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Who Is Namor the Sub-Mariner? The Marvel Comics History of the Hero/Villain

Namor the Sub-Mariner, Marvel’s undersea hero, and just as often villain, is one of the publisher’s first two major characters. He is often called “Marvel’s Aquaman,” but the truth is, he appeared a full two years before DC’s King of Atlantis. Namor has touched every corner of the Marvel Universe, as he’s been a big player in the Fantastic Four comics, not to mention Avengers, X-Men, and Black Panther. Namor is even known as Marvel’s first Mutant (in a sense). And in November, Namor will appear in the MCU at last, in Black Panther: Wakanda Forever. But what is the underwater monarch’s history in the comics? In a turn of phrase that Namor would approve of, let’s take a deep dive.

Marvel Comics

The Atlantean Origins of Namor the Sub-Mariner

Namor first appeared in Marvel Comics #1, published in August 1939. His creator was legendary writer/artist Bill Everett, who would later co-create Daredevil with Stan Lee nearly 25 years later. That issue also saw the introduction of the original Human Torch, who was often Namor’s rival, and also a frequent ally. This makes both Namor and the Torch Marvel Comic’s first superheroes, predating Captain America by a full year.

Marvel Comics

Namor’s origin story tells that he is the son of a human sea captain, Leonard McKenzie, and an escaped Atlantean princess, Fen. (So yes, Namor’s full name is Namor McKenzie). Due to his hybrid DNA, Namor possesses a slew of powers. Among Namor’s abilities is the power to breathe underwater like an Atlantean, though his skin is not blue like theirs. He is also ten times stronger than any Atlantean or human and has telepathic control over sea life and even his own soldiers. Unlike Atlanteans or humans, he can fly, thanks to the wings on his feet.

Marvel Comics

But since Atlanteans raised him, he didn’t see himself as human and rejected that side of his heritage. Nevertheless, because of his non-blue skin, he faced prejudice from his fellow Atlanteans as a child, giving Namor a massive chip on his shoulder. And an attitude to go with it. He had one companion in this predicament, his cousin Namora. She was also of mixed heritage and made Namor feel less alone.

Namor the Sub-Mariner Enters World War II

Marvel Comics

In his first stories, Namor was an angry crusader emerging from the depths of the ocean who would attack American sea vessels without compunction. He hated the way “surface dwellers” were polluting the seas and took violent action against them any chance he got. He even nearly flooded all of Manhattan once, but the original Human Torch stopped him. His costume, for lack of a better word, was just a pair of skimpy swimming trunks, which was pretty risqué for the time.

Marvel Comics

Once America entered the war effort, Namor began to battle the Axis powers with other heroes, thus making him officially a “good guy.” Aside from appearing in anthology books like Marvel Mystery Comics, he also headlined his own Sub-Mariner series. As part of the All-Winners Squad, he fought alongside Captain America. This forged an unlikely friendship between these two polar opposites that lasted decades. But after the war, superheroes lost their luster. Many superhero books lost sales, and Namor went away in 1949. Aside from a brief revival in the ‘50s, Namor was MIA from comics…until the Marvel Age began in earnest.

The Marvel Age of Comics and Namor the Sub-Mariner

Marvel Comics

Although there were titles named “Marvel Comics” going back to 1939, the publisher kept changing names. They were known as Timely Comics, then Atlas. In 1961, the publisher officially became Marvel Comics with the publication of Fantastic Four #1. In the fourth issue, Johnny Storm, the new Human Torch, found a bearded homeless man with amnesia he recognized as Namor. By tossing him in the ocean, he restored Namor’s memories, and the Sub-Mariner was back in business.

Marvel Comics

Namor often fought the Fantastic Four and even teamed up with their arch-enemy Doctor Doom. But he also helped them out on several occasions too. He was definitely romantically interested in Susan Storm, the Invisible Woman. But as she was engaged to team leader Reed Richards, she always rebuffed his advances despite clearly being attracted to the handsome Atlantean Prince. (That never stopped him from trying, though). This flirtation would go on for decades.

Marvel Comics

In 1968, Namor proved so popular in his revival that he earned his own series again, Prince Namor, the Sub-Mariner, which lasted until 1974. Here, Marvel Comics expanded his mythology significantly. He got a modern roster of villains all his own, like the Atlantean warlord Attuma, Krang, and Tiger Shark. Attuma would become Namor’s biggest enemy, coming to blows with the Atlantean Prince on several occasions. During this era, Namor even received a battle cry, shouting “Imperius Rex!” like a cinematic Roman soldier. This all fit because Namor’s name was the word “Roman” backward.

Is Namor a Hero or Villain? Why Not Both?

Marvel Comics

The Sub-Mariner became one of the most valuable characters in the Marvel universe from that point forward. He was a lead character in Doctor Strange’s team book The Defenders for much of that title’s long run. There, Namor forged a unique bond with the Hulk since they both hated humanity in equal measure. Then in the ‘80s, he was also an Avenger for several years. While on the team, he often butted heads with fellow member (and equally arrogant royal) Hercules.

Marvel Comics

But Namor also menaced the Marvel Universe whenever he was in a foul mood and teamed up with villains if it suited him. He co-headlined the series Super Villain Team-Up with Doctor Doom. Sometimes, he’d work with Magneto, then turn on him on a dime. You just never knew where Namor was going to land in the hero/villain spectrum, which made him an exciting wild card.

Namor Is Marvel’s First Mutant (Kind Of)

Marvel Comics

During the sixties, Marvel retconned Namor into Marvel’s first mutant. We should clarify that Marvel’s first published mutant was the ancient Egyptian villain Apocalypse, who was far older chronologically. The change up to Namor’s genetic status came in 1964’s X-Men #6, where Professor X and Magneto realized Namor is one of their kind. They both tried to recruit Namor, but he had none of it. He didn’t care about his mutant status at all. But by the ‘80s, the X-Men were Marvel’s biggest brand. So in 1990, a new solo series began, Namor the Sub-Mariner. And the tagline? “Marvel’s First and Mightiest Mutant.” Marvel realized that hyping up his mutant status might get new readers on his title. And it worked. The new series ran five years.

Marvel Comics

In the 2010s, Namor officially joined the X-Men at last, albeit begrudgingly. That gave Namor official status as part of nearly every major team in the Marvel Universe. He was on the side of the X-Men in the epic Avengers vs. X-Men crossover event of 2012, where he became one of the Phoenix Five, essentially elevating him to cosmic god level. (Although in Namor’s own mind, he was always a cosmic god). It was during Avengers vs X-Men that Namor flooded the kingdom of Wakanda for defying him, making an enemy forever of its king, the Black Panther.

Namor as a Member of The Illuminati

Marvel Comics

During this time period, a major retcon happened in terms of Namor’s history. In Brian Michael Bendis’ New Avengers run, he revealed that there was a secret cabal in the Marvel Universe, the Illuminati, made up of its most important figures. Each of these men formed a secret circle, who made decisions they believed benefitted the world. Among these leaders was Namor, who only joined the Illuminati as a way of ensuring his kingdom’s protection. But when the Illuminati banished the Hulk into space, Namor was disgusted by their decision and quit. This spared him the wrath of the green behemoth when he returned to Earth for revenge in World War Hulk.

Aquaman vs Namor

DC Comics / Marvel Comics

Of course, in many ways, DC Comics Aquaman is Namor’s true greatest enemy. Simply because he stole a lot of his backstory and personality, and yet he became the household name. How did that happen, especially since in the 1940s, when they both debuted, Namor was far more popular? The truth is complicated, but ultimately, it had to do with Namor’s 1950s hiatus. During that time, Aquaman became one of the few DC heroes still published. And with Namor gone, DC writers changed his origin story, from the son of a marine scientist to the child of a sea captain and an Atlantean princess. Sound familiar? Aquaman straight up stole Namor’s origin when he was napping and never looked back.

Marvel Comics / DC Comics

Add to that that fact that Aquaman had major media exposure, which Namor didn’t. He had his own cartoon show in the ’60s, and was a regular on Super Friends in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Poor Namor, by comparison, only appeared in the barely animated series Marvel Superheroes in 1966. (Which did have a great theme song). In the ’90s, when Aquaman needed another makeover, they gave him Namor’s surly attitude and environmental warrior angle. His final humiliation came in the DC vs Marvel event series, when Aquaman fought Namor at last. Aquaman beat Namor by dropping a whale on him. A humiliating defeat for the original Prince of the Seven Seas.

Namor in the MCU’s Live-Action Line-Up, at Last

Marvel Studios

Thanks to the MCU, Namor the Sub-Mariner will finally become the superstar he deserves to be. After only sporadic animated TV appearances, he will have a lead role in Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, finally introducing him into live-action after more than eighty years. If you’ve seen the trailer, you’ve seen actor Tenoch Huerta as Namor, complete with pointed ears, wings on his feet, and the iconic green trunks. And from the looks of things, he floods Wakanda just like in the comics. Additionally, Tenoch Huerta has shared that the MCU’s Namor “remains a mutant” in the movie. We’ll have to wait and see what that means.

Black Panther 2 will give Namor some key changes, however. Instead of ruling over Atlantis, Namor rules over the submerged city of Talocan in the MCU. Instead of being located in the Arctic, Talocan is an ancient Mesoamerican city with Aztec and Mayan influences. Again, with his nemesis Aquaman beating him to the silver screen, it seems Marvel needed to differentiate. We would be surprised, though, if Talocan is not referred to as the real-life inspiration for the Atlantis myths in the MCU’s actual universe. Other than that name change, Namor looks to have survived from comics to screen intact and will likely be a big part of the MCU going forward. It may have taken eight decades, but it looks like it shall finally be Namor’s time to rule.

Originally published on August 5, 2022

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