Thursday, May 12, 2022

The Sub-Mariner For The 1990s


The year 1990 brought a new series to the comics racks that I'm surprised I passed on:

Shaped and handled by artist/writer John Byrne, Namor the Sub-Mariner provides the title character with a new direction that takes advantage of his past dalliances as a figure with corporate holdings while also seeking to recast him as less of a man who is prone to fits of rage over perceived misdeeds or affronts. Given Byrne's proven record on Fantastic Four, this new series should have piqued my interest--so why wouldn't I have even picked up an issue to thumb through? There were a number of things that might have come to mind for me at the time--one being a sense of wariness, given that Byrne had more than once set up shop on an existing book only to subsequently exit not long thereafter. But more pertinent to me was the character of the Sub-Mariner himself, whom I came to believe would have difficulty sustaining another series of his own, in light of so many new directions attempted for him (either in his first series or afterward) not panning out. (I was surprised as anyone to see Namor as an Avenger; then again, sooner or later, everyone becomes an Avenger. ... Maybe not Mr. Hyde. Or Terrax. But I'm not ruling out Galactus.)

In this first issue, that trademark volatility of the Sub-Mariner is on full display when he emerges from the sea in view of two marine biologists and lands on a nearby island--where Byrne, in a nod to a classic scene from The Avengers, demonstrates that whatever the time or place, Namor has little regard or patience for native dwellers.

Soon afterward, our two biologists, Caleb Alexander and his daughter, Carrie, locate Namor in a dazed, hallucinatory state and convince him to return with him to their boat, the "Oracle," where a new twist is introduced to the story of the Sub-Mariner that serves to retcon the instances of violent behavior occurring in his past--once that behavior is, for want of a better word, diagnosed.

(No, I don't know how a tribal spear, like bullets, failed to make a dent in Namor's skin, and yet I.V. needles are inserted with no problem--though Namor isn't likely to look a gift horse in the mouth here.)

Now "out of the woods" for the time being, Namor has an opportunity to learn more of the Alexanders, characters which Byrne will deal into the book's stories for some time.

Later, in an issue which attempts to put to rest Namor's past crimes against humanity, it becomes apparent that Byrne intends to treat this new factor in Namor's behavior as a chronic condition to be managed.

As we can see, by this time Byrne has assumed inking duties on the book as well (and, for a time, lettering)--a nice show of his commitment to the series while demonstrating a level of talent that arguably surpasses his FF work from the '80s. Along the way, he deals in a number of characters that keep Namor and his book busy and an intriguing read from issue to issue, either affiliated with his company, the Oracle Corporation (named after Caleb's boat), or of a more super-powered nature, while also keeping ties to Namor's Atlantean heritage.

But "All good things...", as they say*, as Byrne began to taper off from the series with its 26th issue, removing himself from art for the book until finally exiting the series at the end of 1992--the Sub-Mariner by that time hip-deep in a savage conflict with Master Khan, a mystic threat who goes all the way back to a 1960 issue of Strange Tales and who began a vendetta against Namor when he freed Iron Fist from the fate that Khan had arranged for him. Issue 62 in 1995 would finally mark the end of the series, its current storyline to be continued in another title the following month.

*With apologies to Geoffrey Chaucer, Troilus and Criseyde.


Namor in his classic glory days, as depicted by Mr. Byrne.


Anonymous said...

Oracle is actually the name of Namor’s father’s ship. lordjim6

Comicsfan said...

Indeed, lordjim--in the story it's made apparent that Caleb, whose life as a young boy was saved by Namor, named his vessel after Capt. McKenzie's ice-breaker. But, giving the whole thing further thought, I may have jumped to a conclusion as to Namor naming his corporation after Caleb's boat rather than his father's; it seemed a logical assumption given Namor's regard for Caleb and his daughter, but do any Namor readers have a definitive answer? (I imagine Caleb would be pleased either way. ;) )

Anonymous said...

I've come across this somewhere before...the idea that Subby's amphibian nature, a chemical imbalance, leads him on occasion to what surface dwellers might call extreme behavior. On a personal note, I happen to be bi-polar, I'm treated for it now and am okay but things sure could get pretty darn weird back in the old days. (Don't ask!) So the explanation does make a lotta sense to me.
But that same explanation of a chemical imbalance, while in my case a great relief, takes some of the mystery out of the character and maybe the potential menace that he brings to bear. You might not agree C.F., but I liked the Namor of the Illuminati, who was mad, bad, and dangerous to know. A guy who definitely had (and occasionally exercised) the potential to be quite the supervillain. Heck, the first time I saw him was in Super-Villain Team-Up! I didn't know what his deal was. The ambiguity fascinated me. Still does, and maybe no wonder!
Still, I agree this was an interesting take on an old character, and well worth a look.
Good or bad, or somewhere inbetween, the Sub-Mariner was always one of my favorites.


Anonymous said...

I enjoyed the series when it came out, and Byrne's art is always great. Namor as a corporate "king" was a good angle. And I liked the oxygen imbalance in the blood angle to explain Namor's wild mood swings and inconsistent portrayal over the years.

I know some people hated the duotone effects he used in later issues, but I thought they worked well for the underwater scenes. Byrne was definitely trying to do something different.

Yet I think Byrne "failed" in certain ways to set the series up for future success.

First, he never actually succeeded in any kind of corporate intrigue and conflict. The Marrs twins story was it. Byrne really didn't both setting Namor up against the many, existing "evil" corporations (or even the more neutral kind that might still make an intriguing foil) like Roxxon Oil (despite some teases in issues 2 and 3). I think the Marrs twins had potential, but they took over the book and didn't really deliver the goods in terms of antagonists. Using them slightly less but still building on their plots would have been better.

Second, he failed to create an intriguing rogue's gallery for Namor. Namor had an existing rogues gallery from his earlier days, but his main villains were either dead (Destiny, Dr Dorcas) or limited to the Atlantean sphere which Byrne choose to stay away from. But all we got were either one shot villains that wouldn't be used again (like Sluj or the Nazis), villains that weren't exactly in Namor's league (like Headhunter), or villains borrowed for a single storyline but belonged to other titles (Super-Skrull). The stories were entertaining, but having villains that would repeatedly show up to menace our hero again and again is an essential element in superhero comics.

Third, he utilized mostly long form multi-issue stories that ate up the title. In around two years worth of issues, he told actually around 5-8 stories. Ditko could have told 24! I don't mind long story arcs, and some of Namor's arcs are very good. But a few one and done issues that introduced new villains or story elements would have been a good change in pace.

Now I know its hard to actually fault Byrne for this. Writers before and after failed to position the Sub-Mariner for ongoing success. Despite the character's popularity, people seem to miss the magic of making it an ongoing solo title (and let's face it, this applies to a lot of other characters as well). But I think Byrne not only had the creative chops to succeed in this, I think his initial ideas were very, very good. So it's disappointing that ultimately very few things continued out of this at the end. Telling some interesting stories isn't any real failure, but I think his set up had great potential but only executed partly well.

Comicsfan said...

M.P., you make a good point about the Illuminati Namor, blunt with his opinions and apt to lash out if the collective thinking of the others was headed in a direction he was against; yet I felt that his "attitude," for want of a better word, added an interesting element to the group, and his own decision-making proved both incisive and decisive. Yet it's that very ambiguity, I felt, that made it difficult for writers to get a handle on him and support him as a character capable of ruling a kingdom without declaring war every so often or abdicating to shake things up a bit. Was Namor the ruler that the Atlanteans needed? If not, where was his place in the world--as an Avenger? As a champion of the environment? As an X-Man? As a corporate figure? As a Defender?

Chris, from your many insightful points one resonated with me in particular: Byrne's tendency to slow things down and play out a plot in lengthy stages (i.e., a number of issues), bit by intriguing bit, something that might work well in a graphic novel or a format such as Future Imperfect where the end is clearly in sight but not so well in a monthly book where a startling final page is depended on to bring the reader back in thirty days rather than any indication that things overall are headed to a culmination. What was Byrne's game plan regarding Namor, I wonder? Obviously to make him a more steady and interesting figure in relation to those he interacts and deals with, but beyond that? How did he want to handle a Sub-Mariner series as a sustainable book?

Big Murr said...

It was the mercurial whimsy of Namor that always kept me at arm's length from the character. Thor, Hulk, Thing (to name three) all have volatile tempers, but a reader could quickly suss what those temper triggers were, and otherwise their characters remained understandable.

One appearance could have Namor declaring unrestricted war on the surface because someone peed over the side of a sailboat. The next appearance has him a righteous and heroic Defender. Then the next writer tries to sit him on the Atlantean throne full of majestic dignity. Completely unpredictable and all over the shop.

So, Byrne's blood imbalance idea was a darned good one. Create a stable character that readers could rely upon...whatever that character might be.

The problem with this series for me was the clandestine corporate path. Namor as a shadowy power broker wearing Armani suits had "not another one" vibe.

I think instead it should have been a sane-ish Namor using a variation on this idea to build a very visible embassy-company arm for Atlantis. Rather than remaining a confusing mystery-myth hiding under the ocean, Namor tries to make Atlantis a corporate and political force in surface world affairs. Use the surface world's own tools against them to preserve the oceans, rather than summoning Giganto again and again. Sort of a blend of Dr. Doom and Latveria's place in international politics and Tony Stark's bazillionaire clout.

Comicsfan said...

The problem with that approach, I think, Murray, is that it, too, has the "not another one" aspect that we've seen with other characters throughout the years as different approaches were rolexed through. The FF's Future Foundation... the Xavier Institute and its staff/faculty... Dr. Strange's Metaphysical Institute... Peter Parker as a high school teacher... the Black Panther taking a hiatus from his throne to become an Avenger... the Inhumans' royal family exploring avenues to rejoin the human race... Tony Stark as Director of S.H.I.E.L.D., Secretary of Defense, head of "Stark Solutions," you name it ... Captain America resigning to become the world's "top cop"... Bruce Banner having control of the Hulk's body and power... the list goes on.

I think an embassy/company role for Namor that represents Atlantean interests would suit him, yet he faces a similar problem: aside from using his power to lift a damaged and leaking oil tanker to a nearby land mass or spearheading Atlantean visibility in surface world affairs, how does the Sub-Mariner figure into the setup? How will this Namor interest comics readers looking for adventure? Doom has the luxury of inserting his power into our affairs with near-impunity even as he keeps a tight rein on his position and subjects in Latveria--yet the faculty of the Xavier Institute have to drop what they're doing to suit up as X-Men... Peter's spider-sense has him either leaving class abruptly or calling in sick... T'Challa has to somehow explain to his people why leaving Wakanda in the care of a regent (e.g., M'Baku) is a good thing... Captain America is not Steve Rogers... and Strange eventually decides that "business suits and corporate maneuvers aren't [his] forte." How does Namor reconcile his activities as the Sub-Mariner with the role he must present for himself and for Atlantis for the long haul? Perhaps equally important is asking ourselves what writer would be able to successfully pull that off? Personally, I'd love to see it attempted.

Big Murr said...

Holy Hannah! I knew the idea had precedence but seeing your list is a shocker.

I guess I reckoned this would just be a "fin on dry land" for possible plot points. As monarch of Atlantis, Namor already has the same clunky handicap that T'Challa (and now Thor) has, where his butt is supposed to be on the throne being majestic, not zipping around the world having adventures. An embassy-corporation would allow an excuse as to why he "just happened to be in New York".