Sub-Mariner – The Depths # 1 (of 5)
In this slightly off-kilter Marvel Knights tale of no fixed time Prince Namor, the Sub-Mariner, is just another myth to be disproved, a sailor’s story told around the table in the mess hall. Just another flight of fancy to be debunked by the sceptical scientist hired to investigate reports that the lost world of Atlantis has been found. Off they go, into the depths, a submarine on a mission and a shadowy figure drifting in the waters above.
But this isn’t your typical Marvel comic. For a start, the Sub-Mariner himself is almost absent in his own comic. Barring the cover and the next issue page all you really see of him are three blurry, deliberately out of focus underwater shots. The entire issue is spent analysing just what it is that makes the myth and legends of the Sub-Mariner almost more powerful than the man himself. It comes down to an ideological debate; the sceptical scientist versus the believing sailors he shares a submarine with.
Milligan’s story is an absolute cracker in concept and execution – despite the fact that the whole comic is an ultra modern exercise in completely decompressed storytelling, over almost before it’s begun, pages with minimal action, minimal events and minimal dialogue. He’s walked a delicate tightrope and managed to create a sense of time dragging as intrigue builds, characters are explored and the submarine travels further and further into Namor’s realms. (Think of the quiet moments in Jaws – you know what’s coming, but it’s the sense of impending doom that creates a certain dramatic tension).
It’s all perfectly done and great to read, supported by the artwork of Esad Ribic, that I really didn’t think much of in his recent Silver Surfer series, but seems a lot more suited to the Sub-Mariner. Take the page below: The submarine has just hit something, or more likely, been hit by someone. The scientist looks out of the periscope and sees the Sub-Mariner’s shadow across his sub. And then it’s gone. Ribic really makes the whole book work on this level, adding to the tension and expectation that Milligan is pouring into the story.
But despite all this praise, I still finished it with a nasty taste in my mouth. In many ways Sub-Mariner – The Depths is a perfect example of the problems that are facing modern American comics today. Peter Milligan has crafted a delicate, intriguing story completely at odds with the incredibly open, decompressed style he’s using. The story is so unpacked that page after page passes with often less than one word balloon per panel. I’m not building up a case for a return to the Marvel Comics of my youth but I do think that comics like the Sub-Mariner The Depths, through no fault of either writer or artist, short change the reader, who’s paid the better part of £3 for a comic that takes about 3 minutes to read.
On the basis of this first issue I’m pretty convinced that Peter Milligan has written a really good, interesting and unusual superhero story. But it’s definitely one to be read in one go, definitely one to wait for the trade collected edition rather than individual issues. Anything else is just an exercise in testing exactly how unsatisfying modern decompressed comics can be these days.
Richard Bruton is still pitching his idea of resurrecting cult TV show The Man From Atlantis as a comic.