comic I have reviewed so far. And this article is super-long. I looked for things to cut out, and I just love it too much! Thomas is in best form on this one. It is touching and deeply Patriotic, and Thomas is even able to work in some real pre-war arguments about America's place on the world stage. It is a thoroughly Golden Age book for the Modern era, written with the same love and respect that I have always loved in Thomas's work. Again, nothing but a pleasure to read, if that is your kind of thing. It sure is mine, but you already knew that.