Friday, August 31, 2012

Scourge of the Sea

"Knowest thou that the suffering of Atlantis be not without reason! Like thine own misfortune, it be part of a prophecy--that the realm shall fall, only to rise again, at the forefront of nations! Thou art the agent of the prophecy! 'Tis in thy power to save thy race--and thy planet!" -- Neptune, offering guidance and solace to a despondent Sub-Mariner
Whenever I've written about Namor, the Sub-Mariner, I've usually said words to the effect that Marvel has never really known what to do with him. We know his origin well enough--a product of a brief affair between his mother, Princess Fen of Atlantis (daughter of Emperor Thakorr), and Leonard McKenzie, an American sea captain whose ship was in the icy waters near the site of Atlantis. Yet from the beginning of his appearances in 1939, he was very much "Americanized" by his creator, writer/artist Bill Everett--and with the arrival of America's involvement in World War II just over two years later, that would only intensify, as comic books took a decidedly patriotic tone for the duration, with various characters joining the war effort. That, of course, included Namor, whose ability to strike from the ocean would figure prominently in the naval fervor of the time.

Though I was familiar with Everett's work, I didn't really become acquainted with it in depth until he came full circle with Namor, when he began writing and drawing the Sub-Mariner book in 1972. After Gerry Conway's typically morose run on the book, giving us an amnesiac Namor at loose ends, Everett gave Namor a sharp turn--literally taking the character back to his roots, returning him to the destroyed ancestral site of Atlantis underneath the Antarctic. In one story, Everett restores Namor's memory (by confronting him with Llyra, who had murdered his bride, Dorma), shows him the fate of Namora, gives us the first appearance of Namorita, and brings back the villainous Byrrah (as a pawn of the Badoon).

(Interestingly enough, the Badoon want Byrrah's help in securing the Earth's oil reserves, the absence of which will bring its infrastructure to a halt and thereby make the planet ripe for invasion--a comment on our dangerous dependence on oil just as valid today as it was almost forty years ago.)

Everett's art on the book is simply stunning, seen in comparison to his Golden Age art in the '40s. Of course, Everett being Everett, you still see plenty of BEMs (bug-eyed monsters), and plenty of over-the-top, hugely-lettered sound effects (PFZAPT, FZUT, PZONK). But, where the past 49 issues of the book had strived to evolve Namor from his WWII image, it becomes clear that Everett (with Mike Friedrich scripting) means to take us down a nostalgic path with the character--once again "Americanizing" him with phrases like "Stay here--I'm going after that wharf-rat!" and "Come and get it, Torg!" It's still clear that we're dealing with a contemporary Sub-Mariner, as he retains much of his regal bearing and formal tone--yet Everett is seeking to strike a balance between the imperial Namor who so often alternated between peace-seeking ruler of Atlantis and enemy of the surface world, and the adventuring Sub-Mariner who had frequent encounters with humans whom he often took a hand in saving.

Everett's tenure on Sub-Mariner unfortunately only lasted less than a year, as he died in 1973 at age 55. After Everett's departure, Namor was once again returned to an angry, vendetta-driven character, which did little to ingratiate himself with readers. The title lasted only another eleven issues. Another attempt was made to "stabilize" the character years later in Namor, the Sub-Mariner, which dealt primarily with Namor as head of a corporation. Yet, as we've seen since then, there seems little purpose to Namor's existence other than as a wild card thrown into the mix of various other books to create conflict. It's a fate of perpetual languish which not only renders Everett's efforts moot--but also pushes Neptune's bold words to the back burner of legend.

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