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This is my first foray into the world of Marvel Masterworks (I have previously purchased around 30 volumes of the DC Archives). It's not the best intro to Golden Age Marvel, but it will certainly not be the last volume I purchase.
First, the physicals. I don't like the spine of the dust jacket. That's it. Other than that, the physicals are top rate. The paper hearkens back to that used in the earliest printings of the DC archives. While my personal preference remains that of later printings (though not the latest printings, such as Superman's GF Lois Lane), this stock looks fantastic. I read a review (of another volume) complaining about the reproductions. Whatever problems might be there, they aren't here - the reproductions are top-notch. This is a beautiful volume, and restores my faith in Marvel after a plethora of expensive purchases with utterly pathetic physicals (Miracleman, e.g.).
Now, onto the comics. Let's face it - they're pretty mediocre. There's always a lot of hemming and hawing about "This is how Golden Age comics were written!" and "This reflects the spirit of the times!" with a good dose of "These were written for children!" None of these apologetics defends some of the trash found within. Having read a good dose of "Heroes go to war!" in other media, this is really bad, even by the lowest of Golden Age standards. Roy Thomas (who writes an excellent introduction to this volume) states bluntly that "Don't judge if you weren't there", and I can agree with this...to an extent.
But the authors of the comics here really go the extra mile in terms of race baiting and generally playing up to hatred. The Sub-Mariner is, quite frankly, disgusting in the first story of this volume. Forget, for a moment, the fact that the Sub-Mariner looks like a freak-show reject himself with his triangular head and narrow face (although visually, this makes him very interesting to the reader). In one strange moment (in a later story), he apologizes for his slanted eyes, claiming that it was a "mistake of nature".
The biggest problem is that he is a psychopath who generally makes Americans look far worse than the Japanese. One theme throughout the story is criticism of the "cowardly" tactics of the Japanese (presumably in reference to their ability and success in ambushing American targets early in the war). On the other hand, the Americans fight "nobly". Whatever...standard flag waving which, while not to this degree in other comics, was certainly the norm of the age. However, the Sub-Mariner himself is far more "cowardly" and "ignoble" than any of the Japanese he fights. In the first tale, the Sub-Mariner destroys a Japanese ship. However, unsatisfied with the carnage, he then attacks a lifeboat (which has no means of defense and, at best, is drifting aimlessly in the Pacific), literally drowning its occupants, two at a time. Namor takes no prisoners, killing each and every "Jap" he finds.
It's pretty offensive stuff, even by 40s standards, and no amount of "It's for kids!" or "That's how people thought!" saves it. I've read plenty of "Heroes go to war!" stuff, and it's not like this. Even Blackhawk (who weren't superheroes at all, but rather, soldiers in the field) wasn't like this. And speaking of offensive, who wrote these stories? I mean, I've never really liked the "rah rah" patriotism of DC (and, apparently, Marvel) war comics, preferring instead the nuanced view found in EC (if you don't believe me, read some of the excellent counters to this patriotism found in volumes like "Shock Suspenstories" or "Two-Fisted Tales"). But at least the main plotline made a modicum of sense.
Here? Not so much. For example, in probably the most atrocious comic I've read since Orson Welle's and Superman teamed up to defeat the Martian Hitler, Martler (you only think I'm joking), Americans are getting outflanked by the Japanese, wasting ammo and time in the pacific. Of course, AMERICA GOOD!, so there must be a reason why they are losing. And here? It's because the Japanese are fooling them with...fake periscopes that don't have subs attached. That's right - American high command is being fooled by bath toys. Forget the fact that this makes the American military effort look far stupider than any rational reason. This is just another example of "cowardly Jap tactics". And the counter? Namor uses ship models and other bath toys to fool the Japanese into destroying their own ships. I wish I were joking about this. (Also, as if to further the "AMERICA GOOD!" mythos, any newspaper critical to the American war effort is labeled the "Sixth Column", a play off of the famously overblown "Fifth Column" that dominates much of American war comics). I never thought I would read stories that were worse than the ridiculous Justice Society tales of The Atom infiltrating a college to stop Germans from talking to students, etc. These tales make those look as if they were written by Alan Moore.
However, intermingled with these affronts to basic comic decency are some solid Golden Age fare, For example, in the second volume here, Sub-Mariner stumbles on a sabotage effort run by evil lumberjacks. This story reads well (except for the fact that everyone accepts that Namor can easily disguise himself, despite the fact that his head is a triangle). And, as if to remind us that Namor means business, someone is getting thrown into a wood chipper. Seriously. Great violent fun. There are other tales as well having nothing to do with the war in the Pacific, including a mad scientist yarn that's great fun. And while anyone would get sick of Namor's interjections like "Sufferin' shad!" and "Gallopin' guppies!" (for some reason, he always leaves off his final "g", showing that even a prince is prone to poor English), these stories read well.
In addition to Namor, this volume has someone called the Angel. I don't know if it's because there are so many bad Namor stories here, but the Angel offends me far less than he should. He's a totally stock hero. I have no idea of anything about him; although he does seem to move between a secret persona and a superhero one, both are so bland as to be forgettable. Basically, he's a blond, mustachioed Superman without an interesting Clark Kent beside him. But the stories are readable enough.
Finally, one of the great bonuses of the volume are the extra short stories by Mickey Spillane, together with the 2-page comics often seen in these old volumes. I know that the Spillane stories were included in other volumes, so I was stoked to see them reproduced here. The two-page comics are great fun, as they usually are.
In short, find that this volume is very difficult to review on content. However, I can say easily that no one should spend full cover (sixty dollars!) in obtaining this volume. It's not that good, except as an oddity. It's OK for what it is (as a forgettable slice of Marvel history at a discount rate), but there are far better archives out there for the same price.