Namor the Sub-Mariner: Marvel’s Superman?
Today’s Guest Post By First Time 616 Writer Jon Durmin!
From the vantage of anecdotal experience it is an inevitability which any conversation between geeks will inevitably turn to the topic of comparing different properties or organizations. Comparisons of Star Wars and Star Trek, rival sports teams, competing video game systems, different albums by favorite bands; if it’s somebody’s passion there will be somebody else with whom to argue about the merits and flaws therein.
As a longtime devotee of comic books, particularly superhero comics, one subject under this umbrella I’ve been prone to ruminate about is the premise of Marvel comics having an analogous figure to DCs Superman. In my own quarter century as a dedicated patron of this genre I’ve seen figures with a superficial similarity to the Last Son of Krypton rolled out under the mighty Marvel masthead and come across many others in my reading of their backlog. And yet these figures seem to lack the significance to draw true comparison to the Man of Steel. The Sentry and Adam the Blue Marvel bear powers, costumes and other superficial trappings that echo Superman but have backgrounds so distinct and histories so shallow that a genuine comparison falls flat. Other obvious figures like Hyperion, Wundarr the Aquarian, Gladiator, and Ethan Edwards all are so bluntly referential in power set, back story and ethic that they are at best homages, and at worst pastiche on the flagship property of the Distinguished Competition.
What I propose is that none of these caped champions are the Superman of the Marvel Superheroes. Instead, as I will elucidate, Marvel unknowingly introduced its Superman a mere 12 months after the publication of Action Comics #1 in the barely distributed Motion Picture Funnies Weekly. That’s right, by virtue of the criteria of character background, power level, significance to his fictional world, publication legacy and distinct Marvel-ness Namor the Sub-Mariner is Marvel’s Superman.
To discuss their power sets is perhaps the most superficial of the similarities between them, but is still significant. Superman is widely regarded as the most powerful hero in the DCU. While there are others, villains and heroes alike who can pose a challenge for him his abilities are formidable and the combination of his unique Kryptonian physiology impacted by environmental mutation effects that come from reaching maturity on a planet nurtured by a wavelength of stellar radiation distinct from that of his native world (in other words a “yellow Sun”). By this combination of inheritance and environment Superman has commonly (N.B. I’m taking license to neglect some of the super-silliness of the 1950s and 1960s like super hypnotism, super weaving and super ventriloquism, here) been shown to possess a nearly indestructible body, incredible strength and speed, the ability to survive in hostile environments, the power to defy the bonds of gravity, senses able to hear great distances and perceive as visible wavelengths that are invisible to humans, and the ability to project laser-like beams of intense heat from his eyes. The abilities of the Sub-Mariner also arise from his unique physiology, a combination of Homo sapien and Homo mermanus genetic inheritance and reaching maturity in a harsh, polar, aquatic environment affecting further mutation and rendering him a specimen of Homo superior. Namor has been shown to possess a nearly indestructible body, strength and prowess enough to directly battle (and on many occasions defeat) the likes of the Hulk (“strongest one there is”), a fully equipped Iron Man, Thor, the Sentry and the whole of the Fantastic Four single-handed with or without the benefit of an aquatic battleground (and without the benefit of 20% of the Phoenix Force, thank you), the ability to survive in hostile environments, the ability to defy gravity and move freely in fluid environments, and to communicate in aquatic environments. Though rarely displayed or discussed Namor has also exercised the ability to discharge bio-electric energy to devastating destructive effect & absorb external sources of energy to recharge this ability, as well as enhanced senses of hearing and vision that allow him to be fully functional in the darkest most pressurized aquatic depths (I’ll happily file the whole puffer fish incident away with super weaving if it’s all the same). The abilities of these two heroes compare favorably with one another and by extension initiate a basic foundation on which their analogous relationship is built.
A Common Background
Powers aside, from their very origins Namor and Kal-El share in common a background as men caught between and shaped by two worlds. Superman is the last survivor of Krypton (aside from some versions of Supergirl and Krypto and the Phantom Zone Criminals, etc.), appearing human but possessing extraordinary abilities as a result of his otherworldly heritage. Likewise Namor, the half-breed son of an otherworldly mother and a human father possesses amazing abilities that set him apart from others. Moving on, Kal-El is raised by adoptive parents to assimilate into American society as Clark Kent, to honor the ethics and values of this culture that took him in. Remaining ignorant of his true origins and heritage until well beyond his formative years at which point he is thoroughly socialized in a traditional American ideology of liberty and justice for all. Namor, on the other hand, is born with his mother believing his American father murdered, resentful of the world of his father’s people, obviously physically different from those around him and protected from the prejudices of his mother’s people only by his position as a scion of royalty, Namor is denied the opportunity to ever truly fit in. While Superman is an outsider in one world allowed to fit in, Namor is an outsider in both. Later, in Namor’s role as a supporting player in the Fantastic Four during the first few years of the Silver Age this similarity realigns itself further as Atlantis has been seemingly destroyed during the interwar years leaving Namor an orphan, the last son of a lost world, though knowing his loss in a way that Kal-El never did (a significant story point for a few years prior to it being undone in Fantastic Four Annual #1).
The divergences in the common themes of their origin may seemingly nullify any further comparison, but in reality they enrich it and set in motion everything that distinguishes the super heroic universes that followed each of these characters. Superman set the standard at DC for heroes that stood as a fellowship of moral paragons above the frailties (early Golden Age intimidation and blackmail of gangsters, corrupt businessmen and politicians notwithstanding) and moral failings of the villains they foiled and the normal citizens who’s protection they took as their charge alike. In contrast much of the core appeal of the stable of Marvel Comics’ superheroes has long been identified as anchored in the character’s distinct personalities and all too human fallibility. This starts with the Sub-Mariner and his outsider identity, his lack of familiarity with the human world in which he was about to become embroiled affecting a naivety that leads his first interactions with surface men to be unwitting acts of murder. And yet all of Namor’s great qualities are what make him a hero on par with Superman. Superman seems imbued inherently with a clear sense of justice, nobility, truth, and leadership. Namor shares these qualities, but his justice comes from wrath and fury, his nobility with pride, his truth a blunt and harsh honesty. And while Superman’s ability as a leader come from the guidance of nurturing adoptive parents and activity as a member of the community in which he was raised the same qualities in Namor manifest as those of a ruler, able to set himself apart from his subjects well precisely because of his experience as an outsider.
As Namor blazed the trail for Marvel’s flawed heroes in contrast to Superman and DC’s idealized heroes each of them has found themselves evermore at the center of activity in their respective fictional Earths. Whichever of DCs Infinite Earths one might visit, or whichever crisis of time and space has reshaped those world’s histories Superman is almost always depicted as an inspiration for at least his generation of superheroes. His interactions with the Justice League and the activities of his own rogues gallery (particularly Lex Luthor, Brainiac and Darkseid and the gods of Apokolips) form the crux of many of the DCU’s most significant stories. And inevitably when the Crises that threaten the world seem too dire to overcome, it is always to Superman that the DC Earth ultimately turns to for salvation. Namor has been less a driving force of events to date than Superman, and yet he remains at the center of his world. With longstanding relationships with the Fantastic Four, Avengers, Invaders, X-Men, Defenders, Illuminati, Inhumans, the [defunct] Cabal, Dr. Doom, Atlantis and even ties to more obscure organizations like the Atlas Foundation the Sub-Mariner is always on the edge of any action that might take place in the Marvel universe and can easily be pulled in to virtually any Marvel story or epic whether on the edge or at the center. Each in their own way, the Sub-Mariner and Superman stand as beings truly at the center of their respective worlds.
I believe the core argument that Namor is an apt candidate for consideration as the Marvel universe’s most analogous figure to Superman has been laid out thoroughly. While arguments could be made for other Marvel heroes (or villains) as comparable to Superman these figures lack the deep commonalities as refocused by the lens of the flawed Marvel hero and the depth of history to stand as genuinely analogous to DC’s Flagship character. Comparisons between the Sub-Mariner and other DC properties similarly fall flat (but that may be subject for a different composition). What I propose in conclusion is that Namor should be treated and handled by those authoring the character at Marvel with a similar stature and importance to that Superman possess in the DCU. These are different characters, very different personalities to be sure, but Namor IS Marvel’s Superman and it is my belief that it is high time that those writers and editors in a position to affect the trajectory of the Marvel Universe and Namor take stock of that reality in any further treatment or presentation of the character.