In May of last year, I blogged about Sub-Mariner #40, an issue that completed a crossover storyline that had begun in Daredevil #77 and which also guest-starred Spider-Man. That comic also happened to be the first installment of a ten-issue run written by Gerry Conway and drawn by Gene Colan and others; my younger self, having enjoyed the crossover storyline that kicked off Conway’s tenure, ended up sticking around for his whole run. But with issue #50, both Conway and Colan were gone, replaced in their respective roles by a single creator, Bill Everett — the writer-artist who had in fact created the Sub-Mariner, way back in 1939, and was thus one of the primary progenitors of what we would come to know as Marvel — both as a company, and as a Universe.
That’s an accomplishment that your humble blogger could appreciate, even at age fourteen. I had also enjoyed Everett’s vintage Timely/Atlas artwork when I’d seen it reprinted, not to mention his much more recent cover for Sub-Mariner Annual #2 (a giant-sized issue which reprinted old Subby stories from his mid-1960s run in Tales to Astonish, drawn by Colan and written by Stan Lee). But evidently, the young fan that I was in March, 1972 (the month that Sub-Mariner #50 came out), couldn’t get his head around Everett’s art when I saw it in a contemporary comic-book story. The look of his work — which combined what might be called a “cartoony” approach to character design with a lushly detailed inking style — just looked too old-fashioned to me. Why was Marvel putting out a modern comic that looked so much like something from the 1950s? I didn’t get it. And so, while I have no clear memory of picking S-M #50 up off the racks, flipping through its pages, and then saying “nah” and putting it back, that’s apparently just what I did.
Luckily, I wised up within the next seven months, or you wouldn’t be reading this post about Sub-Mariner #57. But, one lives, and, on occasion, even learns.
Of course, even then I didn’t know — and probably wouldn’t have fully appreciated, if I had — how remarkable it was in some ways that Bill Everett had even been given the opportunity to write and draw the Sub-Mariner again, for the first time since 1955. Because while the creator had still been at the top of his game in the late ’50s, when downsizing at Marvel/Atlas (and contraction of the comic-book industry more generally) had impelled him to temporarily leave the field, his subsequent return to Marvel in the 1960s had been accompanied by difficulties.
Indeed, that return itself actually happened in fits and starts. 1963 found Everett back at Marvel long enough to co-create Daredevil with editor-writer Stan Lee — but only just. Due to the artist severely blowing his deadlines (probably due primarily to his trying to get the job done while also working full-time at a Massachusetts paper company, though a longstanding drinking problem may also have come into play), the debut issue of Marvel’s newest superhero ran very late, to the point that other hands were brought in to finish the artwork; and Everett was not asked to continue on the feature.
The creator’s next return to the company in 1965, after he’d lost his other job, went somewhat more smoothly — perhaps because Lee didn’t assign him to do full pencils right away this time, having him first do finishes over Jack Kirby’s layouts for several installments of the Hulk feature in Tales to Astonish. Soon thereafter, Everett moved over to the Sub-Mariner strip in the same title — first inking the pencils of Gene Colan, then doing the complete art. Around that time, he also became the first artist to follow Steve Ditko on the Doctor Strange feature in Strange Tales. None of those gigs lasted very long, however; according to Blake Bell’s Fire & Water: Bill Everett, The Sub-Mariner, and the Birth of Marvel Comics (Fantagraphics, 2010), neither Lee nor Marvel’s associate editor Roy Thomas (with whom Everett briefly shared lodgings for a period in the mid-’60s) thought that the artist’s pencilling was as strong as it had once been, faulting it for stiffness and a lack of imagination. His inking still had much of its old flair, however; and it was mostly in this capacity that Marvel would keep him busy for the next several years, as well as by having him do some coloring and production work.
Even in these roles, however, Everett’s work habits continued to be an issue; as Roy Thomas would put it in his 2015 introduction to Marvel Masterworks — The Sub-Mariner, Vol. 7, he was “the poster boy for blown deadlines and outlandish excuses for blowing them”. Nevertheless, both Lee and Marvel’s founder and then-publisher, Martin Goodman, continued to support Everett in his relationship with the company; after all, he’d helped put Goodman’s fledgling comic-book operation on the map, three decades earlier.
In March, 1969, however, something happened to Everett which would lead him to turn his life around. Following a three-day bender, he took a hard fall while exiting a bar and badly banged up his head and face. That experience led him to attend his first Alcoholics Anonymous meeting; soon afterwards, Everett became devoted to the AA program, ultimately becoming a sponsor himself. The subsequent improvement in his personal life began to show in his work life, as well — enough so that by 1972, Lee was willing to turn virtually the entire creative responsibility for the Sub-Mariner title — the pencilling, the inking, and the writing — back over to the man who’d created Prince Namor thirty-three years before. In some ways, perhaps, it wasn’t that risky a move — Sub-Mariner’s sales had been slumping for some time, so what was there to lose? — but it was still highly unusual at this time for Marvel to assign both the artistic and writing responsibilities for a continuing feature to a single creator. Outside of a couple of “Inhumans” stories scripted as well as drawn by Jack Kirby just prior to his leaving for DC in 1970, no one had done such double-duty on a Marvel series since Jim Steranko’s run on Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. in 1967-68.
Unfortunately, despite Everett’s having come to grips with his alcoholism in the here and now, many years of heavy drinking (and smoking) had taken a toll on his health; and it became clear almost immediately that the creator wouldn’t be able to shoulder the load of producing twenty or so pages of new material on a monthly schedule — at least, not without assistance, and other accommodations as well. Mike Friedrich (another young professional who, like Roy Thomas before him, would have the distinction of being Everett’s roommate for a brief period) came on board with #51 to assist with the writing, scripting from the older creator’s plots; that arrangement continued into issue #52, though the following month found Everett back on full duties again (albeit only for twelve pages, with the remainder of #53 going to a Subby reprint — also all-Everett — from 1955).
And so it went. Though my by then fifteen-year-old self didn’t realize it at the time, the issue of Everett’s run that I finally deigned to sample — Sub-Mariner #57 — had been immediately preceded by one on which he hadn’t worked at all (#56’s “Atlantis, Mon Amour!” having been produced by the team of Mike Friedrich and Dan Adkins). And it was only the second issue of the run so far to feature a cover by Everett, as well as fully new interior art and story all credited to Everett on his own (the first had been #55, published two months earlier). In other words, #57 was, if not quite unique, still a standout issue of Sub-Mariner, on several levels.
At this point, of course, you may well be wondering — just what was it about Sub-Mariner #57 that persuaded me to buy it, after giving the cold shoulder to Everett and co.’s efforts on the title for the previous seven months? I can’t claim to recall the specifics, but in recollecting the kind of fellow I was at the time, I suspect that it was mostly a combination of two factors, both of which may be located on the comic’s cover: first, the mythological theme indicated by the cover’s blurbed version of the story’s title (“In the Wake of the War-God!”); second, Everett’s fetching delineation of the distressed but beautiful young woman I’d soon discover was actually Venus, the Goddess of Love. Which of those factors weighed most heavily in my decision-making? Well, I don’t really remember, as I’ve already said. But considering that I was a fifteen-year-old cis het male, I wouldn’t bet against it being the second one.
Anyway, however it happened that I ultimately came to find myself reading the opening splash page(s) of “In the Lap of the Gods!”, the important thing is that I did get there in the end, right?
A number of critics have lauded Everett for his convincing and expressive rendering of water; this opening sequence provides a great example of his particular skills in this specialized area, with the setting of a storm at sea giving the artist the opportunity to portray the substance in a variety of forms and behaviors — driving rain, choppy waves, a geyser, and so on. And as you’d expect, later scenes set below the ocean’s surface will give Everett the opportunity to distinctively depict Namor’s natural element in yet another of its many aspects.
“Nereid’s nemesis!” It should be noted that in returning to write his creation in the “modern” Marvel continuity of 1972, Bill Everett was required to make some adjustments to his own original conception, both visually and in terms of characterization. For example, in contrast to the lithe swimmer’s body he’d had in the Golden Age, the Sub-Mariner of the Silver and early Bronze Ages was a more musclebound fellow. Similarly, beginning with Namor’s return in Fantastic Four #4 (May, 1962), Stan Lee had given Atlantis’ Avenging Son a regal manner and speech pattern that differed considerably from that of Everett’s scrappy, slangy young merman — a difference exemplified by the tendency of the present-day Prince to exclaim “Imperius Rex!” rather than “Sufferin’ shad!”
Everett mostly managed to work within the character parameters that had been established by other creators at Marvel in the interval between his ’50s and ’70s stints writing Sub-Mariner; the Subby we meet in these pages is appropriately beefy, and his speech pattern is recognizably that of the same guy whose dialogue Steve Englehart was concurrently writing in Defenders. Even so, there’s the sense of at least a slightly less formal approach evident in the exclamatory phrases Everett has Namor utter in this story, as well as in the rest of his run. No, he doesn’t try to slip in anything as old-school as, say, “Galloping guppies!”; but “Nereid’s nemesis!” is just far enough over the top to suggest a more playful attitude towards the Sub-Mariner’s adventures than readers had seen in a long time.
This is the first time we’ve seen Ares since Avengers #100 (Jun., 1972), in which the largest-ever assemblage of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes foiled the God of War’s nefarious plans to conquer Olympus, Asgard, Earth, etc., etc.. If you’d been wondering just what sort of punishment Big Daddy Zeus must have dished out to his errant son following that episode, the answer would appear to be… well, nothing too severe, really. Or very lengthy, either.
“Woman, if I knew the answers to all that, I wouldn’t be asking questions myself!” retorts Namor, just before he picks up the mysteriously transformed young woman and flies her to safety on shore…
We’ll pause here a moment for proper introductions to these two members of our supporting cast, neither of whom had been part of the picture when my younger self had bailed on Sub-Mariner with issue #49 — starting with “Nita“, which is actually short for Namorita. Namorita was a new creation of Everett’s, introduced by him within the first three pages of his first issue (in the “tried to save from drowning” incident Namor alludes to above) as the Sub-Mariner’s long-lost and much younger kinswoman; she also happened to be the daughter of the long-gone Namora, another Everett creation who’d been Subby’s close companion in the late ’40s and ’50s (and had even held down her own title for three issues in 1948). Like Namor himself, Namora and Namorita were hybrids, having both human and Atlantean heritage, which accounted both for their coloration and their ability to breathe out of water.
Initially depicted as having developed a romantic crush on her first cousin once removed (and sure, I realize they probably have different customs in Atlantis, but still, eww), Nita had since gotten over that teenage infatuation. Even so, Namor eventually decided that the girl needed more of a guardian than he could serve as himself, which in turn led to the introduction — or, rather, the reintroduction — of “Namor’s old friend, Mrs. Prentiss” — or, as Timely and Atlas comics readers of the ’40s and ’50s had known her, Betty Dean.
Betty had been around almost as long as Namor himself, having been introduced in the Sub-Mariner’s third adventure in Marvel Mystery Comics #3 (Jan., 1940). An officer in the New York City police department, she was sent by her superiors to entrap the Sub-Mariner (her qualifications for this assignment, according to one of her superiors, were that she was “an expert swimmer, easy on the eyes, and a darn good cop!” But Betty had managed to go her official orders one better, befriending Namor and enlisting his aid against the Axis menace — and in the process becoming, in the words of Blake Bell, “the woman the Sub-Mariner cannot have, but cannot resist.” Betty Dean would serve as a regular fixture in the Sub-Mariner strip through the 1940s and beyond, even as the post-war years found her leaving the police force to become a reporter. Her last appearance came in Sub-Mariner Comics #41 (Aug., 1955) — last, that is, until Roy Thomas unexpectedly brought her back in the eight issue of the revived Sub-Mariner title, published in September, 1968.
Thomas’ story in that issue had included a scene where a middle-aged woman calling herself “Mrs. Prentiss” interceded in a fight between Namor and the Thing in the middle of New York City; only in the story’s last panel did readers learn that Mrs. Prentiss was none other than Betty Dean, who’d not only gotten married since Subby had last seen her, but had been widowed as well. Thomas played this Peter-Pan-and-Wendy, “I’m ever so much more than twenty” situation purely for pathos; as he admitted decades later in his Marvel Masterworks intro, he never entertained any thoughts of having Betty Prentiss show up again. But, needless to say, Bill Everett had other ideas; and so, in issue #52, he and co-author Mike Friedrich had sent Namor to track Betty down and ask her for her aid in taking care of his headstrong young cousin. Of course, she’d agreed, and so Betty Dean Prentiss had once more become a part of Namor’s life… as well as of Namorita’s…
This scene is noteworthy for a number of reasons, I think. For one, though it clearly belongs to its era — the Vietnam War was still very much an issue in 1972, especially in the run-up to the Presidential election (Richard Nixon would be re-elected to a second term in office one month after this comic hit the stands) — in its highlighting of sharply differing attitudes towards the value, and even the legitimacy, of public protest in America, it still feels all too timely in 2022. For another, it’s interesting that while the then 55-year-old Everett frames his characters’ difference of opinion on this subject as falling along a generational divide, his own sympathies are clearly more aligned with Nita’s argument than with Betty’s.
Finally, the scene might be considered something of a rebuttal to anyone who might claim that the “relevancy” movement in American comics was over and done with by the fall of ’72, the cancellation of DC Comics’ Green Lantern earlier in the year having sounded the trend’s death-knell. Of course, Marvel had never foregrounded relevance in quite the same way that DC had, their creators’ commentary on contemporary issues generally being tucked away in the middle of a story (as it is here) rather than being its primary focus. Naturally, even after relevancy stopped being the Hot New Thing, that sort of commentary would continue to be part of Marvel’s comics (as indeed it would of DC’s, though perhaps to a lesser degree).
An earring, huh? That’s even cooler than a signal-watch, if you ask me.
Once Namor has arrived at Betty’s place, she and Nita take him to the site of Professor Starr’s car accident, explaining the situation along the way. Namor doesn’t have much hope of finding the young woman alive, but he assures Nita he’ll do his best, and then dives through the broken guardrail into the sea…
But the dolphin won’t go away — at least, not until Namor decides to follow where it leads. That turns out to be a large island, rising up out of the Atlantic in a spot where our hero knows no island should exist, onto which the seagoing mammal carelessly flings itself…
Okay, so she’s not standing on a mountaintop, and the flame she’s burning with isn’t silver, exactly. But has she got it? Yeah, baby, she’s got it.
Your humble blogger was obviously way too young to have bought any issues of Venus during its original 19-issue run, which had been published by Marvel/Atlas from 1948 to 1952. But I had been around for the recent Marvel Spotlight #2 reprint mentioned in Roy Thomas’ editorial footnote — an eight-page short, written and drawn by Bill Everett, that had first appeared in Venus #16 (Oct., 1951) — and for which Everett had even drawn a new frontispiece (see right). Based on that reprint and its Everett-centric presentation, not to mention the writer-artist’s use of the character here in Sub-Mariner #57, I’d spend the next several decades assuming that Everett had indeed created this version of the Greco-Roman Goddess of Love.
Such was not actually the case, however. Although it’s Everett’s work on Venus that has understandably received the greatest amount of attention given the title over the years, his earliest contribution didn’t come appear until its 13th issue. Earlier issues featured art by George Klein, Werner Roth, ans others, as well as scripts by… well, that’s a good question actually. Stan Lee was the book’s editor, and it seems reasonable to believe that he wrote at least some of the stories, especially in the early issues.
Originally conceived as a “girl’s comic” that blended humor and romance with whimsical fantasy, Venus evolved over time, eventually eschewing the humor angle in favor of a more straightforward approach to both fantasy and romance, and ultimately ending its run having moved into full-on pre-Comics Code horror…
… though the same basic character concept stayed in place throughout: Venus was the literal goddess of love, who, having decided that she wanted to experience life as a normal woman, came to Earth, took a job as the editor of Beauty Magazine, and then proceeded to have adventures.
The mythological aspect of the series was, not all that surprisingly, handled in a haphazard fashion — both in regards to the classical tradition and within the feature itself. Venus was initially depicted as being the queen of the planet Venus; and even in later issues that featured a more familiar Olympus as the goddess’ home, the writers would show Jupiter and company bedeviled not by the likes of Pluto or Mars, but by a horned god of evil calling himself, um, Loki. Still, even “modern” Marvel hadn’t always been consistent in how it handled mythological material, right? So why not bring the Venus of the company’s ’40s and ’50s comics into current continuity, to take her place among such other Marvel characters as Hercules, Zeus, Pluto, and (naturally) Ares?*
Namor agrees to help Venus save the world from violent holocaust, although he’s still not sure what he can do against a god. Venus explains that the key will be to lure Ares beneath the waves, where he’ll be in the Sub-Mariner’s element — and so, when Ares suddenly announces his advent with a bellow of “Desist, woman! You have betrayed me once too often!“, she tells Namor to seek cover for the moment, while she takes action…
As I’m sure most of those reading this already know, the relationship depicted here between Ares (Mars) and Venus (Aphrodite) is traditional; though generally portrayed as being married to Hephaestus (Vulcan) in classical mythology, the goddess of love also had a number of lovers, Ares being the most prominent. As regards the Venus comics series, however, while the god of war did turn up there a couple of times (under the name of Mars, naturally), it doesn’t seem that there was anything romantic about the two divinities’ relationship as depicted in those stories. (Though I should stipulate, I haven’t read the Venus series all the way through, and shouldn’t be counted an expert on the topic.)
Ares responds to Namor’s mastery of his tiger shark form by transforming himself first into an ink-producing squid, then into a sharp-nosed swordfish. (This sort of thing — gods transforming themselves into creatures of the land, sea, or air — is of course quite common in mythology. But it’s a relatively rare sight in American superhero comics.)
Not so fast, Venus tells Ares. First, he’s got to call off the war on the new continent. Only by doing so can he prove his love. Ares protests, saying that’s asking too much, but then Namor lays down the law: “Do as the goddess says, warlord — or you shall be a god no more!”
“The mind boggles at these supernatural events!” I feel ya, Subby. I mean, seriously — what just happened? Was the “new continent” and its war real at all, or was the whole thing just an illusion?
Maybe we should just call the entire episode mythic, and leave it at that…
By the time my fifteen-year-old self finished reading “…In the Lap of the Gods!” back in October, 1972, I was well and truly hooked. I thought that Everett’s story was a blast; and while the art was still sort of old-fashioned looking to my eyes, I now saw that as attractive. I finally “got it”, you might say.
In any event, I was back on board with Sub-Mariner, and would remain so for the rest of the title’s run — which, alas, wouldn’t be all that long, only another fifteen issues. Even more sadly, Bill Everett’s tenure would be considerably shorter than that.
Not realizing at the time that Everett had been receiving help in producing the several issues of Sub-Mariner that preceded the one-man-job of #57, I took relatively little notice of the added hands that were involved in turning out its follow-up. Sure, Sub-Mariner #58 had a scripting credit for Steve Gerber, as well as layouts attributed to Sam Kweskin; but the leading credit was still “story and art by Bill Everett”, and Everett even inked Gil Kane’s pencils for the cover. I didn’t have any reason to believe that something might be wrong.
But by the next issue, Everett’s credited contribution was limited to “plot” (though he also inked the book’s swell Namor vs. Thor cover, which appears to have been pencilled by either Jim Starlin [per the Grand Comics Database] or Marie Severin [per Mike’s Amazing World]); a situation that continued on into issue #60, even as the letters column for #59 noted that Everett had “moved on” from the series, due to deadline issues. And then, in issue #61 (published on Feb. 13, 1973), he was suddenly back — at least on artistic duties…
…though, as it turned out, only for the first four pages of the story, and for the cover. An editorial response to a query about Everett in the same issue’s letters page explained that after completing those pages, the artist had fallen ill with “the kind of illness that’s going to keep him off SUB-MARINER (or any other mag) for a month or two to come”.
As related in Blake Bell’s Fire & Water:
…the damage that Everett had done to his body with his smoking and alcohol addictions had finally caught up with him. In November of 1972, he had just finished running an AA meeting at Roosevelt Hospital and was walking through the emergency room when he had a massive heart attack. Had he not being in the ER at the time, he might not have survived at all. After a battery of tests, it was determined that he had severe coronary artery disease. The doctors scheduled bypass surgery—far less common then than nowadays—for February of 1973.
…The gang at Marvel was pulling for him: [Mike] Friedrich convinced [Stan] Lee to have [Martin] Goodman cover the hospital bills—a rare act of generosity from a publisher to an artist in those days, and a sign of the affection both men had for their partner of almost 34 years.
Unfortunately, Bill Everett died on the operating table during surgery, on February 27, 1973 — exactly two weeks after his final new Sub-Mariner art was published in issue #61. He was fifty-five years old. At his memorial service, which was held two weeks later at Roosevelt Hospital, the comics people in attendance were reportedly outnumbered by over a hundred individuals who knew the deceased through his AA work.
Bill Everett had one last credit in Sub-Mariner, for the “story” (i.e., plot) of issue #63, which arrived on stands on April 10th. Two months later, the Bullpen Bulletins page carried the announcement of Everett’s death; it referred readers to the pages of Sub-Mariner #65 for the fuller tribute reproduced below:
Almost a half-century later, Bill Evrett’s legacy is alive and well — not only in the form of his best-known creation, who at this writing is a little more than a month away from making his long-awaited big screen debut, but also in his actual art and stories, which are now more widely available than ever thanks to Marvel’s reprint and digitization programs. It’s a wide, deep body of work, of which Everett’s Sub-Mariner tales, excellent as they are, represent only the surface; anyone out there reading this who hasn’t yet experienced that work, or has only waded in its shallows, is encouraged to dive on in.
*Prior to my actually staring to work on this post, I was fully expecting to spend a few paragraphs grousing about how someone at Marvel decided around 2006 that the Venus of the ’40s and ’50s (and thus of Sub-Mariner #57) wasn’t really the Greco-Roman goddess of love, but rather a siren posing as the actual Venus/Aphrodite. Boooo! But then, once I’d started my research, I discovered that that particular retcon has itself since been retconned — and that as of this writing, the Venus who starred in Venus is once again considered to have been the real deal, while the siren-Venus has been relegated to having never appeared prior to Agents of Atlas, the miniseries that introduced the previous retcon. So, it’s all good, as far as this particular fan is concerned — for the moment, at least. Comics, y’all!