My Misspent Youth — Namor, the Sub-Mariner by John Byrne

I read a lot of comic books as a kid. This series of posts is about the comics I read, and, occasionally, the comics that I should have read.

According to writer-artist John Byrne, one of the first projects pitched to him upon returning to Marvel Comics after a late-nineteen-eighties stint with the distinguished competition was a new title starring the underwater monarch Namor, also known as the Sub-Mariner. The idea was back-burnered while Byrne instead returned to Sensational She-Hulk and presided over a run of the West Coast branch of the Avengers, both proving to be integral source material for the Marvel Cinematic Universe three decades later. Still, the idea of trying to do something new with Namor stuck with Byrne, and when the opportunity cycled around again, he grabbed it. “OUT OF THE DEPTHS… AND INTO THE 90’s!” screamed the cover copy of the first issue of Namor, the Sub-Mariner, and readers were further promised an all-new direction for the character.

Borrowing a bit from his own reinvention of Superman’s arch nemesis, Lex Luthor, as a corrupt businessman during his highly touted tenure with the Man of Steel, Byrne brought Namor away from his undersea empire to try to beat humans at their own game: capitalism. Namor would combat the ecological malfeasance of those who dwell on land by becoming a formidable titan of industry.

From his introduction in the Marvel Universe proper in the earliest months of the line’s founding family, the Fantastic Four, Namor had an antagonistic relationship with denizens of the surface world. Before long, that motivation evolved from vague territorial craving to a more pointed reaction against environmental abuse. Byrne made that dash of social commentary into a more primary part of the dish in his comic series. Namor was more likely to do battle with bad corporate actors and the ravages of oil spills and toxic waste than any of the salty swimmers from his regular rogues gallery. Of course, there was still space for the occasional muscle-flexing tussle.

It was the storytelling built around the abuse of nature, particularly oceans and waterways, that Byrne was clearly most engaged by at this point, though. Much as the many stories of Marveldom were built on bold refutations of the laws of physics and soap-operatic interpersonal drama, one of the qualities that most set the published apart was a willingness to engage in real-world problems amongst all the two-fisted adventures. Without ever lapsing into lecture, Namor, the Sub-Mariner was solidly favor in humanity practicing better planet stewardship, a very timely topic when the Exxon Valdez oil spill was still recent history.

This comic came out during the long stretch when I followed Byrne absolutely anywhere his pencil took him. That he was telling tales of a character with a long, intertwined history with the Fantastic Four — my favorite comic book figures and the team for whom Byrne did arguably the best work of his career — made it all the more enticing. The slow-burn storytelling, at least compared to what Byrne had done before and was still doing elsewhere, added more import to what was already a weighty book. It all added up to a sense that the creator was solidly in the place he was supposed to be, with a character that maybe no one else could do better in that moment. When the publisher was on the cusp of some very messy, trend-chasing changes, Namor, the Sub-Mariner was a classically crafted comic series. In these panels, a certain era of Marvel is coming to a close. It’s only appropriate that Byrne, one of the creators central to defining that era, is at the helm.

Previous entries in this series (and there are a LOT of them) can be found by clicking on the “My Misspent Youth” tag.

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