Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Sub-Mariner: The Depths

Sub-Mariner: The Depths
by Peter Milligan and Esad Ribic

Garrett Martin: We talked about this one before, at least the first issue. We both kinda liked it. Maybe I liked it more? But back in October I typed this thing, as found in that post linked above: “I do hope the series retains that sense of history and otherworldliness”. ‘Cuz, yeah, this book is set in a historical time period of some sort, and is all about some uneasy mysteriousness. To recap: it’s the past, and a famed scientist and skeptic sets out in a submarine to disprove the existence of Atlantis and the Sub-Mariner. Shit gets spooky and said skeptic maybe reconsiders some things a bit. Namor pops up very briefly, but exists mostly as this ominous force that incites fear and much questioning of the self. In using Marvel’s oldest superhero, and the far older legends he is related to, Milligan examines the contentious relationship between science and faith. Or some such shit. I’m just glad that punching and wing-anklets and Imperius Rex-ing were kept at a distance. What do you think of the final product?

Hillary Brown: I think it's pretty good, although it gets a little confusing at the end, and sometimes the muted look of the art makes you strain your eyes too hard (especially when combined with handwriting-style lettering on some pages). I'm not sure that it really has anything to say in the end, though. Don't fuck with the ocean? The Sub-Mariner is cooler than you think? Science shouldn't overstep its bounds? Maybe it's just that I either agree or disagree with each of those potential points fairly easily, meaning there's not much that provokes a lot of thought. My complaints from the first round (art is too soft, too photo-referenced) still stand, but there are some genuinely lovely pages under the sea that really capture something about the limits of vision in a dark place underwater, the way glimpses can frighten. In other words, what seems like a weakness (lack of sharpness) may actually be a strength. But what do I think of the narrative? It's pretty smart, and yet it fails to make me love it. Why?

GM: Maybe 'cuz it's not even trying to say anything? Or maybe because, despite basically being a creepy horror movie about a thoroughly silly superhero, it never becomes especially shocking or outlandish? I'm glad they were able to keep that tone and atmosphere throughout all five issues, but it doesn't provide much in the way of memorable setpieces or dramatic high-points. It's just a smart little piece of genre work, but not in the genre you'd expect from a Sub-Mariner comic. Superhero fans usually reject or inordinately hype superhero comics that aren't really superhero comics (see Unstable Molecules for an example of either reaction), but The Depths is so muted and low-key that either extreme would be hard to justify.

I'm still surprised that I'm not bothered more by the art. It fits this story greatly, but would be completely out of place if Namor was flying around Germany busting up Nazis. So photo-referencing doesn't bother me when a story's not action-based, I guess.

Do you think the comic would be hurt that much if it had been published by another company, without the Sub-Mariner character? Do you think Namor's specific Marvel history adds anything to the story, or could any ominous, unknown presence have fit the bill, narratively?

HB: Well, I'm not super-familiar with Namor, even though I've read some of the early Marvel comics in which he shows up. I'm not sure that it benefits the book as much as it benefits and renews the character, adding some real menace back into someone who's kind of easily pigeonholed as a sea jerk. And, indeed, compared to some stories from, e.g., Creepy, about explorers who encounter the undersea realm and are punished for it/have to keep it secret, this is certainly subtler and better. So, was it overhyped? Or hyped at all? I admit that I recently removed even Tom Spurgeon from my Google Reader (too much noise relative to important signal for me), so I've been even worse, recently, at keeping up with what people are peeing themselves over. Is Sub-Mariner still around as a comic apart from this miniseries? And, going in another direction, do you think Milligan can or will do another miniseries like this with the same scientist but focusing on a different character? Or is the wad shot?

GM: There's no on-going Sub-Mariner series, but he pops up pretty regularly. And no, this wasn't hyped at all. The mini just sort of came and went, with only Milligan and Namor fans taking note. Unfortunately I don't think there's too many of the former around anymore. And unless the trade sells well, I seriously doubt there'll be any kind of a sequel. Pretty sure it was averaging less than 10,000 an issue by the end, which is well past Marvel's fuck-off threshold. Also, I don't think it would work with any other Marvel character, expect maybe Thor. You'd need somebody of mythic stature whose history predates the superhero explosion of the early '40's, and Namor and Thor are about the only two Marvel characters who fit that bill.

Good point about Creepy, and thinking of comparisons makes me realize that Depths is even more restrained (and, well, better) than most Vertigo titles. Vertigo's kind of the closest contemporary analogue, stylistically, and I'm pissed I didn't think of that earlier. Now that I think about it Depths kind of reminds me of Sandman Mystery Theater, at least the first twenty or so issues of that book. I might be totally off-base here, as I haven't read Mystery Theater in a good fifteen years, but both use Golden Age superheroes to tell stories in a different, but similarly pulp-derived, genre. If you haven't, you should check out the first few trades in that series. I think you'd dig 'em. It was about the only non-preexisting Vertigo launch title that didn't try too hard to be weird or alternative.

And man, yeah, I barely pay any attention to comic news anymore. Too busy with work and video game nonsense. If something doesn't get mentioned at Comics Should Be Good or elliptically referred to in a Tucker Stone review then I probably don't hear about it.

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