Marvel Comics is celebrating its 80 year anniversary this year, and one of the main features is a new series called Decades. The first trade paperback is out this week and is dedicated to the 1940s. It was a simpler time when Marvel was just getting off the ground, and in this special, Marvel is focusing on the Human Torch and the Sub-Mariner’s tumultuous relationship. Here are my three takeaways on this action-packed collection.
So what’s it about?
The official summary reads:
Celebrate 80 years of Marvel Comics, decade by decade — beginning with the first two superstars of the Flying Forties! The original Human Torch and Namor the Sub-Mariner get along as well as fire and water, and several of Timely’s greatest comics feature the twin titans clashing in fantastic feature-length fisticuffs! A rivalry for the ages is born when Namor, mistreated by the surface world, attacks New York — and the Torch stands in his way! As World War II rages, Namor decides to create peace by flooding the planet! Can the Torch and his young sidekick, Toro, bring Namor back to his senses? They’d better — because the Nazis are on the attack, and the Golden Age archrivals must put aside their differences aside and unite against a common foe!
Why does this matter?
The introduction that opens this book explains this series of collections will show how the Marvel Universe has grown and developed throughout the eras. This era’s Human Torch and the Sub-Mariner were chosen to highlight the major themes of the time. That’s why this collection has our heroes at war in a simpler time, fighting in the streets of New York, and some of the most innovative superhero fights.
This is a fight comic to emulate at a time when there was nothing like it
I was blown away by the fight choreography in this book. Sure, it’s not as detailed or succinct as today’s comics, but artists today have decades of evolution and experience. The first half of the book is devoted to Sub-Mariner doing damage to the city and the Human Torch (or at the time known as The Torch) fixing what he breaks. You get the sense the writers and artists plotted page by page thinking up things for Namor to smash or ways in which these two can go toe to toe. It’s fun to see Namor create chaos in a zoo only to see Human Torch putting metal bars back and keeping wild monkeys from escaping. There are clever ideas on every page be it Human Torch using a bridge wire to whip at Sub-Mariner, or Namor using a glass tube to capture Human Torch.
Heroes and villains can get along
At some point the Marvel editors probably realized readers like both characters so why not have them team up? The team up is a requirement thanks to the Nazis who are sinking ships and ruining Atlantis while Human Torch is fighting the good fight for America. It’s clear the stories here inspired the Invaders and the plot takes some crazy turns. All this while the Sub-Mariner’s mother — and Atlanteans as a whole — want to tear humans to ribbons. Sub-Mariner even does a little espionage trying to infiltrate some baddies who are sending messages to Germany via dance (don’t ask). It’s not all battlefield stuff, and it’s quite neat to see how history influenced these classic comics.
The Sub-Mariner’s ego is on full display for better or worse
Namor is a wacko in this book. In the opening, he’s smashing things with absolutely no strategy, simply thinking all of humanity will bend to his will because he broke some stuff. Later on, he’s thinking fondly of how awesome Napoleon had it for being a beloved dictator. Hell, characters even compare him to Mussolini. And yet, with all this ego and outrageousness he’s an endearing character. He does the heroic thing from time to time, fully understanding he should use his powers for good when needed. He makes up with Human Torch (even though at one point Torch is going to use chemicals to burn Sub-Mariner’s skin off) and they work well together. It’s a combo that worked.
It can’t be perfect, can it?
It’s downright silly how the Sub-Mariner acts through a lot of this collection. In the opening, he’s smashing things expecting humanity to bend to his will, but he’s doing it with such low ambition. Throwing something down on a few cars won’t win you America, dude! Even though it’s kind of hilarious he wants to be like Napoleon he’s so over the top it’s hard to take him seriously later in the collection. Also, these are older comics that were clearly meant for younger kids and that shows.
Is it good?
If this is the first taste of the Decades series, I can’t wait for rest to come. It’s not a “best of” but a snapshot of what defined Marvel in the ’40s. I can’t wait to see what the editors have pulled together for the ’50s, ’60s, and beyond.