Friday, 6 December 2013

Essential Sub-Mariner volume 1

Essential Sub-Mariner volume 1 contains the Sub-Mariner strips from Tales to Astonish (the anthology that also featured the Hulk and previously featured Ant-Man/Giant Man) #70-101, Iron Man and Sub-Mariner #1, a rare one-shot anthology that came amidst a glut of new title launches, Prince Namor, the Sub-Mariner #1, the resulting first issue, plus also Daredevil #7 with a guest appearance and the Iron Man story from Tales of Suspense #80 as part of a crossover; another crossover comes within the pages of Tales to Astonish itself when the Sub-Mariner and Hulk strips converge in issue #100. Bonus material includes the original cover art from issue #88, original interior art from issues #94 & #96, the cover of Tales of Suspense #79 (which features Namor prominently on the cover but only on one interior page) and Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe entries for Atlantis, Atlanteans and the Sub-Mariner.

Nearly everything up to issue #92 (including the Daredevil and Tales of Suspense issues) is written by Stan Lee bar #82 where his plot is scripted by Roy Thomas. Thomas writes most of the rest of the material apart from one issue by Raymond Marais (a name no-one seems to know anything about) who co-writes another with Thomas, and the last couple of Astonishes are written by the brief return of Lee then Archie Goodwin. The art is mainly by Gene Colan, who also does the Daredevil and Tales of Suspense issues and later by Namor's creator Bill Everett, with contributions by Jack Kirby, Jerry Grandenetti, Dan Adkins, Werner Roth and Marie Severin. John Buscema draws the first issue of Prince Namor, the Sub-Mariner. Once again that's a long list of labels so a separate post has been created for the creators.

The Sub-Mariner's arrival in the Essentials was surprisingly late, coming in 2009. Amongst other Silver Age superhero features, only Captain Marvel had anywhere near as long a delay before getting a first volume. Perhaps this was down to the availability of remastered material - the first Sub-Mariner Masterworks didn't appear until 2002 and the rest of the material in this volume wasn't collected there until 2007. Or it could be down to the perception that the Sub-Mariner doesn't sell well - none of his series have ever made it past a hundred issues (although if we add the Tales to Astonish issues to his 1968 series they just scrape over that line) whilst in the late 1990s he took over the second series of Marvel Team-Up from Spider-Man, only for that title to end after just four issues of him. Whatever the reason, the result was that this volume was much wanted and anticipated. It doesn't disappoint.

At its core this is a series about a monarch whose kingdom faces threats from both without and within. Atlantis is a small kingdom in a remote part of the world - the depths of the ocean - but it contains ambitious royals and military leaders, whilst its location and obscurity often result in accidental damage being caused by the humans on the surface, leading to tension and conflict. Namor is a just and generally merciful ruler, but prone to moments of temper that cause him to lash out in anger either when he believes he has been betrayed below the sea or else when he assumes the humans have attacked his kingdom. Most of the issues in this volume are parts of multi-issue stories that often flow from one to the next, providing a strong continuous flow as Namor seeks security and vengeance against the various threats to his kingdom.

The most recurrent foe is Warlord Krang (he actually has that title), an Atlantean general who seizes power in a coup at the start and then after he is toppled he is sent into exile and plots anew. Like several of the foes seen here, he originated in the pages of Fantastic Four. Another from there who threatens Atlantis is the external warlord Attuma and his army of barbarians, whilst from Daredevil comes the Plunderer, a would-be world conqueror and the brother of Ka-Zar. Meanwhile Namor has another rival for the throne, namely Byrrah, who is described as both Namor's "cousin" and the stepson of the old Emperor, who was Namor's grandfather. Either Atlantean society uses the terms for relatives differently (which seems unlikely for the era, especially as the point is never specifically addressed) or someone goofed. Byrrah had previously appeared in the brief 1953-4 revival of the Sub-Mariner, and is described as being from the "Golden Past"/"Golden Age" of Marvel. I wonder just when the term "Golden Age of Comics" was nailed down to finishing no later than 1949/50. The pre-Silver Age is also addressed at the end of the volume with the debut of Destiny, a foe that Namor has forgotten (though he had never appeared before). On top of all this there are also a variety of sea monsters such as the Seaweed Man or the Faceless Ones and their leader Zantor, the Diamonds of Doom. Or there are the artificial creations like the Behemoth, a monster created to protect Atlantis from attacks but which gets out of control, the fire creature on Inferno Island, "It", a humanoid revived by the dumping of radioactive waste, or Dragorr, apparently the ruler of a Caribbean island nation but actually a robotic exo-skeleton controlled by his "adviser" the Gnome. Other foes from other series include the Puppet Master, once again from the pages of Fantastic Four, and the original Number One of the Secret Empire, from the Hulk's strip in the other half of Tales to Astonish. But it's the underwater foes Krang, Attuma and Byrrah who stand out the most.

After his reintroduction, Byrrah rapidly becomes a rival to the throne, which appears to be semi-elective through the people demanding a "plebiscite" which will mean a new "election". I wonder if Stan Lee actually knew a great deal about how monarchies operate - it's true that in times past some were elective to a degree, but by the second half of the twentieth century it became standard in much of the west to distinguish between "monarchies" as states where the headship passes by heredity and "republics" as states where the headship is selected on someone's consideration of the individual (whether that's the population as a whole considering the merits or a military officer personally considering themself to take power). "Plebiscites" (or referendums) on monarchies tend to be about their continuation or restoration rather than choosing between competing contenders and/or their lines. Just to add to the confusion, Byrrah's reign is undone when Dorma discovers he has used a hypnosis ray to win over the people and she cancels the effect, with the result the Atlanteans quickly see Byrrah as an impostor without any talk of new plebiscites. Did Dorma sneakily hypnotise them in the other direction, did the Atlanteans forget anything that happened whilst they were hypnotised or did they immediately realise what had happened and automatically dismiss the change as illegitimate? There's no such implication of constitutionality at all when Krang deposes Namor earlier in the volume and instead Namor has to embark upon a quest to find Neptune's Trident to prove he is the rightful heir to the throne. Strange people lying in water distributing weapons is... an interesting basis for a system of government and when Byrrah makes his take-over or even later when the Atlanteans mistakenly believe Namor has betrayed them and exile him, his recovery of the trident isn't mentioned at all.

The guest cast is limited with the most prominent member being the Lady Dorma, Namor's childhood companion and main romantic interest though their relationship is turbulent, not least when Krang forces Dorma to agree to marry him in exchange for saving Namor's life (a lie as Namor has already survived). Dorma had appeared in Sub-Mariner stories since the 1930s but only really rises to prominence here. During Namor's quest for the trident he is aided by an elder of Atlantis called Vashti who risks his all to support the former king's restoration; in gratitude Namor appoints him as his Grand Vizier and he appears through the rest of the run. Beyond these two, Krang and Byrrah, the Atlanteans aren't focused on regularly and there are no other notable recurrent characters.

But there's one feature about Atlantis that surprises me and that is that whenever we see the kingdom itself it doesn't look as though everyone is at the bottom of an ocean. There's the odd ripple effect on panels and the occasional fish, but the Atlanteans walk about as though they were on land, wearing clothes that would be suitable on land - Namor moving about in just his swimming trunks is very much the exception - including capes that flow freely. Namor can fly and often his movements through the seas are drawn as though he is in flight rather than swimming. And he rarely looks wet when he emerges above water. It's not just the people and their clothes either - when Atlantis is damaged, as it is several times in various locations in this run, the rubble tends to fall as if it were in air not water. Still none of this detracts from the excitement in the various battles, especially with other Marvel characters.

In spite of the growing interconnectedness of the Marvel Universe in this era, Namor's own series surprisingly limits encounters with other heroes to crossovers. The volume kicks off with Daredevil #7 (incidentally the issue where Daredevil changes his costume to the more familiar red outfit) in which Namor goes searching for lawyers to settle the grievances of Atlantis through peaceful channels, but the effort fails and he clashes with Daredevil before returning to his kingdom to face down an attempted coup. Later on he is pursuing Krang and Dorma and in the process clashes with Iron Man in "When fall the Mighty" which, according to The (Almost) Complete Marvel Crossover Guide, appears to be the very first Marvel crossover where a story was told in more than one title. Finally near the end of the volume whilst in exile once more, Namor considers the Hulk as a potential ally, but the Puppet Master takes control of the Green Goliath and the result is an extended fight that is a rare crossover within a single series as both characters' strips are fused to tell the extended story.

But curiously there are two notable omissions amongst the guest stars. The only appearance of the Fantastic Four is limited to a flashback in Sub-Mariner #1 when Namor's origin and history are recounted, whilst Captain America, the other major Marvel Golden Age hero revived in the Silver Age, makes no appearance at all. Namor spent the early years of the Silver Age largely around the Fantastic Four so it was a bold move for this series to keep away from rehashing what had gone before. However a couple of big continuity questions had been raised by Fantastic Four and never adequately resolved there - why was Namor an amnesiac drifter in New York when the new Human Torch found him and what had destroyed the original Atlantis and forced its inhabitants to wander the seas? These points are left unaddressed throughout the Tales to Astonish issues whilst Namor's origin is only hinted at by brief passing mentions. It doesn't surprise me to discover that the writer under whom the problems are resolved is Roy Thomas, in one of his earliest efforts to add the pre-Silver Age Timely & Atlas material to the continuity of the Marvel universe. The first issue of Sub-Mariner is a middle part of a storyline as Namor tackles Destiny, the foe who gave him amnesia and destroyed the original Atlantis, but the issue doesn't forget it's the start of a series and devotes a large chunk of its space to retelling Namor's origin and adventures up to his first encounter with the Fantastic Four, although much of the period between Namor's birth and the fall of Atlantis is explained very briefly over a couple of pages and with no reference to his interaction with other superheroes in the 1940s, whether in stories published at the time (such as his clashes with the original Human Torch or membership of the All-Winners Squad) or subsequent additions (though Thomas's creation of the Invaders was some years off). Still it's a good introduction to the character even if starting the new title midway through a storyline could limit its use as a "jumping-on point".

Unfortunately the volume ends with Namor seeking vengeance on Destiny, and even four years later there's still no sign of an Essential Sub-Mariner volume 2 (let alone the volume 5 it would take to cover both the Spider-Man appearances missed in my looks at guest appearances from 1962-1971 and 1972-1981). But hopefully this will be eventually rectified in due course. Otherwise we currently have a rare later Essential that ends on a stark cliffhanger.

Despite the ending, overall this is quite a good volume. Namor is something of an anti-hero to the surface world, sometimes a threat, occasionally a saviour, but as the devoted ruler of his own people - a devotion that is usually reciprocated - he is shown in a rather different light. He may be quick tempered and distrustful of the human race, even if he is half-human himself (though it's not unknown for people with multiple heritages to focus almost exclusively on just one), but his motives are good. Some of the ideas in the series have dated, particularly the quest for the trident to prove his right to the throne which feels more at home in traditional mythology than in 1960s literature, and it's easy to see why the second tale of his brief deposal is instead wrapped in political language, but overall the series holds up pretty well as a fast flowing adventure. The art may not always remember that Atlantis is a realm full of water not air, but it's strongly competent and Bill Everett's return to his creation doesn't jar with the rest of the run. Overall this is quite a solid run from one of the more unfortunately forgotten Silver Age strips.

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