Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Sub-Mariner Depths #1

Sub-Mariner Depths #1
by Peter Milligan and Esad Ribic
Marvel Comics 2008

Garrett Martin: You're probably wondering why we're writing about a month-old issue of some random Sub-Mariner mini-series, a #1 that's already been followed by a #2, and, I assume any day now, a #3. It's true that a little bit of business and a whole lot of laziness has brought us here, but it's also true that I'm making a point to review this issue because of its surprising and fundamental goodness. Sub-Mariner Depths #1 is a far better comic than I expected. And it pains me to say that, 'cuz I used to expect a lot from Peter Milligan. I assume this book was only commissioned because of Milligan's good reputation, a rep that's been severely tarnished of late by a long run of sub-par superhero works. Yeah, The Programme was utterly unembarrassing, but otherwise Milligan hasn't put out a good comic since some point during the second year of X-Statix. Infinity Inc and Kid Amazo were (to varying degrees) wayward messes with a few nice ideas sprinkled here and there, and his recent-ish Batman and X-Men work has been mind-achingly uninspired. Even in the world of mainstream superhero comics, rarely has work for hire so obviously been work. So, yes, I had no expectations for this book whatsoever, and almost didn't buy it, which would've made it the first Milligan series I didn't try since I first read Shade the Changing Man back in 1992. It was a light week, though, so I dropped those four bucks, and was pleasantly surprised by what I read. It's not quite a return to form for Milligan, but, like The Programme, it shows that he's at least still capable of writing interesting and distinctive comics. Also like The Programme (and other, far better Milligan works like Shade and Enigma), it probably helps that Sub-Mariner Depths is only nominally about a superhero. But before we jump into the book itself, I want to hear some preliminary thoughts from Hillary. What did you think? And had you read anything by Milligan before?

Hillary Brown: Well, I guess compared to the last waterlogged comic we read and wrote about Sub-Mariner Depths is an improvement, but I wouldn't say I was nuts about it. I haven't read anything by Milligan, despite the fact that he seems to have written for about a hundred different books, so I don't know anything about his style. For one thing, maybe I'm just being pissy about fonts, but I think the handwriting stuff is hard to read, in a way that leads to irritation. And the art is a little... watery. I know I like Alex Ross and all that, and I'm not opposed to watercolor work in comics in the slightest, but doesn't this stuff look kind of washed out to you? And excessively photo-referenced? Okay. None of that is Milligan's fault, and the writing is pretty good, not to mention that it's an interesting take on the character. The Sub-Mariner's always been kind of a jerk, and the idea of treating him as even more vengeful and also kind of legendy is good; otherwise, he's just a cranky fucker in a bathing suit. I like where the story is going, in other words, and once they're underwater, the paleness of the surface scenes is replaced by an inky prettiness that's nice and creepy. I'm genuinely curious, as well, to see what happens, although I don't know if I prefer stories about skepticism that's proved to be correct or stories about skepticism that's challenged and found wanting. Theoretically, I like the first, but in practice the second often ends up as a better story.

GM: It's basically impossible to do the former in a modern superhero book. That's one reason nobody could think of a way to use Dr. Thirteen for decades; how do you have an extreme skeptic not look like an idiot in a shared universe full of magical aliens and dudes who can run backwards through time? I don't even know if it was a consideration, but by setting this story in the solidly pre-superheroic '30's Milligan eliminated that as a concern.

As you know I often have a problem with painted and obviously photo-referenced art in superhero comics. Esad Ribic's work here doesn't bug me, though, if only because the story doesn't really call for much action. I don't like when the art is flat and static when it should be dynamic and action-packed, but, again, that's not a concern with this first issue. Ribic's stiff, formal style also complements the time period, although it would fit even better if this took place in the 1890's. So in this context, I think Ribic's art is fine.

What makes this a good book, though, is Milligan's choice to focus not on Sub-Mariner as a character but as this frightening, mostly off-panel force that the sailors are afraid to even acknowledge, and that the professional skeptic takes as seriously as the Loch Ness Monster and compassionate conservatism. It's impressive how Milligan takes a 70-year-old character that's basically a one-note caricature, wraps it up in a narrative device that's not entirely novel (hey, let's look at this superhero as a supernatural deity and/or force-of-nature, and see how he impacts the lives of them normal folk!), and winds up with one of the better debut issues of late. Chalk it up to a sound concept and a sufficiently creepy and isolated atmosphere. I can't point to any single aspect of Depths that's great, but it's a good start to what could be a memorable series.

HB: If only they'd had submarines in the 1890s. Actually, wait! They did. I suppose the exact time at which it's set could be an artistic decision, but the story really would kind of fit better with that first great surge toward technology and the rule of science in the late nineteenth century.

Another thing that's probably been done before but is nonetheless clever is the idea of submariners and the Sub-Mariner. Different pronunciation, obvs, but it really points up his alien nature, in that he's free not to be encased in a metal cigar. That choice and the emphasis in general on human characters gives the book a kind of depth or at least hints at a more multi-layered story that might address dehumanization and the upcoming World War.

GM: Right, bad pun aside, this comic does have a bit more depth than what you come to expect from a superhero book, even in the age of weak political allegory like Civil War. Milligan's primary strength has always been characterization, and I like how he subtly alludes to Namor's typical self-righeous indignation solely through the impressions of sailors who've never even encountered him. This is the most assured work Milligan's done in years, since before he turned almost exclusively to mainstream superheros and felt the need to project every character's motives and desires on the side of a warehouse.

I do hope the series retains that sense of history and otherworldliness you point out. I need to pick up the second issue already and find out. Any interest in reading further?

HB: I do and I think I will. It's very "Jules Verne if I already knew the truth behind the mystery presented."