Superhero showdown: Which comic book rumble was the real Battle of the Century?
Update, 1/1/21: It’s New Year’s Day, and Ars staff is still enjoying some necessary downtime to prepare for a new year (and a slew of CES emails, we’re sure). While that happens, we’re resurfacing some vintage Ars stories like this 2014 examination of a classic comic book claim, “The Battle of the Century.” This piece was first published on December 10, 2014, and it appears unchanged below.
Here’s one of those hidden-in-plain-sight industry secrets: headlines sell. Whether it’s cover lines on your favorite magazine, the title of a new novel, or headlines on Ars and elsewhere, good display text should draw readers in and spell out what’s coming.
When it comes to headlines and 20th century comic books, there’s one phrase that keeps popping up. Several books—not, one, not two, not three—boldly claim the title of “The Battle of the Century” on their covers. But since that 100 years is now behind us, we can look back to decide which truly was the Battle of the Century (and possibly call everyone else a liar).
What should constitute the Battle of the Century? To these comics, it’s two main things. First, the two combatants must both be at the top of their game. That’s more in terms of popularity and relevance than pure ability (Lil’ Abner versus Superman wouldn’t be fair otherwise). The second requirement is as easy—the battle itself has to somehow be epic. While doing research, we didn’t limit candidates to books using the word “battle”; we also included things like “fight,” “bout,” and “showdown.” The extravagant claim simply had to appear on the cover.
In total, this battle for the Battle of the Century comes down to 12 comics making the claim. We’ll consider these cases in chronological order, so first up is The Human Torch vs. The Sub-Mariner!
Candidate #1: The Human Torch vs. The Sub-Mariner
Admittedly, we’re already breaking our arbitrary rules. This comic does not state “Battle of the Century” on its cover; that claim lives on the splash page. However, this may be the first comic to make the claim, so it deserves some leeway.
Why are they fighting?
Namor, the Sub-Mariner, has vowed to destroy the human race. The Human Torch has recently joined the police department. So as Namor attempts to wreck the Washington Bridge, the Human Torch arrives to stop him. It’s easy to side with the Torch on this one.
How epic is the battle?
After the initial encounter, Namor soon retreats to his winged submarine to grab an air tank. He immediately returns to the surface, quickly blowing out the Torch’s flame. With his enemy distraught, Namor then drags the Torch underwater to his “Aerial Sub.” Namor wins in four pages!
But wait! Namor accidentally loses control of an air hose (which powers his engine) and it hits the Torch. Not only does the errant hose revive the Torch, it also surrounds him with an air bubble that eventually floats to the surface. Namor tries to stop the Torch bubble but can’t. (That’s right, ladies and gentlemen, The Sub-Mariner, Lord of the Seven Seas, is unable to pop an air bubble.)
Torch’s bubble bursts as it reaches the surface. Our hero is free and on fire, and the battle has transitioned back to land. Soon, Namor has jumped into a water reservoir for a refreshing dip. But the Torch (somehow) covers the reservoir with flame, trapping Namor. Namor immediately starts to suffocate because of the water’s chlorine content. He passes out.
So… The Torch wins!
Well, unfortunately the Torch can’t see Namor through the flames and doesn’t know his predicament. He contacts the Army and asks them to bomb the reservoir. (Yes, these two superhumans are actually trying to kill each other.) The American Army successfully drops an American bomb on the American reservoir. And this, of course, blows Namor out of the water, inadvertently saving him from suffocation.
As the fight begins anew, fans learn something new about The Sub-Mariner—he has a sprinkler system.
Who really wins?
After more shenanigans, Namor eventually slips a “translate case” over the Torch. This isn’t really a win, however. Every time Namor lifts the case to kill him, the Torch has enough air to burst back into flames.
Suddenly, an outside party appears. It’s Betty Dean, described as Namor’s “only human friend.” With Dean’s intervention, we’re treated to the searing, nail-biting conclusion:
[Betty sizes up the situation] “Listen to reason! There’s nothing you can do. Call the whole thing off. I promise you—if you go away and leave us alone, the Torch will never bother you again!”
After a brief clarification that this promise (unlike previous ones) will be upheld, the dispute is settled! (It’s actually quite sweet.) The former enemies quietly exchange pleasant goodbyes.
So… is it the Battle of the Century?
Both the characters were relatively well-known, there’s collateral damage, and it appears the fight lasted most of a day. On top of that, this brouhaha took place in 1940, when it’s possible that no one else yet made the claim. It’s a definitive “yes.” At this point in the 20th century, it is the Battle of the Century!