Monday, March 5, 2018

Play It Again, Sue

In the earliest stories of Fantastic Four which featured the Sub-Mariner, readers were strung along as a love triangle developed between Namor, Sue Storm, and Reed Richards, with Sue finding it difficult to declare which of the two men held her heart. And it all started with one scene, where a vengeful Namor reappears after a long absence and vows war against the human race, but whose rage is tempered by the sight of one girl who stands with those attempting to stop his rampage.

Later accounts of this scene tend to read more into it than there is. After all, Sue isn't being wooed here, at least in terms she would take seriously, nor has she lost her heart on the spot; instead, she's being given an impossible choice to make: Become the Sub-Mariner's bride, or Namor resumes his war with humanity. Granted, artist Jack Kirby gives her an expression that could be viewed as regret in having to refuse Namor's offer; yet her spoken response suggests consternation rather than heartbreak, given that Namor comes across as being impulsive rather than giving us any sense of heartfelt love on his part. Yet in light of what's to come for these two, the scene is still attributed as the root of their attraction toward one another--and we can at least acknowledge that, for Sue, it was enough to keep Namor in her thoughts.

There were two pivotal issues which eventually followed that took steps to put the matter to rest, both of which had Sue being taken captive by the man who professed love for her. Leo Robin, who penned the lyrics to "Prisoner Of Love," would certainly have had these two in mind if he'd written the song thirty years later:

The latter of these stories actually settles the issue; but the first again maddeningly stokes the fire by making it clear that, not only is Sue's choice between Reed and Namor still a lingering issue, but she still hasn't made up her mind. Yet there's more to recommend this earlier tale than as another piece to the Namor/Sue/Reed quandary, with quite a lot of FF goodness crammed into its 22 pages to satisfy readers who by this time have become solid FF fans.

For one thing, the FF have finally closed the circle on their raison d'ĂȘtre--formally winning the "space race" by successfully returning from a trip to the moon where they'd landed ahead of the ship launched by the "reds" (in this case, the Red Ghost), their mission made possible by a new type of propulsion fuel discovered by Reed.

The occasion was also marked by the Watcher, who acknowledged this achievement of mankind and practically cut the ceremonial ribbon in anticipation of man's exploration of this new frontier.

As for the FF, they receive a hero's welcome upon landing, with the entire world aware of their achievement--so it's no surprise to see both Kirby and writer Stan Lee playing up the excitement for all it's worth.

Yet, curiously, this segment is set aside in its entirety when the book later covers the Apollo moon landing in issue #98, a mission which was still treated by the comic as if it were a historic milestone. NASA was still using space capsules, instead of Reed's ship design that was years ahead of the space shuttle; and even though Reed had shared his propulsion data with the space agency, the Apollo mission was still using conventional fuel. To those watching the unfolding drama on their televisions, as well as to the FF members themselves, it was as if the earlier groundbreaking mission had never happened.

Which means that the "fan"demonium that erupted at the airport upon the FF's return was apparently for the landing of a rocket ship that--uh, never went anywhere.

(The message being sent in that last panel appears to be that Sue's natural idea of relaxation is to pivot right to housecleaning. On an unrelated note, it may also be the first time we see a period substituted for an exclamation point in a Marvel comic.)

As for Sue's lingering feelings for the Sub-Mariner, there's no mistake here in the interpretation of that message, by neither the reader nor Reed.

Gee, Reed, why not settle the matter now? You're in the same room, thinking about the same thing, yet you're both still tip-toeing around the issue. Or do you enjoy walking around aimlessly and taking a hands-off approach, leaving Sue to guess at how you feel about her?

But the situation between these three is yanked into the forefront once more when the Sub-Mariner falls under the influence of the Puppet Master and is forced to capture Sue as part of his scheme of revenge.

If nothing else, this plot of the Puppet Master gives us a peek into Reed's true feelings for Sue--and while we have to read between the lines a little in this story, the later tale leaves no room for doubt.

FF #14:

FF #27:

It looks like the only character who's happy about these circumstances is the Puppet Master, and he has every reason to be. He's not only taken control of the Sub-Mariner, but he's arranged for the FF to face Namor on his home ground--and all without revealing his hand to any of them. But you can bet he's not about to miss out on enjoying the fruits of his labors.

Nor does Namor show any sign that he's not fully on board with what he no doubt believes is his own plan for these enemies that have repeatedly thwarted him. With ample time to prepare, he manages to capture the group's bathyscaphe*, allowing him to set the stage for what's to come.

*You have to love the simple logic you find in a comics story. With the entire scope of Earth's oceans to search, and despite having no idea where Namor would be, Reed's solution to finding him boils down to a wild hunch in regard to where to even begin the search: "We'll have to take pot luck! But I suspect he inhabits the very deepest regions--such as this area!"

Yet, despite the fact that Namor has taken Sue hostage, the FF decide to play by Namor's rules, which, according to "the custom of my people," require him to face the FF one at a time. (Since when?) His bouts with both the Torch and the Thing are inconclusive; but the tone of the story has made it clear that this is really going to come down to himself and Reed. Meanwhile, the Thing takes the opportunity to free Sue from her monstrous, six-armed captor.

As for the Puppet Master, he's naturally dissatisfied that Namor hasn't been as ruthless with the FF as expected. But when he initiates new commands to his pawn, he unknowingly reveals his hand to the one person who knows the signs of his work better than anyone. Subsequently, when the FF come to their senses and renew the attack against Namor as a group, Sue intervenes to act on the working theory that Namor's will is not his own.

But what finally defeats the Puppet Master's plan is isn't the Fantastic Four or even the Sub-Mariner, but a creature earlier dealt with by the Thing which finally escapes into the ocean. And the man who had set this entire affair in motion is forced to watch helplessly as the situation spirals out of his control.

With the Puppet Master's presumed demise, Namor's mind and will become his own again--clueless as to how and why he faces the Fantastic Four again, but with the presence of mind to resume playing the broken record that has become his relationship with Sue, which Sue gives yet another spin around the turntable.

Given what we know happens in issue #27, we could give it issue #14's cover caption and modify it to read "The Sub-Mariner Strikes Out!" (heh). But all is not yet lost for Namor--because there's another version of this tale which may abruptly put an end to this soap opera and succeed in giving him his heart's desire.

Fantastic Four #14

Script: Stan Lee
Pencils: Jack Kirby
Inks: Dick Ayers
Letterer: Art Simek


Anonymous said...

The Apollo moon-landing story shows the problem with mixing fact and fiction. In the Marvel universe the Fantastic Four were first to the moon and the Apollo mission should have been ignored as if it never happened - no need for Armstrong and Aldrin when the FF had done it already!

Comicsfan said...

Colin, my guess is that it was Stan Lee's way of sidestepping continuity this once and recognizing the achievement of the Apollo 13 mission--which, it goes without saying, probably didn't hurt sales that month, either. ;)

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