4 out of 5
A seemingly disparate but, in retrospect, a pretty fantastically exciting run – and surprisingly linear, for Gerber!
Bill Everett had taken back over writing and drawing duties on his creation, Mr. Savage Subby, and seemed to desire to sharpen the character’s personality, as the pulp anti-hero roots had been taken on the circus of Marvel antics during his absence. So a kingly reverence was reinstated, underseas adventures began to take more of a precedence, and the fantasy-esque comics grace Bill brought to the page was celebrated by any longtime fan of the Mariner.
Of course, this is all pieced together from wiki and letters pages. My only interaction with SM has been through randomness in Fantastic Four, and he’s always been a smug prick in those books, so who knew what to expect. Some of it matched what I thought – the cries of ‘Imperius Rex!’ and the general melodrama of the structure (all comics are melodrama, but it becomes more obvious with thee and thines and princes and kings thrown about) – but these few issues had a much more telescopic life-under-water view than imagined, which was sort of nifty, Bill drawing wavey watery lines into and throughout each panel, and I dug that we’d entered our story from afar, with Namor wandering about the seas, wondering if he should return to Atlantis to rule. (‘Cause I guess he’d left some point prior to issue 58.) It was a quieter series of events than the disasters-wrought-by-dickitude I was sorta thinkin’.
Gerber enters this picture because of Bill’s declining health, scripting the creator’s plots. And then after three issues, Bill must release his pencils to Don Heck for most of the run, with Jim Mooney doing an ish. Heck is a classic, but it’s not a great switch from the detailed, swooping work of Bill, or for the weightlessness of the underwater worlds. When things switch over to more land-bound events, though, in the latter half of these issues, Heck’s work starts to pick up and feel like a good fit. There was also a continual struggle over the book’s direction. Some editorials fill in the details, but essentially, Everett pops in and out as plotter, and while this seems to majorly impact Steve’s ability to work any magic, it also reigns in his most random tendencies, ironically then keeping the book thematically only track – different races / mindsets trying and failing to live together; cycles of war. Gerber is to be complimented for ghosting over Bill’s plotting without getting in his way, adding his prose-y flair to matters, and then because Everett comes and goes with story involvement, he can’t go too far afield. Everett’s death around issue 65 or 66 allowed the team to rethink Subby, which sort of solidified this approach: Steve had to clean up storylines and give Subby a new direction, both of which he successfully did. It’s thus an amusingly linear run of issues for Steve, suggesting that, while he might not’ve been able to deliver the emotional highs of Man-Thing or Howard – when he’s allowed more editorial freedom – that he was also capable of giving us great, more standard comic book hijinks when kept on a track, and without the flailing that sometimes occurs in those other books when he gets overwhelmed with his own ideas.
A lot of good concepts end up rattling around – an enemy from prior issues, the red-skinned Tamara, struggles with joining up with her blue-skinned foes; some forcefully mutated-to-breathe-underwater humans are questionably welcomed into a crowded Atlantis; a ‘Zephyrland’ alternate universe thing has some good goofs but also goes down some serious avenues, contemplating pursuits of power and the need for war – and Steve writes a good Namor, juggling his impertinence with splashes of self-reflection and understanding that actually make it seem like he deserves to be a prince after all.
I initially felt like this was a cluttered run, due to the way the focus seems to continually shift, but on subsequent rereads, its proven to be surprisingly strong, and really enjoyable, trailing out its storylines in a way that was actually somewhat unique for the time. There’s also some odds and sods new characters tossed in the mix – Dr. Hydro, and Force – along with lovably silly baddies, like Okra; the introduction of Subby’s black outfit (which I dig); and a backup feature created by Howard Chaykin chronicling early ‘Tales of Atlantis,’ which was an interesting attempt to mix Conan / Kull lore with that of Namor’s.