When Sub-Mariner #34 came out in November, 1970, it had been precisely one year since I’d bought an issue of the title. It’s somewhat ironic, then, that there’s a well-known direct connection between that issue, Sub-Mariner #22 and the subject of today’s post — even if it’s a connection that’s only obvious — and perhaps even only exists — in retrospect.
That connection, of course, is that both comics are generally understood to be major building blocks in the development of the Defenders, the “non-team” that, for some of us old geezer fans, all but epitomizes 1970s Marvel Comics (at least as far as superheroes are concerned).
The way that works in regards to Sub-Mariner #22 is that writer Roy Thomas had used that particular issue to continue a storyline he’d been forced to leave unfinished when the Doctor Strange title was cancelled with issue #183. The Master of the Mystic Arts guest-starred in S-M #22 with Namor; then, for the story’s wrap-up, moved over into Hulk #126, also written by Thomas, for a team up with Marvel’s Jade Giant. It was the first time Dr. Strange, the Sub-Mariner, and the Hulk had all starred in the same adventure, so it’s perceived as presaging the Defenders — despite the fact that the three characters never actually appeared together within its pages.
But as Thomas tells the tale (which he has in his 2008 introduction to Marvel Masterworks – The Defenders, Vol. 1, among other places), he’d had no thoughts of making a super-team out of the trio when he crossed over their individual titles; he was simply interested in giving his final Doctor Strange story a proper resolution, and these other two series he was writing at the time were convenient for that purpose. Similarly, he wasn’t thinking in terms of an ongoing series when he brought the two headliners who hadn’t actually met in that storyline (though they’d met plenty of times before that, of course, including in my own first issue of Hulk) together with yet another solo star as the “Titans Three!”, about a year later. So it stands to reason that he almost certainly didn’t have S-M #22 on his mind when he sat down to plot issue #34.
But regardless of the degree to which their advent was (or wasn’t) planned in advance, the Defenders were on their way. And Sub-Mariner #34, along with its immediate follow-up in S-M #35, was a harbinger of their coming — just as Sub-Mariner #22, along with its (almost) immediate follow-up in Hulk #126, had been a year before.
Marie Severin had been the regular penciller on Sub-Mariner when last I’d been reading the series; she had since been succeeded by Sal Buscema, whose work on this issue as well as #35 was embellished by veteran artist Jim Mooney.
Interestingly, though Roy Thomas was still the regular scripter on Hulk at this time, he didn’t feel any need to try to fit this two-issue guest appearance of Ol’ Greenskin into the ongoing continuity of that title. That wasn’t unheard of, of course, even in 1970 — and it would soon become par for the course, especially for Marvel’s team books — but it was still relatively unusual at this time, I believe, at least for any guest shot more substantial than a cameo.
Of course, the soldiery of San Pablo (one of those fictitious but plausible-sounding Latin American countries that are as common in popular fiction today as they were in 1970) quickly discover that bullets are even less effective against “la Mole” than land mines. The Hulk proceeds to scatter the hapless men (presumably without fatalities) before tromping on off into the jungle. A rattled soldier calls the bad news in to his commanding officer, “el General”, who also appears to be the head of state in San Pablo:
One thing that had changed in Sub-Mariner since Sal Buscema had taken over as penciller was the way Namor’s head was drawn. Artist Gene Colan had given the traditionally flat-topped Prince of Atlantis a more conventionally shaped cranium during his 1965-66 stint on Subby’s strip in Tales to Astonish, and most of his successors on both ToA and the solo Sub-Mariner title had followed suit. (One notable exception had been Namor’s own creator, Bill Everett, during a short run on the strip in 1966-67.) But with his very first issue, #25, Buscema had brought back the old look.
Interestingly, it seems to have been Roy Thomas who was responsible for this change, despite the fact that at this point he’d been writing Sub-Mariner stories featuring the “round-headed” look for several years. As the writer explained to attendees at the 1970 Comic Art Convention in New York City:*
Three or four years ago, for a period of about three years, Bill [Everett] shared an apartment with me… and we talked an awful lot about The Sub-Mariner. So the recent return, with Sal Buscema penciling, to the shape of the head and some other features of the ’40s Sub-Mariner were all indirectly influenced by Bill through a conscious desire of mine to undo what has been done with the character for the last four or five years, albeit by very talented people.
I can’t recall what, if anything, my younger self made of the change in Subby’s look. He’d had a round noggin in the few issues of Sub-Mariner I’d bought up to this time, as well as in Hulk #118, but I was also familiar with the more triangular take — mostly due to reprints of Jack Kirby-drawn Fantastic Four and Avengers stories from the early Sixties, but also via Sal Buscema’s own version of the World War II-era Namor in Avengers #71, not to mention Kirby’s more recent rendition in FF #102 (which had in turn been emulated by John Romita in FF #103 and #104). If I noticed the difference at all, I probably just chalked it up to the different artists’ individual styles.
Let’s see, now… both Namor and his top advisor, Lord Vashti, think the unpredictable, uncontrollable, unimaginably powerful Hulk would be “perfect” for the task of helping prevent the militarily-coordinated construction of a huge, weather-affecting “experimental apparatus” on a remote Caribbean island. Sure, I can see it. I mean, what could possibly go wrong?
The Silver Surfer’s appearance in this story is notable for a couple of reasons. For one, it represents the first time that anyone besides Stan Lee had ever scripted the character’s dialogue. For another, it was the first time that readers had seen the Sentinel of the Spaceways since the cancellation of his own title with the 18th issue, five months earlier.
That issue, written by Lee and drawn by the Surfer’s creator, Jack Kirby, as one of his last jobs before departing Marvel, had been intended to inaugurate a new, “savage” direction for the character. But there never was another issue, and so fans had been left wondering since June what had followed in the wake of the Surfer’s virtual declaration of war against the human race (as so memorably depicted in Kirby’s dramatic closing splash panel, shown at right).
Based on what Roy Thomas tells us here, however, what happened next was… well, not much of anything, really. In later decades, some creators would attempt to fill in the gaps between Silver Surfer #18 and Sub-Mariner #34 — but in November, 1970, we had to assume that the former herald of Galactus simply had second thoughts after taking a few minutes to cool off.
Sal Buscema’s older brother John had pencilled every issue of the Surfer’s title save for the last one, and Sal himself had inked his sibling’s work on several of those issues (including one of your humble blogger’s all-time favorite comic books, Silver Surfer #4). So it’s hardly a surprise that his own rendition of the character here closely follows the elder Buscema’s lead.
Having determined that the Surfer would be just as perfect for his current initiative in environmental activism as the Hulk — maybe even more so! — Namor swiftly swims to intercept him:
The Surfer, being accustomed to the void of space, has no more need to breathe air than the Sub-Mariner does — so Namor loses the advantage he usually gains when he drags his opponents into the drink. Still, the Avenging Son more than holds his own, up until the point that the Surfer quite rationally decides that their fighting — de rigueur as it might be in the context of a 1970 Marvel comic book — is, ultimately, pretty pointless:
Soon, the two powerhouses are well on their way to San Pablo — though, unknown to them, their approach is being tracked by the suspicious-to-the-point-of-paranoia General:
At this time, the Hulk hadn’t encountered the Silver Surfer nearly as many times as he had the Sub-Mariner — with whom he had a long history, extending all the way back to their short-lived, ultimately disastrous team-up in Avengers #3 (Jan., 1964). Still, Ol’ Jade Jaws had met the sky-rider before, in Tales to Astonish #93 (Jul., 1967) — and it hadn’t exactly ended amicably.
In other words, neither Subby nor the Surfer have any reason to expect the Hulk to behave in any other manner than how he does. But, hey, whatever.
And then, as if the General’s army wasn’t already beleaguered enough, armed revolutionaries descend from the hills:
Deserted by his “beautiful army”, the General’s mind rapidly descends into madness. Meanwhile, the guerilla fighters declare victory, and Namor and company figure everything’s worked out for the best:
The story continued in December, with Sub-Mariner #35 — and if the debut of the “Titans Three!” (never actually called by that name within the comics, of course, either by themselves or anyone else) foreshadowed the coming of the Defenders, then “Confrontation!” (by the same team of Thomas, Buscema, and Mooney) did the same for one of the best-remembered crossover events of the ’70s, the “Avengers-Defenders War”.
Before heading into their inevitable confrontation with Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, however, our threesome must first deal with the United Nations troops standing guard over the nearly-completed “nuclear weather-control station” that’s at the root of this business. Arriving on the never-named Caribbean island where the experimental device has been assembled, the Sub-Mariner and his allies attempt to reason (from a position of overwhelming strength, naturally) with the American colonel commanding the small U.N. force. Of course, Namor’s “request” to allow his Atlantean scientists to examine the the nuclear generators before the U.N. hits the “on” button goes over just about as well as you’d anticipate:
Following his orders, the colonel calls the Secretary General of the U.N. — and who do you suppose he calls?
I noted earlier that Thomas didn’t feel obliged to explain how the Hulk’s appearance in Sub-Mariner #34 (and, by extension, #35 as well) fit into the continuity of the Jade Giant’s own title. Along the same line, he doesn’t explain how Sub-Mariner #35 fits into Avengers continuity — though this time around, Thomas (oh, all right, “Stan”) feels obligated to tell us (in the first panel above) that he’s not going to explain it. (On the other hand, we don’t even get that much as regards how the story jibes with Captain America’s, Thor’s, and Iron Man’s respective solo series.) The overall effect is to suggest that Marvel has begun moving away from trying to keep its fictional reality 100 % internally consistent, but isn’t quite ready to admit it yet.
It’s a far cry form just a couple of years earlier, when editor Stan Lee was uncomfortable letting Thomas use the aforementioned “Big Three” Avengers as regular team members, apparently because he felt it worked against the verisimilitude of the comics to have those characters appearing in two different storylines at the same time. (Arguably, the tendency of Marvel’s writers to craft lengthy sagas, as well as to make liberal use of subplots — with the result that one issue frequently ran directly into the next — made this more of a issue for Marvel than it was for DC. There, Batman might appear in five different comics in a given month, but due to the one-and-done nature of most of the stories, fans could read them in any order without confusion.) By this point, however, while Cap, Thor, and Shell-head still might not be appearing in every issue of Avengers (in fact, they hadn’t turned up for the most recent one, #83, which also happened to be the first issue I’d bought in a year), they had apparently returned to regular, full-time, active duty, as indicated by the fact that it’s currently Cap’s turn to serve as chair.
Meanwhile, back on that unnamed Caribbean island…
Lady Dorma, Ikthon, and the other Atlanteans hardly manage to disembark before yet another craft, this one airborne, comes into sight. Namor recognizes it as belonging to the Avengers — and after he sends Ikthon and the others on to conduct their examination of “the air-breathers’ devil-device“, he leads his allies to meet the latest arrivals:
Now, who didn’t see that coming? Though, let’s face it — if these guys had managed to talk things through and resolve the situation without violence, we’d all have been disappointed.
The six stalwarts continue to wallop one another in the mighty Marvel manner for several satisfying pages, though without getting any closer to settling their differences…
At the sound of the horn, the six super-folks break off their battle, and everyone proceeds to assemble for Ikthon’s test:
Hmm. I’m not sure that either the colonel or the Avengers would accept the results of Ikthon’s test — which, on the face of things, just looks like he fired a weapon at the machine and blew it up — as irrevocable proof of Namor’s assertions, and proceed to shut down a bajillion-dollar United Nations project accordingly… but as Thomas’ dialogue in that last panel has already all but completely squeezed out Buscema and Mooney’s art, I think we’ve run out of room for further discussion.
“But perhaps we shall meet again one day — perhaps — !” Namor’s final-panel musings clearly indicate that, whether Roy Thomas was thinking about an ongoing “Titans Three” series or not, he was certainly interested in getting the gang back together sometime, some way.
He got his wish, of course, and then some. Apparently, sales on Sub-Mariner #34 and #35 were strong enough for Marvel to greenlight a series based on the concept, though with one not-so-insignificant change — the Silver Surfer could not be part of the new team. While Stan Lee was willing to let other writers like Thomas use the hero as a guest star on occasion, he wasn’t quite ready to let anyone else write the Sky-Rider of the Spaceways on a regular, ongoing basis. And so, as we’ve already discussed, when the Defenders made their official, Thomas-scripted debut in Marvel Feature #1 (Dec., 1971), the Surfer’s slot was occupied instead by the Master of the Mystic Arts, Dr. Strange.
Ironically, however, by Defenders #2 (Oct., 1972) — actually the series’ fifth installment, following three tryouts in Marvel Feature — Thomas’ successor as the title’s scripter, Steve Englehart, was game to try again to use the Surfer in the book. Perhaps thinking that he was only approving the character’s use in one story, Lee said yes — and Englehart proceeded to keep him around for about a year. Which was long enough for the Surfer to participate in the aforementioned “Avengers-Defenders War” — and also early enough that, in combination with his “Titans Three” appearances in Sub-Mariner, he achieved the status of being the non-team’s fourth founding member, at least for some fans.
Funny how things work out, huh?
But to return to 1970, and the conclusion of Sub-Mariner #35 — while the final panel’s text intimated that the Titans Three could return some day, it was much more concerned with promoting the very next issue of Sub-Mariner itself, and the long-promised wedding of Prince Namor and the Lady Dorma.
That turned out to be an even more epochal event than many readers at the time probably anticipated. Not only was “wise Ikthon” (the Atlantean scientist who figured so significantly into the storyline we’ve just discussed) revealed to be a traitor, in league with Namor’s enemies Attuma and Llyra — not only did Namor mistakenly marry a disguised Llyra, believing her to be Dorma — but in issue #37’s climax, Dorma died at Llyra’s hands. It wasn’t the first time that a superheroic headliner had lost his beloved to violence, even at Marvel. But it was still a highly unusual occurrence.
But I would be remiss not to admit that I didn’t read these comics when they came out. Rather, my thirteen-year-old self left both Sub-Mariner #36 and #37 sitting in the spinner racks back in 1971. Apparently, I still wasn’t invested enough in Namor as a character to commit to following his exploits when he wasn’t sharing the stage with other heroes, or fighting a major-league super-villain I was already interested in.
Indeed, the next time I would pick up an issue of Sub-Mariner, it would be for the second half of yet another multi-hero crossover. But that’s a post for another day.
*See Alter Ego #22 (April, 2003), p. 16.