Of the various reprint lines Marvel has published over the years, the Epic Collections are my favorite. Reprinting old stories in full-color (sorry, Essentials) and in big enough tomes to feel worthwhile (sorry, Marvel Masterworks), they’ve been a great addition to the market. Now, Marvel’s very first superhero is finally getting the Epic treatment. Namor, the Sub-Mariner Epic Collection: Enter the Sub-Mariner comes out this week, and it collects all of the Atlantean monarch’s earliest silver age appearances. So, how do these stories hold up?
The book opens up with several issues of Fantastic Four, where Namor is recontextualized from a golden age protagonist into an opponent of the FF. Not only does he face off against them in battle, but he also rivals Mr. Fantastic for the Invisible Girl’s romantic affections. From a character standpoint, these issues don’t make a great first impression for Namor. Your mileage may vary on if his trademark arrogance is charming yet, but on the whole he’s fairly flat and you’d be hard pressed to find stories more utterly beyond parody in their extreme misogyny than these are.
Nonetheless, there are some endearing elements at play here. Stan Lee’s famously flowery, enthusiastic, and just plain wordy writing features some legitimately clever turns of phrase, and there’s never any danger of needless decompression. Jack Kirby meanwhile delivers just the sort of visual worldbuilding one would expect from him. Highlights include a diagram showing the layout of the FF’s base and the fantastical technologies housed within it, as well as various panels of the over-the-top aquatic architecture of Namor’s undersea palace. All in all, there are a lot of touches in these early issues that are just plain fun.
The middle of the book, meanwhile, is a bit of a slog to get through. Much of it consists of Namor’s non-FF appearances in which he faces off against the X-Men, Daredevil, and the Avengers. Without Mr. Fantastic or the Invisible Girl present, Namor has no major relationships to draw tension from. This is a problem considering that he hasn’t been given enough depth as a character to stand on his own yet. There are some fun, silly ideas in these issues, but they do nothing to flesh out the character and frankly he doesn’t make a very fitting opponent for Daredevil or the X-Men. The main note of historical import is just how early on Namor was already defined as being a mutant.
Across both the Fantastic Four issues and his other random guest spots, Namor remains an antagonist who’s just there to be the heroes’ punching receptacle of the month. It doesn’t feel like any of the creators have a clear concept for the character or his relationship to Atlantis yet. This results in Namor finding his people and rejoining them, then losing them, and then having to find them and reclaim his throne over and over. The only other notable Atlantean character is Dorma, who oscillates between loving Namor and conspiring against him depending on the needs of the plot.
It’s not until the final third or so of the book that Namor gets to be the star and the other denizens of Atlantis start to get comparatively more nuance as well. The Tales to Astonish stories, written by Lee, drawn by Gene Colan, and inked by Vince Colletta, are the narrative high point of the collection. Now that Namor is the protagonist himself, we finally get more insight into his thoughts about Atlantis, Dorma, humankind, and his own sovereignty. That’s not to say that these issues are all adequately addressed; if anything, his character feels as inconsistent as ever. Still, there are seeds of good ideas here and Namor finally feels like a figure with agency unto himself. It’s also worth noting that Colan and Colletta have the most visually distinct take on Namor in the book; his might and brawn really show through in the these stories.
With that said, these issues still leave much to be desired. Changes in Namor’s priorities and decisions aren’t believably explained, and he volleys between extremes at the drop of a hat. The same is true of Dorma, and frankly there’s not a single scene of their romance that feels like an earned expression of their feelings rather than the result of some mandate to shoehorn in generic heterosexual pining amidst the undersea political drama.
It’s also worth noting that Krang doesn’t contrast against Namor effectively as an antagonist. Krang seizes a political title that isn’t his to claim, but Namor himself has no entitlement to Atlantis beyond his birth and ancestry. Obviously it’s not surprising that a ’60s adventure comic doesn’t meaningfully grapple with the concept of monarchy, but the fact remains that we have little reason as readers to cheer for Namor’s success as he strives to regain his throne. He can be kinder than Krang, but his acts of compassion feel plot-mandated rather than like earnest expressions of his character.
All in all, Namor, the Sub-Mariner Epic Collection: Enter the Sub-Mariner shines as more as a historical reference than as a book of high quality stories. Fans of the character will be able to appreciate such a thorough collection of his silver age appearances, but said appearances leave much to be desired. Namor himself is written very flatly, the middle portion of the book is a bit of a slog, and none of the plots are anything to write home about. With that said, there are enough redeeming factors throughout to make it a solid read nonetheless.
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