Last Christmas my brother gave me a booster pack of random, non-sequential issues from a variety of popular comic book titles that syndicated in the late eighties to mid nineties. The nineties was a time of groundbreaking work in the comic community that gave birth to the age of modern comics. Sometimes, not so much. These are snapshots of the industry at its best and worst. This is Brian’s Comic Book Grab Bag.
Namor the Sub-Mariner Volume 1 #30
Writer – John Byrne
Penciler – Jae Lee
Inker – Jeff Albrecht
Letterer – Michael Higgins
It’s safe to say that Marvel “isn’t my universe,” and I am proud to say that, more or less. But don’t let that fool you into thinking that I have no respect for the writing talent, the fabulous artists, and the believable worlds that occupy our own space. Marvel’s best moments hinge on their relevant subject matter. In DC country there’s always a surplus of aliens, transcendental galactic deities, and trust fund kids, but never a lower middle class photographer that everyone can’t stand, even when he’s helping people. Namor is one of those titles that, to me, deserves the epic eye-roll, that is, until I found out that Namor predates Aquaman by about two years. I can be transparent about that, sure. Namor beats out Aquaman. Marvel (or rather, a Marvel acquisition) did it first. But Aqua-Namor’s story is a very archetypical one. A man fighting his own nature, society, heritage. There are even some race overtones that develop, especially given that the story comes out of Jim Crow era Americana. Namor, a half-breed, was sucker punching Nazis when black people still couldn’t defecate in the same space as the white man. That’s saying something! Still, were I to say, “Here there’s this superhero who is the king of Atlantis, and he’s a halfbreed between an man and a mermaid, who always gets angry when surface dwellers wreck his sh*t,” you (reader) would rightly respond, “Aquaman?” Actually, all those character attributes were right there at Namor’s conception. Arthur Curry wouldn’t develop a back story similar until the mid 1960s, perhaps as even a response to Namor’s success.
Namor the Sub-Mariner #30, however, illustrates two very important concepts about comic books, their conventions and narratives. These aspects are both the “Secret Origin” and serialized publishing.
Before the advent of the “graphic novel,” or a bound edition of comics intended to be a single story outside of continuity, or simply an independent narrative, comics were distributed with limited shelf life. They were meant to be thrown away. Reading Comics by Douglas Wolk touches on the transient nature of comics, and the absurdity of how today, in the modern era, we enshrine vintage paperbacks that were utterly devoid of value in the first place. Individual issues were serialized to bring back readers, and so they would span like sitcoms (to paraphrase Jason Brubaker, of reMIND) until they were canceled. Reboots, “civil wars,” and “infinite crises” all exist, not because Geoff Johns is a bastard that killed my favorite Flash, but because the readership was bored, and things had to change. Namor, a comic that I’ve never read, embodies the conventions employed in comic book serialization. Before picking up the comic I had absolutely no knowledge of Namor, but after reading it I obtained a very concise, albeit mysterious introduction of Namor. The issue is numbered 30, and there had been quite a prolific storyline up until that point, but I felt absolutely satisfied with what I was given. I wanted to read and understand where Doctor Doom fit into Namor’s woes. I wanted to know who the mysterious Atlantean woman at Namor’s side was. Veiled secrecy and great mystery, all embodied into one paperback, illustrated for me an entire history of comic book production methods!
Publication quirks aside, Namor hooked me. So, then, what about the “secret origin?”
When looking at comics, the moment of inception, when a human attains the coveted “meta” prefix, becomes a definitive moment in the comic. The “secret origin” itself is a literary device, when one considers the millions of miles of ink expended in the name of this moment. Yet, despite this, so much hinges on the moment, that the “secret origin” is no longer in vogue—it’s a cliché. We, as readers, expect that pivotal point, where we learn how Bruce Banner became the Hulk. The interesting thing about Namor, The Sub-Mariner, was that the origin story was subtly layered into the narrative. We see him trying to breathe out of water, we see how the very normal sailors look at him, hate him. The duality in the comic is that the fishermen that accidentally catch Namor in a fishing net are not evil either. They are just people, working, supporting their loved ones. Namor clashes with the idea that destroying a fishing ship would cause other people to starve, but he also has a duty to his people, to his oceans. The beauty of these narrative subtleties is that all of this is inferred indirectly by the panels, the character’s expressions and the scant dialogue that narrates the entire progression of events. Allowing the reader to interpret the origin is very important, and luckily Namor the Sub-Mariner #30 gives the reader such an opportunity.
The comic is by no means an Eisner-level achievement, but it’s an example of good comic book narrative. Namor is billed as a mutant, according to the cover. What is the purpose of doing that? “Mutant” designates alienation, irreconcilable differences. Using terminology like this brands the hero and sets the tone of the story. Marvel is retroactively re-branding their comics as stories focused on extraordinary people, that society ultimately rejects. Namor is rejected both by his kin and the human race for his hybridization. And this is a very standard line. The identity of rejection, however, permeates the story, which is very unique and something to be embraced. And because of this skillfully told narrative, Namor illustrates well why the genre and conventions of comic books have endured as long as they have.
7.5 Torched Whaling Vessels (of 10)