The Brilliance of Bill Everett’s Sub-Mariner, Marvel’s Superman

Bill Everett tribute for Marvel’s 75th and Daredevil’s 50th anniversaries (2014) by Stephen Sonneveld, featuring William Blake’s “The Great Red Dragon and the Beast from the Sea” (1805-1810)

Bill Everett was an expert storyteller, whose line work and imagination probably has more in common with the newspaper strips of Flash Gordon creator Alex Raymond than with the streetwise and explosive art of his contemporaries in the Golden Age of Comics.

Buck Rogers may have come first, but Raymond’s Renaissance quality illustrations and mythopoeia solidified his creation as one of the gold-standards of science fiction and adventure literature.

Similarly, when Superman leapt into the American consciousness in a single bound in 1938, opportunists leapt on the craze, including movie theaters, looking to attract young customers with comic book giveaways. Everett was working for Funnies, Inc. at the time, which was packaging such a project. At 22 years of age, the artist and writer – resigned to toiling in the little respected comic book industry after his cockiness cost him lucrative newspaper and magazine work – was tasked with creating an 8-page “super-hero” story.

“Motion Picture Funnies Weekly” number 1 debuted in April 1939… and was quickly shelved. However, when pulp novel publisher Martin Goodman wanted to expand into comics, he farmed out the content-making to Funnies, Inc. Expanding his black and white story for a 12-page, color format, Everett’s “Here is the Sub-Mariner!” (shortened to “The Sub-Mariner”) once again saw print, in “Marvel Comics” number 1 (Oct. 1939).

The character of Namor the Sub-Mariner would not supplant Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s Man of Steel as comic book’s gold standard, but it would set the tortured template for every Marvel hero to come.

Motion Picture Funnies Weekly no. 1 (1939), art by Fred Schwab

Allegedly, the seed of the idea that became Sub-Mariner originated when Everett was told by his publisher they needed hero strips, and that his colleague Carl Burgos was working on one about a man enveloped in flames; immediately, the notion of “fire and water” took root. Everett’s instinct proved to be spot on, as the Sub-Mariner and the Human Torch made for a great dynamic, and resulted in the medium’s first multi-book story. In a fun twist, only Everett drew Namor, and only Burgos drew the Human Torch across both titles.

Perhaps writing and illustrating stories was in Everett’s genes, having descended from the influential English poet and painter William Blake.

Interestingly, Namor’s willful attitude is that of a Byronic hero, the literary trend in Blake’s time. The very name Sub-Mariner, is an homage to the Samuel Coleridge poem, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” another thread tying the Scourge of the Sea to the Romantics.

It is here, in concept alone, that Everett’s genius begins to shine. Rather than slap a symbol on an altruistic strongman’s chest, like so many other characters in Superman’s wake, Everett eschewed those impulses, pulling instead from legend and literature to craft a unique character. In an odd way, this gives Namor and Superman a deeper kinship than his caped imitators, as the Last Son of Krypton was also inspired by mythos, literature, and, some theorize, profound personal heartbreak.

Indeed, the Sub-Mariner is truly the only Marvel character on par with Superman – not just in strength, invulnerability and all the other fun stuff crossover dreams are made of – but in characterization. Superman’s origin arcs from horrific, to bucolic, then populist. He has all the power, but uses it in service to the people; he saved an innocent woman from execution, and delivered justice to criminals, a corrupt politician and an abusive husband, all in his debut issue. He is the dream of us.

A commonality these Golden Age cousins share is the melting pot theme of being torn between two worlds. Superman is the immigrant who never knew his destroyed homeland, and fights so that his new homeland does not suffer the same fate, while the Sub-Mariner is the product of two races, and cannot find peace within himself until his peoples find peace with each other.

In addition to legend and literature, Everett unwittingly infused his own humbling experiences as a headstrong youth into his cocksure Namor. Friend and fellow comics creator Mike Friedrich told “Comic Book Artist” in a 1998 interview that Everett “didn’t realize what an angry young man he was in the 40’s [and] could see that Sub-Mariner was himself… He expressed that anger through these stories.” Unfortunately, Everett had battled the disease of alcoholism since his teens, and his memories of bygone years, when he did offer them, were not always clear.

One element of Namor’s inception we know to be certain is that the native New Englander was inspired by the sea. In the biography “Fire & Water: Bill Everett and the Birth of Marvel Comics,” author Blake Bell quotes Everett as saying, “I had always been interested in anything nautical… ever since I was born.”

The sea’s promise of unknowable adventure, of fearless sailors fighting nature itself, while holding on to their superstitions, all the same, has stoked imaginations since Homer. Just as Odysseus was seduced by Siren calls, so, too, was Namor’s father (an American sea captain likely inspired by Everett’s hero, arctic explorer Richard Byrd), unable to resist the exotic underwater princess Fen.

Their union produced a bastard son, a half-breed prince his underwater race never fully trusted, and a super-powered anomaly the human race always feared, leaving Namor forever at odds with both worlds. He has all the power and uses it for vengeance – although sometimes, reluctantly, for a common cause, as well. Fighting between self-interest and emotional nobility, he is a reflection of us.

The Sub-Mariner’s debut in “Marvel Comics” no. 1 (1939), art by Bill Everett

The virtuosity of Everett’s Sub-Mariner design displays his singularity among other comic book creators then, in 1939, and now. Superman’s design was based on the form-fitting outfits of colorfully costumed circus strongmen and acrobats; the shocking red cape not only added a royal quality, but provided a visual indicator of his mid-air movements. Many of the super heroes that followed, to this day, employ aspects of that template.

Everett looked beyond the mod and fashioned a character to fit his environment. Born of the sea, Namor would have no use for clothes – save for swim trunks, for Puritanical modesty, if nothing else. The artist would refine that look over the years, adding appropriate fish scales (presumably, his underwater race kills and wears indigenous creatures, same as the air breathers). In time, he allowed his character some ornamentation on the gold belt, experimenting with symbols that ranged from sea shells to an “S” broach – as close to Superman branding the character reached.

The logic of the costume is flawless. Look no further than Olympic swimmers; not only would any extraneous clothing weigh them down, it would provide friction that hampers speed. Resplendent robes might work for Namor’s grandfather, who never leaves the throne room, but not for a stealth adventurer, ready to take a dagger to his enemy’s air tube.

What is most exceptional about Everett’s design is that, since the environment did not call for grand costuming, the unique features of the Sub-Mariner are his deceptively simple – but completely identifiable – arched eyebrows, elf ears, and widow’s peak. Rarely had otherworldliness been so elegantly portrayed.

The artist harkened again to the classics and additionally gave his character the wings of Mercury. It justifies Namor’s abilities of flight and speed, but it also provides an air element to the water dweller; a physical manifestation of his outsider status.

During Everett’s WWII enlistment, other artists drew the teardrop shape of Namor’s head to disturbing, triangle-shaped proportions. When the character became entwined with Marvel’s 1960’s heroes, Jack Kirby’s rendition of a flattop Sub-Mariner meshed perfectly within the master’s style, alongside the King’s co-creations. The Namor appearing in millennial comic books has more of the traditional square jaw/round crown than previous incarnations, but this choice works in favor of the character, effectively conveying strength and sleekness.

The less said about any post-Everett costume choices, the better.

The addition of gold bracelets to compliment Namor’s belt and break up the line of the arm was a positive, if unnecessary addition. Most importantly, that element did not distract, unlike the nonsensical black, winged vest and Capri pants outfit, or the what-were-they-thinking red pants and shell shoulder pads combo…

Suffice it to say, Everett got it right.

Credit: The Silver Age Sub-Mariner (1962), courtesy of Jack Kirby

The character’s most common portrayal, developed by writer Stan Lee in the Silver Age of Comics, is that of a conflicted, smug royal. Lee took a cue from his DC Comics rivals by updating Burgos’ Golden Age Human Torch from a fiery android to Johnny Storm, the Fantastic Four’s hotheaded “kid sidekick,” as Lee described the character in the book’s initial outline.

Lee’s obvious affection for the Sub-Mariner is evident early on, opting to bring the character into the Silver Age, rather than reinvent him. He promoted Sub-Mariner appearances as events that Golden Age readers would want to see and newer readers wouldn’t dare miss. Then he and Kirby delivered on the promised action.

The issue of giving co-creators such as Kirby and Steve Ditko proper credit for Marvel’s characters and success has cast a shadow over much of Lee’s career and subsequently his work. His treatment of Everett’s Namor, though, from a post-war Jimmy Cagney tough guy, the kind that smiles through gritted teeth when he clocks you, to “Prince of Atlantis,” shows what a tremendous writing talent Lee possessed. Whether Namor was the bane of the Avengers, achingly courting Marvel’s most alluring woman, Susan Storm, or engaged in a multi-arc quest throughout “Tales to Astonish,” Lee was as invested in the Sub-Mariner as much or more than his own co-creations, and his joy of writing comes through.

Those Silver Age renderings also helped cement Namor as “Marvel’s Superman,” a durable, timeless and mythic character that would thrive in any age, as the writers and artists who would later cast the Sub-Mariner as a super-villain in need of a team-up, a titan of industry, a mutant hero, and a member of a secret cabal will attest.

Splash page from “Sub-Mariner” no. 50 (1972) by Bill Everett, some of his last work on the character he created (Source:

Much of what has set Superman apart from folk lore of old, and makes his entry into legend so uniquely American, is his sense of moral certainty. Siegel and Shuster did not create a naive character, they somehow – daringly, profoundly – crafted an optimistic one from Nietzschean roots. Superman exists to save the day. Compare that to the gods of Olympus, who used their great gifts to rape, kill and politick. Compare that to Western religions, which rely on fear of damnation, and stoke anxiety and distrust of any “other” outside the sect.

Namor will save the day. He will defend the innocent, and, maybe unlike Superman, outright attack aggressors. But the focus of Everett’s super hero of the Romantic age is his inner life. His mission is to find a place in this world, not so much save it.

It is appropriate Superman came from another star; he is a kind of unsullied messiah. Namor, however, is a demigod, fully in tune with his sometimes visceral passions, and fully aware that sometimes leads to trouble. But he is alive, and this is his nature.

As Superman did for the entire super hero genre (a genre that has blossomed well beyond comic books), the Sub-Mariner set the conflicted template for the subset of all Marvel heroes that followed.

Bill Everett’s thrilling first adventures of Namor and other strips in the pre-WWII years, his finely detailed storytelling throughout the 1950’s, and his resurgence in the 70’s, shortly before his passing at age 55, show a master of the medium at work.

His art, and his Sub-Mariner, endure.

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Stephen Sonneveld is the recipient of the Kennedy Center Outstanding Playwright Award, among other writing and acting honors. He freelanced for publications as diverse as MAD and Bleacher Report, wrote and illustrated the acclaimed comics Greye of Scotland Yard and Superman Versus Cancer, and has a blast writing and performing on The Don't Call Me Sweetheart! Show (a multi-format radio program he co-created with the talented Andrew Gregory Krzak). Sonneveld's Tumblr features free-to-read original comics and stories.

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