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PROUD PRINCE OR PERENNIAL PUNCHING BAG?
by Bruce MacIntosh
Admit it: At some point you've called Marvel Comics' aquatic anti-hero "Sub-muh-REEN-er." Well, in spite of the pronunciation of that undersea vehicle with a periscope, Sub-Mariner's creator Bill Everett, says that the character was inspired by the epic poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" (sub-MARE-ih-ner).
Prince Namor, the Sub-Mariner, was not only one of comics' first superheroes, he was unquestionably the premier anti-hero. His unique blend of equal parts angst and anger made him an irresistible subject for editors and writers of Timely Comics in the '40s and '50s, as well as its progeny-Marvel-in the '60s and beyond. The problem was, however, that there were only so many times he could attack America for revenge against the crimes of Man against Atlantis, so sadly he was often portrayed as the spoiled bully getting his come-uppance.
So writers struggled to keep Subby relevant as the anger of the revolutionary '60s gave way to the experimentation of the '70s and the "Me Generation" of the '80s. His focus changed in the span of those latter two decades, as the Sub-Mariner moved from being the Avenging Scion of his undersea kingdom-Atlantis-to contrite exile, to Crown Prince, and back again to exile. In the process, the avowed loner became the social butterfly, joining almost every team and making frequent guest appearances in most Marvel superhero titles.
A QUICK DIP THROUGH NAMOR'S HISTORY
Before examining Namor's appearances in the 1970s and 1980s (the BACK ISSUE era), we should start by briefly visiting his origins. The Sub-Mariner was originally "published" in a movie-theater giveaway called Motion Picture Funnies Weekly. Only eight of these promotional comics are known to exist, having been discovered in the estate of the deceased publisher in 1974, so it is uncertain whether they ever reached the public. That story, and the character Sub-Mariner, came from the mind of creator Bill Everett, who at the time worked for Funnies, Inc., a studio that created comics and sold them to comic publishers. Everett soon re-used the character, packaged with other stories, for Timely's first comic, appropriately dubbed Marvel Comics #1 (1939). Sub-Mariner soon became one of the "Big Three" characters at Timely, the others being the (original) Human Torch, and Captain America.
Sub-Mariner Comics ran 32 issues, until superhero titles across all comics publishers sank like a rock in 1949. The title was resumed in 1954 and ran for another nine issues until it was harpooned for good after issue #42 (Oct. 1955). Following the immediate success of Stan Lee's and Jack Kirby's Fantastic Four (which had already put a new face on another Golden Age character, the Human Torch), Marvel Comics dusted off Subby in FF #4 (May 1962). There was magic in the Marvel "Bullpen" and money in revitalized Golden Age characters, so the Prince of Atlantis was included in as many comics as possible during the 1960s (including a run of solo stories in the anthology Tales of Suspense, and a 1967 one-shot shared mag with Iron Man) until publishing and distribution restrictions that once limited Marvel's output were finally lifted and he was granted another eponymous series in 1968.
Sub-Mariner #1 (May 1968) recounted the story of his origin: He was born of a human seafaring Captain and blue-skinned Atlantean mother. His father, Leonard McKenzie, was supposedly killed when his mother's protectors came to find their Princess Fen. The pink-skinned Namor was born nine months later, and though he was the heir by blood to the throne of the underwater kingdom, he suffered the disrespect of his contemporaries and taunts of "half-breed." He was thus tempered in his formative years by the competing expectations of royalty and the need to defend-both verbally and physically-his rightful claim against those of full (literally) blue-blooded pretenders. This imbued Namor with self-assurance to the point of arrogance, and a persecution complex tightly wound around his hair-trigger temper. This explosive combination led to an unending series of tragedies for the Maritime Monarch in the '70s and '80s.
Time and tide wait for no man-not even the Sub-Mariner-and as the '60s turned into the '70s, Namor was restored the ability to breathe underwater, which had literally grounded him a couple years earlier (in issue Sub-Mariner #22, the first issue of his series to appear on the stands in the '70s). Then, after US Army poisonous gas canisters wiped out some Atlantean outposts, Namor waged war against America. He ordered a deadly missile fired at soldiers in New York, but physically diverted it himself when he saw civilians present. He was still mad, however, so he sought to ally with Earth's other undersea civilization Lemuria. (They had green skin.) Unfortunately, he arrived after Lemuria's throne was overthrown by the evil Llyra, who desired to conquer sea and land alike. Llyra was supposedly killed in a brief battle with Namor.
In a tale with as many turns as a seahorse race, Namor finally got to the altar in Sub-Mariner #37 (May 1971), only to find out that his beloved Lady Dorma was the evil Llyra in disguise. She thought that having said his vows to her-though she was dissembled as his bride-would have resulted in an unbreakable marriage. She was wrong, however, because Dorma had actually said her vows earlier and the ceremony was merely a formality. This angered Llyra, who returned to her lair and killed Dorma. Following the funeral, the Sub-Mariner abdicated the throne of Atlantis and proceeded to take out his remorse on New York. Later, he found out that his father, long thought dead, was very much alive and had been kidnapped by that nasty Llyra and Tiger Shark. Tragedy followed Namor like a shark to the scent of blood, and naturally Dad got killed within minutes of meeting his long-lost son.
One of the most interesting events of the Sub-Mariner's "Marvel Age" series actually happened near its conclusion: Due to exposure deadly nerve gas, Namor was in danger of suffocating because he couldn't process his own natural moistures. In Sub-Mariner #67 (Nov. 1973), Reed Richards of the Fantastic Four replaced Namor's scaly green swim trunks with a black leather costume that would have made him the pride of any biker bar if it weren't for the half-calf leggings and booties (designed to allow his ankle wings room to flap). The costume wasn't just a fashion statement, as Richards explained that the "wetsuit" was designed to recycle moisture from Subby's own pores while out of water.
Why give him a "hero" costume at all? Roy Thomas lamented in his own Alter Ego magazine (vol. 3 #70, July 2007) that Sub-Mariner "was always #3 of the 'Big Three' in the 1940s. I suspect it's partly because he didn't have a costume... I hate to come up with something as crass as that, but that's part of the reason for John Romita and me giving him that costume near the end."
Then, an unusual inter-company "crossover" occurred as the Sub-Mariner series drew to a close with issue #72 (Sept. 1974), when a two-part story started at DC and was concluded at Marvel! In 1971, writer Steve Skeates-then writing Aquaman for DC Comics-started a tale in issue #56 (Mar.-Apr. 1971) called "The Creature That Devoured Detroit." That story was part one of two, and told of a new superhero with bad eyesight who invented a satellite that would shed light at night so he could fight nocturnal crime and still see what was going on! The unexpected side effect was that it caused explosive growth in algae that threatened to devour the city, until Aquaman broke into the satellite's control center and-according to the murky final panels-was about to push the button to destroy it...
...but unfortunately, Aquaman was cancelled after the first part of the story, with issue #56, so readers never got to see the conclusion. That is, until Skeates moved over to Marvel and coincidentally scripted the final issue of that company's aquatic adventurer. This provided him a unique opportunity to finally conclude the tale he had been waiting over three years to tell. Sub-Mariner #72 picked up right where Aquaman #56 left off: An unidentified glove presses the satellite destruct button, the resulting explosion sending a green, protoplasmic alien life form hurtling to Earth. The original "Aquaman" version was to be that he was to have learned that he had lost both his ability of communicating telepathically with aquatic creatures and the ability to breathe underwater. Now it was Subby, and instead Namor briefly lost his sight! In spite of the temporary disability, he was still able to squeeze the algae being hard enough to squirt his glutinous head off into space, and wander off lamenting his ability to ever restore his comatose Atlantean subjects to life.
Subby did regain his eyesight within a couple of pages, just in time to conclude his series and ponder his fate. Roy Thomas, in his final editorial text box on the "Send It to Subby" letters page, confidently advised, "[S]hed no salty tears for the Avenging Son ... because we have other plans for him-big plans." Before we find out what those big plans were, let's backtrack about a year-to one of Roy's most enduring and beloved creations:
THE DEFENDERS-Part I
In the Marvel Universe of the '70s, one character couldn't fly past another without finding themselves teaming up against a common foe. In spite of Subby's inherent anti-social nature, he became a social butterfly, making many guest appearances and joining every team that even sat down for coffee together. Inevitably, he would soldier on with his new comrades until he learned about a fresh crisis in Atlantis, or suffered a messy breakup with the latest wife/girlfriend/monster, or until he simply felt claustrophobic.
Fans of the original incarnation of the Defenders may not realize that the official formation of comics' first "non-team" took a tortuous path through at least four different titles over three years, before Defenders #1 (cover-dated Aug. 1972) finally hit the stands. For example, issues #34 and 35 of Sub-Mariner found him recruiting the Defenders' other two charter members-Hulk and Silver Surfer-for a mission to stop activation of a surface-dweller weather controlling device.
All the previous guest-starring and crossovers finally culminated in the first "official" appearance of the Defenders, in Marvel Feature #1 (Dec. 1971), when Dr. Strange, Hulk, and Sub-Mariner gathered to stop the infamous Omegatron from destroying the world. Ultimately, we learned that this group of misfits were cursed by a mystical spell to always gather whenever an appropriate crisis arose.
Subby took center stage again in Defenders #7-8 (Aug.-Sept. 1973). The Avenging Son's Atlantean arch-nemesis, Attuma, must have read the map wrong, because this time he attacked Atlantic City. Here, Solitary Subby succinctly stated his hostility toward superteams: "Jump to no conclusions, archer ... the Defenders is merely a name, and no more. At times we battle together against a common foe ... but the Defenders is not an alliance."
Next, former WWII compatriots Captain America and Sub-Mariner battled each other in an epic crossover between the Avengers and Defenders, when Dormammu duped both teams into gathering the six pieces of the Evil Eye that had been distributed hither and yon, and whose re-assembly-of course-would lead to the end of the world. [Avengers #115-117 (Sept.-Nov. 1973), and Defenders #9-10 (Oct.-Nov. 1973)]
In his final appearance in the first incarnation of the team-er..., "unofficial gathering of superheroes," the Defenders and the Squadron Sinister beat Nebulon (a monstrous aquatic alien disguised as the guy on the cover of every romance novel) from using an ice cap-melting device to flood the planet. While this might have solved at least one of Namor's problems (humans), he still assisted in the mission, and together they saved the world and fellow hero Nighthawk.
Good thing, too, because the Sub-Mariner was about to create a vacancy on the team. "Remember, Strange-I did not wish to partake in this battle just past-you brought me here against my will-and no man controls the actions of Prince Namor the First! Do not seek to summon me again, Strange-for if I come-it will not be as an ally!"
It would be a cold day before you ever joined that team again, right, Subby? Besides, you got a new Best Friend Forever, and if anyone could understand the problems of the lonely monarch it would be Dr. Doom.
Editor Roy Thomas stressed Marvel's commitment to his favorite anti-hero, in spite of the lackluster sales of his own book, leading to its cancellation: "There were so many other books fighting for attention that Sub-Mariner got lost in the shuffle. But he was too good a character not to stick around. We kept trying different things. That was the whole idea of Super-Villain Team-Up (SVTU), too, which was probably Stan's idea-to team up Dr. Doom and Sub-Mariner permanently."
Subby spent the next three years dancing with Dr. Doom in this new title. Although it sounded good at the time, trusting the original "Dr. Evil" turned out to be simply another big step in the Maritime Monarch's plunge to rock bottom. The series, however, suffered from a similar inconsistency that may have likewise doomed the Sub-Mariner series itself: In the span of just the 15 issues in which Subby appeared, the series had five writers and 19 different artists. With so many cooks in the kitchen, it was difficult to get a taste for what Marvel was trying to serve its readers.
The title of the book was somewhat misleading, however, for several reasons: First, Doom and Sub-Mariner never really "teamed up." Sure, Subby toyed with the idea at the very beginning of allying himself with the psychotic in the suit of armor, and in a couple of issues Doom strained his thought balloons with considerations that the Atlantean monarch might be a useful ally. However, in the end they were certainly never a "team": Namor is too credulous and Dr. Doom simply can't be trusted!
Second, readers were probably expecting something along the lines of Marvel Team-Up, which usually teamed Spider-Man with another of the company's characters. This wasn't the case with SVTU, and readers may have felt a little burned. In truth, although the idea of a less-popular villain teaming with Marvel's main bad guy sounds like a good idea, it clearly didn't work. After word got around that Dr. Doom doesn't work and play well with others (i.e., killing you if you are no longer useful), no one was going to pick him for their team! Subby did, and we'll see what happened to him.
Third: Admittedly, Subby is a hothead and is the type to punch first and ask questions later. Sure, he's thought long and hard about taking over America or the world, and he even acted on that once or twice. But over the previous 35 years, he had saved the world more than once and saved countless lives. So while the negatives make it difficult to call him a superhero, it really is difficult to call him a "super-villain."
Anyway, the series started with Namor saving Doom's life and proposing to Doom that they ally, ostensibly because he was sick of the surface-dwellers pushing around his proud princely-ness. Doom thought about it (in the form of two reprints) and then kicked Subby out of Latveria. Later Doom reconsidered and sought out the Avenging Son in ailing Atlantis to accept his proposal. This time, it is Sub-Mariner who was reticent: "You've not changed, von Doom. Even your business propositions are laced heavy with the air of threats."
The Sovereign of the Seas was attacked by three of his arch-enemies, and Doom came to save the day. The now-aged Betty Dean Prentice (Subby's Golden Age love interest) was killed, and Doom vowed to help Subby avenge her death (so that his head will be clear when they finally set out for their mutual plans of world domination). The next issue, however, they are again at each other's throats. Doom disabled Subby's cool, black leather uniform, rendering its life-giving effects inoperable, forcing Namor to rely on the Latverian monarch for survival. As if that were not enough, Doom started blasting away at Atlantis' buildings, threatening to level the city unless Subby vowed undying allegiance to the evil monarch. Once he had Subby under his thrall, the good Doctor agreed to provide him with the daily requisite dose of the breathing formula and shed the leather S&M suit. Doom also promised to work on a cure which would restore the comatose Atlanteans.
With a (forced) alliance between Latveria and Atlantis, Doom wrangled a Non-Aggression Pact with US Secretary of State at the time, Henry Kissinger: "From this moment on, no Americans may interfere in this nation's internal affairs!" A new hero called the Shroud seemingly caused Doom to fall to his death, theoretically releasing Namor from his blood vow to the armored menace. While Subby tried to find a replacement breathing cure, Doom (very much alive) tried to manipulate the few conscious Atlanteans. Interestingly for a book with "Team-Up" in the title, the two characters listed on the masthead did not even see each other from issue #7 through 11.
The last issue of SVTU with Subby (#16, May 1979) proved that there is honor among thieves, as Doom upheld his vow to cure Namor and the Atlanteans of their nerve-gas induced malady. The aquatic autocrat was restored to his rightful place on Atlantis' throne, and now had time to ponder the lessons of Super-Villain Team-Up. What did he learn? Surely that he, of all Marvel characters, was not suited for the social life of a superteam. He'd finally learned that he is better off alone, manning the throne in his undersea kingdom. Right? Wrong: Some guys never learn.
Our free preview ends here, but the article continues-with more of the Defenders, plus Alpha Flight, the Avengers, and the Saga of the Sub-Mariner series-in BACK ISSUE #27, shipping in March 2008.
BACK ISSUE #27 rolls out the red carpet for "Comic-Book Royalty"! There's an in-depth examination of AQUAMAN's tumultuous '70s/'80s adventures, plus looks back at BLACK PANTHER, ARION, Baron Winters and the NIGHT FORCE, the Latverian monarch DR. DOOM, ELVIS' fascination with CAPTAIN MARVEL JR., and PRINCE in comics. Plus an art-packed "Pro2Pro" interview with MIKE W. BARR and BRIAN BOLLAND revisiting their epic maxiseries, CAMELOT 3000. With art and/or commentary by STEVE SKEATES, JIM APARO, PAUL LEVITZ, DAVID MICHELINIE, KEITH GIFFEN, MARK WAID, DON McGREGOR, JACK KIRBY, GENE COLAN, and more! With a never-before-published AQUAMAN AND MERA cover by NICK CARDY! Edited by MICHAEL EURY.