Sub-Mariner #20 (December, 1969)

Sub-Mariner was the last Marvel solo superhero title of the late ’60s that I got around to sampling as a young comics reader.  As I indicated in my Incredible Hulk #118 post a few months back, it probably took a while for me to warm up to the Avenging Son of Atlantis (as it likely also did for ol’ Greenskin) simply because it was hard for me to see the guy as a bona fide superhero.  After all, when I encountered Prince Namor in other comics — mostly reprints of Fantastic Four and Avengers stories from the early Sixties — he was usually fighting other heroes while attempting to conquer the surface world.  And though I understood that, these days, he was no longer actively trying to overthrow human civilization, the Sub-Mariner still seemed to have such an attitude.  He was a damned imperious sort of Rex, if you know what I mean. 

So what finally convinced me to plunk down my fifteen cents on the convenience store counter in September, 1969?  I’m all but 100% certain it was the cover-featured presence of the one and only Doctor Doom.  The malevolent monarch of Latveria was by this time not only my favorite Marvel villain, but my favorite bad guy in all of comic books, period.  (Attesting to this fact, among the first back issue purchases I ever made — indeed, they may have been the very first — were Victor von Doom’s most recent appearances prior to my beginning to actively buy Marvel comics, in Fantastic Four #57 – 61 and Daredevil #37 – 38. ) I just couldn’t get enough of this baddest of the bad guys — especially now, after having finally getting to read Doom’s origin story (along with one of his most memorable forays against his number one nemeses, the FF) via its reprinting in that summer’s Fantastic Four Annual #7,

With all that in mind, it’s fair to say I probably would have purchased this comic even if it had sported a mediocre cover — but the one that graced Sub-Mariner #20 was a beauty, skillfully composed and rendered by penciller John Buscema and inker Johnny Craig, with vivid, contrasting colors — green and blue set against a dominant red and yellow — that made it pop out of the spinner rack.  Yeah, just try to leave this baby on the stands, chum.

The cover’s art team of Buscema and Craig were also responsible for the issue’s interior art.  But though “Big John” had pencilled the first eight issues of Subby’s solo title, his turn here was just a one-off, as he was filling in for current regular artist Marie Severin (who was, the credits box told us, “vacationing in the beautiful Bahamas!”).  That was just fine with my twelve-year-old self, who already knew and was a fan of Buscema’s art, but didn’t really know Severin as yet outside of her humor work (such as I’d seen in Not Brand Echh #9) — though I would soon enough come to know and appreciate her “straight” stuff as well.

Johnny Craig, on the other hand, had come aboard Sub-Mariner as the title’s regular inker with the previous issue.  He’d previously filled that role on Iron Man (and would again, within a few months), and if his name registered with me at all in the fall of ’69 it was probably for his work on that series.  At this time, I still knew next to nothing about the great EC comics of the 1950s on which Craig had proven himself a master, writing and drawing many of that publisher’s crime and horror classics.  Craig was never really able to break through to success as a penciller (let alone as a writer) at the superhero-centric Marvel or DC of the Sixties or Seventies (though one of the few full art jobs he ever did for the former company just happened to be my first issue of Iron Man) — but he did manage to establish himself as an inker (at least for a few years), and proved quite effective in that role, providing sensitive finishes to the pencils of artists of such disparate styles as George Tuska, Marie Severin, and John Buscema.

My younger self didn’t have a clue as to who the “alien Stalker” was, or why he’d surgically closed Namor’s gills — and to be perfectly frank with you, my older self is hardly any more enlightened today.  That information wasn’t (and still isn’t) necessary to understand the dire straits that the Atlantean prince now found himself, or to follow the story that that proceeded from that premise.  Plus, Namor’s need for water to replenish his strength was similar enough to Aquaman’s dependence on that same substance for me to feel that I was on familiar ground — though, of course, DC’s King of the Seven Seas would have it even worse than Namor in the same situation, since he would die if deprived of H2O for a single hour.

Today, I find the nameless kid’s reference to Namor “doin’ the Hamlet bit” amusing, since of course that’s exactly what the Sub-Mariner was doing on page 1 with his “slings and arrows” phrasing — though I’m afraid the reference whizzed right over my head in 1969.

Speaking of the nameless kid, on the very next page he promises Namor he won’t tell anyone he saw him — then, mere moments later, rats Subby out to the pursuing U.S. Army troops, just to get his “pitcher in the paper” (what an ungrateful little snot!) — forcing our protagonist to take it on the lam:

As scripted here by Thomas, Namor was no less conceited or arrogant than he’d been in any other comic I’d read — but, by stacking the odds so heavily against him, the scripter made him sympathetic in a way I hadn’t experienced before.

Back in the day, Marvel seemed to play the “diplomatic immunity” card just about every time Doctor Doom showed up.  And why not?  You didn’t have to worry about stretching your readers’ credulity by having your bad guy break out of jail time after time if, by definition, he couldn’t be jailed.  And since this was a shtick that Doom had all to himself (in 1969, anyway), Marvel didn’t have to worry about overusing it — at least not so long as they didn’t overuse Doom.

Namor cautiously makes his way through the apparently deserted first floor of the embassy, until he reaches an upwards-leading stairway.  Before he can begin his ascent, however, the whole stairway rises out of sight — revealing a nasty looking machine which first charges him, and then…

You’ve got to admit, the man knows how to make an entrance.

Even in 1969, I had a rough idea of the outline of Doom’s career, thanks mostly to a fan letter that had run back in Fantastic Four #78 — but I’d as yet read only a precious few of his early exploits, and so I always loved it when they came up in current comics, especially when the references provided juicy details that were new to me (e.g., Doom had tried to kill Subby in space!).

Seeking to allay Namor’s entirely justified suspicions, Vic appeals to his guest not to let their past differences come between them and the “lofty designs” of their “common goal“:

In the next-to-last panel above, Buscema indulges in one of his favorite character poses (especially for villains) by drawing Dr. Doom slouched in his seat.

At a time when Marvel’s artists still tended to stay on series for long runs, it was always interesting to see someone illustrating characters who weren’t “theirs”; and such was the case here with Buscema’s rendering of both Dr. Doom and (briefly) the Fantastic Four, whom in 1969 one couldn’t help but see as “belonging” to Jack Kirby.  My younger self would have been surprised, to say the least, if you’d told me that Buscema would be the artist on the FF’s title within little more than a year, essentially making him responsible for defining the “official look” of Dr. Doom and other recurring members of that book’s cast going forward, as well as of the heroic quartet themselves.  (Of course, he’d also have Joe Sinnott, Kirby’s longtime inker on FF, on hand to help with that transition.)

Left alone to brood, Namor soon finds his thoughts turning to his realm of Atlantis — and Thomas and Buscema take the opportunity to show us something of what’s going on back at Subby’s home.

At the conclusion of his disastrous clash with the Stalker in issue #18, the Sub-Mariner had dispatched his friend and ally, Triton, to travel to Atlantis and inform his people of his predicament; an issue and a half later, the water-breathing Inhuman finally arrives.  This digression was just fine with my twelve-year-old self, as I liked the Inhumans quite a bit, with Triton being a particular fave:

Here the story skips right to the end of Triton’s tale-telling; but, before the scene closes, we learn that Namor has forbidden the Atlanteans to seek him on land, as he doesn’t want to risk a war between his people and the “air-breathers” — which is a noble decision, certainly, but one which also leaves him without many options for getting out of his current jam.

Meanwhile, back at the Latverian Embassy in New York — far from retrieving water to replenish Namor as he’d promised, Victor von Doom has instead set his underlings to eliminating all traces of water from the building — turning off pipes, destroying water jugs and fire extinguishers, etc….

Weakened as he is, Namor is still more than a match for Doom’s gang of thugs (and if you’re familiar with the Lord of Latveria’s usual M.O., you’ve got to wonder — why no robots?).  Once he’s trounced the majority of them, and sent the rest fleeing, he ponders whether he should go after Doom, “…or simply escape, to return another day?”

Hey, what diabolical genius who had the brilliant idea to get rid of all the water in the building?  Oh, right.

Good thing that the FDNY showed up as speedily as Subby expected, right?  Although, come to think of it, he may be an expert by now on the response times of New York’s emergency services, considering all those times he’s invaded and almost destroyed the city.

Doom’s face in the story’s next-to-last panel has always looked a little odd to me — almost as though Buscema misjudged how wide apart the panel’s borders needed to be, and then had to squeeze Vic’s metal countenance into the space available — but if that’s an artistic misfire, it’s at most a very minor one in what’s otherwise an extremely well-drawn issue.

In his 2010 introduction to the Marvel Masterworks volume reprinting this story, Thomas describes it as “mostly a fill-in issue”, and speculates that he may have brought in Dr. Doom simply to give Buscema and himself “a villain who could make interesting what was basically a super-slugfest.”  He’s right, in a sense — about the only scene in the book that moves the storyline forward even a hair is the one with Triton and Lady Dorma in Atlantis — but the fact that the story’s central “super-slugfest” features these two specific characters elevates it above your run-of-the-mill fill-in issue.  That’s due, I think, to the remarkable, if volatile, chemistry between Namor and Doom in any story that pairs them, whether they’re allies or enemies or something in-between — any story, that is, where these complex figures are handled with the kind of understanding and skill that Thomas and Buscema have brought to the table here.

The guiding lights at Marvel seem to have recognized the special quality of the Sub-Mariner/Dr. Doom pairing as well — so much so that in 1975, they tried to build a whole ongoing series around it.  (I’ll give you one guess as to the names of the writer and artist who handled the lead story in the first issue.  Hint: the guy who drew the cover shown at right, John Romita, wasn’t one of them.)  Yes, I realize that Super-Villain Team-Up only lasted for a couple of years in its original run; I bought every single issue, OK?

But quite a good long time before I needed to decide whether to start buying a brand-new comic book series starring the Sub-Mariner and Doctor Doom, back in 1969 I had to decide whether to buy another issue of the Sub-Mariner’s solo title.  The odds might appear to have been against it, considering that, as the year ran down, I was becoming less and less interested in comics in general (probably due in part to Marvel’s move away from continued stories around that time), and was in the process of dropping other titles that I’d been buying a lot longer than Sub-Mariner.

Of course, the odds aren’t always a reliable predictor of outcomes — though to learn more about what I mean by that, you’ll have to keep watching this space.

 

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