Friday, May 30, 2014

Mystery! Danger! Suspense! And Yes, Killer Crabs!

A comic's 50th issue wasn't often heralded in Marvel's titles--but with a book which could use every edge in sales, it didn't hurt to caption its cover with such a distinction. That was particularly applicable to Sub-Mariner, which would have only a little over twenty issues left in its run before being cancelled. But with its 50th issue, you could see an honest effort being made to change its course, and revitalize the character of Namor to have a greater appeal for whatever fan base he had remaining.

No easy task. Once Namor abdicated his throne and left Atlantis for good, Sub-Mariner floundered in direction, which stabilized when Namor's creator, Bill Everett, came aboard and set him more or less on track again--and this 50th issue was its bold beginning, from its very first page. In the previous issue, Namor had just concluded his encounter with Dr. Doom and Modok, and his growing relationship with a surface girl named Cindy had solidified into something which looked headed in a forward direction. Yet Everett, in one panel on page one, severs that relationship with a few words consisting of their worlds being incompatible and that Namor belongs in the world of the sea. Any other guy would likely react in a "whu...huh?" way at such an inexplicable and sudden development; but Everett returns Namor to his noble bearing, giving him a sort of Elizabethan thought and speech pattern that smooths the transition and makes it almost seem like he belongs in a solo state. "Nay! There is a ring of conviction in her voice! Comprehension fails my perplexed mind!" I don't know many of us who sort out our thoughts like that.

Yet Everett maintains at least one thing from Namor's past issues: his state of amnesia, which also helps to motivate him to go in another direction (in this case, the sea) and seek answers to his confusion. And the first step he has to take is to discover whether he "belongs" in the sea in a literal sense, though it would be a rather drastic (not to mention suicidal) step for any of us:

Before Namor can explore his state further, he comes across an unconscious girl floating in the depths, whom he assumes is close to death. It would turn out to be an auspicious meeting between the two, though you wouldn't think so from its abrupt ending:

The girl, in case you haven't recognized her, would turn out to be Namor's cousin--Namorita, whom we'll see more of later in this story. For now, Namor is all too glad to see her depart--as he does himself, but in a direction both distant and nostalgic:

Yes, Namor has returned at last to the Antarctic, and his long-lost roots. But what meaning will they have for one who has no memory of them?

As Namor descends, the ruins of his ancestral home are compelling, as well as a frustrating mystery--a mystery he has little time to ponder, since he's almost immediately attacked by a giant crustacean. It's here that Everett's handling of Namor takes a turn for the reader, from curious excitement to uncomfortable winces--as Everett's undersea antagonists for the Sub-Mariner tend to be a little on the Hollywood monster side, and difficult to take seriously (as contradictory as that sounds, given that we're reading a comic book, after all).

"Salamar"--a talking, devious crab with crab lackeys to do his bidding. The monster obviously has knowledge of Namor's ancestry and an interest in seeing Atlantis return to its former, ancient glory--but the mystery of that knowledge is overshadowed by the injection of such ludicrous creatures into the life of the Sub-Mariner, a character who Marvel has taken pains to distance from his "Jumpin' catfish!" past and make a force to be reckoned with in its present-day world. Fortunately, Everett has several more surprises for Namor to keep our interest in this story--starting with a long-lost cousin from that past:

Salamar also formally identifies the young girl who walloped Namor before he embarked on his journey to the Antarctic--a girl Salamar also has plans for, as well as threats if necessary:

Finally, Salamar reveals one last figure from Namor's past, a figure who's been made an example of in the "oil-springs" which are now a part of the Atlantean landscape:

Despite Salamar's technological advantage, Namor escalates his assault on the crab and his aides--and eventually discovers Salamar to be a mere construct, remotely controlled. And when Namor destroys its circuitry, the feedback reveals Namor's foe in this deception, one whose tactic in using Namorita to ensure Namor's cooperation mirrors that of Salamar:

(The real Prince Byrrah has a real problem spelling his own name!)

Yes, it seems Byrrah is not alone in this endeavor--he has a deadly ally, one whose appearance instantly restores Namor's memory and makes him instantly coil in a posture of revenge:

This haughty villainess makes a great entrance, though in her eagerness it seems she's mispronounced both her own name as well as that of her former kingdom. Just to set the record straight, this is Llyra, formerly of Lemuria. Though very shortly that's all going to be moot:

A curious "alliance" between Llyra and Byrrah, eh? Apparently Llyra didn't disclose to her ally that she had her own agenda concerning Namor and had no interest in Byrrah's plans for him. But as Namor's made quite clear, he only has one plan where Llyra is concerned, and her sense of vengeance pales beside his own:

Gee, it doesn't look like Llyra's going to "slip away" this time, does it? (At least in terms of escape.  Heh heh. Sorry.)

At least Namor and Nita look like they finally have some time to catch up and compare notes. But you're probably thinking we've forgotten someone, and you're right:

There's more to discover about Byrrah, the monster crabs, Namora, those oil-springs, as well as Byrrah's other alliance (with a race of aliens we've seen before), when this story concludes. Everett's approach with the Sub-Mariner may be a bit dated in some respects, but with this fiftieth issue he's laid a decent foundation in place for a new direction for Namor, and there are some worthwhile stories to explore. Though, as we unfortunately know, the optimism wasn't to last.

Sub-Mariner #50

Script, Pencils, and Inks: Bill Everett
Letterer: Jon Costa (a/k/a John Costanza)


Murray said...

For me, the trouble with Namor (and Aquaman) is the vagueness of their world. Every half-dozen issues or so, these monarchs of the sea would proclaim that the pitiful land-based superhero had no conception of the aquatic realm! A measly 30% land to 70% sea!

The basic trouble is, the writers-editors have no clue either. They seem to have zero idea of the size of the oceans. No matter where a hero happens to go swimming in an adventure, Hawaii, Coney Island, Antarctica, up pops the Sub-Mariner.

All one writer-editor had to do was make up an undersea political map. Doesn't have to be hyper detailed. Just provide a logical bible of places other than Atlantis. Thor had the Nine Realms. Venturing into space and there was a list of alien empires and species in the files. Namor wanders on his own? It's a creative fog, without continuity or logic. A world with a little consistency of creatures and characters for Namor to visit, fight, greet in friendship would have gone a long way to making me care about the guy.

Murray said...

but wait, there's more!

Beyond a coherent world, did Namor ever have a supporting cast? Each title character gets a Love Interest and a Rogues Gallery, but what about the rest? Who were Namor's "Warriors Three"? Who was his "Foggy Nelson"? Who was his foil like "J. Jonah Jameson"? (well, true, nobody but Spidey has a character like J.J.J.) In my ignorance of the Sub-Mariner, I'm certainly willing to be educated here. However, if such supporting characters existed, they didn't get any play outside Subby's comic. I knew about Foggy before I ever became a Daredevil reader.

Phil said...

I just noticed Namorita has the wings on her ankles. I guess Namor was too busy gawking at her face to see them first time around.

Comicsfan said...

Murray, I suppose the rules were a little different for Sub-Mariner as far as having a supporting cast in the traditional Marvel comic book sense. While Thor had the luxury of living a double life as mortal and Asgardian and consequently had extended arcs split between both worlds, the Sub-Mariner title had to depend on Namor's interaction with guest-stars from other titles, and the book had to establish Atlantis and its undersea environment as its own separate world and to make it just as interesting and conflict-prone as the surface "world." Probably a daunting task for a book whose readers were well familiar with "air-breathers" but had to become interested in the characters and world of Sub-Mariner from the ground up.

As it turned out, it was only Namor's inner circle of the lady Dorma, his adviser Vashti, and his head scientist Ikthon (who turned out to be a traitor) who interacted with him to any degree, and of course it was the practically nameless warriors of Atlantis who were on tap when needed. (Atlantis, after all, was far more limited in venue and scope than Asgard, the latter being a kingdom of separate sub-kingdoms, and a place which could also claim gods as its residents.) Beyond that, it fell to Namor to carry the ball for this book--which possibly explains why he was severed from his life undersea relatively early in the book's run, and sent to the surface world to try his luck there. It's probably telling that Atlantis, or anyone associated with it, didn't seem to be missed by either Namor or his readers.

Anonymous said...

Just to echo Murray's comments, I remember the many times in reading Conan, either in comics or Howard's books, the map of the Hyborian Age was used several times to give the reader his bearings. It served to make the stories come alive in a way that sometimes the words couldn't. I just want to also remind all the dangers inherent in maps. Once you take those suckers out, good luck getting it folded back!!!

The Prowler (just rolls 'em up like scrolls).

Scottie Harrisson said...

One other supporting character I remember was Lord Seth, who seemed like Namor's Atlantean right hand man. He was killed off earlier in the series.

I came into this series when Roy Thomas & Sal Buscema were producing the comic. Yeah the book was not as good after they left. I really enjoyed Everet's return. I got to know more about him later, but I knew he was Namor's creator. My Mom used to read Sub-Mariner comics in the 40s/50s and I showed her these issues and we talked about Prince Namor.

As a teenage boy I was very curious of the bikini-clad Namorita! Oh yes indeed! She is still one of my favorite Marvel characters.

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