By Andrew A. Smith
Scripps Howard News Service
Dec. 22, 2009 -- One of the reasons I like reading collections of old comic books is the historical insight one can glean from these bits of pop-culture flotsam. The latest collection of World War II era comics, Marvel Masterworks: Golden Age Sub-Mariner
Vol. 4 (Marvel Entertainment, $59.99), is a prime example.
I should preface my remarks by saying these stories, reprinted from the quarterly Sub-Mariner
#9-12 (Spring-Winter, 1943), aren’t very good. Comics from the “Golden Age” (roughly 1938-1950) were usually primitive, crudely drawn, poorly written affairs, aimed at children and created by the bottom rung of the entertainment ladder – men who, for various reasons, couldn’t get better jobs. Occasionally the sheer boisterous enthusiasm of these early comics creators is infectious, but usually they churned out amateurish dreck that doesn’t hold up very well.
There were exceptions, like Sub-Mariner’s creator, the talented Bill Everett. But he, like many comics creators, had been drafted by 1943. Whatever bodies the comics company threw at their stories during the war were generally bottom of the barrel. Nobody even knows who wrote the stories in Sub-Mariner
#9-12, and even the identification of the artists is sketchy.
So why read them? Well, if for no other reason than the slang, which is probably half invented. Where else are you going to learn that “change your map” used to mean “hit you in the face”? The tough-guy lingo is sometimes educational, often ridiculous, but always interesting.
Also, while many comics companies avoided war stories (principally National/DC, which published Superman and Batman), Sub-Mariner
was published by a company that jumped into the war with both feet. As legendary comics writer/editor Roy Thomas writes in the Introduction, “No comics company’s superheroes fought earlier, longer or harder against the 1940s Axis of evil than did those of Martin Goodman’s Timely Comics (forerunner of Marvel). Nor did any ‘long underwear boys’ anywhere play a bigger part in the four-color fighting than Prince Namor, the Sub-Mariner.”
This gives us a look at the popular conception of World War II in a way that more adult material from the ‘40s does not. Since the comics were aimed at kids, the depiction of the war was distilled to its essence.
Two stories in this volume feature the Japanese bombing or shelling the American west coast, reflecting a popular, but now mostly forgotten, post-Pearl Harbor anxiety. The story “Den of Serpents” reflects the Churchill-FDR decision at the 1943 Casablanca conference to press for “unconditional surrender” of the Axis powers – a term Sub-Mariner adopts. A house ad depicts Captain America asking kids to donate to the waste paper drives – “Hey, kids! You’re in this war too!” – which would include the very comic book they were reading.
Some references are surprising. “The Green Island Menace” involves Axis agents stirring up trouble between the Irish and the American doughboys debarking in Ireland in 1942. Coming to the rescue is … the Irish Republican Army! The story allows that the organization is “outlawed,” and the police refer to some of them as “terrorists” – a loaded term these days, and one wonders how it was understood in 1943. But Sub-Mariner clearly enjoys their company, possibly indicating that America (or at least Timely’s Goodman) preferred the IRA to the Irish government, which was officially neutral in WWII, but was hostile to London and suspected of playing footsie with Hitler.
Then there are the troubling aspects. I’m not going to comment on the depiction of the Japanese as buck-toothed, slobbering, bloodthirsty murderers. Hey, we were at war, and dehumanizing the enemy is standard propaganda.
But in “Namor Meets the Mysterious Dr. Suki,” the internment camps for Japanese-Americans are a central element, which no one in the story finds distasteful or even remarkable. And the sign over one reads starkly “Concentration Camp/Japanese Nationals” and as if to rub it in, “United States” just below. Evidently, the term “concentration camp” wasn’t considered pejorative until after the war, when the full scope of Hitler’s “final solution” was revealed.
Worse, to show the heinous nature of the imperial Japanese, the writer has them perform water torture on a disguised Namor. Naturally, he survives. But one longs for the day when only the bad guys indulged in torture, and we were still shocked by it.
Golden Age Sub-Mariner
isn’t great entertainment. But it is a fascinating look at how our ancestors saw the world, and that’s enough for me.
Contact Andrew A. Smith of the Memphis Commercial Appeal at firstname.lastname@example.org.