Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Review - Namor Visionaries: John Byrne Vol. 1

Namor Visionaries: John Byrne Vol. 1
By John Byrne
Published By Marvel; $24.99 US
Collects Namor, the Sub-Mariner #s 1-9

I usually enjoy John Byrne's pencils, but it's rare that I've liked his writing. I wasn't happy with either of his turns on Incredible Hulk (though I think I appreciate his first run now more than I did when the issues were initially released) but friends whose opinions I respected urged me to check out some of his other work. When a local comic shop went under 7 or 8 years ago, I used the unfortunate opportunity to fill up on Byrne-scripted comics I'd been recommended like Fantastic Four and Sensational She-Hulk. It's safe to say I didn't become a convert. The humor of Sensational She-Hulk came off as forced, and books like Fantastic Four and Alpha Flight seemed too heavy in exposition and too light in action. But Byrne's Namor, the Sub-Mariner surprised me. I liked it instantly and when I learned the earliest issues were being reprinted in one of Marvel's Visionaries collections it felt almost too coincidental. Believe it or not, I was writing a post about how I wished Marvel would collect Namor in trades and when I was almost done with the post, I decided it might make sense to double check and make sure the issues hadn't been reprinted without my knowledge. This was in the beginning of January, and a quick search on Amazon revealed Namor Visionaries: John Byrne Vol. 1 set for release in the beginning of February. I was happy to see at least one collection from the series, though I was less pleased that I had to flush the post I'd been working on and figure out something else to write.

Namor, the Sub-Mariner begins with Namor deposed from his throne and the world at large believing him dead because of the events of the 1989 annual crossover "Atlantis Attacks!" The comic opens with a crazed Namor bursting out of the ocean and attacking a village of jungle natives. A father/daughter team of scientists - Caleb and Carrie Alexander - convince Namor that he's sick and that they may be able to help him. We soon learn that Namor's violent shifts in personality - from the hero of the Golden Age to the villain of the Silver Age, and the shifting nature of his loyalties and temperament that has helped define the character since Johnny Storm gave him that fiery shave way back in Fantastic Four #4 - are the result of a unique disorder Namor suffers because of his singular heritage. Being half atlantean and half human makes Namor sensitive to spending too much time either underwater or above the surface. If things get off kilter, he goes nuts and invades Manhattan.

With the Alexanders' blood re-circulator, Namor feels like he's got a new lease on life and he puts a new plan into action. Knowing various locations of sunken treasure, Namor buys out a crippled corporation and uses it to begin a new plan for global conquest, but this time the kind that takes place in the board room rather than the battlefield.

If memory serves, when Namor, the Sub-Mariner was first released the character was promoted as kind of a new Bruce Wayne or Tony Stark: a superhero/business mogul. I recall full page ads of Namor in spiffy business suits. But while the Big Business aspect of the plot facilitates Namor's return to the world, leads to some interesting social commentary, and gives us some corporate flavored villains like the Headhunter, it doesn't seem to do much as far as re-defining Namor as a character; at least not in these first 9 issues. That isn't a complaint, mind you. I think, though, that one of the reasons I stayed away from Namor when it was first released was the aforementioned advertising campaign. I thought the comic was going to be about Namor arguing about stocks with underlings or filing cease and desist orders against Doctor Doom.

The term that springs to mind when I try to describe Namor, the Sub-mariner is a term that technically isn't applicable but somehow just feels right: pitch-perfect. John Byrne's Namor hits every note any Marvel superhero book of its time ever could have or should have, and it does it with a wonderful balance of romance, suspense and action. It isn't bogged down with fisticuffs, but when the fists fly they're big and loud and fun. Namor pursues love interest Carrie Alexander and later the backstabbing twin Phoebe Marrs, but there's no Peter-Parker-like pining over any single woman because Namor's far too proud to allow himself that kind of emotional self-indulgence. And as soon as we're hooked with the main storyline, Byrne introduces some other intriguing subplots. In fact, right now I'm hoping that a second volume is imminent just because I don't remember what one of the subplots - involving the original Human Torch and some WW II era Nazi bad guys - eventually leads to.

I remember in particular when I first read the series how much I loved Byrne's cliffhangers. Perhaps it was more because I didn't read Namor until after superhero comics started being written with trade reprints in mind, but it seemed to me Byrne ended issues masterfully on Namor. Specifically, the second issue ends with a great cliffhanger, and when it's resolved within the first few pages of the third, it doesn't feel forced or contrived. It's perfect.

More than anything, I enjoy Byrne's handling of Namor's character. I don't have a tough time accepting Byrne's blood disorder explanation for Namor's behavior over the years, though I could understand if someone did. Regardless, what it leads to is without question the most likable interpretation of Namor either before or since Byrne's series, and it's to Byrne's credit that he achieves that while essentially keeping Namor the same. It's still quite clear, for example, that Namor thinks very highly of himself and conversely thinks very little of most "surface dwellers," but he isn't the short-fused, arrogant, utter dick of Bendis's New Avengers: Illuminati or Busiek and Larsen's Defenders ready to declare war on everything dry every time he sees Ben Grimm eating fish sticks.

A perfect example is a scene when Namor summons some undersea creatures called therma-rays to help save the city. When Reed Richards tries to capture one for study, Namor puts his foot down but he's reasonable when he does it. He doesn't threaten Reed or swear vengeance on his family. In fact, while he's firm with Reed, he isn't even particularly rude. He remains the outsider he's always been, setting boundaries between himself and the other heroes, but he does it without becoming a furious caricature.

As evidenced by a more recent Namor series I'll be reviewing either tomorrow or Thursday, writers handling the character could take quite a few pages out of Byrne's book. Though they're over 20 years old now, the issues collected here hold up well and are a damn sight better than most of the attempts at reviving the character since. I hope Marvel gets at least 1 or 2 trades deeper into Byrne's run. The quality of the title declined eventually. Byrne's last issue on writing duties was Namor #33 and he stopped penciling the book before that, but while it was good, it was good.


Anonymous said...

Glad to see I'm not the only one who has a distaste for the more recent portrayals of the character.

Matt said...

I have fond memories of this series from back in the day; I should re-read it.

Another one I'd love to see some attention focused on is Mark Gruenwald's Quasar.

Gary M. Miller said...

As fun as this volume is, I have to say I'm waiting for volume--what, three? As hideously overcomplicated as it got, I must say I'm a fan of the issues where Byrne undid a grievous wrong and resurrected Iron Fist through a storyline that featured--no kidding--the Super-Skrull (in a rather inspired, "only by Byrne" method), Master Khan, and the H'ylthri (and how did I manage to spell that last one correctly without looking?). I agree that the book more often than not hit the right notes, and is an example of John Byrne at near the top of his form. (In story and art, for me that pinnacle is probably the first twenty-eight issues of Alpha Flight.)

Good stuff. I won't be picking up this trade since I have the singles, but it's nice to see these classic tales getting some love.


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