Sub-Mariner #57 (January, 1973)

Sub-Mariner #57 (January, 1973)

In May of last year, I blogged about Sub-Mariner #40, an issue that completed a crossover storyline that had begun in Daredevil #77 and which also guest-starred Spider-Man.  That comic also happened to be the first installment of a ten-issue run written by Gerry Conway and drawn by Gene Colan and others; my younger self, having enjoyed the crossover storyline that kicked off Conway’s tenure, ended up sticking around for his whole run.  But with issue #50, both Conway and Colan were gone, replaced in their respective roles by a single creator, Bill Everett — the writer-artist who had in fact created the Sub-Mariner, way back in 1939, and was thus one of the primary progenitors of what we would come to know as Marvel — both as a company, and as a Universe.

That’s an accomplishment that your humble blogger could appreciate, even at age fourteen.  I had also enjoyed Everett’s vintage Timely/Atlas artwork when I’d seen it reprinted, not to mention his much more recent cover for Sub-Mariner Annual #2 (a giant-sized issue which reprinted old Subby stories from his mid-1960s run in Tales to Astonish, drawn by Colan and written by Stan Lee).  But evidently, the young fan that I was in March, 1972 (the month that Sub-Mariner #50 came out), couldn’t get his head around Everett’s art when I saw it in a contemporary comic-book story.  The look of his work — which combined what might be called a “cartoony” approach to character design with a lushly detailed inking style — just looked too old-fashioned to me.  Why was Marvel putting out a modern comic that looked so much like something from the 1950s?  I didn’t get it.  And so, while I have no clear memory of picking S-M #50 up off the racks, flipping through its pages, and then saying “nah” and putting it back, that’s apparently just what I did.

Luckily, I wised up within the next seven months, or you wouldn’t be reading this post about Sub-Mariner #57.  But, one lives, and, on occasion, even learns.

Of course, even then I didn’t know — and probably wouldn’t have fully appreciated, if I had — how remarkable it was in some ways that Bill Everett had even been given the opportunity to write and draw the Sub-Mariner again, for the first time since 1955.  Because while the creator had still been at the top of his game in the late ’50s, when downsizing at Marvel/Atlas (and contraction of the comic-book industry more generally) had impelled him to temporarily leave the field, his subsequent return to Marvel in the 1960s had been accompanied by difficulties.

Caricature of Bill Everett by Marie Severin, with illustrations of his characters Hydroman, Sub-Mariner, the Fin, Venus, Amazing-Man, and Bolls-Eye Bill added by Everett, circa early 1970s. Originally published in Alter Ego vol. 1, #11 (1978); this version comes from Marvel’s Saga of the Sub-Mariner #11 (Sep., 1989).

Indeed, that return itself actually happened in fits and starts. 1963 found Everett back at Marvel long enough to co-create Daredevil with editor-writer Stan Lee — but only just.  Due to the artist severely blowing his deadlines (probably due primarily to his trying to get the job done while also working full-time at a Massachusetts paper company, though a longstanding drinking problem may also have come into play), the debut issue of Marvel’s newest superhero ran very late, to the point that other hands were brought in to finish the artwork; and Everett was not asked to continue on the feature.

The creator’s next return to the company in 1965, after he’d lost his other job, went somewhat more smoothly — perhaps because Lee didn’t assign him to do full pencils right away this time, having him first do finishes over Jack Kirby’s layouts for several installments of the Hulk feature in Tales to Astonish.  Soon thereafter, however, Everett was drawing the Hulk all on his own, and eventually moved from there to the Sub-Mariner strip in the same title — first inking the pencils of Gene Colan, then doing the complete art.  Around that time, he also became the first artist to follow Steve Ditko on the Doctor Strange feature in Strange Tales.  None of those gigs lasted very long, however; according to Blake Bell’s Fire & Water: Bill Everett, The Sub-Mariner, and the Birth of Marvel Comics (Fantagraphics, 2010), neither Lee nor Marvel’s associate editor Roy Thomas (with whom Everett briefly shared lodgings for a period in the mind-’60s) thought that the artist’s pencilling was as strong as it had once been, faulting it for stiffness and a lack of imagination.  His inking still had much of its old flair, however; and it was mostly in this capacity that Marvel would keep him busy for the next several years, as well as by having him do some coloring and production work.

Even in these roles, however, Everett’s work habits continued to be an issue; as Roy Thomas would put it in his 2015 introduction to Marvel Masterworks — The Sub-Mariner, Vol. 7, he was “the poster boy for blown deadlines and outlandish excuses for blowing them”.  Nevertheless, both Lee and Marvel’s founder and then-publisher, Martin Goodman, continued to support Everett in his relationship with the company; after all, he’d helped put Goodman’s fledgling comic-book operation on the map, three decades earlier.

In March, 1969, however, something happened to Everett which would lead him to turn his life around.  Following a three-day bender, he took a hard fall while exiting a bar and badly banged up his head and face.  That experience led him to attend his first Alcoholics Anonymous meeting; soon afterwards, Everett became devoted to the AA program, ultimately becoming a sponsor himself.  The subsequent improvement in his personal life began to show in his work life, as well — enough so that by 1972, Lee was willing to turn virtually the entire creative responsibility for the Sub-Mariner title — the pencilling, the inking, and the writing — back over to the man who’d created Prince Namor thirty-three years before.  In some ways, perhaps, it wasn’t that risky a move — Sub-Mariner’s sales had been slumping for some time, so what was there to lose? — but it was still highly unusual at this time for Marvel to assign both the artistic and writing responsibilities for a continuing feature to a single creator.  Outside of a couple of “Inhumans” stories scripted as well as drawn by Jack Kirby just prior to his leaving for DC in 1970, no one had done such double-duty on a Marvel series since Jim Steranko’s run on Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. in 1967-68.

Unfortunately, despite Everett’s having come to grips with his alcoholism in the here and now, many years of heavy drinking (and smoking) had taken a toll on his health; and it became clear almost immediately that the creator wouldn’t be able to shoulder the load of producing twenty or so pages of new material on a monthly schedule — at least, not without assistance, and other accommodations as well.  Mike Friedrich (another young professional who, like Roy Thomas, had roomed with Everett for a brief while in the ’60s) came on board with #51 to assist with the writing, scripting from the older creator’s plots; the following month found Everett back on full duties again, though only for twelve pages, with the remainder of #52 going to a Subby reprint (also all-Everett) from 1955.

And so it went.  Though my by then fifteen-year-old self didn’t realize it at the time, the issue of Everett’s run that I finally deigned to sample — Sub-Mariner #57 — had been immediately preceded by one on which he hadn’t worked at all (#56’s “Atlantis, Mon Amour!” having been produced by the team of Mike Friedrich and Dan Adkins).  And it was only the second issue of the run so far to feature a cover by Everett, as well as fully new interior art and story all credited to Everett on his own (the first had been #55, published two months earlier).  In other words, #57 was, if not quite unique, still a standout issue of Sub-Mariner, on several levels.

At this point, of course, you may well be wondering — just what was it about Sub-Mariner #57 that persuaded me to buy it, after giving the cold shoulder to Everett and co.’s efforts on the title for the previous seven months?  I can’t claim to recall the specifics, but in recollecting the kind of fellow I was at the time, I suspect that it was mostly a combination of two factors, both of which may be located on the comic’s cover:  first, the mythological theme indicated by the cover’s blurbed version of the story’s title (“In the Wake of the War-God!”); second, Everett’s fetching delineation of the distressed but beautiful young woman I’d soon discover was actually Venus, the Goddess of Love.  Which of those factors weighed most heavily in my decision-making?  Well, I don’t really remember, as I’ve already said.  But considering that I was a fifteen-year-old cis het male, I wouldn’t bet against it being the second one.

Anyway, however it happened that I ultimately came to find myself reading the opening splash page(s) of “In the Lap of the Gods!”, the important thing is that I did get there in the end, right?

A number of critics have lauded Everett for his convincing and expressive rendering of water; this opening sequence provides a great example of his particular skills in this specialized area, with the setting of a storm at sea giving the artist the opportunity to portray the substance in a variety of forms and behaviors — driving rain, choppy waves, a geyser, and so on.  And as you’d expect, later scenes set below the ocean’s surface will give Everett the opportunity to distinctively depict Namor’s natural element in yet another of its many aspects.

Nereid’s nemesis!”  It should be noted that in returning to write his creation in the “modern” Marvel continuity of 1972, Bill Everett was required to make some adjustments to his own original conception, both visually and in terms of characterization.  For example, in contrast to the lithe swimmer’s body he’d had in the Golden Age, the Sub-Mariner of the Silver and early Bronze Ages was a more musclebound fellow.  Similarly, beginning with Namor’s return in Fantastic Four #4 (May, 1962), Stan Lee had given Atlantis’ Avenging Son a regal manner and speech pattern that differed considerably from that of Everett’s scrappy, slangy young merman — a difference exemplified by the tendency of the present-day Prince to exclaim “Imperius Rex!” rather than “Sufferin’ shad!”

Everett mostly managed to work within the character parameters that had been established by other creators at Marvel in the interval between his ’50s and ’70s stints writing Sub-Mariner; the Subby we meet in these pages is appropriately beefy, and his speech pattern is recognizably that of the same guy whose dialogue Steve Englehart was concurrently writing in Defenders.  Even so, there’s the sense of at least a slightly less formal approach evident in the exclamatory phrases Everett has Namor utter in this story, as well as in the rest of his run.  No, he doesn’t try to slip in anything as old-school as, say, “Galloping guppies!”; but “Nereid’s nemesis!” is just far enough over the top to suggest a more playful attitude towards the Sub-Mariner’s adventures than readers had seen in a long time.

This is the first time we’ve seen Ares since Avengers #100 (Jun., 1972), in which the largest-ever assemblage of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes foiled the God of War’s nefarious plans to conquer Olympus, Asgard, Earth, etc., etc..  If you’d been wondering just what sort of punishment Big Daddy Zeus must have dished out to his errant son following that episode, the answer would appear to be… well, nothing too severe, really.  Or very lengthy, either.

“Woman, if I knew the answers to all that, I wouldn’t be asking questions myself!” retorts Namor, just before he picks up the mysteriously transformed young woman and flies her to safety on shore…

* This article was originally published here


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