The Sub-Mariner is one of Marvel’s earliest heroes. Created by Bill Everett, Prince Namor appeared in Marvel’s (then Timely’s) first every comic, Marvel Comics #1, October 1939. But, if you started reading in order, from the front of the comic, the Sub-Mariner was the third hero you encountered because the first story, and the cover, belonged to the Human Torch, created by Carl Burgos.
With the second story starring the Golden Age Angel who is not the Angel from the X-Men. If you follow that logic, then Subby is the third Timely hero, except that, technically, Namor preceded the others because he first appeared in Motion Pictures Funnies Weekly which was intended to be distributed for free in movie theatres but was never officially published, although sample copies do (or did?) exist.
In Marvel Comics #1 neither Namor nor the Torch come across as particularly heroic. In his first story, Namor kills two deep-sea divers, thinking them robots, and destroys their salvage ship. His mother urges him into a “war of revenge” against the surface people even though his father was one of them. In his story, the Torch initially cannot control his flame and runs around wreaking havoc. Oh, and he’s a “synthetic man,” created by Professor Horton, who refers to the Torch as “the monstrosity which I’ve created.”
Both characters proved so popular that they continued in Marvel Comics (renamed Marvel Mystery Comics with issue #2) until the end of its run with Marvel Mystery Comics #92, June 1949 (well, actually, Namor’s last appearance was in #91). Both had their own titles and their popularity was such that they met and fought each other in Marvel Mystery Comics #8-9, June-July 1940 in comics’ first crossover.
In American Comic Book Chronicles: The 1940s: 1940-1944, Kurt F. Mitchell (who refers to the Torch as “the title’s star from Day One” and to the Sub-Mariner as “comics’ first great anti-hero”) says, “Comics first super-hero crossover story began at the conclusion of Marvel Mystery #8’s ‘Human Torch’ episode, as the Flaming Fury was ordered to bring the Sub-Mariner to justice. Their battle spanned 22 pages of the following issue, as Burgos and Everett pulled out all the stops, their creations wreaking havoc across the length and breadth of the Five Boroughs. If the conclusion in issue #10 was a bit of a wet firecracker (Betty Dean persuaded them to shake hands and walk away), it didn’t detract from the epic excitement – or the spike in sales – their struggle generated. Future battles were inevitable.”
In the late 1940s, super-heroes fell out of favor and Namor and the Torch faded away with the rest of them but Timely (now Atlas) briefly revived them (and Captain America) in Young Men #24-28, December 1953-June 1954 and in Men’s Adventures #27-28, May-July 1954 as well as in their own books.
By the time Namor returned in Fantastic Four #4, May 1962, he was an out-and-out villain, teaming up with Dr. Doom in FF #6, September 1962 and trying to seduce Sue Storm away from Reed Richards. He slowly re-earned his hero status, eventually gaining a feature in Tales to Astonish #70, August 1965
and earning his own title (Sub-Mariner #1, May 1968 when Tales was expanded out to two comic series (the other being The Incredible Hulk, which continued Tales’ numbering). But what of the Human Torch?
Well, the problem was that Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created a brand-new Human Torch, an actual human Human Torch, in the person of Johnny Storm when they began the Marvel Age of Comics with Fantastic Four #1, November 1961. With Johnny on the scene, the original Human Torch was best left forgotten. At least until Fantastic Four King-Size Special #4, November 1966, in which Stan and Jack had the Mad Thinker find the original Torch and re-activate him, sending him to battle against the new Torch. In the end, the Thinker deactivated the original Torch and fled his lab and that’s that, right? Well, not with Golden Age fan Roy Thomas writing the Sub-Mariner series. How can you revive the original Torch and not have a Torch-Namor battle? You can’t. And Roy sees to that. Or does he?
Phew! Now that that’s done, let’s get started. After getting through all thirteen issues of the original Not Brand Echh, we’re used to Marie Severin’s goofy covers and stories but here she demonstrates that she could play it straight. She gives us a cover dominated by flame. The fire seems to come down from above the cover’s frame, passing behind the logo and spreading out to encircle Namor who looks to be in agony. Once our eyes get down there, we see that the flame has a source; a flaming man. The only blurb on the cover reads, “Namor vs. the Human Torch!” and a number of readers probably figured they were about to see Subby battle Johnny Storm. Namor thinks so, too. First, while underwater, he must dodge “a school of prehistoric fish,” one of which strikes him “in its blind, senseless panic.” Surfacing, he finds many dead sea creatures due to “some impurity in the life-giving water.” He sees smoke and takes to the air to discover its source; two active sea volcanoes. He lands on the shore, only to be attacked by “a searing fireball…exploding near me.” Seeing his opponent, he wonders why “the youngest of the Fantastic Four” has sought him out “here, on some savage shore in the Pacific?”
The Pacific? But shouldn’t Namor be in the Atlantic? Already, on page 2, he’s gives us two comments that show he is in a strange sea. “For, though this is not that ocean which Namor calls home…” and “those volcanoes…so much more plentiful here, than in my native Atlantic.” So, what’s the deal? Well, Namor has spent about 5 issues (Sub-Mariner #9-13, January-May, 1969) dealing with the serpent crown, leading him to Lemuria, which is in the Marvel-Earth Pacific Ocean.
The Torch pours on the flame, weakening Namor so that he can barely fly. Using his “last reserve of strength,” Namor bursts through the fire. He moves one of his bracelets up to his hand, creating a sort of brass knuckle and socks the Torch in the jaw. But he is puzzled. The Torch is “more powerful, even larger.” He hopes that his punch will send the Torch sailing into the sea but he is too weak to pull it off. The Torch lands “on the edge of the moist sand” instead. Retaliating, the Torch melts Namor’s brass knuckle and drives “the last drop of moisture” from him. Marching up to the fallen Namor, the Torch declares that his victory “was two decades in coming” and Namor understands that he is battling his “uneasy ally of twenty years ago.” Namor asks why he has returned to attack “thus treacherously” and the Torch responds by “touching the gleaming stud of my golden collar,” calling the Mad Thinker to let him know “Mission Completed! The Sub-Mariner is our captive!”
The Thinker is not pleased. He wants the Torch to kill Namor, not capture him. The Torch whips up a big fireball to finish the job but can’t bring himself to do it. The Thinker responds by sending a wave of pain through the golden collar. With the Torch thus occupied, Namor slips away, returning to the sea and regaining his strength. While the Thinker rages over the Torch’s failure, the Puppet Master appears on his view screen and taunts him. (The Thinker, the Puppet Master, and Egghead teamed up in Avengers #63, April 1969.) Infuriated the Thinker, not thinking, throws his “communi-mike” at the screen, smashing it. Without it, he can’t communicate with the Torch.
Back at the volcano, the Sub-Mariner creates a tidal wave to take out the Torch. “I would not risk injuring a human,” says Subby, “but the Torch is now and forever an android and androids cannot die!!” He turns the tidal wave into a whirlpool, grabs the addled Torch by his hair, and wedges him between two rocks in the surf. “Now speak,” he orders the Torch, “tell me why you serve the Mad Thinker!”
The Torch tells him that the Thinker brought him back to life but without any of his memories. (It appears, at this point in the story, that the Fantastic Four left the Torch’s body in the Thinker’s lab and the Thinker just came back when they were gone and reactivated the Torch.) The Thinker tells him that he is an android created by Professor Horton but this doesn’t ring any bells. When the Thinker shows him film clips of the Torch fighting alongside his teen sidekick Toro, the Torch says that the name Toro “strikes a chord in my memory.” The Thinker then tells him that the Fantastic Four are his enemies and that they “evilly destroyed” him but the Torch doesn’t remember this. In fact, he doesn’t remember anything else but believes that he is “an android created to serve a human master” and agrees to bury a “device within a volcano, then cause an eruption.” Constrained by the golden collar, the Torch obeys, igniting the volcano and charging the device “with volcanic energy.” “I know not the plan or purpose behind my action,” he says, “What can it matter to one who is not human?” Later, the Torch overhears a conversation between the Thinker, the Puppet Master and Egghead. As they look at a map, Egghead tells the Thinker “You will strike from here…that volcano will supply you with energy which…” The Thinker interrupts him, insulted by Egghead “belabor[ing] the simplest details.” The Puppet Master notes that the intended result is “the subduing first of America…then of the world!” The Torch then tells Namor that “your tidal wave damaged my amulet” so “my will is my own again.” “Then has Namor found an ally once more,” says Namor, referring to himself in the third person.
Conversing “by closed-circuit TV,” Egghead, the Thinker, and the Puppet Master decide it is time to test their combined power. The Thinker is in his “Pacific stronghold,” the Puppet Master in his “Caribbean base,” and Egghead is in his “orbiting space station.” (Egghead has a map of North America and surrounding waters which is conveniently placed for our perusal. It has an X in the Pacific labeled “T” and one in the Caribbean labeled “PM.” Egghead strikes a match on it, causing a streak of fire across half of the United States. “America will surrender…or burn!” he says.
Here's the plan. The Thinker triggers his device and the Puppet Master and Egghead trigger whatever they have, causing “a great energy-absorbing arc” over a portion of the USA. No power will work for one minute, except for those devices that broadcast Egghead’s ultimatum. He tells those listening that he will re-establish contact in one hour with his terms. If his demands are not granted, he will wipe out the power of the whole nation.
Apparently, his broadcast goes out everywhere, not just to the affected area and we get a page of various heroes reacting to it…including Spidey. The Avengers wonder if this can have something to do with “the sudden disappearance of Hawkeye.” (Unbeknownst to the Avengers at this moment, Hawkeye has become the new Goliath in Avengers #63.) Dum Dum Dugan wonders to Nick Fury whether this new threat is “the guy the Black Widow was spyin’ on for us.” (The answer, also in Avengers #63, is yes.) The X-Men reflect that humans may think mutants are their enemies “but their primary source of grief has always been their own kind.” The Thing turns it off, saying “That Orson Welles don’t fool me twice!” (Apparently, the Thing was listening to the Mercury Theatre on the Air’s radio broadcast of “The War of the Worlds” back on October 30, 1938.) And Spidey is perched outside an apartment window listening to an announcer saying, “And the unknown attacker will speak again in one hour!” and thinking “I’d love to get my web-spinning mitts on that joker just for five minutes, that’s all.” (And that’s it for the web-spinner in this issue.) Meanwhile, Tony Stark is on a plane to the Caribbean noticing “a momentary twinge beneath [his] armored chestplate. As if we just skirted near some sort of force field.” (The force field belongs to the Puppet Master. Tony will be drawn into all of this, as Stan’s footnote tells us, in Captain Marvel #14, June 1969.)
Back in the Pacific, the Torch has taken Subby to the Thinker’s HQ, “hidden beneath that dormant volcano.” The Torch burns his way in, only to be shot by the Thinker’s heat ray. The impact causes “a heat feedback” in the Torch. The Thinker is standing atop an elaborate machine, which does not look at all like the device he had the Torch charge with volcanic energy. Namor assumes that this machine “must be the focal point of his plans” (Then what was the device in the volcano?) and destroys it with his bare hands. (It occurs to me that the Thinker’s plans would have gone off just fine if he hadn’t had the Torch attack Namor. What was the reason for that, anyway?) Falling from his perch, the Thinker continues to hit the Torch with his heat ray until he himself hits the floor, dropping his gun, which Namor smashes with his fist.
Subby is about to use that same fist on the Thinker when he notices a “stifling heat.” It is the Torch “ever hotter by the second” and unable to turn his flame off. The Torch is climbing the machine, which is still not out of commission. (It remains “intact…and explosive!”) Namor does use his fist on the Thinker but not especially hard, I guess, only knocking him unconscious. Then, he moves to help the Torch who has “become yellow with heat.” He rips a conveniently-placed “piece of asbestos-lined metal” off the machine and scoops the Torch onto it. The Torch falls unconscious and glows white-hot. Even the asbestos begins to melt. But with a ”last, desperate leap,” Namor flings the Torch and himself through a hole created by the Torch’s heat and lands them both in the ocean. When they emerge, the Torch’s blond hair has turned brown and his memory has returned. He now knows he is not the Human Torch!
As the Thinker flees (since Namor didn’t hit him hard enough), his “part in Egghead’s plot ruined,” the erstwhile Torch reveals that he is, in fact, the Torch’s old teen partner Toro, now an adult. He tells Namor that “after the Torch disappeared on a long mission in 1955, I married, settled down!” Until 1966, the time of FF Special #4. (The last appearance of the original Torch before the FF Special was in “Playing with Fire” in Captain America #78, September 1954 but that story takes place with Toro in North Korea, so that can’t be when he disappears. I believe Roy eventually straightens this all out in his Saga of the Original Human Torch mini-series in 1990 but I don’t have that at hand.)
Toro tells us that, in 1966, he read in the paper that the “Torch was killed somehow with the Fantastic Four the sole witnesses.” So, not only do the FF actually notify the world of the Torch’s death, even though everyone probably already thought he was dead, but they have a funeral for him, which Toro tries to attend. But on his way into the cemetery, the Thinker stops him. “This stranger knows who I am,” thinks Toro, “Must spare him a moment.” Except, he must spare him more than a moment because he drinks a cup of coffee while standing outside the cemetery; a cup of coffee apparently given to him by the Thinker because it is drugged. Now, seeing the whole plot, Toro vows that the Thinker will pay for brainwashing him and “for the part I’m sure he played in the real Torch’s death.” When Namor and Toro see the Thinker’s airship streaking away, they pursue and Toro flies “into the ship’s rocket tubes” altering the course of the ship so that it crashes into the Thinker’s island hideout. Both are apparently dead and Namor is very calm and philosophical about it. “Perhaps it is best this way,” he says. (Best this way? What about Toro’s wife? Maybe it’s better not to ask. As far as I can tell, she ended up in a relationship with the original Torch. I guess she was attracted to fire.) He laid down his life to avenge a friend! For, brief though life be…and though a needless death is a crime against the very universe…man is ever noblest when he lives by ideals! Without them, though he possess even the intellect of the Thinker himself…he is but a beast…reaching vainly for the stars…!” Gee, thanks, Namor!
Okay, so it wasn’t the original Torch in this issue. (Yes, the cover blurb lied.) But he does eventually return. For a while, there’s some business about him being the android used to create the Vision but that gets retconned (don’t ask me how). Instead, John Byrne brings him back in Avengers West Coast #50, November 1989. He already brought Ann Raymond, Toro’s wife, back in Avengers West Coast #48, September 1989 and this, I think, is where her romance with the Torch begins. The Torch is still being used today, allied with the Sub-Mariner in the possible future of Peter David’s Maestro: World War M series. And, actually, so is Toro as Peter reveals that the Maestro's Minister IS Toro in Maestro: World War M #3, June 2022.
Toro also returns in a number of stories with which I am not familiar. According to Wikipedia, in Avengers/Invaders #12, August 2009, Toro is resurrected by way of the Cosmic Cube. He is the star of the 2009 mini-series The Torch. In Secret Empire: Brave New World #1, August 2017, Toro and the Torch go to Namor to seek asylum but Namor imprisons them in order to turn them over to Hydra. Beyond that, you’re on your own.
The Mad Thinker isn’t dead either. He shows up again in Fantastic Four #96, March 1970 with no explanation of his survival.
As for the master plan, the Puppet Master entrances Iron Man into attacking Captain Marvel and Carol Danvers (who is the current Captain Marvel) in Captain Marvel #14. The PM’s plan is to have IM defeat CM, who is defending “the Cape which serves as America’s great space center,” then have Iron Man destroy the Cape. “That will safeguard the space-station of my ally Egghead,” says PM, “and make certain our conquest of a prostrate nation!” But Iron Man collapses, due to his weak heart, and, enraged, the Puppet Master flings his Iron Man puppet, shouting, “I have fashioned my last puppet! I never want to work with these foolish figurines again!” The IM puppet strikes some machinery in PM’s lab, causing an explosion that drops tons of rock and metal on the Puppet Master and writer Gary Friedrich says, “Then, when the smoke has cleared, the final wish of one of the most vociferous villains of all has come true.” Except…no. The Puppet Master is bound to return…and he does in Fantastic Four #100, July 1970 with no explanation of his survival.
As for Egghead’s plot, the Avengers take care of that in Avengers #64, May 1969.
And what about Namor? He returns to Atlantis in Sub-Mariner #15, July 1969 where he has to deal with Dr. Dorcas and Dragon Man.
It’s not the greatest story with its silly explanation of how Toro is captured (drinking drugged coffee outside of the cemetery!) and its convoluted triumvirate of the Thinker, the Puppet Master and Egghead which never really comes off in any of its issues to any satisfaction. The one-panel Spidey cameo is completely gratuitous. But I like Roy’s dedication to the Golden Age and his revival of the Torch-Subby rivalry and I love the reveal that the Torch is actually Toro bringing back a character not seen since 1954. Who saw that coming? Not me. Oh, and Marie’s artwork is pretty good, too.
Next: Back to the tablet! ASM #74.