Friday, February 24, 2017

This Is A Job For--Betty Dean!

Anyone familiar with the history of the Sub-Mariner no doubt recalls the character of Betty Dean, a police officer who was assigned to trap Namor by posing as a drowning swimmer in order to hopefully provoke him into "saving" her. Betty dates back to early 1940, during the time when Namor was making a series of attacks on New York while the German war machine was moving through Europe. Namor's reasons for engaging in hostilities toward the U.S. eastern seaboard were in response to the casualties inflicted on his people due to American incursions near his home; yet even though the U.S. was still two years from entering the war, the war itself would end up being a backdrop to the meeting between Namor and Betty, and would play a crucial role in easing tensions between Namor and America and pivoting him toward battling the Nazis and their allies.

My first exposure to the story of Betty Dean happened to take place in my first exposure to Marvel comics--with Sub-Mariner #38, an issue where Namor was in grief over the loss of the lady Dorma and was sifting through his memories of both Atlantis and loves lost. Written by Roy Thomas, the scene where Namor meets Betty is encapsulated by Thomas to cover the basics, though clearly omitting a good deal of context.

The story of Betty's introduction adds an air of romance to a menacing character who up to that point was little more than a misguided marauder. And a good thing, too, since much more rides on the romantic angle in that story than any hope of success in the police department's "plan." Did Betty's superiors really send her in hoping that her deception would result in an arrest? The police must have fought any number of prior engagements with Namor and realized that their bullets were ineffective--what hope did Betty have brandishing a pistol? And how was that purse supposed to keep her gun from being clogged by sea water? "All right, Mr. Sub-Mariner, you asked for it! *CLICK* Oops..."

Thomas had also made a point to introduce Betty in an earlier story of the new Sub-Mariner title--yet while he's obviously aware of many elements from the 1940 story, he curiously alters the circumstances of their meeting completely.

Namor's memories in that story center around locating and securing the so-called helmet of power used by his now-deceased foe, the man called Destiny. But through his recollections, we also learn that his relationship with Betty was a platonic one--mainly because of a reason that amounts to "hogwash," given his intentions toward Sue Storm and, later, Marrina.

But Namor's thoughts of Betty have a deeper purpose in Thomas's story since they lead to his reunion with Betty 28 years after their first encounter, during a scene where Namor is involved in a fight with the Thing to recover Paul Destine's helmet. Given the way in which that meeting takes place, it's possible that Thomas altered the details of Betty's first appearance in order to given the newer scene a sense of symmetry, in terms of Betty ending the conflict as well as Namor's abrupt departure.

The complete story of Betty Dean's first meeting with Namor, in Timely's Marvel Mystery Comics, takes us back to a much simpler time in storytelling, with the events of the war being felt in American comic books in tales of sabotage and intrigue. Legendary Sub-Mariner creator Bill Everett was all of 22 years old when he produced the story, marking the point when the Sub-Mariner takes his first steps toward becoming a hero to those he had previously attacked in earnest--and all because of a police officer who met him as a brash foe but would go on to become one of his most trusted friends.

Everett thus far has pulled no punches with Namor, now a wanted man for multiple acts of destruction and murder and who he establishes with the reader as "evil" while still somehow painting him as a victim. The police, however, don't have the luxury of Everett's insight, and Namor has become a serious threat that they're wracking their brains trying to deal with. Finally, a break comes their way when Namor was attempting to kidnap a woman that he'd previously saved from a fire--the logic being that they can use another woman to lure him into a trap.

(Thank goodness Betty is easy on the eyes--otherwise she may have never gotten this assignment.)

It turns out that aside from her professional demeanor, Betty is as cocky as they come. Like the Inspector, Betty doesn't really know what she's going to do with Namor if she succeeds in making contact with him--but she preps for the job without a hint of fear, as if this were any other undercover assignment that required the unique talents of a woman to pull off.

She even names her gun--quite a broad, our Betty!

Unfortunately, while the plan goes off without a hitch, "Roscoe" is of no help in dealing with Namor, and to Namor Betty becomes a tool to use in his fight against the Americans. But before his plans for her can take shape, he's distracted by an attack on a British commercial transport by a Nazi U-boat and bomber.

Taking Namor's advice, Betty indeed swims to a nearby island, where she watches Namor handily deal with both the submarine and the bomber. She also witnesses an equally startling sight--that of Namor saving the transport from sinking and pushing it ashore. Once the survivors are accounted for, the conversation between the two takes a turn, and Betty realizes what tact she must pursue to deal with the Sub-Mariner and successfully fulfill her assignment.

Namor proves to be a powerful force against the Nazis, using the blockade's mines to deal with the flotilla's vessels while his own strength disables another Nazi sub and leaves it for the U.S. authorities. In that moment, it seems Namor's course has been set, hoping that his actions have served to atone in part for his past mistakes--actions that equally surprise those who have, up to now, considered Namor in an entirely different light.

Namor's answer is left for the next issue to reveal--but though it looks like Betty's report to her superiors will have to conclude with "we'll see," the story establishes almost immediately that Namor will play a vital role in the war, and, from early indications, a neutral one.

If you're astonished at how easy it was for Namor to quickly convince his Emperor to stand down from their vengeance on "the white race"--well, again, it's 1940's storytelling, which didn't dally when moving along.

Betty Dean (Prentiss) returns to Sub-Mariner--along with Bill Everett!


Anonymous said...

So Subby is "some freak species of half-man, half-fish and half-bird". Three halves ? Yep, that is definitely a freak species !

Comicsfan said...

Well, Colin, we know that Betty's a crack shot, but nobody said she was a wiz at math!

Anonymous said...

Somebody once wrote, "behind every hero is a tragedy," and Namor is certainly no exception. The loss of his parents, his love Dorma, the wars and destruction his people have endured, his own sense of never really fitting in anywhere, always being different. In his brief reunion with Betty Dean, we see the deep sadness and loneliness inside of him.
It's part of what makes him compassionate, angry, sometimes a great hero, and one of Marvel's most interesting characters.


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