It’s time for another Super-Blog Team-Up, where Longbox Graveyard joins with pop culture blogs from around the world to celebrate a particular comics trope. This time, in honor of this week’s release of Captain America: Civil War (and also Batman v Superman, I suppose), we’re looking at great “Versus” comics events!
For my contribution, I went all the way back to the source … to the summer of 1940, when the Human Torch fought the Sub-Mariner!
If you were expecting this titanic clash to appear on the cover of Marvel Mystery Comics #8, you could be excused for missing it. It’s easy to overlook that Torch vs. Subby sidebar on the left, especially when the dominant image features some kind of four-armed caveman gunslinger, and the Golden Age Angel coming perilously close to punching a monster below the belt.
But make no mistake — no matter what the cover might show, the first meeting of the Human Torch and the Sub-Mariner was this issue’s main event!
Barely a half-dozen issues old, Sub-Mariner and the Human Torch were still the new kids on the block in 1940, but after a debut that sold nearly a million copies across multiple printings, these two new superheroes had already managed to stand out from the host of Superman imitators hitting the newsstands. It was perhaps because these characters were so different from Superman that they found an audience. Harkening to the noir world of pulp fiction, which was just now yielding in popularity to comics, Sub-Mariner and the Human Torch were anything but an embodiment of truth, justice, and the American way.
To be fair, Superman hadn’t fully evolved into that all-American paragon quite yet, either … but these new characters were still a breed apart. Carl Burgos’ Human Torch was an android who ignited into a creature of living flame when exposed to air, and who was buried alive by fearful humans before breaking free to take vengeance on the world that shunned him. In time, the Torch mastered his emotions, and become a defender of the common good, but his Frankenstein-like origins made for an unpredictable and sometimes menacing hero. And if it was unpredictability and menace that you wanted, you needed to look no further than Bill Everett’s Prince Namor, the Sub-Mariner, an undersea avenger that made war on the human race, and was elevated above outright villainy only by his own noble nature and a slippery moral code that (sometimes) saw Namor doing the right thing.
When our story opened, Namor was in rare form, waging a one-man war of revenge against New York city. Now, the people of New York did send Namor to the electric chair (!) the issue before, having found him guilty, more-or-less, of being a maniac. Disastrously for New Yorkers, a jolt from the chair just awakened the powers of a groggy Namor, who escaped from custody and then made Gotham pay.
What a rampage! Namor got started by flooding the Holland Tunnel with a depth charge …
… then downing a police biplane. Poor fool!
Next Subby hit the Bronx Zoo, freeing wild animals to wreak havoc.
Plus, poisonous reptiles. Couldn’t forget the poisonous reptiles.
Or the killer (!) elephant. Turn ’em all loose!
Namor suffered temporary remorse when he saw a baby threatened …
… but no sooner did he deliver the baby to a hospital than he was off to knock the top off the Empire State Building, before wrecking the George Washington Bridge!
I don’t know about you, but I love this stuff. This was Golden Age comics at their raw, heedless, unbridled best, with little concern for consequences or continuity, or even making much sense from panel to panel. The Sub-Mariner is pissed off, and he’s a freaking force of nature. What more do you need to know?
It’s on the George Washington Bridge where the Human Torch finally catches up with Namor. And … it’s not a great page. At all. There is little drama when these characters finally meet — the action is remote and restrained, the Torch is seen at a distance throughout, and Namor has his back to the audience the whole time.
You can’t win them all. Bill Everett was all of twenty-three when he created this tale. Even Everett couldn’t be a genius all of the time.
Alex Ross and Kurt Busiek render the meeting in more dynamic terms when they revisited this scene, half a century later, in the pages of Marvels #1.
But Ross and Busiek had an advantage — they could look backwards through time. Neither Everett nor fellow twenty-something creator Carl Burgos could have guessed that their crazy comics story was giving birth to the Marvel Universe. Yet you can argue that is exactly what they did — bringing these two characters together, and proving they lived in the same world, where the consequences of each character’s actions would reverberate through each other’s stories. Heroes and anti-heroes, stories told in shades of grey, big events in real cities with hapless human bystanders caught in the crossfire — that’s the Marvel storytelling DNA, right there, decades before Reed, Johnny, Ben, and Sue rocketed into space in the pages of Fantastic Four #1.
Marvel Mystery Comics was an anthology book, with separate stories of the Torch and Namor in each issue, along with characters like the Angel and Ka-Zar. This team-up was notable in that it spanned two stories in issue #8. Bill Everett’s Sub-Mariner story led the issue, and concluded with that meeting on the bridge — then Carl Burgos’ Human Torch story took over, with the Torch, now a policeman, tasked with capturing Namor on his first day on the job!
Burgos’ entry largely re-told the Everett story, from Torch’s point-of-view, but where Namor was tearing things apart, the Torch was putting them back together, herding zoo animals back into their cages, and dispatching a rampaging gorilla with a flaming right-cross.
Issue #9 continued the clash, with a twenty-two page lead feature by Bill Everett, and (finally) a cover image worthy of this tale …
The battle even rated a splash page heralding the fight as the “Battle of the Comic Century!”
In this second part, the Human Torch was mostly a punching bag — not unreasonable, given that much of the battle took place underwater.
But in a strange turn of events, Namor seemed to lose his mojo — first failing to break a bubble (!) that carried the Torch to the surface, then falling prey to chlorinated reservoir water. So, yeah, Namor is the lord of the seven seas, but keep him away from the water park!
Weakened by chlorine, and with his ankle-wings singed off by the Torch’s flame, Namor escaped by highjacking a plane, and returned to his old homicidal ways, only to think better of his actions in the very next panel. He was nothing if not mercurial, our Namor.
He was also a thinking-man’s madman, rendering the Human Torch powerless by trapping him inside a “translite tube.”
And that’s how issue #9 concluded, with readers encouraged to think how they’d break the stalemate!
So, who was the greater hero in this hero vs. hero tale — Subby, or the Torch?
How about … neither of them?
The true hero of this story — and about the only person who behaves with an ounce of sense — was policewoman Betty Dean. As Namor’s only friend among the surface-dwellers, and as a member of the police force like the Human Torch, Betty was uniquely qualified to see both sides of this conflict, and propose a peaceful solution.
The problem was that she couldn’t get these meatheads to listen to her.
How many times was Betty supposed to offer the answer before someone got the point?
Four times, by my count. Gotta give Betty points for persistence, and bonus points for telling the Torch he was a fool, right from the get-go.
And so the conflict ended sensibly — if not very excitingly — when Betty brokered a peace in the single-page conclusion to the story in Marvel Mystery Comics #10:
Of course, it would have been cooler if they’d fought.
(And Ross and Busiek seemed to agree).
But what the heck? This was the Golden Age, where anything was possible — even Subby and the Torch turning into the Get-Along Gang because Betty Dean told them to make nice. Never mind what happened to the Empire State Building, or the Holland Tunnel, or the Bronx Zoo! I’d say it was all water under the bridge — but Namor knocked the bridge down, too!
Bridge or no bridge, this story was the high-water mark for Namor’s mayhem. Succeeding stories would mostly see the Sub-Mariner venting his rage on Nazis and Imperial Japanese agents, while the Human Torch fought corruption and gang bosses in New York City.
(Well, true, there was Human Torch #5 where Namor hurled a tidal wave against New York City, but we’ll just forget that ever happened …)
The two heroes teamed again in Marvel Mystery Comics #17 to foil a Nazi attack on America, and modern Marvel continuity would team them with Captain America in the WWII hero squad the Invaders. Namor would go on to become a featured Silver Age character in his own right, after being reintroduced in Fantastic Four #4, while the Human Torch — now identified as the “Original” version, to set him apart from the Fantastic Four’s Johnny Storm — would suffer an even stranger fate in modern Marvel comics, getting bound up in the origin of the Vision, among other things.
But that’s really all too complicated, and serves only to obscure the core nature of these primal characters, who have rarely been better than in this story, in all it’s crude and unvarnished glory. My heart belongs to the Bronze Age, but sometimes the old ways are the best ways, as when fire and water clashed, with no punches pulled, at the dawn of the Marvel Universe!
Thanks for reading! Let me know what you think of the Golden Age Torch and Sub-Mariner in the comments section, below, but not before checking out these other “Versus” features from the Super-Blog Team-Up crew!
- Bronze Age Babies: Civil War, Silver Age Style — Tales of Suspense #58
- Between The Pages: Star Wars Versus
- Crapbox Son Of Cthulhu: Versus Edition
- Chris Is On Infinite Earths: Justice League of America
- Coffee & Comics Blog: Spider-Man vs Ghost Rider
- In My Not So Humble Opinion: Captain America vs Wolverine
- Superhero Satellite: Batman vs. Guy Gardner
- The Unspoken Decade: War Machine vs. Cable
- The Retroist: The Joker vs Sherlock Holmes
IN THREE WEEKS: #160 X-Men: Genesis!
One of the pleasures of publishing Longbox Graveyard has been meeting other fans in the online comics community. One of the first to comment on this blog was the enigmatic Mars Will Send No More, who has proven a kindred soul with his love of Marvel’s “Cosmics” and his admiration of classic Bronze Age comics runs, such as Walt Simonson’s Thor. Mars further endeared himself by giving me good-natured grief over my Top Ten DC Comics Characters list (and responded with a wobbly list of his own), so when he threw down the gauntlet on Twitter about doing a Top Single Issues list, I was eager to pick it up.
Mars has already led off with a thoughtful Top Issues list at his own blog, with a far-ranging collection of deeply personal choices well outside the mainstream focusing on dinosaurs, dragonflies, and monoliths, and with little reliance on “dorks in tights punching each other.” Lacking Mars’ eclectic tastes, my list is almost entirely about costumes in Fist City, but that’s a good thing — it means we can provide lists with minimal overlap, and together recommend a full twenty single issue stories worth reading. (Well, fifteen, actually, but more about that later).
Like my Marvel and DC Top Characters lists, this list of Top Single Issues isn’t comprehensive. These aren’t the best stories ever told, or the best-selling, or the best-known, or the most significant. They’re just my favorites, to the degree that I can remember them after reading comics for better than thirty years. My list is idiosyncratic and deliberately so, and presented in no particular order. They’re just superior stories I feel are worthy of note.
my blog, my rules … any objections?
A staple of the Golden Age, the single issue story is a dying form. Even in the Bronze Age which is the focus of Longbox Graveyard, the emphasis was generally on two-part stories, with the single-issue form usually reserved for the dreaded fill-in story. In recent years the single-issue story has all but vanished from DC and Marvel books, as storytelling has “decompressed” into six or twelve issue arcs intended for republication as trade paperbacks.
It’s a shame the form is going away, because the single-issue format forces creators to focus on a small and polished slice of action, with only minimal reference to greater events. Single-issue stories strip away many of the things I most dislike about comics — languid storytelling, dense continuity, and long and confusing fight scenes — in favor of economical storytelling. A single-issue story is harder to write than a multi-part arc, but when done well, a single-issue book is about as good as comics get.
For this list I tried to pick stories that genuinely stand alone, without directly extending into the previous or following issues. I looked for stories with minimal dependence on continuity (though some continuity is impossible to avoid in comics), and I wasn’t especially concerned about page-count — if the tale was published as a single story, then it was eligible for the list, whether it was a 48-page original graphic novel or a Will Eisner seven-page masterpiece.
Speaking of which …
While I appreciate and respect Golden Age comics, I don’t much like reading them, preferring the reinvented sensibility and sophistication of Silver Age and later stories, but for Will Eisner’s Spirit, I make an exception. Partly this is down to Eisner’s work being so modern — or at least seeming modern, given than Eisner practically invented modern comics storytelling whenever he put pencil to paper. Eisner is a comfortable destination for modern comics fans wishing to sample books from a distant era — I guarantee you will flip to the copyright page and shake your head in wonder that these stories were published decades before the 1961 birth of the Fantastic Four.
My knowledge of Eisner is far from comprehensive, and that I have so much of his work still to discover is a happy problem to have. I am working my way through the hardback Spirit Archives, which collect the Spirit in publication order, but I also jumped the line and picked up The Best of The Spirit, spotlighting twenty-two Spirit tales from the 1940s and 1950s. Any of those stories would be worthy members of this list (and Eisner could take every slot on my top ten!), but for today I’m restricting myself to a single story — “Ten Minutes,” originally published in September of 1949.
You don’t need to know a lot about the Spirit to enjoy this slice-of-life story — the Spirit is basically a guest star in this particular strip, which tells the tale of the last ten minutes of the life of Freddy, a neighborhood nobody who crosses the line to capital crime and pays the price in this short-but-sweet seven page story. Delivering a complete story in just seven pages is difficult, but Eisner embraces the time limit of the story, telling us in the first caption that the story will take ten minutes to read, then counts down the time by putting a stopwatch in the first panel of every page that follows.
What would seem a gimmick for any other creator is just another day at the office for Eisner — in those seven pages he tells possibly the first “real time” story in comics history; introduces us to luckless Freddy; shows us how his shiftless frustration boils over into a heartbreaking murder; follows Freddy to his own foredoomed end; and shows how a heedless world goes on ticking, oblivious to Freddy’s little rise and fall. Like all of Eisner’s work, it’s a tight, soulful story told with masterfully illustrated emotion, humor, action, and pathos.
You can read “Ten Minutes” (in just ten minutes!) and other classic Eisner tales in The Best of The Spirit.
Winter Soldier: Winter Kills
This book almost doesn’t make the list, because it’s deeply enmeshed in Marvel continuity, drawing on the Civil War cross-over event, and two years’ worth of Ed Brubaker’s run on Captain America (to say nothing of the seventy-five years history of Cap himself). But the book is so sharply-written that I cannot leave it off my list, and Brubaker, as always, uses continuity with restraint, deepening the entertainment for readers who understand the references, while at the same time imposing few barriers to new readers.
The story is simpler than it sounds — a lonely Christmas Eve in New York for the Winter Soldier (Captain America’s resurrected World War II sidekick, Bucky Barnes), the first such holiday “back in the world” for Barnes, who was thought lost during the war, and is trying to shake off the effects of being a brainwashed Soviet sleeper agent for the last half-century. Christmas Eve isn’t silent night, of course, as Barnes gets pulled into a raid on a Hydra base, and the book does have a nice bit of action, but where the story shines is in it’s characterization. Barnes, Nick Fury, and the Sub-Mariner all have richly nuanced dialogue in this tale, and Captain America, appearing entirely in flashback, tells the only joke of his life when he reminiscences about punching Hitler.
The story concludes with a poignant graveyard scene that I referenced in my Top Marvel Characters list two weeks ago, which again displays the right way to use continuity, as Barnes struggles with guilt from his murderous past, and receives friendship and emotional support from the least likely source — the remote and imperious Sub-Mariner. A beautifully-written and pitch-perfect story.
You can read this story (along with the best Captain America stories ever written) in the highly-recommended Captain America Omnibus Vol. 1.
The Song of Red Sonja
In my review of the Barry Windsor-Smith era of Conan the Barbarian I remarked that Conan stories follow a certain formula — but it’s a good formula. The formula is front-and-center in issue #24 of Conan the Barbarian, which marked the second time we’d meet Red Sonja, and the last time Windsor-Smith would pencil the book.
The plot is something you’ve seen a hundred times before — Conan and Sonja are off to steal some treasure, and along the way there’s a tavern brawl, a tower to climb, and a giant snake to kill. By-the-numbers stuff, for all that it is brilliantly drawn by Windsor-Smith, who’s insane attention to detail could not be appreciated in the original printings, but which is marvelously on display in the Dark Horse Conan reprints.
What makes this issue stand out from others of its era is Roy Thomas’ script. The plot may be off-the-shelf, but Thomas provides sharp dialogue that shows Conan at his headstrong and lusty best. Conan knows that Sonja is taking advantage of him, but he figures it’s worth it for a chance at some treasure and (even more promising) the hope of getting inside Sonja’s pants. For her part, Sonja seems unusually tempted by Conan, musing that breaking her vow of celibacy for Conan wouldn’t be such a terrible thing, and seeming at least slightly guilty when she steals the treasure, hops a horse, and tramples over Conan at the end. This is one of the very few Conan stories where the Barbarian doesn’t get the girl … and the story is better for it.
John Buscema would take over the book with issue #25, and overnight Conan would seem to age about ten years. The youthful, narrow-waisted Windsor-Smith barbarian would be replaced with Buscema’s powerful, thick-shouldered brute. That pending change makes the scene where Conan and Sonja frolic in the pond unexpectedly sweet and innocent. Conan’s youthful joy in that scene — and his childish punching of a wall out of frustration on the final page of the story — would feel inauthentic with Buscema’s version of the Cimmerian, but Windsor-Smith’s more subtle pencils unintentionally capture the end of Conan’s adolescence.
The Song of Red Sonja is reprinted in Dark Horse’s The Chronicles of Conan, Volume 4.
The Anatomy Lesson
Swamp Thing #21 is not just a great comic — it might be the single most important book published by DC Comics in the 1980s. This is where Alan Moore made his mark in American comic books, proving that he could magnificently re-invent one of DC’s most cliched characters — in one stroke changing the way we looked at superheroes, and opening the door for Watchmen, which DC would publish two years later.
The Anatomy Lesson is vintage Moore, coloring inside the lines of Swamp Thing’s past history while simultaneously turning the book inside-out. The Anatomy Lesson tells the tale of Swamp Thing’s autopsy, conducted by the sinister Jason Woodrue, who makes the startling discovery that Swamp Thing isn’t what we thought he was at all. Rather than a man who because a swamp monster, he’s a swamp monster who dreams of being a man — the ghostly aftershock of a dead scientist, who created a body for itself (including non-functioning internal vegetable organs) in imitation of the human form it once wore.
Not content to tell us one of the most unexpected and brilliant origin stories of all time, The Anatomy Lesson also winds in a horror story where narrator Woodrue hatches an elaborate revenge scheme using Swamp Thing’s not-so-dead-after-all corpse, told with creepy mood, atmosphere, and blood.
The Anatomy Lesson kicks off one of the all-time great runs in comics, but it also stands alone as a superior single-issue story. Not that it matters — read this tale and you’ll be hooked for the duration.
Sometimes the best way to write about icons like Batman and Superman is to not write about them at all. Kurt Busiek’s Astro City is inhabited by iconic heroes who are clearly supposed to be those more famous characters, but possessing their own names and costumes, Busiek has the freedom to approach these well-known heroes in new ways, without regard for the continuity or publishing agendas that encumber the “real” characters.
In the very first issue of Astro City, Busiek tells one of the finest Superman stories of all time — except it isn’t about Superman! Our hero is Samaritan, strange visitor from another world, who is faster than a speeding bullet, and in his alter ego is a mild-mannered reporter for a major metropolitan newspaper.
OK, it’s Superman. But don’t call him that, OK? We don’t want DC’s lawyers showing up and ruining the fun over in Astro City.
In Dreams tells the story of a day in the life up Super– eh, Samaritan, from the morning when he dreams of flying free through the skies without a care in the world; to his commute to work where he stops a tsunami before arriving at his newspaper office; then sneaks away to knock out a giant robot and contain an exo-biological outbreak. And that’s just before lunch! On his break, Samaritan meets with the not-Justice League, and through the rest of his long day gets on with the full-time business of being (call it what it is!) a superman, fighting bad guys, accepting awards, and rescuing a cat from a tree. Samaritan even pauses to lament there is no time in his life to have a relationship, before streaking into orbit to dispatch a monstrous supervillain, then flying home to sleep, and dream (again) of soaring through the clouds without the weight of the world on his shoulders.
It’s a great story, and that’s exactly what a day in the life of Superman must be like … but it’s not the kind of story you could tell in Superman, demanding as it does a new story every month that can’t be more of the same-old same-old superpowered routine. But the anthology format of Astro City allows Busiek to tell just this kind of story without regard for topping himself the month after, and the result is a fun, breezy, and insightful romp that ranks among the finest Superman stories you will ever read. (Except that it’s not Superman … wink wink).
In Dreams is reprinted in Astro City, Volume 1.
And that brings me to the end of this week’s list.
But wait! That’s only five issues! A proper Top List must have ten entries!
You’re right … but I’ve blithered on long enough for a single blog, and if I’ve learned nothing else from writing a weekly column it’s to never do in one blog what you can divide into two! So I’m going to cut this list off at five, and return in a couple weeks* with a second column to complete my list. That will give you time to sample some of these stories, and (more importantly) it will give me time to unearth five more worthy single-issue tales from my vast Accumulation. Thanks for reading!
*Editor’s note: Rather than publish another Top Single Issues list here at Longbox Graveyard, the feature morphed into my Dollar Box feature category, where I look at single issues and short runs of comics where the original cover price was a dollar or more. Check it out!
NEXT WEEK: #19 Tomb It May Concern
LONGBOX GRAVEYARD TOP TEN LISTS
- Top Ten Instagram Superheroes
- Top Ten Superhero Lairs
- Top Ten Manliest Superheroes
- Top Ten Longbox Graveyard Articles (Year One!)
- Superhero Music Top Ten
- Top Single Issue Stories
- Top 1o Loves of Peter Parker (Part 1)
- Top 10 Loves of Peter Parker (Part 2)
- Top Ten Marvel Comics Characters
- Top Ten DC Comics Characters
- Top Ten Spider-Man Battles (Part I)
- Top Ten Spider-Man Battles (Part II)
- Top Ten Captain America Villains
- Spider-Man’s Bottom 10 Bronze Age Bums
- Top Ten Superhero Spoonerisms
- Top 5 Captain America Graphic Novels You Can Actually Buy (Sometimes), Read, And Enjoy!