Fantastic Four #4

"The Coming of…Sub-Mariner!"

Writer: Stan Lee
Artist: Jack Kirby
Inker: Sol Brodsky
Letterer: Art Simek
Publisher: Marvel Comics

Cover date: May 1962
Cover price: 12 cents
Current value: about $4200

For the first time, the cover bears the now familiar FF slogan, "The World's Greatest Comic Magazine!" And now it's finally true. For the first three issues, Lee and Kirby provided us with some great moments along with the hokey chaff, but now they've truly come into their own. There is a quantum leap forward in the quantity of this issue, and the quality would for the most part stay this high or even improve for the rest of the Lee/Kirby run. Kirby seems to be putting more effort into his work here, the faces look more realistic, the drawings and angles more dramatic, and often the art positively vibrates with a fierce energy that is lacking in the first three issues. And Lee's writing has improved; the motivations of the characters are becoming more realistic and more fleshed out. Moral ambiguity will play a big role in the issues to come. No more notes to the police commissioner reading "I am evil! I want to rule the world!"

"On the Trail of the Torch!"

New York City, a caption announces, for the first time placing the FF firmly in the real world. The Human Torch quit the FF in a huff at the end of the last issue, and he has yet to be found. Reed blames Ben and for the first time we see him positively enraged as he yells at the Thing. So they decide to do what the police and army can't and find the Torch themselves. They board the Fantasticar and separate their sections. Sue chokes back a sob a the sight of Johnny's section of the car being left behind on the roof of the Baxter Building for the first time. Given that this is only the second time we've ever seen the Fantasticar in action, you'll excuse me if I don't get too choked up about it.

Mister Fantastic's idea of finding the Torch is to accost random teenagers and hoist them in the air, demanding to know Johnny's whereabouts. Ben, on the other hand, isn't much for book learnin' but is way more savvy and knows exactly where to find the Torch. He's at Swanson's Garage tinkering with the engines of hot rods, a favorite hobby of the Torch. Unlike Reed and Sue, Ben isn't in the mood for hugs and sharing and cocoa. He bursts through the wall of the garage and cries "now I'll teach you what happens to deserters!" Yipes!

"Enter the Sub-Mariner!"

But Ben and Johnny's fight is interrupted when Ben turns back into a human again. Ben is overjoyed, but Johnny uses this time to make his escape, knowing that the change won't be permanent. Ben is despondent when he quickly returns to his orange rock form.

Johnny is now slumming it in the Bowery, where he gets a cot in a men's hotel for a quarter. There he finds a beat up old Sub-Mariner comic book. In the 40s and 50s, Marvel comics published superhero stories under the name Timely Comics, and their most famous heroes were Captain America, the Sub-Mariner, and the original android Human Torch. Almost all superhero comics, including Timely's, were cancelled by the mid 50s due to a sharp decline of the popularity of the genre. Now that Marvel was publishing superheroes again, Lee and Kirby took the opportunity to draw on the Timely roster, first with a new human Human Torch, now with the Sub-Mariner, and two years later with Captain America in Avengers # 4.

In the Marvel Universe, however, those old comics chronicled real events, and those heroes were real people, all of whom disappeared for various reasons after WWII. Johnny, a fan of those comics, had named himself after an old comics hero and now wondered what happened to the android Human Torch's old nemesis, the Sub-Mariner. This, you see, is foreshadowing. Another resident of the hostel points out to Johnny that there's an old bum who is as strong at the Sub-Mariner was supposed to be. He demands that the bum tear a phone book in half. Why you would want to bully a guy who can rip a phone book in half is beyond me, but the residents of this particular hotel don't strike me as the brightest bulbs in the ceiling.

The bum makes short work of the fellows accosting him while lamenting his inability to remember his identify. Other residents use his amnesic angst as an opportunity to pick up boards and bottles to beat him with. But Johnny intercedes, protecting the bum, and even gives him a shave and a haircut without demanding two bits. And now that we can see his well-defined face and his pointed ears, Johnny recognizes him as none other than the Sub-Mariner!

"Enter the Sub-Mariner!"

Cut to Reed, who is, in no doubt one of the most unintentionally funny scenes in FF history, asking the crew of an airborne helicopter "Are you sure you've seen no trace of a flaming teen-ager blazing thru the sky?" Well, now that I think about it…

Back in the Bowery, the Sub-Mariner still can't recall his identity. So Johnny decides to fly him to the waterfront and dump him in the sea. The water invigorates Prince Namor, who flings off his clothes and swims back to his undersea kingdom of Atlantis. But Atlantis has been destroyed and the tell-tale glow of radioactivity tips off Namor to the fact that the kingdom was destroyed by atomic testing. (A later retcon had the destruction caused by Paul Destine aka Destiny wielding the Helmet of Power, which was really the Serpent Crown of ancient Lemuria. Destiny used the Crown to destroy Atlantis and give Namor amnesia.) Its surviving inhabitants have scattered to the winds, er, currents, and Namor is a king without a kingdom. All alone.

The Sub-Mariner returns to New York (which, apparently, is only a short swim from Atlantis), where Johnny is waiting patiently on the dock for him. But Namor isn't happy, castigating Johnny for returning his memory and thus signing "the death warrant of the human race!" He wants revenge, and he wants it now.

"Sub-Mariner's Revenge!"

The other FF members spring into action at the sight of Johnny's signal flare. At the waterfront, Johnny tells the FF that Namor, who had long been thought dead, has returned and he's kind of peeved. Meanwhile, Namor digs up a trumpet-horn to summon the deadly Giganto, a huge walking grey whale. But naturally Giganto lumbers quite slowly, giving the authorities time to see him coming and evacuate New York City. Giganto shrugs off the Army's puny artillery and douses the Human Torch with a blast of water from his spout. They are helpless to stop Giganto as he trashes buildings left and right.

This time it's Ben's turn to think of a brilliant plan. He straps a huge nuclear bomb to his back and charges in Giganto's mouth when the giant whale stops for a catnap in the midst of his destruction.

"Return to the Deep!"

How cool is this panel? The Thing is a tiny figure in Giganto's mouth, shining his flashlight ahead of him, dwarfed by the giant bomb on his back and the surroundings, which is shrouded in eerie brown, orange, and purple. Ben trudges past the remains of swallowed ships, ancient and modern, and quickly fights off a creature which Giganto swallowed whole. Then Ben drops the bomb and hightails it out of there, just in time. The bomb goes off, stunning Ben and turning Giganto's insides into radioactive mush.

The Sub-Mariner is unfazed and boasts that he can summon countless other monsters with his horn, at which point an invisible Sue snatches the horn from his grasp. But Sue has yet to learn how to turn objects other than herself invisible. (The FF are not quite as powerful as they would become in later years, and their powers tired them out more quickly in their early adventures. Sue in particular had yet to discover many aspects of her powers, including her invisible force fields.) So Namor tackles the invisible figure carrying the visible horn.

"Here is a prize worth catching!", Namor exclaims when Sue becomes visible. Rwowr! The chemistry, the electricity is almost as visible as Sue is now. Namor immediately proposes to the Invisible Girl and offers to spare the human race if she marries him. And she doesn't say no! She doesn't cry, "get bent, loser!" All she says is "How can I make such a choice?"

The rest of the FF show up and Namor makes a truly terrifying boast: "Helpless before the invincible attack, you humans will be driven out of your cities…until you return to the caves in which your ancestors dwelled! This is my prophecy!" This scares Sue as much as it scared me, so she offers to marry him to save the human race. But Namor is stunned that Sue might think of his offer as a negative one: "You speak as though you are sacrificing yourself! Don't you realize what an honor I offer you!??"

An enraged FF attack, but are rebuffed by the Sub-Mariner. Johnny flies into the atmosphere and flies around in circles, creating a tornado which hurls Namor and Giganto's carcass back into the sea. Namor loses his sea-trumpet, but vows to find his revenge another way.

If there were any kids in 1962 who read this and didn't instantly become FF fans for life, I'd be amazed. Strap in and feel the Gs, because it only gets better from here.

For an affordable reprint of this story, I recommend the Marvel Masterworks series, which reprints FF # 1-10 in color in one volume for $12.95. (ISBN 0760737959)

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