Sub-Mariner: Playing the Prince or Acting the Fool?

May-09-08

Prince Namor, ruler of the fabled Atlantis, is really just a half-naked dude with wings on his feet…a half-breed in a Speedo…a pointy-eared ne’er-do-well who plays the heavy as often as he plays the hero. Namor’s early exploits painted him as comicdom’s first true anti-hero. He had a fierce loyalty backed by a short temper. Of course, these are the same early days that portrayed both Batman and Captain America toting guns and flaunting some rather graphic violence.

It’s hard to believe that one of Marvel’s top three original characters (alongside Cap and Human Torch) has fallen so far from favor in today’s comics. Who would’ve thought that a fish-man in a swimsuit could drum up such high sales numbers in his early career? But somewhere along the way, he lost the audience. And, much like the early success and subsequent disinterest of both Ant-Man and The Wasp, Sub-Mariner has faded into semi-obscurity.

The history of the character is a bit twisted and contradictory (not much of a surprise for early comic book creations). His career began with a fight against the original Human Torch. Then, he joined forces with the Torch against Hitler as part of the All-Winners Squad. Later, Marvel history would be retconned to create a group called The Invaders that he also adventured with (not sure what they were invading or what The Avengers were avenging for that matter). A few brief revivals kept the character in comics, but as superheroes faded in popularity, so did Namor’s appearances.

When the Fantastic Four made Marvel a household name again, Namor wasn’t far behind. He has been tied to the team for decades, based on his unrequited obsession with Sue Storm. The character has been both a member of the Defenders and the Avengers, as well as a repeated ally of Doctor Doom. He has waged war against the surface dwellers and repelled attacks by Atlantean insurgents. He even once married his cousin. But he has never really found his niche.

Part of the problem is that no one has ever definitively explained who he is and what he’s capable of. He once exhibited the powers of various undersea lifeforms, channeling electricity like an eel and expanding in size like a puffer fish. At times, his creation was based upon the kidnapping and rape of his mother while in another instance he fought valiantly alongside his father. He’s been given wings on his feet and gills in his neck (and subsequently had both taken away and restored at various intervals). One interesting run had him heading his own business and fighting pollution. He even recently murdered his newly discovered son. Basically, Namor has been all over the place.

But look, this is the Marvel Universe. Anything can happen. With that being said, where does Namor fit? What are his strengths? Who does he surround himself with? How can Marvel somehow make him a relevant, interesting and involved character again?

Ah Namor. You know, I never really enjoyed this character much until John Byrne’s series from the early 1990’s, which I thought was the first time I had really seen the character start to move toward fulfilling his potential. Now, going back and reading a lot of Namor comics from the past decades, I can state that I rarely find him particularly interesting. That’s not to say that I don’t feel the character has potential, because I do. I just don’t think very many creators have used him as well as he could be used. Besides Byrne, I also enjoyed the (very short) time Roger Stern used him in the Avengers (yes, I’m going to praise the Stern run on the Avengers again. Look, it was a creative high point for that title….deal with it unbelievers!). I thought that Namor worked well in that setting. He’s a powerful monarch and head of state, and he’s being ordered around by a woman who’s power is to grow small, sprout wings, and design costumes. There’s obviously going to be friction! Plus, I thought playing Namor against Hercules was a very inspired move, as it brought out the best in both of them. So he worked in a team, but on his own?

I think one of the things that really defines Namor (and its why, although I like him in team settings, he rarely stays in them for long) is that he is a loner. He has no real long term relationships amongst the superhuman set, with a few notable exceptions (I would say Captain America and the Invisible Woman being those exceptions, with perhaps the original Defenders being included as well. I would argue that you can’t really include any of the Fantastic Four except for Sue, since the men really have never seemed to like him much at all.). Most other heroes either don’t like him, don’t understand him, or don’t know him. Even if some of the older Namor comics from the 1960s and 1970s, when he ruled Atlantis, seemed to rarely show him with much of a connection to even other Atlanteans! You can’t even really count his love interests, since both of his wives (Dorma and Marrina) died very shortly after he married them. He has had passing dalliances with others and short lived alliances, but really, there is always a sense of cold distance between Namor and his allies. I think that makes him somewhat unique and I think it’s something on which to focus.

I don’t necessarily believe that Namor acts like this because he wants to be alone. He’s someone who has never really known his family and who has been thrust into the role of ruler, and usually protector, of an entire nation. A nation which, powerful though it may be, is often on the brink of war with the rest of the world. I think that the recent storyline where Namor killed his newly discovered son is a perfect example of what makes him such a fascinating character in the right hands; he’s truly willing to do anything. I remember reading that series, wondering what Namor would do, and continually saying to myself, “No way will they have him kill his son.” Yet that’s exactly what they did, and it made perfect sense from the aspect of the story. Namor did what he felt he had to to protect his people and it’s his willingness to make those kinds of sacrifices, his ability to be the anti-hero when need be, that I really like about him. I don’t get the impression that Namor particularly enjoys the things he must often do (as when he killed his son). Instead, he has an air of gravity about him, as he realizes that he simply must do these things.

How to make him relevant? I would argue that he’s already relevant; he’s the leader of a foreign power, a power that is strong, that is independent, and whose goals are not entirely known to us. If that doesn’t make him a perfect fit for much of the world today, I’m not sure what would. Some people in the Marvel Universe consider Namor and the Atlanteans to be terrorists and violent warmongers, and they certainly have good reason, considering the amount of times Atlantis has attacked the surface world. I think those smoldering political tensions could make for an interesting backdrop to tell stories featuring Namor.

I must admit that I already had a path in mind for my Namor revamp when I originated this post and I was hoping you would validate some of that with your response (which you did). He is, ultimately, a loner. Plus, he’s the boss. He runs an entire kingdom…even though it’s only ever shown as one big underwater city. The only major complaint I have about him is that he comes across a bit like Tony Stark. And by that, I mean that his supporting cast is virtually nonexistent. He makes all the decisions himself and has no outside judgment to help guide him. To tell the truth, I think he’s better “friends” with Doctor Doom than with any other surface dweller.

So, let’s push him to that extreme. Why shouldn’t the Sub-Mariner focus all of his energy on politics and intrigue? Let’s give him his own title or miniseries that is less about punching other heroes in the neck and more about the drama involved in potential war. And wouldn’t it be entertaining if that war was with Latveria and the one monarch he probably respects more than anyone? I like tension.

There are a few things we need to understand first, the most important of which is scope. Atlantis is supposed to be a kingdom…an empire, if you will. Well, that would most likely mean that it encompasses more than one gigantic city, right? Every other country on the planet is a collection of lands and metroplexes. Why shouldn’t Atlantis be the same? And, since water takes up more than two-thirds of the Earth’s surface, ruling over the mega-country of Atlantis would be one huge ball of nigh-overwhelming stress every day of the year. What’s the economy of Atlantis? Where do they get their technology (and how does it work underwater)? How do they communicate with each other over such massive amounts of space? Hell, I want to know why things are always so bright in Atlantis when it’s hundreds of feet under the ocean!

I have my own answers to those questions, but I want to know what you think first.

It’s so interesting that you would mention that Namor seems closer to Doom than most superheroes, since I was thinking the exact same thing when I wrote my original response. I think focusing on the ruling of Atlantis is a great idea, and Marvel’s in a position to do this. Besides Doom and Namor, we also have T’Challa, the Black Panther, who rules the country of Wakanda….that’s three monarchs who hold places of importance in the Marvel Universe. Add in Black Bolt and Attilan, and we could do some fascinating political stories that center on the superhuman side of the equation….there are also numerous stories that could be done with countries not ruled by superhumans as well.

I think that trying to capture the essence of an underwater city is difficult, and while I’m not an expert on any of the undersea characters that have appeared in comics over the years, I’d say that no one has successfully managed it yet. I believe it can be done, but many of the questions you ask need to be answered. I certainly agree that it has never made sense that Atlantis is simply one big city. There should be multiple settlements scattered through the oceans, with Namor as the ruler of them all. However, each city would have to have it’s own, regional, leader. Whether they be mayors, governors, or a more feudal title like lord, regent, duke or baron (or, perhaps even more likely, a title unique to Atlantis), I believe introducing these characters into Namor’s story could only be beneficial. They may not be supporting cast in the traditional sense of the word, since I don’t know that they could be considered friends, but they’d be political allies and rivals, and could help to give Namor’s title additional characters. Having multiple cities in the kingdom of Atlantis also gives Namor a chance to be out and about and away from the capitol, which is important, I believe, for the action.

As for creating the details of their society, you ask some fundamental, and vitally important, questions. How the heck does their technology work underwater (and not just any water, but salt water, which would corrode and short circuit almost any technology that we have created). Just how much technology do they have? We often don’t see a lot of technology in their day to day lives (I don’t recall seeing anything like a radio or TV, and when you see people in the city, they don’t seem to be using much technology), but when they go to war, watch out! Suddenly they have massively sophisticated battle cruisers and weapons, dwarfing much of what the surface world can produce. I believe that somewhere along the line they may have suggested that they found a cache of Deviant technology or the like, but why would another race create technological devices that could be used so well underwater? Still, it seems that most of their technology is geared toward making war, and that’s something I think I would want to follow up on. Whether through choice or design, it seems significant.

You make good points. Even though the Marvel Universe is mostly based in our universe, it does have its own differences. Marvel claims that its strength lies in its reality, but we never really see that reality come into play unless it’s to the extreme. We’ve seen one or two references to President Bush and, of course, there was a strong reaction to 9/11, but there isn’t a constant underlying theme of our Earth’s political structure.

Here’s a great opportunity to bring in some intrigue and tension without it revolving around someone getting hit or zapped. Wakanda and Latveria are both run by powered beings (I’m not even sure where Attilan is anymore…the Moon? Himalayas?). And let’s not forget other established Marvel countries like Silver Sable’s homeland of Symkaria, the High Evolutionary’s Transia, the Ancient One’s Kamar-Taj and the island nation of Madripoor. Any combination of these countries’ interests, resources and reasons to rumble would make for some good stories and long-lasting consequences. There’s a chance in here to shape the Marvel Universe for the better by adding much-needed depth and dynamics.

Let me start with my thoughts on Atlantis. In current Marvel continuity, the city-state of Atlantis is no more, with Namor allowing it to be blown to bits in an effort to destroy Nitro. The Atlanteans have been scattered. And, to tell the truth, this is the perfect set-up for my ideas. Look, Atlantis made no sense. I understand that it was a thriving continent thousands of years ago, rivaling even the ingenuity of Greece and the power of the Roman Empire. However, once it sank beneath the ocean, that effectively brought an end to its relevance for the surface world. The people all became a subspecies called Homo Mermanus…Mermen (and mermaids). There’s no reasonable explanation for the fact that they continue to wear robes and fancy jewelry like the court of Camelot, yet their city looks like something out of The Jetsons with its futuristic shapes and advanced technology. The entire scene is anachronistic.

So the whole place goes BOOM. Excellent. Let’s start over from scratch. What is the Atlantean economy based on? Who do they trade with and what are their products? If there’s a trade agreement with some nations of the surface world, I would guess that it’s based on fishing and mining. And, if it’s not, it should be. The Atlanteans are much better equipped for procuring those resources than anyone in the surface world. Plus, if you look at Atlantis like any other country, wouldn’t it have drilling rights on its own land? And, extrapolating that idea a step further, if a surface nation owns the airspace over its land, wouldn’t Atlantis actually own the shipping routes that run above its land as well? Those are some interesting facts to base political maneuvering upon.

The other economy that makes perfect sense, based on the location and circumstances of Atlantis, is piracy. If we establish that the nation of Atlantis is actually many smaller cities and outposts spread out across all the planet’s oceans, then it would be plausible that some of these smaller locations would supplement their survival by robbing passing cruise ships, helping themselves to the various goods found on merchant vessels, and even capturing some armaments from smugglers and submarines. This could lead to a lot of conflicts and potential showdowns.

Further exploring the New Atlantis, I would guess that it would be a massive undertaking to rebuild their capital city. Perhaps they don’t do it right away. What if they take to whatever natural shelters they can find? Let’s say that their cities are now based around shipwrecks, caverns and underwater ruins…a loose collection of villages connected by the currents. Each one of these “states’ would be run by a governor (a Mer-Duke or Mer-Chief…or, taking Greek/Roman reference, Argos or Archos for “leader”) and these leaders would make great friends and foils for Prince Namor’s rule. Depending on which direction we take Atlantis in, they could even build a “mafia”-like relationship among the leaders where each state is run by a boss who reports to Namor and Namor in turn has his consigliere for direction.

I’m not an actual scientist, but I’d throw it out there that sound travels further underwater. Perhaps they can set up some sort of rudimentary communications system based on that premise (like whales speaking to each other). And, while the previous Atlantis was bathed in glorious sunlight, it would make sense if New Atlantis was mostly shrouded in darkness. Their main light sources would come from phosphorescent algae, plants and fish. Maybe there’s a specific species of coral that can be treated to glow. It’s already been established that the Atlanteans controlled the planet’s “magma vents” to keep their cities warm, so I would suppose that their nation’s scientists would be focused on other needs…like lighting and communication technology.

Speaking of technology, let’s put it out there now that any sort of Deviant cache has been completely obliterated in the old city’s destruction. If there is to be new bleeding edge tech, it will come solely through pacts with surface allies. No more ominous battle fleets, laser weapons and similar doohickeys. The typical citizen of Atlantis will gather their “technology” from whatever they can salvage (and salvaging itself would be another form of economy)…spearguns, shields and armor made from pieces of ships’ hulls and giant seashells. I picture Namor’s throne room looking like the captain’s quarters from the Titanic, all decked out in fine linens, dark-stained wainscoting and gold-rimmed teacups. Hell, I could even see his court advisers wearing naval-style uniforms with gold epaulets and buttons. What their military may now lack in resources, it will more than make up for in sheer numbers and viable locations to attack from.

How do you like the set-up so far? I could go on and on (and I’m sure my next response will be just as long), but I want to give you a chance to react before I pitch my “big idea” to the world.

You have obviously thought more about Namor than I ever have. I’m awfully tempted to simply stand out of your way and let you go crazy, but I have to make a couple of comments.

In many ways we’re on the same page, but I have one nit-picky problem. Atlantis will, unless I’m mistaken, always be located in an ocean. An ocean means salt water. I mentioned this in my last post, but is there anything that is likely to corrode materials of any kind as quickly as salt water. I’m not talking about just technological items, but doesn’t salt water corrode most everything in it? Wouldn’t the Atlanteans have been forced to come up with some process of treating materials to protect them from the harmful effects of salt water? Or am I incorrect in my assumption on the dangers of salt water. I’ve been searching online for answers, and am having trouble finding anything helpful.

Beyond that, however, I do believe we’re in total agreement here. I had forgotten places like Symkaria, but countries like that are wonderful ways to draw in even more superhumans for the stories, yet, as you say, still tell stories with a little more meat on them. I really like this direction you have going and I think I will step out of the way and let you continue. I find it fascinating.

Again, I’m no scientist, but I’m pretty sure metals react differently in salt water. Gold, platinum, titanium, aluminum and stainless steel can all stand up pretty well to the ravages of the sea…although no metal should be placed up against another metal or galvanic corrosion could occur. A coating of protective paint, a wax finish or self-vulcanizing tape can help prevent potential damage. Oh, and ceramics are pretty much immune to corrosion. LESSON OVER. (But wouldn’t it be cool to see the Atlantean army all decked out in gold armor with big nautilus shells as helmets?)

Anyway, there are a few directions I’ve been thinking about for Sub-Mariner and Atlantis. The first theme would be something the Atlanteans could do on their own. Like I mentioned before, Atlantis should own its “airspace.” That means they control the shipping routes and they have say over who goes where and when. If someone breaks those agreements, the Atlanteans are free to take control of the situation. This could easily lead to the capture of nuclear submarines, the repossession of oil supplies and the taking of any number of import/export materials. Hell, they could seize control of the entire world’s economy if they saw fit. Might be a bit of a HUGE step for Namor’s goals, but it’s playable.

There’s also the piracy angle. Small bands of Atlanteans taking what they need from passers-by. Controlling, to a degree, the world’s tourism industry…or, conversely, working as the world police by cutting off illegal shipments of drugs and weapons. This storyline could start out with a few renegade governors allowing their city-states to proceed with piracy. The surface world could bring this to Namor’s attention and a civil war could break out within Atlantis. I’d also love to see the Atlantean Ambassador to the United Nations (has that been done before?).

I think the most complicated angle I’ve come up with involves Doom and Latveria. From the Marvel maps I’ve seen, Latveria is completely land-locked (with Transia and Symkaria in the region). But what if Doom decides that he needs a naval fleet to compete with other countries, or if he merely wants to set up his own shipping ports without having to rely on other countries to make deals with him? I say he strikes a deal with Namor to provide the locations. The Atlanteans may even take possession of a few small islands in the oceans and hand them over to Doom to strengthen his position in the world. The problem arises when Doom strikes alliances with other hostile countries and is soon mobilizing for war using the resources Namor has provided. Atlantis has been struggling to be more like Switzerland, but they end up working both sides of the equation in their efforts to remain neutral. Could call for some spiffy diplomatic showdowns.

The possibilities are endless, when you think about it. Atlantis is a country, but its boundaries are unlike any other in the world. And Atlantis itself has never really been examined as an entity…it’s always been about Namor getting overthrown or waging war with the surface world. We can put Sub-Mariner in a larger perspective while also adding to the depth of the Marvel Universe itself.

I think there’s also an avenue to explore some Lovecraftian villains in the title, something darker and deeper and more hideous than just a dude who dresses up like a shark. Another possible villain (or ally) comes out of left field…Diablo! Yes, the old Fantastic Four foe can alter the elemental make-up of matter. That’s something that could play huge in a civilization that depends on its water to breathe. His wizardry could aid the Atlanteans somehow too. Interesting, yes? Or maybe the Mole Man makes a play to have Subterranea recognized as a nation and Namor supports the effort…that’s one individual who threatens the existence of Atlantis because he controls the land underneath it. I’d love to see the UN meetings with all these various “nations” being discussed and represented.

Unfortunately, as much as the water environment adds interest to Namor’s world, it can also be a huge hindrance. His rogues gallery right now consists of mainly fish-based enemies. There are limitations to the back-and-forth allowed in any relationship he has because of the whole “most people can’t breathe underwater” thing. Makes sustained battles difficult, as well as romantic relationships with those who aren’t of his race. This is probably a big reason as to why Namor has never reached the same level of success as some of the other heroes.

By pursuing a chain of stories revolving around the politics and preservation of Atlantis itself, I think we can neutralize some of these limitations. It’s also a great opportunity to explore the politics of other Marvel nations and maybe even create some new countries. For instance, I’d love to see the Sub-Mariner dealing with the corrupt cartels in Madripoor. The place is an island and Atlantis could effectively put a stranglehold on it if they saw fit. Maybe that’s one reason why Namor and Doom get along so well…their countries have no direct contact with each other.

I dunno. I still see an image of Prince Namor sitting behind a huge desk in a room that looks like a turn-of-the-century ship captain’s office, all decked out in naval finery and plotting his attacks. Lots of ideas there. Pick your favorite or add to the list. This discussion must have brought up some concepts that you could expand on.

Lots of fun stuff in here. I certainly would love to see Doom as more or less a supporting character in the book. Doom is one of the most interesting characters in any universe, and he’s always going to make a book more complex. Political intrigue is something at which he should excel, and as we’ve seen in his most recent miniseries, Namor is no slouch in that area either. They both have enough experience with the other to know that they can’t trust each other and watching them trying to out-maneuver each other should be fascinating. Throwing in wild cards (like the Mole Man) is even better; but let’s try and take some of these concepts in baby steps.

Your concept of Atlantis owning all shipping lanes in it’s “airspace” is a fascinating one, although I’m not sure that I would use it as bluntly as you do. To me, this seems more like something that would make a good bargaining chip with the UN, something Namor could use to pressure them into working with his demands (“Well, if we wanted to, we could disrupt all of the shipping taking place above our territories”). Of course, the UN would need to know where that territory was, and more importantly, they’d want to verify it. It’s easy to know the airspace of France….France is right there on the map. We can see it. No one can see Atlantis, and if Namor says that his country sits under a certain shipping lane, the UN is going to want proof. By the same token, what if that area isn’t actually a good spot for Atlantis to be situated. Would Namor bluff his way along, claiming that Atlantis is wherever he currently needs it to be? If the UN came down to investigate, could Namor mock something up to protect his bluff (it’s not like the UN observers would be hanging out once they’d established that a city was where Namor said it was). Or perhaps they would stay; could they set up an underwater “embassy” from a UN country that would stay to monitor the Atlanteans. Then what does Namor do?

You mention Lovecraftian villains, and I think that’s an interesting idea. The Atlantean civilization is one of the oldest in the world. There should be myths and legends from it’s past that could be used as fodder for plotlines. Surely the Atlanteans possess secrets unknown to the rest of the world. When Namor first appeared he brought with him Monstro, a giant whale creature. Where did this creature come from, and does Namor have access to more like him? Perhaps this creature is just the tip of the iceberg. Perhaps the Atlanteans are acting as jailors for others like him; creatures from the Earth’s dark and distant past that the Atlanteans keep trapped to protect the world. What if the surface world, when tensions are high because of some of the events we’ve outlined before, attacks Atlantis and accidentally succeeds in releasing one of these creatures? Would they appreciate the centuries that the Atlanteans kept the creature contained, or be upset that Namor never revealed its existence? As an aside, this would be a perfect crossover with our Defenders team, mentioned many posts ago.

You’ve certainly helped make him an interesting character and shown that he can be taken in exciting new directions. I like a lot of your ideas. Surely Marvel would like to see one of their original characters succeed.

Ooh…you’re right! That would be a good storyline for our Defenders (and a nice way to acknowledge the original team’s lineup). The UN angle is important and could be played out in a number of ways. Have they ever touched on the whole aspect of making Atlantis an officially recognized nation? And having Doom as a regularly recurring character is a nice touch, seeing as how he doesn’t show up as much in the Marvel world anymore. Hell, throw in a little Hate Monger and some Red Skull and we can do a Super-Villain Team-Up relaunch! Okay, maybe not.

With the way things have played out recently, I think Marvel has a superb opportunity to reimagine Atlantis and its role in the Marvel Universe. Namor is a character who deserves to be given some added facets. And, if Marvel wants their playground to stay relevant, politics should take a larger role in the goings-on of the superhero community.


1986: It Was A Very Good Year.

Apr-18-08

While doing research for our Defenders post, I began to realize that a lot of great (and a few not so great) things were going on at Marvel Comics back in 1986. So here, in a brief and highly disorganized ramble, is a recap of the year that Marvel Comics hit its stride (I think).

In 1986, I was making the transition from middle school to high school. It was a tumultuous year. I was saying goodbye to friends that would be attending a different high school and I was filled with anxiety over meeting new people at my new school (our school district is kind of twisted, don’t ask). This was the year that I embraced comics completely and let my paper friends comfort me in the transition. Granted, I had been reading comics since around 1978 and collecting them seriously since 1984, but this one year had it all for me.

I wasn’t the only one in transition though. Jim Shooter was running a tight ship at Marvel and the publisher was celebrating its 25th anniversary. However, not everything was puppies and rainbows. Marvel was about to be purchased by New World Entertainment, which looked great on paper and added both an animation studio and a feature film outlet for their characters. Unfortunately, New World didn’t know how to handle the business and soon sold it off to Ron Perelman. The rest of the debacle you can read in Dan Raviv’s excellent book, Comic Wars.

So what was the big deal with ‘86? I’m glad you asked. First of all, a couple miniseries hit the shelves that changed the way I looked at the Marvel Universe. Firestar was a character I knew from the Spider-Man cartoons and I was curious as to how they would work her into real continuity. Balder the Brave was an unknown Asgardian to me and I was eager to learn about more than Thor and Loki. And finally: The Punisher. The team of Baron, Zeck and Janson just blew my mind. At the time, all were minor characters and I don’t think anyone could have predicted what would become of Frank Castle’s story.

Punisher #1

Aside from the focus on new characters, Marvel was pulling off some of its best ongoing work as well. We had Bill Mantlo writing Alpha Flight AND Cloak & Dagger. Mark Gruenwald’s Captain America run was in full force (as was his Squadron Supreme maxiseries). Walt Simonson was working on what would become an iconic run on Thor. The West Coast Avengers, a pivotal book in my comic obsession, had recently begun their ongoing title. John Byrne was writing AND drawing not only the Fantastic Four but ALSO the Incredible Hulk!?! Oh, and Peter Porker, the Spectacular Spider-Ham was still going strong too. Sue me, I like the funny.

Spider-Ham #12

It wasn’t all joy and excitement for me though. Two of my favorite books disappeared from the shelves forever: The Defenders and Power Man and Iron Fist. Also falling casualty to slowing sales were three licensed books: ROM, Star Wars and the Further Adventures of Indiana Jones (which was actually a great read).

Indiana Jones #34

Unfortunately, not only was the dreadful Secret Wars II going on in 1986, but the New Universe launched as well. But those travesties were offset by the launch of the new X-Factor series. And the end of 1986 marked the beginning of what I believe to be one of the best written storylines in all of comics history: Roger Stern’s great “Under Siege” run in Avengers.

But the biggest event of 1986 for me had to be the introduction of the new Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe. I easily lost myself in the pages of each issue of that title…memorizing every detail, every event and every secret identity in Marvel’s intriguing world. To this day, I still test the true faith of supposed fans by asking them “Which villain’s real name was Bruno Horgan?”

Marvel Handbook #8

Yeah…look it up, posers! (CLUE: He’s in the issue shown above.)

1986. I can’t think of a better time to be a Marvel Zombie.

Interesting that you would pick 1986, and yet, as a Marvel Zombie, you don’t mention The Dark Knight Returns or Watchmen, two seminal mini-series from that time as well. They show up on most people’s lists, but not on yours, since you’re focusing exclusively on Marvel.

I know that Maggie Thompson from Comics Buyers Guide has said (and she may not be the only or even the first person to say this) that everyone has their own Golden Age of Comics, and that their personal Golden Age is when they were twelve. I’m not sure that the exact age is always correct, but I agree that the comics of our childhood will always be our favorites, or at least hold a special place in our hearts. It’s obvious that this describes 1986 for you. I also have a special place in my heart for many of these comics, but being a cold, unfeeling android, I can often separate what is good due to nostalgia from what is good due to quality.

I wouldn’t dream of arguing the memories of your childhood, so instead of mentioning a few of these series where I disagree with your opinion of them, let me focus on the ones where I agree wholeheartedly.

I think Mark Gruenwald’s writing was always underappreciated, especially when one considers that he was doing it while holding down a job as one of Marvel’s best Group Editors. I think that almost all of his long run on Captain America is worthy of reading, but I also agree that he was strongest right out of the gate. His stories involving the Serpent Society and Scourge were excellent. Captain America is, I think, a difficult character to write well, but Gruenwald seemed to understand how to make him inspiring and heroic, without being boring. As Jason says, Gruenwald’s Squadron Supreme was another excellent read, and about fifteen years ahead of its time, looking at a superteam in a more realistic way. Finally, while it came out after 1986, I need to take a moment to plug the first few dozen issues of his Quasar comic. The later issues devolved into overly complicated messes that tied into some truly horrible miniseries, but the early issues were an excellent examination of a super-hero just starting out in his career.

I could comment on a few other series, but instead let me take a few moments to mention Roger Stern. You bring up his “Under Siege” storyline in the Avengers, and rightly so, as it remains one of the best multi-issue storylines in Avengers history, and truly in the history of about any comic I’ve read. Why Roger Stern isn’t currently writing four books a month will remain a mystery to me. I consider him one of the best writers I’ve had the pleasure of encountering in comics and I have been continually amazed by what he has been able to do with what have been some truly horrible comics.

Two series illustrate this point very well. The first is The Incredible Hulk which he started writing at a time when the book, to my eyes, sorely needed help. The Hulk had been a mindless dolt, running around the countryside having random adventures for what seemed like years. His comic was pointless and dull. Stern came on board, set up a new staus quo, introduced some supporting characters, and give the comic a purpose. He was the first writer in the series history to make the Hulk interesting for me. Sadly, his run on the title was very short.

He performed the same amazing feat on the original Ghost Rider series. Ghost Rider’s series had been boring me to tears since Tony Isabella left the title back in the 70s. The stories since then weren’t necessarily bad as much as they were unconnected stories which seemed to blend into each other. Again, the series lacked direction. Stern came onboard, and again, he gave this title direction. He brought in a supporting cast and gave us plots that made us care about these new people in Blaze’s life (and, to be honest, to care about Blaze’s life, which I had stopped caring about some time before). Unfortunately, he again left the title in a short time.

I could go on and on, talking about his work on Amazing Spider-Man, Captain America, and a slew of other comics, but instead, let me just come back to the Avengers. If I had to pick my favorite comic series of all time, it would probably be the Avengers. There are many reasons for this, but part of it has to be because I was lucky enough to begin reading it during Roger Stern’s run as writer, which thankfully, lasted quite a few years. All of his stories are good, but his run really began to take off when he was paired with John Buscema and Tom Palmer on art. This art team gave his stories a weight and grandeur that made them more than comic stories; they became epics. The “Under Siege” story was certainly the highpoint, but it was quickly followed by a multi-part epic where the team when to Olympus to fight the Greek Gods, which is almost as incredible. Never before or since have the Avengers so embodied their title of “The Earth;s Mightiest Heroes.”

Yeah, DC was pretty active in 1986 too. You mention Dark Knight Returns and the beginning issues of Watchmen…there was also the start of solo series for both Blue Beetle and Booster Gold. Crisis on Infinite Earths wrapped up in ’86 and the important Legends series began. And don’t get me started on indie comics…Adolescent Radioactive Black Belt Hamsters, Ralph Snart Adventures and the relaunched Grendel all saw print then. It was a pretty busy year for all comics!

I’m not saying 1986 was the pinnacle of comics as we know them (although, not being alive during either the traditional Golden or Silver Ages, I think it was pretty close). Oddly enough, I was 14 going on 15 that year…so not too far off from Maggie Thompson’s ideal. I actually started collecting heavily when I was 12 though.

Anyway, yeah I know which of my spotlights — *cough*Firestar*cough* — you’re referencing when you talk about separating nostalgia from quality. But I think I pointed out the reasons WHY I thought they were important and, frankly, it had nothing to do with quality but more to do with coming from a different place and showcasing something new.

It’s funny that you touch on Mark Gruenwald. Not too many people know this, but I actually had a letter-exchanging friendship with Mr. Gruenwald around the time of his Cap run. We talked about the changing times in comics and he advised me to read what I liked. I was actually quite upset when I read that he had passed away.

And Roger Stern was perhaps my favorite writer of the time as well. Like you, I would call The Avengers my favorite book of all time (I have quite the extensive collection). While I came of age reading his run on the book, I was also active in collecting the back issues featuring runs by Englehart, Conway, Thomas and Shooter. In fact, right now I’m reading Assembled! by the folks at AvengersAssemble.net. It’s a fun read about Avengers history. DK Publishing also put out a pretty book called Avengers: The Ultimate Guide written by Tom DeFalco…beautiful art and brief write-ups of all the prominent members of the team, their villains and the important storylines.