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

Views: 327

Comment by Mr. Satanism on December 24, 2009 at 10:49am
Terrific review!
Comment by Luke Blanchard on December 25, 2009 at 12:06am
My recollection is there's a sequence in the movie Hitler's Children (1943) - set in Nazi Germany - where "concentration camp" is used as a term for a punishment camp. I could be mistaken, though.
Comment by Jeff of Earth-J on December 25, 2009 at 1:00pm
Cap, every week your blogs and reviews are like one of those scratch-off game cards for me: "Will Cap review something I have read and have something to say about?" Usually there's one and sometimes two, although I have yet to score a trifecta. I enjoy reading Golden Age comics (mainly for the same reasons you do), and although Sub-Mariner is a particular favorite of mine (when written and drawn by Bill Everett, certainly), I find I have nothing to add not already said better by Roy Thomas in his introduction and you in your review, but I nonetheless find myself looking forward to next week's offering!
Comment by Ron M. on July 16, 2014 at 11:53pm

How did these less talented guys keep from getting drafted when the stars like BIll Everett and Jack Kirby couldn't get out of the war. Were they 4F, or was the industry hiring women but not telling anyone until the war ended?

Comment by Captain Comics on July 24, 2014 at 8:52pm

I'm guessing whoever was drawing these stories were basically people who were 4F but could still hold a pencil. Some of them were people who simply hadn't been drafted yet.


You need to be a member of Captain Comics to add comments!

Join Captain Comics


No flame wars. No trolls. But a lot of really smart people.The Captain Comics Round Table tries to be the friendliest and most accurate comics website on the Internet.









© 2020   Captain Comics, board content ©2013 Andrew Smith   Powered by

Badges  |  Report an Issue  |  Terms of Service