Superhero comics have traditionally relied upon a clear denotation of right and wrong, a binary of good versus bad, that is easy for children to comprehend. In recent decades, we’ve increasingly seen fans calling for “realism” in superhero narratives, with grittier and morally fallible heroes. Look no further than Batman v Superman and the fact that Marvel’s Civil War made it to big screen to see the evidence. Putting super-powered figures (especially otherworldly beings) in a world like ours removes a lot of the potential for allegorical storytelling when it forces the story to ask what superheroes would be like in the real world. It’s tempting to place these figures, with terrifying destructive capabilities, into the roles of gods–and monsters. That’s not an appealing look for most heroes, aside from characters like Morbius and Werewolf by Night, whose stories regularly ask what it means to be a monster in a world filled with super-powered beings. With an interest in examining a superhero in a more “realistic” context, Peter Milligan and Esad Ribic turned Namor, of all characters, into a monster in a miniseries for Marvel Knights. In Sub-Mariner: The Depths, Milligan and Ribic remove Namor from the larger Marvel narrative showing us how monstrous a being outside of that context can be, but more importantly, they remove Namor from his own narrative, allowing paranoia and personal demons to be the real monsters in the story.
Namor himself appears only briefly in the comic, and he’s the only thing that’s recognizably “Marvel” in the story, which takes place in the mid-twentieth century. The central figure is Dr. Randolph Stein, a scientist who makes a living debunking folklore and myths. Stein is sent to find a man called Marlowe and his crew, who went lost looking for Atlantis and its fabled protector Namor. Stein clashes instantly with the superstitious “deep-men” who make up the crew of the submarine taking him deep beneath the ocean, and he repeatedly risks their lives in his quest to prove the the superiority of rationality. Science and superstition are constantly at odds, but as Stein argues with his frightened men and eventually finds the massacred crew of the missing submarine, myth becomes to look more like fact. Despite the inherent danger of their journey, clashes of personality and belief provide most of the tension in the series. Stein is unwilling to entertain the possibility that Namor (or something like him) could exist, writing it off as hallucination. Even when he sees things himself, he observes that the dark ocean warps perception and that “the deeper he goes, the more he believes what he sees is actually there.” He argues that perceived attacks on the ship are the product of unenlightenment and hysteria, but this stance becomes less and less persuasive to a crew who believes that “science sounds more nutty than [their] deep-man legends.”
Ribic’s art further enforces the divide between the real rational world and the otherworld of the deep ocean. Stein’s world of science and rationality is characterized by a warm palette and lots of light, with straight lines forming geometric shapes. The submarine provides stark contrast with heavy black shadows over blue washes and rounder shapes. Off-kilter angles and bright pink highlights lend an eeriness to the setting, and the lack of hard outlines make the setting feel both tangible and suspect. In such an uncanny environment, it’s easy for the reader to enter the characters’ mindset and to see monsters hidden in every shadow.
Questions of perception and reality subtly pervade the comic, set in an oxygenated atmosphere that “makes men dream like they have never dreamed before.” While readers won’t share Stein’s skepticism regarding Namor’s existence, the creators are very selective in what they actually show the audience. Marlowe relays the slaughter of all of the men on his ship, which he never saw, as he was hiding in a garbage shaft. When Marlowe and Stein finally see Namor (who never speaks) in the final issue, the story cuts away and we don’t see what happens next. Stein’s only direct contact with Namor is tender; there’s no violence in his gently extended hand. When Stein is the ship’s only survivor, his explanation for his survival–a giant bubble of air carried him to the surface–is as plausible as the idea that Namor, a murderous monster, saved his life. In the end, Stein chooses to lie about what he saw, allegedly because the truth would “undo two hundred years of rational thought.”
The easy reading of the ending is that everything we saw was what really happened. After all, the title is Sub-Mariner, and Namor is on all of the covers, so readers can assume he’ll show up in the comic. But Milligan and Ribic plant seeds of doubt throughout the story. Marlowe admits that he was a changed man after the death of his wife and claims to have survived the massacre by hiding and feigning madness. When Stein and Marlowe see Namor together, the story cuts away to the other crewmen, who run in to find Stein raving and confessing murder next to Marlowe’s lifeless corpse. The deep-men are sure of Stein’s innocence, but maybe they shouldn’t be. Based on familiarity with Namor (and genre convention), Milligan and Ribic rely on readers to assume that the monster in the story is real, but they are careful with what they actually show.
Peter Milligan is clearly interested in the subject of narrative construction; he explores superhero narratives in Enigma, the artificiality of reality TV in X-Statix, and turns human identity into a malleable collection of stories in Human Target. He can’t have his characters comment on the action in Sub-Mariner (as he does in Shade the Changing Man), but he ties the story into larger literary tradition of terror of the sea. Quoting Melville, the series opens with: “It is well documented that, along with insanity and unnatural acts, fear remains one of the great perils of deep sea travel.” From the very beginning, the series encourages the reader to question what they read. We know that Namor exists in the usual Marvel universe and we accept it when the narrative tells us he’s a monster, but we never see him committing any of the atrocities he’s allegedly responsible for. In fact, our familiarity with Namor should make us more skeptical, as we know him as something of an anti-hero–the type of person who might save Stein after his ship’s whole crew is taken down by a strong current phenomenon. The characters are willing to believe in Namor because of legend and myth, and Stein’s skepticism is worn down, in part, by his own memories. Milligan wisely never tells the whole story, but it’s clear that Stein harbors some personal demons; he once encouraged (or forced) his partner Anne (the only named woman in the story) to have an abortion, likely leading to her death. Stein’s inner monsters only enhance and worsen his mental state, opening his mind to hallucinations and paranoia.
Ultimately, this story could very well take place in a universe where there are no superheroes, and the only monsters we’re left with are human. While it’s reasonable to believe that in this story Namor is real, at least, it’s Stein’s intransigence that endangers him and his crew. Haunted by personal demons, he lashes out against the deep-men, ignoring their warnings and often neglecting to exercise even basic safety. When he risks others’ lives, his ruthlessness isn’t so different from Namor’s, and he allows his crew to be sacrificed in vain when he lies to the world about finding Namor and Atlantis. It’s tempting to ask who the real monster is in the story, or at least to suggest that there might have more than one.
This is a story about ego and paranoia, isolation and confinement, and how men can become monsters. It’s clear that Stein is running from his guilt over his wife’s death, and it pushes him to pick fights against his better judgment. Even Stein, a bastion of enlightened rationality, can’t help but feel the effects of the descent, which becomes a journey into the depths of his mind and memory, as well as the ocean. While Namor and other incredible beings may exist in this universe, the most terrifying monsters are the ones that live deep within us, buried until terror shakes them loose and they rise to the surface. As the ship’s navigator, Nelson, tells Stein, “[t]he depths do strange things to a man’s head. The deeper you go, the more creatures start crawling outta the darkness.”