Saturday, March 7, 2009

Sub-Mariner: the Depths

This week saw the release of the last issue of Marvel's "Sub-Mariner the Depths" mini-series, a prestige project by Peter Milligan and Esad Ribic. The out-of-continuity tale offers an alternate look at one of Marvel's oldest characters, very different from the company's official take on him during their current "Dark reign" phase. Being a long in making painted project, it's easy to see how different the project feels for the company.

The editorial has long since abandoned focusing on creator-oriented mini-series as yearly "events", focusing again on the more traditional crossovers. Indeed, even the projects as innovative as "Wolverine: origin" and "Captain America: the Truth" ended up being integrated into continuity. Nowadays, "Marvel knights" imprint is the sole refuge of a particular kind of the project "Submariner: the depths" falls into. Compared with the character's last major showcase, it's easy to see that as an improvement.


In 2007 Marvel followed their immensely successful "Civil war" crossover event with a Namor series that largely flew under the radars of the fans. Exploiting the character's appearances in the tie-in comics, the editorial commissioned new Sub-Mariner material by Matt Cherniss & Peter Johnson, writers of the previously little known "Powerless" mini-series, and Phil Briones, a French artist that having penciled "the White tiger" project was still a largely new quantity to US fans. The end product was "Sub-Mariner: Revolution", a competent superhero effort that nevertheless failed to gain enough audience attention to persuade the company to seriously invest in that particular depiction of the character. The mini was eventually collected, but there was no doubt that it will be little remembered except as a part of the then-current Marvel's publishing direction.

Thus, it's a testament to the editorial vision, how so soon after the failed relaunch the editorial saw fit to green-light a new project spotlighting the character. The assumption was seemingly that it would pay to market Namor to an audience broader than the "Marvel zombies" that keep up with the current minutiae of their event-driven publishing. Marvel made certain that "Sub-Mariner" was their star artist Esad Ribic's next project, after being satisfied with his work on "Loki" and "Silver Sufer: Requiem". Being completely painted and sporting a more universal and unique revisions of the publisher's long standing characters, Ribic's previous projects were met with both high acclaim and stable sales. Bringing in Peter Milligan, a writer whose innovative work on "X-Statix" and DC's "Shade the Changing man", the publisher did all they could to ensure the vitality of the project.


Looking at the results of the collaboration, it's interesting to see how well the creators took to the added freedom, presenting a story that at every level challenges the expectations of a typical Marvel comic. And while "Silver Sufer: the Requiem" was satisfied with providing an relatively close alternate to Marvel's familiar superhero universe, "Sub-Mariner: the depths" couldn't be further from it. In fact, it surpasses even "Loki", that focused on the mythological foundation of the Nordic myth, as appropriated by the publisher.  

Literally, the closest thing Milligan and Ribic's efforts echo is the Namor's original appearance, trying to reconstruct the character's pulp origin. The result is a project that feels much more universal, when compared to it's Golden Age predecessor, but also dripping with style the creators' own. And that means opting for a very particular approach, centered on the all too human protagonists, which gives the book a completely different aesthetic.  

Following "Marvels", the publisher's most successful effort in creating painted graphic novels, one would expect the book to start as a grounded story but to achieve at least a healthy balance with the fantastical once the superhuman elements came to dominate the story setting. Remarkably, Milligan and Ribic are so confident in their talents, that they don't let their human leads leave the spotlight for a moment, which is a move not to be understated considering that Marvel is the predominant superhero publisher. That is not to say that the authors for a moment forget their particular task - the book remains first and foremost completely devoted to rebuilding Namor into a stronger, more licensable property. But it was hard to imagine that it would be done into an almost classical adventure story.

The story chapters open twice with the Herman Melville quotations, as if to note that "Submariner: the depths" dispenses with the traditional self-involved superhero continuity that has saddled the character so long. Starting in that vein, Milligan and Ribic are not the least bit sealed in by a new set of rules that characterizes their new inspiration. Quite the contrary, everything from the Jules Verne and H.G.Wells' "scientific romances" to Joseph Conrad's nihilistic "Heart of darkness" is used with skill and precision to fuel this particular incarnation of Namor. The authors are no doubt aware that such care coupled with artistic freedom is rarely visited on a character as continually revised as Namor, so they go to great lengths to distill a very specific pulp feeling they feel works best with the character.

And that is a story that could only be told decades removed from the character's beginnings, with Milligan and Ribic working to use the context to their advantage. The result is a predominantly horror story, working to use it's Victorian inspirations in contrast with old cinematic tricks. 

Working with rough models of monsters that could hardly withstand too much time in the spotlight, the film makers actively used the type of storytelling that would enable them to keep the threat out of the focus and in the dark, until the ending, where a couple of carefully selected shots would reveal the film's supernatural villain. Due to the cost of detailed computer renderings that replaced the familiar Hollywood props, such methods are not unheard of even these days, and judging by the success of "Cloverfield", when used creatively, the audiences don't object to them.

At first glance, it's kind of strange that Milligan and Ribic opt for that type of approach, when dealing with a medium that has always boasted its strength of being able to show the most fantastic scenery and epical imagery. Indeed, remaining to this day, the displays of that type of rampant imagination are one of the major strengths of the superhero genre, of which Namor has been so long a part of, that it's strange to think otherwise. And this is where the authors show their particular strengths, in deciding not to steer Ribic's talents in the way that has previously brought the otherworldly images of Silver Surfer's cosmical adventure and Loki's Asgard to the reader. 

Milligan instead steers Ribic to painstakingly render the cold valves of a submarine, diving under the heavy darkness of the surrounding ocean, alight only by the suggestion of Namor's spectral shape. Picturing him as almost a malevolent spirit leading the sailors to their doom is so contrary to the character's traditional faux-Shakespearean pomp, that it can be not only considered as refreshing but something much more. It's a mark of two talented professional providing a take on a seemingly simple idea, that is in reality both very well thought-out and laboriously expanded.

Cast and crew

Leaving Namor as a presence always one step ahead of the submarine, the creators provide the readers with a much different anti-hero in the spotlight. Doctor Stein may be a new quantity to the fans, but that does grant him a consistent characterisation that is not only the work of Milligan's particular take on the professional sceptic. Esad Ribic shines when it comes to depicting the brooding agression that works so well with the hints Milligan's provides of Stein's mysterious past. Brash and self-involved, Stein is indeed more than a bit similar to Namor's already established Marvel universe personality, but the authors are very careful to use up all of the character's potential in what may be his one and only appearance. Thus, contrasted to the Marvel's rigid adherence to a  two-dimensional personality forced upon Namor in the guest-appearances that constitute most of the character's publishing history, Stein really opens up to the reader as "Sub-Mariner: the depths" starts nearing it's end.

The same is true for the rest of the cast, that starts small but is gradually introduced to us. The self-proclaimed "deep-men" all mirror Stein's world weariness, but they come from the different background, forced to adopt superstition due to the uncertain waters where they make their living. Even then, Milligan opts to wisely emphasize the subtle differences in the way they react to Stein, and the threat of Namor in return. The story's divided in such a way that a particular crew member is subtly brought forward in each part that corresponds the most with his distinctive attitude.

The flow

Arguably, the story's greatest strength lies in the ways it's structured, managing to avoid the confusion that comes with so many different influences and goals. The story starts as an adventure, but quickly turns into a psychological drama when the search starts taking it's toll on the "deep men". 

Whatever the reader's expectations, his direction is constantly diverted, by the author's masterful pacing, that doesn't let up, and only starts getting faster as the horror of the story starts breaking through the already fragile relations on the mutinous submarine. Using Stein's ever-fracturing face as the center of the tale, the authors masterfully transition from one well-realised scene to the other, all the while making the reader ask the same questions the chacters face, as they question the reality of Namor.

Relaying on the voyage to serve as the vehicle for the character drama, the authors show all their strenghts by using just enough amount of information possible to convey all the gravity of the situation. The captions are sparce, and the dialogue frequently wordy, but written in such a stream of consciousness mode that it never breaks rythm. Ribic's art remains uniform and similarly never calls the attention to itself, devoting itself to making the story work first and foremost.

Final word

"Sub-Mariner: the depths" is first and foremost a thriller, made for savoring in one piece, and it will only give a complete experience when read as a complete story. Whatever motivated Marvel to lengthen the original story's format of four issues, showed itself to be a very sensible artistic decision.  It's only as a five-chapter tale that mini could achieve the impact it makes, first and foremost as a formidable comic-book story in it's own right, and a distant second, a reinterpretation of Namor's origins. 

The authors even manage to include one final wink at the reader, throwing a twist ending that intervows the fate of Stein and Namor  in a way that is both pulpy and fitting. 

We can only hope that in the future Marvel continues to break from their established formula and allow their creators even more freedom to depict their characters to the best of abilities. And what better way to continue the tradition but to keep Milligan and Ribic paired on yet another project?


Chad Nevett said...

I picked up the first issue of this and it was enjoyable enough, plus I'm a Milligan fan. Didn't get another mostly because I forgot and because of money issues. Hopefully, someday, I'll be able to get the complete series cheap in trade or back issues.

Vanja said...

I just read Paul O'Brian's sales analysis of the mini on "the Beat" and it doesn't look good:

09/08 Depths #1 of 5 - 27,275
10/08 Depths #2 of 5 - 20,653 (-24.3%)
11/08 Depths #3 of 5 - 16,906 (-18.1%)
12/08 —
01/09 Depths #4 of 5 - 14,269 (-15.6%)
Another underpromoted and largely unnoticed miniseries."