In the spring of 1971, roughly four months after he’d crossed over a couple of Marvel superheroes in Iron Man #35 and Daredevil #73, writer Gerry Conway did it again — though this time, the team-up tale started in Daredevil and ended in another title (Sub-Mariner), rather than the other way around. What was more, Conway even managed to work in a third marquee hero — the biggest star among the three, actually — although that hero’s title, Amazing Spider-Man, wasn’t itself a part of the crossover. Perhaps oddest of all, after getting the ball rolling in Daredevil, Conway completely dropped the Man Without Fear from his narrative, so that DD’s role in the second half of the crossover was limited to appearing in a single flashback panel.
Whatever the thinking was behind doing things this way, if the intention was to get Marvel fans who weren’t currently consistent buyers of Daredevil and/or Sub-Mariner to pony up for at least one issue of each series, then it worked, at least as far as my thirteen-year-old self was concerned. Having been a fairly regular purchaser of DD’s book in earlier days (through most of 1968-69, to be more precise), and an occasional sampler of Subby’s title as well, I very likely would have grabbed both comics even if there hadn’t been a third co-star. But adding Spidey to the mix made it virtually a no-brainer for me — as I suspect it also did for a good number of other fans.
Daredevil #77 featured a cover by the usually reliable Sal Buscema, and to be honest, it’s not one of his best jobs. Due to an apparent determination to give equal visual treatment to all three heroes (an editorial directive, perhaps?), Buscema’s composition is a good bit duller than the depiction of a three-way battle between these characters should ever be. (Though for an example of how well the artist could spotlight three heroes at once when they didn’t all have to be the exact same size, one need look no further than Buscema’s fine “Titans Three” cover for Sub-Mariner #34.)
Whatever concerns my younger self might have had about the book’s interior artwork based on its cover, however, I’m fairly certain they must have been assuaged when I turned to the opening splash page and saw the names of Gene Colan and Tom Palmer in the credits.
Gene Colan was about as familiar a name as I could expect to find in a Daredevil credits box, considering he’d drawn every issue of the title I’d bought and read save two (Barry Windsor-Smith’s #51 and #52, if you’re wondering) — and also very welcome, as he’d been one of my favorite Marvel artists ever since my arrival at the House of Ideas several years before. At this point, however, I’d had little exposure to his renditions of any of the company’s characters other than DD and Doctor Strange, and I was keen to see his take on both Spider-Man and Namor, particularly the former.* Meanwhile, I knew Tom Palmer primarily from his work with Colan on Doctor Strange and with Neal Adams on X-Men (plus one installment of the “Inhumans” strip in Amazing Adventures), though I’d also enjoyed the little I’d caught of his inking of.John Buscema’s pencils on Avengers.
So, Colan and Palmer reunited on Daredevil? Sounded good to me.
The emphasis given to a one-on-one confrontation between Daredevil and Spider-Man in Colan and Palmer’s symbolic opening splash, as well as in the story’s title, is a little curious, considering how important the Sub-Mariner ultimately proves to be to the story. Of course, Spidey and DD had fought/teamed up on a couple of previous occasions — first in Amazing Spider-Man #16 (Sept., 1964), and then again nearly two years later in Daredevil #16 and #17 (May and June, 1966). Their most recent encounter had (I believe) been when they literally bumped into each other in DD #54 (Jul,. 1969) — a two-panel Spider-cameo that, despite its brevity, rated a cover appearance by the web-slinger (though only as a “floating head”).
As the story gets properly underway on page 2, the focus continues to.be on DD and Spidey, and is divided pretty much equally between them:
At this point, Gerry Conway had been writing Daredevil for about half a year — long enough, probably, for him to feel he had a pretty good handle on the guy. It’s interesting, then, that he spends just about as much time on Spider-Man’s characterization as he does on DD’s in this story; you’d almost think he was auditioning to succeed Stan Lee on the former’s title when “The Man” finally decided to forego his regular writing gigs (and hey, maybe he was).
But as familiar as Conway appears to have been with Marvel’s most popular solo character, the comic’s colorist — probably Tom Palmer, according to a “Bullpen Bulletin” that had run in the previous month’s Marvels — appears to have been equally unfamiliar. I base this assertion on the fact that in a scene back at Peter (Spider-Man) Parker’s apartment, not only does the colorist get Pete’s hair color wrong (making it black rather than brown), but they even make the famously redheaded Mary Jane Watson a blonde:
No, this scene doesn’t really have anything to do with the rest of the story, and I could have just let it pass. What can I say? I’m only human.
Anyway… after several pages of both heroes independently grousing about their respective lots in life (with Spidey’s envy of Daredevil an added element of angst on his end of things), each becomes aware of odd goings-on at a nearby city park, and (also independently) each decides to investigate…
This story represented Gene Colan’s return to the character of Namor after several years. Colan had been the initial artist on the revived Sub-Mariner feature that began in Tales to Astonish #70 (August, 1965), though his efforts there were initially credited to “Adam Austin” — a nom de plume he used to try to keep his new gig at Marvel off the radar of DC Comics, his primary account in those days. It was Colan who, not particularly caring for Namor’s traditional triangle-headed look, not-so-gradually rounded the corners of his cranium — and thereby gave him the somewhat more “normal” appearance by which I’d first get to know the character, circa 1968. (For what it’s worth, I feel pretty sure that this change helped Not Brand Echh‘s recurring “Mr. Spock and the Sub-Mariner are the same guy” gag land better than it otherwise would have back then.) By April, 1971, however, the Avenging Son of Atlantis’ “classic” look had been restored, a move driven by writer (and Golden Age maven) Roy Thomas, and executed by artist Sal Buscema. To all appearances, Colan doesn’t seem to have resisted this reversion of his redesign following his return; in any event, Subby would remain reliably flat-topped in all of the artist’s renderings of him henceforth.
Thomas (working first with Buscema, then with Ross Andru) had been putting Namor through the wringer of late. His long-planned royal wedding to the love of his life, Lady Dorma, had ended in tragedy, with Dorma’s murder at the hands of the Lemurian villainess Llyra; a grieving Namor had since renounced his throne and departed Atlantis. Thomas’ last issue as writer, #39 (released on April 6th, the same day as Daredevil #77) found the Sub-Mariner traveling to New York City, where he learned that his human father, Leonard McKenzie, might be alive.
Such was the new status quo inherited by the returning Gene Colan, as well as by Subby’s spanking-new writer — Gerry Conway.
As with Spider-Man, Daredevil had encountered the Sub-Mariner before, though just once in this case. The two characters’ single meeting had occurred in Daredevil #7, — a classic tale drawn and co-plotted by Wally Wood and scripted by Stan Lee, well-remembered for its climax in which the Scarlet Swashbuckler, absolutely outmatched by his foe, refused to give up while lives were at stake,. Ultimately, DD’s courage won Namor’s respect, and convinced him to stand down from his latest rampage against the surface-dwellers.
Presumably, DD remembers how badly he fared against the Sub-Mariner last time, but that doesn’t stop him from getting up in the guy’s face once again — though, as he begins to realize in the panel below, his crappy mood may have led him to confront Namor more aggressively than he might have otherwise:
“Ol’ DD’s done!” Well, not quite; at least nor yet. Daredevil takes some pretty hard lumps, but nevertheless manages to keep himself in the game with his acrobatic leaps and spins. Of course, there’s always the possibility that Subby is holding back, recalling their last encounter (although the story never directly references that event).
And then, you-know-who finally shows up…
Spidey is successful in using his webbing to net Subby like a fish — but catching him and keeping him are two different things. The once and future Prince of Atlantis shreds the webbing with almost perfunctory ease, then proceeds to uproot a large tree to wield against his foes –and Hornhead and Webhead both realize that, even fighting in tandem, they’re way out of their depth:
“The teardrop explodes!” Yes, British musician and author Julian Cope appears to have been a Marvel Comics fan back in the day — one who was evidently so impressed by that particular turn of phrase that he named a band after it, some seven years later.
What do our three super-powered stalwarts suddenly behold? Well, Conway and Colan opt here to keep us in suspense for another page or so, and thus interrupt the proceedings with a scene focused on Matt’s former girlfriend Karen Page. But since that scene has no bearing on our main plotline, we’re going to skip ahead to its very last panel, and Ms. Page’s closing line: “Matt… oh, Matt…!” — which we’re going to the trouble to quote here just for the sake of setting up the first narrative caption of the next scene:
Evidently, the lady in the teardrop has a “usefulness” cutoff level for super-powers; either that, or her particular brand of mojo isn’t set up for detecting such less-obvious abilities as DD’s super-senses. Either way, the titular star of this comic doesn’t get an invite to the second half of his own crossover.
Not only does Daredevil not get to participate in the rest of the adventure, he doesn’t even get to remember his part in it up to this point. Oh, well — at least the memory wipe has the added effect of lightening his mood (though it’s not clear how or why).
To find out what happened next to Subby and Spidey, we fans of 1971 would have to wait almost one full month for the May 4th release of Sub-Mariner #40. This book sported a cover that has been variably attributed either to Sal Buscema and Frank Giacoia, or to George Tuska and Giacoia with alterations by John Romita — either way, it was a more dynamic and successful cover than Daredevil #77’s, perhaps because the artists were here only required to juggle two heroes, rather than three. (It probably also helped that they weren’t trying to make Spider-Man as big as Sub-Mariner.)
Behind the cover, Gene Colan carried on as the primary visualizer of Gerry Conway’s tale, newly joined by Sam Grainger on inks. Grainger might not have been in the first rank of Colan embellishers (as Tom Palmer most assuredly was), but he nevertheless did a creditable job rising to the challenge of Colan’s idiosyncratic drawing style (sometimes described as “painting with a pencil”).
In the story’s opening splash, we see our heroes still en route from that unnamed New York City park to… wherever it is they’re going to:
The journey continues for another couple of pages — long enough not only for a brief recap of events for anyone who missed the previous chapter, but also for Namor to start brooding again about the late, lamented Lady Dorma…
Namor assures Spider-Man that they both still retain their sanity — then, somewhat uneasily, urges their mysterious companion to continue…
The words of the mystery woman strongly imply that her people should be familiar to the Sub-Mariner due to a shared history.. Evidently, they’re either an offshoot of Namor’s own Atlantean race, or at least former neighbors; in either case, they seem to have been victims of religious persecution at the Atlanteans’ hands.
A few pages earlier, the still-unnamed woman used her magic wand to open a portal to a vision of the City of the People of the Black Sea — now, a little confusingly, she opens another portal, but this time it’s to the real thing. And like its facsimile, the City is quite a sight.
But though Colan and Grainger make it very pretty to look at, it’s still a bit hard to get a good handle on just what kind of place the City actually is. We readers can make a reasonable guess that we’ve traveled to some mystical dimension or another, but is that black background in the last panel of page 7 supposed to be the sky, or water? Do the People of the Black Sea live by their sea, or under it? The fact that they’re related in some way to our own world’s Atlanteans suggests the latter — but Spider-Man’s ability to breathe in this environment without any obvious help tracks better with the former.
Mister Tuval’s landlady goes on to reminisce about how, when the old man first arrived at her establishment, “sick as a freakin’ dog“, he was full of “fancy tales about far-away cities set in the middle of some bloomin’ desert“. Apparently this hasn’t come up in conversation since then, because the landlady’s mention of it now sparks memories in Tuval. “How long have you been this way,” he silently asks himself, “thinkin’ you were just another human… when now you know… you are much more.”
This actually does all have some bearing on what’s going on in the City of the People of the Black Sea, though we won’t find out exactly what until almost the end of the issue. For now, however, the story abruptly shifts scenes back to Spidey and Subby, whom we rejoin as the latter is enjoying a bath. (An activity which, incidentally, lends additional weight to the “not underwater” hypothesis regarding the nature of this locale.)
As in Daredevil #77, Conway seems as interested in exploring the inner life of Spider-Man as he does that of the book’s titular hero.
While all this is going on, the young woman who brought our heroes here in the first place — whom we finally learn is named Tuvia, as well as that she’s the City’s princess — leads a group of her fellow City-dwellers to the underground chambers where the challenger, Turalla, awaits. As it turns out, not only does the guy get to rule over the City if he defeats the People’s champion, he gets to marry Tuvia, as well. Unfortunately, Turalla’s mental powers clue him in to the fact that the princess has developed tender feelings for Namor (an idea the story does nothing else with, by the way), making him even more ferociously eager to meet this champion in combat, and destroy him.
Soon afterwards, a tearful maiden beings word to the Sub-Mariner and Spider-Man that the time has come for the former to face Turalla. As Subby prepares to go, Spidey announces his intention to come along in case Namor needs help…
So… tradition allows the “champion” to actually be two champions? But the “mutant challenger” isn’t allowed to use all of his powers? Seems like the odds are somewhat stacked in our heroes’ favor, but I suppose we shouldn’t complain.
And can only a “mutant” make the challenge in the first place? What’s up with that? Gotta say, I think the People of the Black Sea could stand to do a little serious thinking about their traditions when all this is over…
Working as a team, Spidey and Subby manage to knock Turalla down — but not out. And as Big Pink recovers, he comes after the weaker of his two opponents, hard:
Huh. I guess those ancient traditions don’t count for much if you’re willing to just, y’know, chuck ’em, as Turalla does here.
I told you that that cranky ol’ Mr. Tuval would have a role to play in our tale before its end, didn’t I? Don’t worry, back in 1971 my thirteen-year-old self didn’t see this development coming, either. (Though perhaps the gent’s name should have been a giveaway; these People of the Black Sea sure seem to favor cognomens beginning with “Tu”.)
Our heroes’ being saved at the last moment by a brain-bolt out of nowhere (at least from their perspective) may smack of being a deus ex machina resolution to the story’s central conflict, and in a sense it is. But Stephan Tuval’s intervention also foreshadows future story developments — he’ll be playing a role in Conway’s first major story arc in Sub-Mariner, featuring Namor’s search for his human father — so I’m inclined to let the writer have this one.
Like many other concepts Gerry Conway churned out in his first year or two writing for Marvel, nothing much ever came of the People of the Black Sea. While Mr. Tuval would figure into the next few issues of Sub-Mariner (and would even manage a return appearance in two 1979 issues of Captain America, some eight years later) neither his niece Tuvia, nor her erstwhile suitor Turalla, nor even their extradimensional City, would ever be seen or heard from again. It’s not difficult, therefore, for me to understand why many readers — especially younger ones — might consider this whole two-issue crossover to be an insignificant, easily forgettable story.
Nevertheless, a half-century on, your humble blogger remains quite fond of this little yarn. One good reason for that is the excellent artwork in both chapters by Gene Colan and company; but another, at least for me, is the role played in the tale by Spider-Man.
This, after all, was an era in which Marvel was still fairly serious about maintaining the web-slinger’s status as a “loner”. At the time of Sub-Mariner #40’s publication, the debut of Marvel Team-Up (the vehicle in which Spider-Man would co-star with most of the Marvel Universe’s other heroes over the next decade or so) still lay seven months in the future, and the guest appearances of Marvel’s leading solo hero in other characters’ books (and vice versa) were sporadic at best. (Spidey’s having finished off a two-issue guest-shot in Captain America right before moving into the Daredevil/Sub-Mariner crossover was something of an anomaly in this regard.) On those occasions when he did pair up with another Marvel headliner, it was usually for an adventure very much in his usual wheelhouse — entirely set in New York City, with a relatively grounded, street-level sort of threat to be dealt with (the aforementioned Captain America two-parter being a good example, in this case). Spidey’s journey into the realm of the Black Sea, by contrast, was one of his most outré adventures to date, comparable to nothing so much as to his team-up with Dr. Strange back in 1964’s Amazing Spider-Man Annual #2 (a Lee-Ditko classic I’d been privileged to read four years later, when it was reprinted in Doctor Strange #179). If nothing else, this story was at least novel.
There was also the aspect of the unlikely friendship that develops between Spider-Man and the Sub-Mariner, which I found oddly appealing in 1971, and still do. Perhaps Conway didn’t do much in the way of establishing what these two quite disparate characters had in common to allow then to quickly establish such a rapport (other than their shared sense of “responsibility”), but in my experience, there’s not always a clear, obvious reason to explain why a couple of strangers meet and almost immediately hit it off. That’s just the way it happens, sometimes.
Regrettably, to the best of my knowledge, neither Gerry Conway nor any other writer ever picked up on the idea of giving Spidey and Subby “more time — for talk, for fuller friendship“. I really do think Marvel missed a good bet, here; honestly, I can see the TV promo now:
Can two not-so-ordinary guys fight evil together in the Big Apple without driving each other crazy? Join us tonight for Peter Parker and Namor McKenzie in… The Odd Couple.
It coulda worked, I tell you.
*Colan had in fact drawn Spider-Man in a book published just a couple of months earlier: Captain America #137, featuring the first half of a two-issue guest-star stint with Cap and the Falcon. Alas, I’d managed to miss that one.