The Saga of the Sub-Mariner was a twelve-issue maxi-series published by Marvel in 1988 and '89. The ostensible occasion to be commemorated was the fiftieth anniversary of Namor’s first appearance – and by extension, the first appearance of Marvel Comics – in 1939’s Marvel Comics #1. It was written by Roy “The Boy” Thomas and Dann Thomas (who doesn’t have a nickname so far as I am aware), and penciled by Rich Buckler with inks by Bob McLeod and a number of other folks. It is, as one might expect, a twelve-issue retelling of the life of Namor the Sub-Mariner. Which means it’s twelve issues of Roy Thomas encapsulating hundreds of other comics.
I don’t know how to write about comic books anymore. I don’t know why to write about comic books. That’s as good a place to start as any.
The series has been reprinted in a volume entitled Sub Mariner & The Original Human Torch, spat out by Marvel in 2014 as part of their commitment to republishing everything they have in the most haphazard and piecemeal way possible. Ask any retailer how good a job Marvel does keeping books like Born Again and The Dark Phoenix Saga in print: the answer, not very good at all! And yet Sub Mariner & The Original Human Torch, reprinting The Saga of the Sub-Mariner alongside its sequel, The Saga of the Original Human Torch, is a book that exists, a book that you too can purchase if you should be so lucky as to stumble upon it for sale at a used bookstore. That’s exactly what I did, having purchased the book for $7 in Santa Clarita, CA. The actual list price is $39.99; however, should you feel the need to read these books in their original form you will pay significantly less.
In June I boxed up every book I owned and deposited them all in a storage unit in Dixon, CA. It was time for a change, time to be a person who moved about the world freely – as opposed to the person I had been for the previous decade, that is, a person tied down to a large private library, a student and teacher and writer who needed to own so many books. Life without a library has been a significant and pleasant change. But I needed a few books to carry around with me, still certain as I was in my heart that a person without a bookshelf is a person without a home. So I stuffed a small longbox with books I had been waiting for a quiet evening to enjoy and drove off, leaving all my Carl Barks, Charles Schulz, and Jack Kirby but taking the Thomases’ retelling of Namor’s origin. Priorities.
The problem with the Sub-Mariner, which becomes obvious after only a few chapters of the Thomases’ retelling, is that the character is one-note. That’s not an insult, really – the character was designed and first saw print in an age where superheroes were still a complete novelty, a publishing fad dependent on the ability of the comic book publishers to separate children from their money. Namor was, and remains, indelible. He’s an angry asshole who shows up looking for a fight at random baby showers and bar mitzvahs, and who sometimes can also be pointed in the direction of evildoers to clobber. But really, Namor isn’t picky: he just wants someone to fight.
Any retelling of his Saga is going to be repetitive because he has about three basic plotlines through which he cycles with clockwork regularity. He’s a great character for the Golden Age, an era where every issue and every story existed more or less in isolation. The ability of a character to be put through his paces in an interesting way in ten or twelve page intervals was more far more valuable at the time than being able to sustain long-boil subplots and simmering romantic tension. There were none of those things in the early 1940s when Namor saw his commercial peak: he showed up, kicked ass, and took names. He was also drawn (and created) by Bill Everett, one of the best artists of his era, which explains why Namor’s Golden Age stories are actually still readable (if monstrously racist at times).
The approach taken by the Thomases and Buckler has a leveling effect on the character’s history, and it’s not a particularly flattering look. Summing up fifty years of comics written and drawn by dozens of talented men and women is a great way of making all those comics seem really banal. Namor hardly needs the help in this department since his solo adventures often strive mightily just to achieve banality in the first place. Seen over the course of the Thomases’ narrative the Sub-Mariner is a guy who keeps getting kicked out of Atlantis despite being prince because he literally picks fights with everyone everywhere. He’s useless for palace intrigue or royal politics because his first instinct when faced with a dilemma is always to punch someone. Marvel’s Atlantis is a singularly dull place at least in part because the creators’ view of the place is limited by their viewpoint character’s tunnel vision. It’s Alex Raymond, underwater, with an asshole for a protagonist. As a setting it’s a nice backdrop, without any real character save for the talent of whichever artist is illustrating the story.
Why does this comic exist? Well, they needed to celebrate Subby’s fiftieth anniversary somehow. Namor’s birthday festivities culminated in the summer of 1989 with the Atlantis Attacks crossover, which did such a good job of commemorating its hero that he dies in the second chapter and returns halfway through the final (there are fourteen). Unless they’re wearing a flag Marvel doesn’t really know what to do with most of its Golden Age heroes. The Sub-Mariner sticks around because he’s a fixture despite himself, but hasn’t been able to support his own title since the early 90s – a time when Darkhawk made it to 50 issues. The Original Human Torch shows up periodically, but they’ve never even bothered to give him his own book.
I hadn’t read a comic book in months when I picked up The Saga of the Sub-Mariner – the single longest period of time in my entire life without reading a comic. Why did I decide to break my fast with The Saga of the Sub-Mariner? As self-incriminating as it sounds I had always wanted to read the book, having passed on the original twelve issues after seeing them bundled in a store in the early 90s. These kind of books used to be my jam. Why not?
When I was a kid I thought Roy Thomas was pretty swell. This essay isn’t really about him one way or another, although he probably deserves more attention from critics than he has heretofore received – his work on The Saga of the Sub-Mariner is as utilitarian as it sounds, essentially a twelve-issue flashback of the kind that comics used to do, back when they cared a bit more about keeping readers invested in history. (Necessary when readers might only be able to check in sporadically, depending on distribution or allowance.) Now The Saga of the Sub-Mariner seems like an odd artifact because its purpose has been supplanted by technology. Fans can learn Namor’s history on Wikipedia or any number of even more detailed fan databases. It’s less fun, I think, than when all you had was what was on the page and what you could cadge from whatever old back issues were on hand. Maybe ask the guy (almost always a guy) behind the counter of the store if they knew anything.
In that economy a book like The Saga of the Sub-Mariner made a lot more sense. After all, what kid reading about Namor in the late '80s would ever be able to read Namor’s earliest appearances? The guy has a long history, even if it’s often a dull history. Now I can go online and if the Namor books I want aren’t available legally via Marvel or Amazon, they’re available illegally on a torrent. Or I can read the summaries on Wikipedia. Anyone who wants to learn about Namor, in other words, can find out whatever the fuck they want about Namor at any time.
Marvel used to do books like these more often, and in a world without Wikipedia sometimes they were pretty useful. The Thomas’s dry approach is difficult to stomach in 2017 only because the reader ecosystem that could support books like this – history lessons, essentially – has dried up. Regardless of how boring it may have been I would still have loved this book I was a kid - even though the approach has the effect of erasing the creators whose work inspired the book and built the character. Buckler and McLeod filter Everett and Kirby and dozens of others through Marvel house style, already stodgy in 1988 but still readable. It creates the illusion of continuity between artists working separately across decades at the expense of the artists themselves.
When I was a kid that’s all I wanted: the illusion of a consistent fantasy world into which I could disappear. I would have loved The Saga of the Sub-Mariner had I actually found it at the right time, because it was everything I wanted out of a comic: continuity, lore, mythos, trivia. That was the Thomas approach, and over the course of the 1980s across both Marvel and DC Thomas (and sometimes the Thomases) dedicated a significant amount of time to retelling and repackaging each company’s Golden Age history for contemporary readers. Thomas’ work for DC in this vein was far more interesting than his work for Marvel, for the simple reason that Marvel’s Golden Age is far more interesting than DC’s. You can still read much of DC’s Golden Age output, whereas precious little of Golden Age Marvel is worth salvaging. While each issue of the original 57 issue run of All-Star Comics was lovingly catalogued and cross-referenced, most of Marvel’s books from the same era offered little even for a continuity maven such as Thomas. In 2017 most of it only counts if someone specifically mentions it, really.
The creators I responded to when I was a kid were the third- and fourth-generation writers who dedicated their careers to shaping and maintaining these fictional universes. In hindsight I can appreciate that the work of people like the Thomases and Mark Gruenwald represented a significant act of creation on its own, pulling together hundreds and thousands of primary sources created by disparate and multifaceted creators across decades of work-for-hire for the express purpose of creating a foundation on which future stories could be told. Of course, it has the effect of flattening out everything but the raw material of the stories themselves.
Had I read The Saga of the Sub-Mariner at the “right” age maybe my imagination would have sparked on the wet kindling of Namor’s rivalries with Byrrah and Krang and I’d have spent long afternoons chasing down the back issues to fill me in on what I missed. Or more likely I’d have been happy with this book and the respective characters’ appearances in the Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe, because really, no one has ever cared about anything that has ever happened in the pages of Namor’s own book. (Except for Roy Thomas, and he was paid to do so.)
What was I expecting? That going back to a book I missed when I was a kid would serve as a time machine, would carry me back to a time and place before I learned to be tired of comics? It’s not the madeleine you eat, it’s the madeleine you miss.
But I can’t get back.
I don’t know how to write about comic books anymore. I don’t know why to write about comic books. But I know comic books, better than I know anything else. I wish that weren’t so but that’s the way it is: we’re stuck with each other, comics and I, much as I think we probably both wish we could take some time off to see other people. (Well, I have tried that but like every good codependency there is nothing to be done about it.)
The Saga of the Sub-Mariner isn’t a bad comic book but it isn’t really a good comic book either. It has a single task which it sets out to fulfill with dogged consistency. I can’t be mad at it for being an unfulfilling read since the book held up its own side of the bargain perfectly well. I wanted something from the book that wasn’t the book’s to give: I wanted a spark off the bonfire that was my childhood love of comics. Just a spark. It’s not the book’s fault that I arrived thirty years late to get my money’s worth.
I don’t know how to write about comic books anymore, but I’d like to learn again. Due to the whims of a capricious God I’m stuck in the position now of having to relearn how to do everything else in my life – might as well learn how not to hate comics anymore while I’m at it. This wasn’t the best place to start but it wasn’t the worst: there’s something to be said for learning the hard way that madeleines turn stale if you leave them out too long.