Monday, September 2, 2013

Review: Namor, the Sub-Mariner #34

Namor, the Sub-Mariner #34, "Call From Home," cover date January 1993
Written by Bob Harras, Penciled and Inked by Jae Lee

I mentioned in my WCW review how Marvel was closing in on 100 monthly books published to end 1992, and while it might have seemed like the very existence of that many books might imply an overall decline in quality, there were books that were pretty great, even at the time. Books like Namor. I haven't read all of John Byrne's Namor run, but he resuscitated the character, who hadn't carried a book since way back in the 70's when he had that weird Inhumans-style costume. Byrne gave Namor a new direction by making him a CEO of an environmentally focused corporation, Oracle, Inc., financed by buried treasure that Namor found just lying around in the sea (amazing). He rounded out the supporting cast with Colleen Wing and Misty Knight, better known as the Heroes for Hire/Daughters of the Dragon, characters that had barely appeared since the cancellation of Power Man and Iron Fist. Similarly, Iron Fist came back to life (or was revealed as not having been killed) to join the cast. Also on hand was Namorita, Namor's cousin who manages to look pretty attractive while still looking like she's related to Namor. Byrne gave up drawing the book after #25, when he was replaced by an up-and-comer named Jae Lee. Byrne stopped writing the book as well a few months later, and was replaced by Bob Harras, then the editor of the X-Men franchise (now the editor in chief of DC Comics).

"Everybody face the camera in a line, okay?"

We begin our story in the blood red pre-dawn of New York City, as an Atlantean craft explodes from the waves. Namorita wonders why Atlantis would send its best ship as a red-eyed Namor muses that it must be serious for "Old Vashti" to come to the surface world. The ship docks and Vashti warns that villages are vanishing, and black magic is considered the cause. He also mentions that Warlord Seth has returned to Atlantis, babbling about "Ancient Evil," always a bad sign. As Namor and Vashti chat, Vashti is shocked to find Fen, Namor's presumed dead mother, alive. Namor is annoyed by her appearance, as most adults are when their presumed dead parents stop by. Namor casually doubts whether his mother is who she appears to be, and plans a trip to Atlantis when Phoebe Marrs appears, ready to kick Namor out of his building. Iron Fist and Namorita agree to take care of Marrs's apparent hostile takeover as Namor goes to investigate the trouble in Atlantis.

Meanwhile, a group of Nomadic underwater guys scout the area to find it deserted. Todd "Arlys" Arliss, aka Tiger Shark, is apparently the leader of the group, along with a "Mara." Mara is pregnant with Tiger Shark's child, and he gives a speech about how he's a whole new person thanks to her. Moments later, "faceless ones" attack, separating them and apparently killing Mara and his unborn child, causing Tiger Shark to snap.

Namor and Vashti exchange a heart-to-heart, as Namor thanks Vashti for being such a loyal servant, when their ship is suddenly blasted by an unknown source. Back in Atlantis, Seth, recovering from injuries sustained earlier, is awoken in Atlantis to find a weird old figure. The figure warns him that his escape was in vain, and that "the old ones are awakening" before disappearing, effectively gaslighting Seth in front of the Atlantean doctors, who worry about his mental state.

At the bottom of the ocean, Namor's ship is attacked by a monstrous black creature. He moves to fight the thing, along with his Royal Guard, but the monster wipes out the guard with surprising ease, then grins at Namor. The monster swats Namor and tries to eat Vashti, but Namor swoops in and saves him.

Pretty cool design for a one-off monster.

While that fight's going on, Tiger Shark, who is now feral after hours of fighting, is about to be blindsided when a spear kills the last remaining faceless one. Tamara Rahn, an alien who lives as an Atlantean, happened by and heard the fighting on her way to warn everyone in Atlantis. She informs Tiger Shark that the rest of his nomads are dead. Tiger Shark agrees to escort Tamara to Atlantis, since his schedule just became pretty free.

Namor pulls out the prow of his flagship and tosses it at the monster, killing it in pretty brutal fashion as its spine is severed. Namor says the creature was summoned and that "I would find its caller." Moments later, Vashti points out a sinister-looking skeleton holding a big horn, as Namor remembers that he was already told of rumors that "ghosts walk the borderlands."


To begin with, I should probably admit that I'm a huge Jae Lee fan. His gothic style really speaks to me, and his Inhumans mini-series with Paul Jenkins is some of my favorite comics ever. Lee inks over his pencils, and while sometimes the result is an extremely dark, murky look, it fits in great with the tone of the story. Lee's pencils are compared to Jim Lee's and other image founders, but while his pencils have some of the stylized look of Jim Lee or McFarlane, his inking, along with his love of horror and the macabre remind me more of Mike Mignola, the creator of Hellboy (I would love to see Jae Lee's take on the BPRD crew).

The story is part 1 of a new arc, and it definitely leaves the reader wondering what's coming next. We've got Namor dealing with skeleton monsters, Tiger Shark and Tamara heading to Atlantis, Seth and his mysterious old ones, plus some things for Iron Fist and Namorita to take care of back on land. There's also the mystery of what the deal is with Namor's apparently alive mother. Since there's a bunch of action and sub-plots, there's not much time for character, but in just a few pages Harras manages to make Tiger Shark more sympathetic than I think I ever remember him being before or after; mostly he's just used as a goon or lackey with a mean streak. Namor shows he cares for his old buddy Vashti; I like my Namor to be a huge jerk, but he should still have friends, so it's nice to see a more "human" moment from him once in awhile. On the minus side, with so much going on and so many characters, and the beginning of a new arc, there needed to be a little bit more explanation of who's who and what's going on. They do eventually say that Arlyss is a reformed Tiger Shark, but Tamara is a minor character from the 70's that nobody would remember without the aid of the internet (she made 2 appearances in a Namor mini-series in 1989, over 3 years earlier). Thanks to his Marvel Appendix page (a site dedicated to chronicling obscure characters), I know that Tiger Shark last appeared in Wolverine #20 (Jan., 1990) before appearing in a back-up story where Namor saved him during the "Weapon X" era of Marvel Comics Presents (May, 1991). So after an 18 month break, it'd be nice if editorial gave us a hint who this guy was for those of us that aren't hardcore Namor fans. This is slightly more excusable when the X-Men comics do it, bringing back obscure dudes like Warhawk, because he's an obscure character who showed up a story that was reprinted multiple times and was still somewhat relevant despite being a 15 year old comic (Uncanny X-Men #110) when Warhawk started showing up in the pages of the Jim Lee X-Men series. But in 1993, you'd have to be an encyclopedia of Marvel trivia to remember Colleen Wing or Tamara Rahn (they definitely weren't on trading cards), and we don't even get a brief explanation of who they are. When people talk about 90's books being "impenetrable" to new comers, this is the sort of thing they're talking about.

On the plus side, the art is pretty great. This is wide-screen storytelling before that term was really used; most pages are laid out in a series of top to bottom page-long panels, with a two-page wide-screen splash page introducing the concept. There's still some room for variation to keep things from getting to static: when the mysterious figure confronts Seth, we get smaller panels, and when Namor's ship crashes and he fights the monster, there's a mix of big and small panels. In true "style over substance" fashion, Lee doesn't include backgrounds in a number of scenes- this isn't an issue in the undersea segments, but the opening in New York City appears to take place against a blood-red wall. While I really enjoy Lee's style, I understand it isn't for everybody, and it must've been kind of a big culture shock to go from John Byrne's square jaws and clean line-work to this shadowy stuff, complete with exaggerated anatomy. In style and tone, this doesn't at all feel like a Marvel comic being published in 1993. That's kind of a shame, considering Namor wasn't exactly a top selling book, and Lee's style is such a radical departure from the only artist that had worked on the book previously. I wonder what Jae Lee could've been done if he'd been given a Ghost Rider book or something else that was more obviously suited to him (and that would've been more commercially successful). Unfortunately, by 1994 he'd jump ship to Image to do some Jim Lee mini-series and to create his own book, "Hellshock," a story about a Fallen Angel that never really caught on.

90's Fashion: 

Basically none, although Misty Knight actually doesn't have her ridiculous afro, as she's sporting a more contemporary look. Don't worry, fanboys, she'll go back to the 70's look you grew up with soon enough. 

1 comment:

  1. Byrne stopped writing the book as well a few months later, and was replaced by Bob Harras, then the editor of the X-Men franchise

    Does this coincide at all with his time on Avengers? It must, right?

    This is slightly more excusable when the X-Men comics do it, bringing back obscure dudes like Warhawk, because he's an obscure character who showed up a story that was reprinted multiple times and was still somewhat relevant despite being a 15 year old comic (Uncanny X-Men #110)

    Actually, for whatever reason, Uncanny #110 didn't get reprinted very often - it was skipped over in Classic X-Men, for example, and as a result, when he popped up in that Maverick back up story I was infuriated that the footnote didn't tell me where else he appeared, and because his only other X-appearance went unreprinted in the reprint series that, at the time, was my only gateway to the old stuff, I had no idea who he was, nor, in hindsight, any affordable way to find out.

    Still, your point stands. :)