Essential Sub-Mariner vol.1

By Stan Lee, Gene Colan, Bill Everett & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-3075-8

Prince Namor, the Sub-Mariner is the hybrid offspring of a sub-sea Atlantean princess and an American polar explorer; a man of immense strength, highly resistant to physical harm, able to fly and exist above and below the waves. Created by young, talented Bill Everett, Namor technically predates Marvel/Atlas/Timely Comics. He first caught the public’s attention as part of the fire vs. water headlining team in Marvel Comics #1 (October 1939 and soon to become Marvel Mystery Comics) alongside The Human Torch, but had originally been seen in a truncated version in the black and white Motion Picture Funnies, a weekly promotional giveaway handed out to moviegoers earlier in the year.

Quickly becoming one of the company’s biggest draws Namor gained his own title at the end of 1940 (cover-dated Spring 1941) and was one of the last super-characters to go at the end of the first heroic age. In 1954, when Atlas (as the company then was) briefly revived its “Big Three” (the Torch and Captain America being the other two) costumed characters, Everett returned for an extended run of superb fantasy tales, but even so the time wasn’t right and the title sunk again.

When Stan Lee and Jack Kirby began reinventing comic-books in 1961 with Fantastic Four, they revived the all-but forgotten amphibian as a troubled, semi-amnesiac, but decidedly more regal and grandiose anti-hero embittered at the loss of his sub-sea kingdom (seemingly destroyed by American atomic testing) whilst simultaneously besotted with the FF’s Sue Storm (as seen in Essential Fantastic Four volume 1). He knocked around the budding Marvel universe for a few years, squabbling with other assorted heroes such as the Hulk, Avengers and X-Men, before securing his own series as part of “split-book” Tales to Astonish. This volume collects that entire run, issues #70-101, Daredevil #7, Tales of Suspense #80, Iron Man and the Sub-Mariner one-shot and the first issue of Sub-Mariner’s second solo title.

As a prequel to the Tales to Astonish serial he had one last guest shot as a misunderstood bad-guy in Daredevil #7, (April 1965). The issue is a perfect comicbook and a true landmark: to my mind one of the Top Ten Marvel Tales of all Time. Lee and creative legend Wally Wood concocted a true masterpiece with ‘In Mortal Combat with… Sub-Mariner!’ as Prince Namor of Atlantis, recently reunited with the survivors of Atlantis, travelled to the surface world to sue mankind for their crimes against his people. He engages the services of Matt Murdock; little suspecting the blind lawyer is also the acrobatic Man without Fear.

Whilst awaiting a hearing at the UN Namor is informed by his love interest Lady Dorma that his warlord, Krang, has usurped the throne in his absence. The tempestuous monarch cannot languish in a cell when the kingdom is threatened so he fights his way to freedom through the streets of New York, smashing National Guard and the dauntless Daredevil with supreme ease. The hopelessly one-sided battle with one of the strongest beings on the planet shows the dauntless courage of DD and the innate nobility of a “villain” far more complex than most of the industry’s usual fare at the time.

A few months later Tales to Astonish #70 heralded ‘The Start of the Quest!’ as Lee, Gene Colan (in the pseudonymous guise of Adam Austin) and Vince Colletta saw the Sub-Mariner returned to an Atlantis under martial law, and rejected by his own people. Imprisoned, the troubled Prince was freed by the oft-neglected and ignored Lady Dorma. As the pompous hero began a mystical journey to find the lost Trident of King Neptune, which only the rightful ruler of Atlantis could hold, he was unaware that the treacherous Krang allowed him to escape the better to destroy him with no witnesses.

The search took Namor through a series of fantastic adventures and pitted him against a spectacular array of sub-sea horrors: a giant octopus in ‘Escape… to Nowhere’, a colossal seaweed man in ‘A Prince There Was’, a wizard and energy-sapping diamonds in ‘By Force of Arms!’ but as the end approached in ‘When Fails the Quest!’, with revolution in Atlantis, Namor sacrificed his kingdom to save Dorma from troglodytic Faceless Ones.

Issue #75 ‘The End of the Quest’, found the Prince battling his way back to Atlantis with a gravely injured Dorma, and the saga concluded in ‘Uneasy Hangs the Head…!’ as the status quo was restored and Namor finally assumed his throne. Back in charge the Prince once more turned his thoughts to peace with the surface world and undertook ‘To Walk Amongst Men’ but his mission was derailed when he encountered a deep-sea drilling platform and promptly found himself battling the US military and retired Avengers Henry Pym and Janet Van Dyne. That fracas was abruptly curtailed in #78’s ‘The Prince and the Puppet’ as an old adversary once again seized control of the amphibian’s fragile mind.

‘When Rises the Behemoth’ found Namor battling the Puppet Master’s control and the US Army in the streets of New York, before returning to confront a cataclysmic doomsday monster in Atlantis, (inked by the brilliant Bill Everett), and Dick Ayers stepped in to ink the tense conclusion in #80’s ‘To the Death!’, wherein Warlord Krang returned and blackmailed Dorma into betraying her beloved Prince.

Heartbroken and furious, Namor followed them to New York in ‘When a Monarch Goes Mad!’ (TTA#81) in a violent melodrama that crossed over into the Iron Man feature in sister title Tales of Suspense #80. ‘When Fall the Mighty!’ (Lee, Colan and Jack Abel, using the pen-name Gary Michaels) was a spectacular combat classic which only got more incredible as it continued in Tales to Astonish #82. Colan was a spectacular illustrator, but no one could ever match Jack Kirby for bombastic battle scenes, and when the former contracted flu after delivering two pages The King stepped in to produce some of the finest art of his entire Marvel career, fully displaying ‘The Power of Iron Man’

Kirby stayed on for #83 ‘The Sub-Mariner Strikes!’ wherein the enraged prince finally confronted Krang and Dorma, only to once again lose his memory and become the pawn of would-be conqueror Number 1 of the Secret Empire in ‘Like a Beast at Bay’ (Colan & Ayers), regaining his senses just in time to terrorise a New York already reeling from the Incredible Hulk’s mindless depredations in ‘…And One Shall Die!’ (inked again by Everett) before ‘The Wrath of Warlord Krang!’ (Lee, Jerry Grandenetti and Everett) resulted in the metropolis being inundated in an artificial tsunami. Naturally blamed for the catastrophe Namor faced a ‘Moment of Truth’ as he finally dealt with Krang and reconciled with Dorma, a conclusion made doubly delightful as Wild Bill Everett at last took full artistic charge of his greatest creation.

Tales to Astonish #88 saw the sub-sea barbarian Attuma attack once more when ‘A Stranger Strikes From Space!’, a tale concluded in ‘The Prince and the Power!’, and Namor’s greatest Golden Age rival returned in ‘To Be Beaten by Byrrah!’ as the Prince’s ruthless cousin used gutter politics to oust the Sub-Mariner, only to receive his comeuppance in ‘Outside the Gates Waits Death!’ : this latter seeing the inking debut of Dan Adkins.

Illustrating in a style that owed everything to Wally Wood, Adkins took over the pencilling too in #92’s ‘It Walks Like a Man!’ This tale of atomic pollution is a terse foretaste of the Sub-Mariner’s later role as eco-warrior, and the concluding part features Roy Thomas’ first script for the aquatic antihero in ‘The Monarch and the Monster!’

Namor was dragged into a surface tyrant’s war in ‘Helpless, at the Hands of Dragorr!’ (Thomas and Everett), and veteran scripter Raymond Marais joined Thomas, Everett & Colletta on ‘The Power of the Plunderer!’, before assuming sole scripting for the ‘Somewhere Stands Skull Island. This troubled tale of the antediluvian Savage Land continued in #97’s ‘The Sovereign and the Savages’ courtesy of Thomas and unsung star Werner Roth – who had actually taken over the art halfway through the previous episode. Inked by Adkins, the Plunderer’s assault on Atlantis was finally foiled in ‘…To Destroy the Realm Eternal!’, but had precipitated a similar attack on Namor’s homeland by a US atomic submarine in ‘When Falls the Holocaust!’ (by Archie Goodwin and Dan Adkins) in issue #99.

Marvel’s “split-books” had been devised as away to promote their burgeoning stable of stars whilst labouring under a highly restrictive distribution deal which limited the number of titles they could release each month. In 1968 the company ended this commitment and expanded exponentially. In the months leading up to that virtual relaunch a number of bold experiments occurred: the most impressive of which was the first actual meeting of the monstrous stars of Marvel’s antihero title since they had won their own series.

Tales to Astonish #100, by Lee, Marie Severin and Adkins had Namor’s plan to recruit the Hulk as an ally go spectacularly awry when the Puppet Master fomented a near-disaster that almost levelled Miami in ‘Let There Be Battle!’, a tale that took 22 pages to unfold. The final issue of Astonish introduced a villain who would alter forever the perception of the Sub-Mariner. ‘…And Evil Shall Beckon’ by Goodwin, Colan & Adkins saw the antihero plagued by visions of a bestial foe who threatened his throne and people, drawing Namor to a confrontation in the Polar regions where the first Atlantis had been built…

For reasons never disclosed (and I shall charitably keep my assumptions private) the Golden Avenger and Prince of Atlantis both had to wait a month before getting their own first issues, necessitating one last split-book. Iron Man and Sub-Mariner #1 (April 1968) carried the middle parts of two epics that each concluded in memorable debut issues, but the amphibian’s contribution ‘Call Him Destiny …or Call Him Death!’ by Thomas, Colan and Frank Giacoia, did no more than whet the appetite by revealing half an origin and seemingly killing the lead character.

Sub-Mariner #1 (May1968, by Thomas, John Buscema & Giacoia), however more than made up for the confusion as Namor’s true origin and the reason for his bouts of amnesia were explained by the super-telepath Destiny, as ‘Years of Glory… Day of Doom!’ recapped Sub-Mariner’s gloriously checkered past whilst setting up another epic quest that would prove amongst this venerable character’s very best. That however is the subject of another volume.

These tales feature some of Marvel’s very best artists at their visual peak, and although a few of the stories no longer bear a critical scrutiny, the verve and enthusiasm still shine through. A vicarious thrill and fan’s delight, this volume also includes a half-dozen pages of original art and covers, a map of Atlantis and two text pages recounting the history of Namor and his most prominent Atlantean co-stars. Many early Marvel Comics are more exuberant than qualitative, but this volume, especially from an art-lover’s point of view, is a wonderful exception: a historical treasure that fans will find delightful.

©1965, 1966, 1967, 1968, 2009 Marvel Characters, Inc. All Rights Reserved.