Retro Review: Namor The Sub-Mariner #41-45 After John Byrne & Jae Lee By Roy Thomas, Glenn Herdling, M.C. Wyman, Geof Isherwood & Others For Marvel Comics

Namor the Sub-Mariner #41-45 (August 1993 – December 1993)

Written by Len Kaminski (#41), Roy Thomas (#42-43), Glenn Herdling (#44-45)

Pencils by Shawn McManus (#41), M.C. Wyman (#42-43), Geof Isherwood (#44-45)

Inks by Jeff Albrecht (#41, 44), Bud LaRosa (#42-43), Brian Garvey (#43), Geof Isherwood (#45)

Coloured by Glynis Oliver (#41-44), Dr. Martin (#45)

Spoilers (from twenty-five years ago)

After John Byrne left this title, it was buoyed by the novelty and appeal of artist Jae Lee.  After he left Marvel to go to Image, this book seriously floundered, as did almost all of Marvel in the early to mid 90s.  This was a time when the most talented creators (and some of the biggest hacks) were all flooding into self-publishing and creator control, at Image, at Dark Horse, or elsewhere, and the Marvel line was left adrift.  I only stuck with Namor for a few more issues, suffering through some less-than-memorable fill-in issues, and then jumping ship after two issues of the title’s “new direction.” Let’s see if history has been any kinder to these issues than my late-teenage self was.

Let’s look at who turned up in the title:

Villains

  • Dr. Dorcas (#42-43)
  • Orka (#42-43)
  • Thanos (#44)
  • Death (#44)
  • Attuma (#45)

Guest Stars

  • War Machine (James Rhodes; #41)
  • Stingray (Walter Newell; #42-43, 45)
  • Woodgod (#44)
  • Sunfire (#45)
  • Karnak (#45)
  • Gorgon (#45)
  • Triton (#45)
  • Medusa (#45)
  • Black Bolt (#45)
  • Lockjaw (#45)

Supporting Characters

  • Lord Vashti (#41)
  • Diane Newell (#42-43,45)

Let’s take a look at what happened in these books, with some commentary as we go:

  • We start with a one-off story by Len Kaminski and Shawn McManus, who was mentioned in an earlier issue as the new regular artist for the book.  I have long been a McManus fan, and I would never have looked at the art in this issue and thought it was his. He doesn’t really try to emulate Jae Lee, but he does go all-in on the 90s tropes of gritted teeth, extreme close-ups, whitened eyes, and exaggerated facial features.  It’s a pretty ugly issue. In the beginning, Namor struggles against the current that flows outside Atlantis, which seems odd, and then stands grimacing while looking over his city. A soldier comes to tell him that Vashti has summoned him because of an attack. Meeting with Vashti, Namor learns that an Atlantean outpost has been destroyed in an attack from the surface world.  Namor commands that some nearby troops move there, and he heads off to join them. We see that the cause of the attack was an American submarine, the USS Dauntless, that collided with the uncharted Atlantean structures by accident. The sub lies on the ocean floor, with its crew in danger. They trigger their distress beacon. James Rhodes, War Machine, watches news coverage of the downed sub that raises the issue of diplomatic relations with Atlantis, and decides he needs to suit up and save the sailors himself.  Namor rushes to the outpost. Some Navy SEALs arrive on the scene (they are all named after characters in Aliens), where they are attacked by Atlanteans soldiers. Namor joins in the fight and attacks the Americans, and is himself blasted by War Machine. The two heroes immediately start fighting, and Rhodey decides he’d have more advantage in the air, so he drags Namor to the surface, where they yell at each other and fight some more. They end up fighting on the deck of a Navy vessel, until the Captain of that ship shoots War Machine’s armor in the head (causing no damage).  Finally getting their attention, she yells about how there are Americans and Atlanteans dying below. Namor and Rhodey feel ashamed of how they acted and apologize, before working together to save the sub. At the end of the day, they part as friends. Later, Namor goes to visit the grave of his father.
  • Roy Thomas is a legendary comics writer, and as the guy behind the Invaders and the All-Star Squadron, is the person who kept many WWII characters alive through the seventies and eighties.  He’s also, I’m sorry to say, often kind of a dull writer. MC Wyman is one of those names that I can’t help but associate with the worst comics of the nineties. I remember being excited when he came on board Adventure Comics’ old Planet of the Apes series, and thought he was terrific.  After that, he gave over to the excesses of the 90s, and became a Marvel mainstay at a time when more original artists flocked to Image. Thomas and Wyman made issue forty-two, and it was kind of dull and ugly. Namor is visiting his father’s grave (still or again, I’m not sure) when he’s visited by Walter Newell, Stingray, who he is mostly friends with but apparently when they last saw each other they weren’t getting along.  Newell explains that while he was out on a boat with his wife Diane and their two kids, the supposedly dead Doctor Dorcas (worst villain name ever) showed up, now wearing a new metallic suit that makes him part Azrael Batman, part Doctor Octopus, and all terrible. He grabbed Diane and took her into the ocean. Newell tried diving to find her, but couldn’t, and so has come to Namor for help. Namor takes him to a part of the ocean where he’s seen something, and they dive together.  They approach an old sub-sea fortress that Dorcas once used, but are then attacked by mutated sea life. Namor actually does battle with some angry turtles while Stingray gets his suit sliced open and squeezed by some serpents. Namor gets rid of them all, Stingray’s suit fixes itself, and then they start punching on Dorcas’s base, even though punching through might drown Diane. Luckily, she’s unconscious in a glass tube, attached to apparatus that Namor deduces is villainous. Dorcas fights Stingray, who when his electrical blast has no effect on his foe, gets knocked out.  Namor also almost gets choked by his tentacles. Diane wakes up in her tube, and notices that some lights are flashing on a console. She yells for her husband, who is coming to. Namor slams Dorcas into a wall and keeps fighting him. Diane yells to him now, as the lights keep flashing, and some machinery they are attached to bursts open, revealing the newly restored Orka, the human killer whale, who holds Namor in his grip.
  • Orka is going to crush Namor, with Dorcas’s encouragement, but Namor breaks free and they fight for a couple of pages.  Stingray blasts Dorcas with the same blasts that didn’t work last issue, and cause him some pain, and then they fight. Namor fights Orka some more, but gets blasted by Stingray, who is now doing Dorcas’s bidding.  Dorcas stops Orka, who has gotten as dumb as he’s gotten big, from crushing Namor. Instead, Dorcas now wants to use Namor’s power or energy or something to transform Diane, much the way he created Tiger Shark. Stingray has disappeared, and we see him swimming away and chastising himself for doing what Dorcas wanted to save his wife.  Dorcas has Namor in some device that keeps him immobile. When he tries to move, it causes pain in Diane, who is now wearing a different outfit from before. Dorcas promises his love to Diane, so she has him promise to not hurt anyone else. Dorcas tells Orka that he’s going to help him attack Atlantis when they are done. Stingray returns and swims right into Dorcas.  Dorcas uses his Doc Ock tentacle to grab him, and Orka smashes him. Dorca realizes that Stingray’s armor was empty, and we see that Newell, in just a scuba suit and rebreather, is trying to free Namor. His attempts cause pain in Diane, who is back in her earlier outfit, but she tells him to go ahead and not worry about the pain. As Orka moves in to kill them, Namor is freed.  He manages to knock out Orka, causing him to land on Dorcas. Newell works to detach Diane’s tube (which still has oxygen in it), once it’s loose, Namor tosses them both towards the surface. He attempts to dig Dorcas out from under Orka, and finds that he was really just one of his robots that had convinced itself it was Dorcas when the original died years before.
  • The new creative team of Glenn Herdling and Geoff Isherwood come onboard with issue forty-four, and use their first issue in a very unique way.  Basically, Herdling re-writes Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s classic poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner to be about Namor, and keeps the whole issue in verse.  The Albatross is portrayed as an Angel-like superhero (actually, he reminds me of DC’s Blue Jay the most), and there are appearances by Thanos, Death, and strangest of all, Woodgod.  It’s weird, but it kind of works. I remember hating it as a kid, but now I can appreciate Herdling’s ambition, even if I think it kind of falls short. It is nice to see some more reasonable art by Isherwood.
  • Three months earlier, Japanese sailors work to catch some minke whales off the coast of Antarctica, protected by their country’s law that allows whaling for “scientific research”, even when most of the animals that are caught end up on the tables of the rich.  The sailors are attacked by some Atlanteans, lead by Attuma, who climb onto their ship and slaughter them. We see a surviving whale calf heading north. Three months later, Namor is hanging out with Stingray in Massachusetts, and his pony tail has grown to an incredible length.  Walter thinks that he and Namor should fix up Doctor Dorcas’s underwater base as a place where Atlanteans and surface humans can meet. We learn that Namor has not checked in on Oracle Inc. in months. Their conversation is interrupted by Diane coming to tell Namor that there are reports of a beached whale in Boston.  Namor borrows one of the Newell’s submarines to get to Boston Harbor (even though we’ve always seen him flying or swimming at great speeds). There is a crowd around the beached whale, and when Namor arrives, a cop asks him to help push the whale into the water. Instead, Namor communicates with it, and learns of the Japanese whaling industry in Antarctica.  He’s so angry he rips his shirt off. In Antarctica, we see Attuma’s men attacking yet another Japanese whaling vessel. This ship comes with a complement of ninjas who start fighting the Atlanteans. Attuma tries to kill the captain, but Namor has just arrived in time to save the man (we see he’s used a sub again). Namor starts to fight Attuma, and we learn that Attuma is living in Atlantis now, and he claims Namor is not welcome there.  Namor thinks that Attuma has been killing the whales, and is angry when he learns it’s the Japanese. When he confronts one of the sailors, he is attacked from behind by Sunfire (in his Whilce Portacio looking outfit), who I guess was napping during the earlier fighting. In New Jersey, it appears that the Inhumans have been staying in an amusement park. Karnak and Gorgon talk to a shadowy finned character, who must be Triton, while he lifts weights to make himself stronger now that they are back living under Earth’s gravity.  While Sunfire makes a speech, and shows that he’s still upset that Namor fought against Japan in WWII, one of the Atlanteans tries to attack him. Namor goes overboard with Sunfire, and Attuma attacks the Atlantean that helped Namor. Namor and Sunfire fight in the air, and Namor begins to dehydrate. Attuma fires a whaling harpoon at Namor, which angers Sunfire so he blasts Attuma. Attuma lifts the whole whaling ship (I have no idea how that would work) and throws it at Sunfire. Namor stops it, and while the Atlanteans escape, Namor and Sunfire work to rescue as many Japanese sailors from the sea as they can.  Namor asks a whale that’s just been sitting around through all this for help, proving that they are the more noble creature. Later, one of the sailors feels bad for his part in the whale slaughter, although Sunfire tries to make him into a hero, helping feed Japan. Namor lectures on the history of Japanese people eating whale meat, and realizes that humans and Atlanteans can learn from one another. He returns to the Newell’s, and tells Stingray that he wants to rebuild Hydrobase (although that’s not the place they were talking about earlier). Triton says goodbye to the other Inhumans, as he feels the need to swim around the oceans by himself for a bit.

These days, we get annoyed when comics companies, especially Marvel, relaunch their titles every time they have a change in creative team or start a new storyline.  These comics, however, remind me of why that might not always be a bad thing. It was clear, once Harras and Lee left this title, that there was no real plan for it, and so we got a few months of fill-in comics that did not address any of the plotlines or character arcs that might have carried forward from Byrne or Harras’s runs.  Instead, we got some middling to terrible comics, before Herdling showed up and tried to get things going in a particular direction.

There’s not much to say about these comics.  The Kaminski and McManus issue was pointless.  The Thomas and Wyman issues did tell a coherent story that Herdling decided to build on, but they were dull and poorly drawn.  Ignoring the Ancient Sub-Mariner poetry issue, it looked like Herdling had some plans for the title, but they seemed pretty divorced from continuity.

To begin with, I know that Byrne acknowledged that Namor had a weaker version of Aquaman’s aquatelepathy, citing one of Namor’s earliest Lee/Kirby appearances as proof, but the idea that he could lend an ear to a dying minke whale and know all that it had experienced months earlier on the other side of the planet was pretty ridiculous.  Also, these abilities were so rarely used before this, that I remember being annoyed while reading the comic the first time, and thinking that the editors were not paying attention.

Another problem with Herdling’s “new direction” is the idea that Namor is once again away from Atlantis, and the suggestion that Attuma might be the one running things.  That comes out of nowhere.

I dropped this comic at this point, having completely lost interest in it.  While I’m a little curious about both the new Hydrobase plotline (I just like Stingray) and what Herdling had in mind for Triton, I’m not about to track down the rest of this run, which apparently lasted until issue 62, and later involved the Fantastic Four and the New Defender Andromeda (okay, that has me more interested, but I’m not going to bother).

This marks the end of my sojourn under the sea, and it’s been interesting to see how Marvel tried to manage one of their oldest characters during this period.  Namor is hard to write – he’s imperious, hot-headed, and not really the deepest of thinkers.  It’s hard to know what motivates him, and the constant push and pull between his human and Atlantean sides can become boring if not handled carefully.  This series had some very strong aspects to it from the beginning, but it’s clear Byrne got bored, and that the people who came after him didn’t really have a vision for the book.  The 90s were a difficult time in comics, and so it’s too easy to judge this title harshly.  Writers today are struggling with Namor as well, as seen in recent issues of The Avengers, where he’s gone back to fighting against humanity, and is working with villains to achieve his goals.  He’s like Magneto in the number of times he’s flipped from positive to negative figure, and like Atlantis picking up and moving, it happens way too often to feel fresh.

It’s interesting to think about this book in relationship to Aquaman, whose books I dove into not that long ago for this column.  The two characters have so much in common, yet their runs do feel different (even if they embraced long hair around the same time).  It would have been interesting to see a John Byrne Aquaman or a Peter David Namor, just to see how they would differentiate their approaches.

Next time around, I’m going to be looking at a truly oddball 90s DC team book by one of my favourite oddball 90s writers that I only picked up the first two issues of, but always wanted to get back to.  I recently grabbed the whole run at a convention, so it’s time to see if it was worth the hunt.

If you’d like to see the archives of all of my retro review columns, click here.

These books have not been collected in trade form, but are available on-line and in a dollar bin near you.

 

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