By Jon Durmin
On Wednesday January 14th, something that I had up to that point believed impossible occurred. In the pages of Avengers (Vol. 5) # 40 Namor the Sub-Mariner, King of Atlantis was seemingly murdered in an act of vengeance perpetrated by fellow monarchs King T’Challa of Wakanda, the Black Panther, and his accomplice King Blackagar Boltagon, alias Black Bolt of the Inhumans. After Namor came forth seeking to make amends for past misdeeds, avowedly willing to go to trial for misdeeds he acknowledged, he was stabbed in the chest by the Black Panther. This insult would not have been sufficient to kill Namor in itself, however, as the Sovereign of the Seven Seas stood back up to confront his attacker he was struck again, by the unparalleled force of Black Bolt’s voice. While this attack would have literally destroyed a lesser person, the impact forced Namor from the platform the three men stood on over a condemned world. Only when Namor had fallen from his this position on high and opened his eyes to look up at his attackers did they activate the bomb that would destroy this world, and in doing so condemn him to destruction by the fires and death rattles of a dying world that would dissolve into the cold emptiness of space.
I will not lie about the effect this all had on me. Though it feels shameful to admit it I was first overcome with a feeling of shock as I flipped through those final pages in my local comic shop. As it heralded the grief that would overshadow all my activities for the coming days I was so stunned I almost left the store unable to make my purchase. Despite this I managed to make a transaction and desperately read the other titles of interest to me in an attempt to distract myself from the phantom images of Namor’s face silently contorted in betrayed agony. The denial of that initial shock became muddled with bargaining as I tried to go about my business, silently reminding myself again and again of that cardinal rule of the superhero genre, “no body . . . no death . . . no body . . . no death . . .” (and there was no body to be recovered by Namor’s killers). Then came self-doubt as I questioned whether I was telling myself this because decades of reading superhero comics had led me cynically to ingrain this idea in my head? Or was my denial and bargaining so severe that I couldn’t accept what I had seen? Was it both?
It was then that the depression really settled in. I felt hollow. Like a piece of me had been stripped away. I finally appreciated how the most avid fans of Jean Grey must have felt when she was struck dead in the climatic final pages of Uncanny X-Men (Vol. 1) #137. Or fans of Superman when he was savagely beaten to death under massive media attention in the pages of Superman (Vol. 2) #75. I was utterly ashamed and embarrassed to admit that I felt a more severe sorrow over the loss of Namor than I had felt when my maternal Grandmother, my closest and last living grandparent passed roughly ten years previously. How could I be so wrong minded that the death of this fictional being upset me more than the loss of somebody who had fed me or held me when I was a sick or scared child? Perhaps I should give myself more credit though. Namor was one of the first superheroes I was exposed to as a child. In my first comic, Marvel Saga #2, a series that re-edited and narrated scenes from classic superhero stories into an ordered definitive continuity of the Marvel Universe (such as it was in 1985 at least), Namor’s awakening from an amnesiac state was presented as the climax of this second arc of the Marvel age. Namor had been there for me when I was sick. He had been with me when I was scared. He was Marvel Comics’ first superhero. He was the medium’s first anti-hero. He set the tone for the flawed hero model that would come to characterize and humanize every other Marvel character of note. He may have been a fictional character but he was real enough to me. I had come to admire, love and identify with Namor to a profound degree. I have a tattoo that declares Imperius Rex on my shoulder that is now old enough to enroll in Driver’s-Ed courses. Like me, Namor was of mixed-heritage and was not welcomed as wholly belonging in either of his parent’s native cultures. Like me, Namor sometimes got too caught up in anger.
There was anger for me in my grieving too. It was shrouded by my sadness but the anger was there. Anger at the story’s author, Jonathan Hickman, for setting this story into motion through his contributions in advancing this story. Anger at the Black Panther character who prosecuted this murder in service to his own pride and vindictively self-righteous sense of justice. Anger at Black Bolt who seemed to have no apparent reason to take sides in the conflict between the Panther and Namor, and whose actions in favor of one ally against another seemed wholly senseless. Anger at some of my fellows in the comic fan community, particularly those online, who were applauding Black Panther’s actions, and saying foul and venomous things about Namor (and I won’t link you to those blogs, but they’re out there if you want to hunt for them) Anger at the inflammatory conspiracy theories about feature film licensing rights that I sometimes dismiss as nonsense and other times fear to be true. Anger at myself above anything else for feeling so affected by the events of this fictional narrative.
It isn’t that I don’t understand why it happened. In terms of the narrative, the seeds of this were set a long time ago. I know that Black Panther held a vendetta in his heart against Namor for wrongs committed against his [fictional kingdom] Wakanda. I know that Namor has himself acted so wrathfully and self-righteously as he did when he returned to comics in the pages of Fantastic Four (Vol. 1) #4 and declared war on humanity for the perceived destruction of his own fictional undersea kingdom (Atlantis) by those above the waves. I know that during the Avengers vs. X-Men story Namor launched an assault against Wakanda that devastated its infrastructure and sense of national security. I know that during Infinity, Namor re-directed an alien invasion force that had overrun Atlantis against Wakanda. I know that Namor was the one who pulled the trigger and accepted responsibility for the destruction of a populated alternate earth, the ‘incursion’ of which threatened to displace his native earth (designation 616) when a dimensional anomaly forced them into contact (New Avengers, Vol. 3 #22-23). I also know that when Namor attacked Wakanda in AvX he was possessed by a portion of the unhinging power of the celestial Phoenix and manipulated into the assault by those that believed the Avengers were harboring a force that would prosecute genocide against an entire people. When Namor was freed of the influences of these outside forces and returned to his senses, he acknowledged the wrongness of his actions and sought peace and reconciliation with Wakanda. Black Panther even served as his messenger in this effort at peace, but the rest of Wakanda’s ruling council sought war and struck back, not at Namor’s person, but at his kingdom causing profound devastation and loss of life. When Namor turned the attentions of the armies of Thanos from his already devastated kingdom to the land of his Wakandan attackers, he did so to save the lives of his countrymen by directing two threats to his homeland against each other.
When Namor destroyed the alternate earth he sacrificed his own moral standing to save the people of his country, his world and his entire universe and most of another. To clarify for those that haven’t followed this superhero-sci-fi epic in the making, when the ‘incursion’ of one dimension’s earth into the space of another occurs either one of the Earth’s can be destroyed, or the process will synchronize both earths into the same space. The latter outcome results in the destruction of both versions of the world and causes a cascading effect that obliterates the whole of both universes. When the time came that they were faced with an Earth that was still populated, Black Panther, Black Bolt and the rest of their so-called Illuminati stood unwilling and unable to sacrifice their egos or compromise their morals any further than they already had. Never mind that it was T’Challa, Tony Stark, Reed Richards, Black Bolt, and Hank McCoy that had spent months preparing for such an eventuality. Never mind that it was those five men who had poured so much time into constructing weapons capable of destroying worlds. Never mind that it was them who decided to keep this knowledge from the people of earth. None of them could sully their character by actually pulling the trigger. In other words they were prepared to condemn every living being in both their universe and that other universe in incursion with it to oblivion to satisfy their own sense of self-righteousness. All of them but Namor.
Namor did what truly noble kings do. He put the needs of his people before his own. He put the needs of his country, his world, his galaxy, his universe above his own. He did what true heroes do. He accepted the harsh reality of a situation and made the best choice. Where there was no righteous choice his conscience guided him to make the least wrong choice. He took on the sin of destroying one world to save another so that the innocent, the ignorant and the righteous people of that world wouldn’t have to carry that burden. He sacrificed himself for the greater good of life. He sacrificed himself for the greater good. Period. He gave up who he was to do what had to be done. He let himself fall to save everybody else. He made deals with monsters and accepted responsibility for the horrible consequences to self of preserving all that was good. He approached the authorities of the world and made clear he knew the wrongness and necessity of what he had done and that he was prepared to suffer the consequence. He was condemned for it absolutely; betrayed by friends. He was struck down and murdered by the very people he had relieved of the burden of their sins and stabbed in the side. He was literally cast down with a word into a world of inferno and oblivion. He saved them all. He gave them life. He took from them the need to make the hard choice and they thanked him by killing him like a sacrifice to their own pride and self-righteousness.
When I realized this, the veil of sorrow suddenly lifted for me. There are few among us who can claim fame on a global scale. There are fewer still who can claim fame on a historical scale. Though we may remember wise leaders and saintly people, it is only those who are totally destroyed, the greatest among us, struck down savagely before their time whose deeds and message become the stuff of legend. For those who return from that apotheosis or bring us a message so resounding and truthful that it cannot be ignored, their legacy is indestructible. They become unstoppable.
My first published work on the subject of superheroes argued that the Sub-Mariner is the most truly analogous figure at Marvel to the original superhero character, Superman. As Superman was killed 23 years ago, after 75 years of publication the reflection continues as Namor has now made the ultimate sacrifice as well. I accept it. Now I am confident that, like Superman, Namor will return. I believe, that like the Man of Steel, once he has resurfaced from this transformative destruction, his being and his name will be more legendary than ever before. Namor’s battle cry, “Imperius Rex,” roughly translates to Unstoppable King. When Namor does return, and someday he will, that is what he will truly be. Unstoppable.
IMPERIUS REX FOREVER.
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