Thursday, February 13, 2020

Close Shaves in the Comics, Part 1: Shaving Subby!

by BK Munn

Now it can be told: the terrifying tale of talcum, tufts, and trimming that is shaving in the comics!

Let's talk about some of the most famous and important shaves in the history of comics.

1.  Fantastic Four #4, 1962. The Human Torch shaves The Submariner. 

This has got to be the most electrifying shave of them all! It's an historic shave. It's a shocking shave. It's a shave unique in the history of all media! This is the shave that launched the Silver Age of Comics in the USA! How was it done? What is the science of the thing? What kind of genius mind could invent such a shaving sequence that gives such delight? Only Jack Kirby, The King of Comics,  could have conceived of such a shave.

Just after Jack and Stan reinvigorated American superhero comics with their Fantastic Four, they reintroduced a character from Marvel's 1940s heyday, Prince Namor, The Submariner of Atlantis. Back in the Golden Age, The Submariner (created by Bill Everett) and The Human Torch (created by Carl Burgos) were arch-enemies, constantly fighting each other in the pages of each other's comic books throughout WWII. Fire and water don't mix, and the two characters were a perfect match. Jump forward almost 20 years, and both were almost forgotten. The Human Torch was revived as a totally new character, the teenage hothead Johnny Storm, kid brother of The Invisible Girl, and youngest member of The Fantastic Four. 

In this issue, Johnny wanders into the Bowery district of New York City and encounters a superstrong bearded hobo who looks vaguely familiar. After a quick shave and a dip in the East River, The Submariner is reborn! Having lost his memory, Prince Namor has been living as a Bowery Bum for years, among the other lost men. Once he regains his senses, the mutant Namor renews his war against the humans of the surface world, with a special hate-on for The Fantastic Four (partly because he falls in love with Johnny's sister, Sue, a big problem for her boyfriend and leader of the FF, Reed "Mr. Fantastic" Richards). This great story re-launches Namor as one of the major antiheroes of the comics, a key figure spanning two eras of Marvel history, a liminal figure with one foot in the past and another in the science fiction future.

And look at those panels! Kirby's superhero work is full of action and violence, with tons of jumping, flying and fighting figures zig-zagging at crazy angles, drawn with dynamic perspective, and most of his Fantastic Four work is just like that. Here we have a sequence of panels that are mesmerizing in their simplicity. The Human Torch, exhibiting great control of his flame power, methodically, almost tenderly, shaves off the beard of the nameless vagrant, revealing the regal, slightly alien face of his namesake's greatest enemy, The Submariner. Shocking! Beautiful! Eerie!

The reintroduction of Subby (and of the Torch, in a way) set a precedent for Marvel, leading to one of the most famous returns in comics when Jack Kirby repeated the trick a few years later and brought back his own character Captain America, found in a block of ice in Avengers #4 (1964). Marvel's competitors at DC had pioneered this sort of gimmick when they revamped some of their second-tier characters in the late-50s, kickstarting the so-called Silver Age of superheroes. These DC characters, while bearing the monickers and abilities of older characters, had new alter-egos and costumes, and were eventually explained as weird echoes of heroes from a parallel dimension, called Earth Two. The artists and writers at both companies had hit on a playful way to rejuvenate stale brands and old intellectual property for a new audience, injecting a bit of science fiction and youth into dusty comic books in a move I'm going to call "Shaving the Submariner"...

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