Monday, February 27, 2017

The Searing Vengeance of... Sunfire!

When it comes to Shiro Yoshida, the mutant known as Sunfire, it's difficult at times to be in the man's corner, since a great deal of his time in a comic is spent espousing his nationalist fervor for his island nation of Japan. One could argue, perhaps correctly, that Shiro's abrasive personality toward foreigners is not by choice, having been pulled in two different directions by his uncle and his father--one wishing to return Japan to the height of its power and influence and avenge its defeat that followed the twin atomic blasts of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, while the other constantly chides Shiro for taking such a fanatical view of current affairs and refusing to live in the present. The former, his Uncle Tomo, discovering his nephew was a mutant, sought to use his influence to fan the flames of hatred in Shiro and thus be able to direct the power of Sunfire however he wished--while Shiro's stern father, Saburo, refused to allow his son to become so obsessed with Tomo's enmity toward those that brought Japan to its defeat in the war. If Tomo and Saburo ever had these outbursts with each other, those scenes never became part of this initial story; but it was clear their tug of war with Shiro was taking its toll on him, since it was becoming evident that Shiro was becoming more aligned with his uncle's views every day.

Created by Roy Thomas and Don Heck, Sunfire--his powers to emit bursts of intense heat a result of his mother being located a number of miles from the center of the Hiroshima blast--arrived in comics in 1970 when the world's population of mutants was still sparse enough that his debut appearance in X-Men could be an impressive one. That assessment may be due in large part to his distinctive costume, which is arguably one of the finest designs in Marvel's extensive costume gallery and remains so nearly fifty years later. Accompanying his father, a U.N. delegate, to New York, Sunfire appears and destroys a new monument that Saburo dedicates to honor both peace and the youth of the world. Three of the X-Men--the Beast, the Iceman, and the Angel--are witness to the destruction and attempt to corral Sunfire, only to fail.

Yet Sunfire's true goal lies in Washington, D.C., the Yoshidas' next stop, where Saburo is scheduled to give a speech before Congress, with the dome of the Capitol building representing a symbolic target of Sunfire's (or shall we say Tomo's) ire. But as Tomo is prepping his nephew for the task that awaits, their conversation is overheard--and Saburo at last learns that it's his nephew who has been carrying out the recent attacks in the States.

Once again, the X-Men engage Sunfire--but at the battle's pinnacle, Saburo gives his son an ultimatum, with tragic results.

You would think Saburo's last words to his son, and the circumstances of his untimely death, would have had a lasting impact on Shiro--yet though he murdered Tomo in turn, Shiro would continue to embrace his uncle's fanatical dreams of Japanese supremacy for some time. And after he's presumably deported following his activities in Washington, Shiro ends up in Tokyo, where his path crosses with another who holds even more extreme views than Tomo, and who is able to subvert the vulnerable Sunfire to his cause.

Dragon-Lord pushes all the right buttons with Shiro--dedicated to restoring Japan to its rightful place in the global hierarchy, and, more importantly, to its former glory as seen through Dragon-Lord's eyes... an ironic choice of words, to be sure, considering that Dragon-Lord is blind. We'll see this man's origin unfold in a moment, an impressive story of perseverance as well as commitment to an audacious if misguided cause; for now, the picture he presents to Sunfire is too tempting to refuse for a man whose uncle's words still resonate in his head.

Sunfire's appearance in this Sub-Mariner tale occurs nearly three years after the X-Men story, where Namor--again under the direction of his creator, Bill Everett--has wrapped up his affairs in his ancestral home in the Antarctic and is on his way back to the States with his young cousin, Namorita, in tow. It's Namor's intention to locate a treasured friend from his youth--Betty Dean Prentiss--in order to ask her to care for Namorita, as he feels neither equipped nor inclined to be her guardian. But first they must find her--and being strangers in a strange world, so to speak, their efforts to navigate among the locals have their amusing aspect.

Though this part of the story is scripted by Mike Friedrich, it's clear that Everett, at the time 55, has come a long way from his days of chronicling Namor's adventures in Golden Age books like Marvel Mystery Comics and Sub-Mariner Comics, in light of the greater attention he gives to the story's plot and the less two-dimensional his characters are here. Namor has changed in appearance, as well--more broad-shouldered and imposing, along with a torso that was nonexistent in his Timely days but more reflective of his age. Yet as to his characters, Everett brings to Namor and others a mix of old and contemporary, his style fluctuating between that of a thoughtful, seasoned prince and the exclamatory, exaggerated shoot-from-the-hip characters of the 1940s. No doubt having an adversary who hails from those days--as well as the presence of the woman who was responsible for Namor turning his efforts to fighting the Nazis--is right up Everett's alley.

And speaking of Betty, she just happens to be vacationing in Dragon-Lord's neighborhood--the island of Okinawa, where she relaxes and reminisces about Namor's adventures here and, thanks to the appearance of a man who's recently escaped from Dragon-Lord, discovers that the war may not have ended for some. The encounter ends up drawing the sharp eyes of two approaching forms--and, unfortunately, one other in their midst.

Sunfire doesn't recognize the Sub-Mariner, but moves to separate the disheveled man from these witnesses to his escape. He's fired on the one person he shouldn't have, of course--and so eventually Namor discovers Dragon-Lord and uncovers his plan, one that involves Sunfire's participation and could endanger the entire world.

What follows is a beautiful battle sequence by Everett that is played out in the vicinity of the very ship that Sunfire means to capture, consisting of the old fire-vs.-water scenario that Everett knows well--one that was played out repeatedly when Namor battled the android Human Torch in those Timely stories. It's a sequence that displays more show than actual substance, since, as Namor discovers, Sunfire's power cannot be "doused" by methods that Namor had used on the Torch. In addition, Everett has Namor making some creative use of water which amounts to little, because Namor is not Hydro-Man--and whatever water he manages to bring to the skies with him (highly improbable, given that we're talking about what looks to be several thousand feet) cannot be used as a tool. At worst, Sunfire is merely dampened, not subdued.

Incredibly, and impressively, Namor manages to save the ship from running against the shoals, returning to the skies to engage Sunfire once more. The effort with the ship, we're told, has drained him, making him too exhausted to deal with Sunfire properly until he can hopefully return to the sea--a strange development, considering he just emerged from the sea which should have sustained him and renewed his strength. Nevertheless, Namor is successful to a degree--but Sunfire is able to strike in retaliation, and his senseless move causes the disaster that Namor feared.

The ship's near-destruction leads into the second part of this story, where Namor--perhaps too late--convinces Sunfire of the recklessness of his act and the need to act quickly to prevent possible worldwide repercussions. It's another eye-catching sequence rendered by Everett--though, taking the scripting reins from Friedrich, he now walks a fine line between Sunfire giving Namor his full cooperation and yet still remaining loyal to Dragon-Lord's vision for Japan. The line will eventually blur to such a degree that the distinction will be rendered moot.

As for where Dragon-Lord emerged from, and why he's adopted this use-of-force approach to restoring Japan's position in the world, Everett's origin for him is well-detailed and even riveting, adding much-needed dimension to the character. The revelations return us to the closing days of the war, with what Dragon-Lord considers a humiliating ceremony of surrender, followed by his inadvertent imprisonment within a hidden facility that in essence was Japan's own Manhattan Project.

Meanwhile, off-panel, it seems that Sunfire has made his decision to join the Sub-Mariner in bringing down his ally. And so they follow Namor's plan to tunnel underneath the facility and catch Dragon-Lord by surprise, with Everett providing Namor with another hard-to-swallow use of his abilities--holding back an onrushing flood of sea water by blocking it with his body. Which means that Namor has been taking pointers not only from Hydro-Man but also, it seems, from Mr. Fantastic.

As amusing as these instances come across, they're examples of Everett's persistent style with the character that invite a resigned shake of the head rather than any serious scrutiny. Stan Lee was also known to slip some whoppers by the reader; from time to time, Namor still makes use of his ability to absorb electricity like an electric eel and discharge it at a foe, discounting the many times when he's been felled or rendered helpless by electric current. But it was Everett who set the standard for Namor making use of the preposterous when needed.

At any rate, Namor and Sunfire succeed, and emerge to bring an end to Dragon-Lord's plans as well as the facility that housed his "ultimate weapon." The battle's climax takes place in the first few pages of the next issue, which seems odd considering that there was adequate room for it to appear with the rest of the story if eight pages of Sub-Mariner reprint material hadn't been substituted instead. There's also the curious omission of all of Dragon-Lord's men, who seem to have disappeared just when he could have used them. But given the whirlwind disposition of this story's villain, it's clear that Everett is ready to move on--which is regrettable, since any build-up that was expended on this character has been rather pointless.

If you're shaking your head in disbelief that it's somehow escaped the notice of both Namor and Sunfire that, hundreds of feet above the American base, they've just released this man to plummet to his death, join the club. For what it's worth, this kind of treatment would have fit right in with one of Everett's 1940 stories--another villain getting their just deserts.

As for our two murderers heroes, Sunfire's bromance with Namor is at an end, and the character must be reset for when he next must rub someone the wrong way.

And Sunfire would indeed go on to spread his charm to others, whether it's Iron Man or his fellow mutants. He'll eventually have a more favorable encounter with the X-Men--but he'll take some rather abrasive baby steps getting there.

As for Betty, she would eventually meet her fate at the hand of Dr. Dorcas, who suffice to say wouldn't survive his act of villainy.

Sub-Mariner #s 52-53
(with scenes from #54)

Script: Mike Friedrich and Bill Everett (respectively)
Pencils and Inks: Bill Everett
Letterer: Artie Simek


Rip Jagger said...

Beautifully done. Sunfire is a longtime fave, his combative nature at the time was fresh enough to register specifically when most heroes were largely like-minded folks. His costume was a winner and stayed pretty constant. You do a grand job of presenting that late Bill Everett awesomeness. His return was brief but mighty before tragedy struck. I well remember Sunfire turning down the X-Men after that first battle, it was just the right note for a truly cantankerous character. Great stuff.

Rip Off

Comicsfan said...

Thanks very much, Rip. Sunfire is indeed a complicated character in terms of his heroic side always being at odds with his distaste for using his abilities to benefit any interests that aren't aligned with his homeland. Perhaps it's fortunate that Dragon-Lord's facility was destroyed, since returning to use it as leverage to, say, force the Americans to withdraw their presence from Japanese soil is something I wouldn't put beyond him, at least at that point in time.

Iain said...

Nobody does explosions and action scenes like Mr Everett, this was a great look at his work thank you. ^^

Comicsfan said...

You're quite welcome, Iain.