Monday, September 21, 2009

Sub-Mariner #68-69

Marvel Comics, 1973, 19 pages each, $ 0.20 each

Writer: Steve Gerber
Pencilers: Don Heck, George Tuska
Inkers: Jim Mooney, Vince Colletta
Colorists: George Roussos, Glynis Wein
Letterers: Artie Simek, Charlotte Jetter
Cover artist: John Romita

Page one: We see Namor the Sub-Mariner’s right eye. Zoom back to both his eyes. “And what they behold is a sight so grim—so fraught with horror and hopelessness—as to drive even this prince of the blood to the outermost fringes of sanity!” Zoom back to the whole of his face—he gazes in terror. Zoom back to the whole of his head, clutched in his hands: his features distorted, his mouth gaping wide, his royal heritage betrayed by disbelief and agony.
“Have I not tasted enough this day of the bitter wine of tragedy? Have the fates not yet finished toying with me—making a mockery of myself and my kingdom? 
A man—any man—can endure only so much before the fabric of his being stretches thin as gossamer—and ultimately—begins to fray—until its dangling threads brush against the world like raw nerves, leaving that man… ON THE BRINK OF MADNESS!
Clearly, nobody in superhero comics does melodrama anymore.

It’s easy to look down on the sort of storytelling put forth here, in the two final issues of Steve Gerber’s run on Sub-Mariner, as an artifact of a bygone age.

Broadly, that’s what it is, certainly. Like many American superhero comics released in the 1970s, Sub-Mariner bows to a crippling share of genre conventions. There are scores of redundant caption boxes, speech and thought balloons narrating the action that’s visible in the images; the artwork is functional rather than inspired; much storytelling space is spent on flashback sequences that bluntly retell the plot of earlier stories; in each issue, there’s an obligatory, prolonged brawl between the protagonist and his villain of the month; Spider-Man shows up, for no discernible reason other than to boost the sales figures of a struggling B-list series (Sub-Mariner was cancelled four issues later); the plot mechanics are clunky and riddled with holes—improbably, a key moment involves Namor colliding, for no apparent reason, with a sunken ship (“I used my arms as rudders, tried to veer away—but my speed was too great!”), which makes you wonder if he constantly bumps into things underwater—and, implausibly, Namor doesn’t seem to recall that particular incident at the beginning of issue #68, but then goes on to recount it anyway when it’s time for the flashback; and the plot itself is highly derivative and rigidly structured, to accommodate all of these things—nobody’s allowed to have a conversation that lasts longer than a page before it’s interrupted by some kind of action sequence, for instance; I’m sure there are more.

There’s also a major disconnect between writing and art in issue #68: Namor’s lament, as quoted above, is followed by a big double-page splash that shows the cause for his condition. But though Namor explicitly and repeatedly observes in his dialogue that absolutely none of his subjects have survived, Don Heck’s artwork in the very same panel blissfully contradicts him, as many of the Atlanteans in the scene are plainly standing and sitting around and mourning the dead (or rather, the comatose, as it soon turns out). Further adding to the confusion, Heck’s pencils also depict damaged buildings and broken swords, although the dialogue makes it clear that what we’re seeing is meant to be the result of a cloud of nerve gas rather than anything capable of causing the kind of structural damage or battlefield scenario shown in the art.

Sub-Mariner, not surprisingly given its strict adherence to convention, doesn’t tend to be regarded as one of the more inspired Steve Gerber works—an assessment which Gerber seems to have shared.

Still, it contains some early hints at the qualities that made his subsequent superhero work on The Defenders and Omega the Unknown stand out from the competition in the mid- and late 1970s.

The first page, as described above, may be sledgehammer melodrama, for instance, but it’s very deliberate sledgehammer melodrama. The prose is distinguished by an uncommon attention to rhythm, and it takes care to build and escalate the tension inherent in Namor’s monologue until its ultimate release in the words that double as the title of the story (“On the Brink of Madness!”). As far as traditional splash pages go, this is pretty much a textbook example—it follows the established formula, but at the same time, it’s fully aware of the formula and takes it to an extreme. The first page of Sub-Mariner #68, for all the flaws of the story that’s to follow, is comic-book opera at its finest.

As a narrative, of course, the story doesn’t hold up. Namor finding Atlantis in some kind of ruin and throwing some kind of fit as a result seems like every story ever told with the character, perhaps most famously by Jack Kirby and Stan Lee when they revived Namor with Fantastic Four #4 in 1962.

But upon closer inspection, Gerber’s take turns out to be more subversive than one might suspect. His Namor takes the spoiled-bully antics to new heights. The Sub-Mariner’s first reaction to the apparent ruin of his kingdom, for starters, is to start vandalizing buildings and vehicles. (“The land-dwellers have disabled me… wrecked my kingdom… killed my race…! Why should I not finish their work—their glorious victory?”)

In his first encounter with new super-villain Force, Namor shows little regard for collateral damage—when a bystander is hurt by a piece of debris deflected when Namor throws what looks like a block of concrete at Force’s back, the hero blames his opponent, pathetically: “You—have placed an innocent woman’s life in danger—for nothing!” To defeat Force, Namor sees fit to bring down an entire monument, but then he can’t be bothered to arrest the criminal; he lets him escape, instead, because he’s got more important things to do.

In issue #69, as if to emphasize his less than favorable interpretation of the title character, Gerber invites the comparison between Namor and the enforcers of an oppressive regime. In the subplot, set in some sort of parallel dimension, a mob of evil storm troopers crashes through the doors of a rebel hideout. In the very next panel, Namor himself, in search of a scientist whose help he requires, tears through the entrance of a hospital, wreaking havoc among its staff and breaking furniture, until a doctor manages to earn Namor’s “respect” by opposing him. “Parallels: What would literature be without them?” a transitional caption reads.

But Gerber’s Namor isn’t just an emotionally immature and impatient one-note brute with a very low tolerance for frustration. He also seems to be disappointed with the kinds of living conditions the “land-dwellers” create for themselves. Arriving in New York City, the Sub-Mariner looks down at Manhattan from the top of the Empire State Building, a view prompting a soliloquy on the course of humanity.
“The crowded, filthy streets—teeming with life in such numbers that it no longer has any value—! The ruthless, nightmarish rush, rush, rush to nowhere—mankind is a species so far removed from nature that it has lost its most basic instincts—even, perhaps, that of self-preservation—the most essential. It is as though man remembers how to multiply—but has forgotten why! And that makes the most fearsome brand of foe—one who cares not if he lives or dies!
Namor’s arrival at Empire State University triggers another thought. “Once I had hoped that change might spawn in such alcoves of intellect,” he says. At which point the end of the page is reached and Namor’s harsh assessment of human society interrupted, even more harshly, as the resident super-villain introduces himself by knocking the foreign social critic out of the sky. It’s the prelude to several pages’ worth of fisticuffs—way more in line, for sure, with the expectations of the avid Marvel aficionado.

Gerber’s excursions in social criticism don’t end with Namor himself. In issue #69, in the aforementioned subplot, a wizard, a scholar and a musician are rebelling, with some trans-dimensional advice from Doctor Strange, against a totalitarian regime that handily cops to being unequivocally evil by referring to the three resistants as “love-mongers.” In a scene that winds up being unintentionally funny, the musician, in an act of defiance, begins to sing what might be kind of a national anthem, which suddenly causes the villains to drop to the floor in pain and lose consciousness.

Wha—?! They—they went numb at the moment I commenced singing!!” he wonders. “Why? Did I chant some arcane spell—purely by accident?” Or did he, per chance, hit a wrong note? But no such thing, as Doctor Strange is on hand to explain: “Music is the spellbreaker!” he exclaims, 30 years before Phonogram. “The sounding of a horn—the soft strains of a lyre—even a voice raised in song—!”

Instantly, the rebels comprehend, as they jointly embark on a sermon that rivals Namor’s in terms of socio-political philosophizing:
“To make music is to create—and to create is to grow—and growth—! Growth is the bane of all tyrants, all who pretend to sacredness! For it implies learning… and as men learn, their sacred things diminish in number… until only life and love can be so worshipped. Our task is set for us, then. We must sound a clarion call all Zephyrland will hear!”
Now, this is a bunch of other-dimensional hippies, granted. (Someone in the letter column points out that there were initially four of them, and they had a yellow submarine when they picked up Namor and sailed to “a sea of green” in a previous issue.) But imagine, in 1973, the average Marvel reader’s reaction to the the notion that enlightenment leads to the rejection of religion. I’m not sure I’d want to imagine the average Marvel reader’s reaction in 2009.

The interjections of social awareness are fairly random here, ultimately. They’re stapled on to a generic superhero plot, rather than organic parts of a narrative that’s informed by them, and they don’t add up to anything bigger than the sum of its parts. That said, in many ways, they still make the story a more memorable experience than many more recent genre comics, despite the many obvious flaws and shortcomings that date it as something very much of its time.

It’s already plain here that Steve Gerber had something to say, even if he hadn’t yet found a better approach to communicate it within the confines of a superhero comic-book story.


RAB said...

Two minor points:

"Someone in the letter column points out that there were initially four of them, and they had a yellow submarine when they picked up Namor and sailed to “a sea of green” in a previous issue."

There's something odd about this statement when the sole point of that story was to be an obvious but affectionate homage/pastiche/retelling of Yellow Submarine. Isn't this a little bit like watching "Scrooged" or "Blackadder's Christmas Carol" and saying "Wait a minute -- this is just like that book by Dickens!"

"But imagine, in 1973, the average Marvel reader’s reaction to the the notion that enlightenment leads to the rejection of religion…"

Speaking as an average Marvel reader in 1973, I remember really digging it. Perhaps we were less emotionally fragile back in those days. (You should check out the letters pages from early Seventies Captain America issues!) I shudder to imagine the horrified response it would elicit today.

Marc-Oliver said...

"There's something odd about this statement when the sole point of that story was to be an obvious but affectionate homage/pastiche/retelling of Yellow Submarine."

I'm not sure, but I think you may be mistaking my eye-rolling observation of the Beatles reference for admiration -- or criticism, I guess. But it's neither. I haven't seen the story in question, so I couldn't say much about its merits, or lack thereof; I was merely elaborating on my description of the "rebels" as "hippies." The comment on the letters page supports it nicely, I thought.