This issue of SUB-MARINER was yet another comic that I got in trade with my friend Don Sims in grade school. It was right at the end of the run, at the point where Namor was about to go from a mainstay of the line to a frequent guest-star and antagonist, no longer quite able to hold down his own title. As a reader, I was never all that interested in the character apart from his interactions with other characters. I didn’t care one way or another who ruled Atlantis and had a hard time connecting with that undersea civilization. This was the same drawback that characters such as Thor had for me–though Thor would just as often be in stories set on Earth or in space, so that gave him an advantage that Namor didn’t as often have. That all said, as an issue of a book that didn’t exist yet, there was something mysterious and alluring about this issue of SUB-MARINER, no doubt why I coveted it in trade.
Marv Wolfman wrote this issue of SUB-MARINER. Marv would become, by the start of the 1980s, one of the best super hero writers in the field, and probably the scripter who most transformed DC;s fortunes in the nascent Direct Market. But in 1974, he was still finding his way and figuring things out. I also don’t know how passionate he was about the assignment, whether this was just a job to him or something more. The artwork was provided by the storied George Tuska, who was something of a second string mainstay of Marvel during the 1970s. He’d been a prominent player in the Golden Age of Comics, one of the relatively few who’d been able to make the transition to working effectively in the Marvel method. He was one of those guys who wasn’t a big fan favorite or anything but who always came through with solid, dependable work.
SUB-MARINER had obviously been struggling in the sales department for a bit, as the powers-that-be embarked upon a series of moves designed to try to overhaul the series and make it more appealing. Principle among them was giving Namor an actual super hero costume, a thing he’d never needed over the prior 30 years. In story terms, Atlantis had been struck by a deadly nerve toxin, one that put the entire population into a comatose near-death condition. That same toxin damaged Namor’s ability to live outside of the water, so Reed Richards whipped up a life-saving costume for him,. Now, Namor was trying to find a way to restore his people, and was truly a loner under the sea. The costume lasted beyond the end of the series, when plot threads were later picked up on in SUPER-VILLAIN TEAM-UP. Eventually, the Atlanteans were restored and Namor’s hybrid abilities restored so he no longer needed the John Romita-designed suit.
There’s not really a whole lot to this story apart from an extended fight sequence. This was a difficulty that plagued a number of Marvel books at the time, especially in instances when a book was running behind, as SUB-MARINER seemed to be. It was easy to give an artist a brief saying “And they fight for 10 pages” and then filling in the gaps with copy later on. This didn’t make for memorable stories, but it did get a product out onto the stands regularly. This issue opens with Namor in battle with the monstrous Piranha, an underwater creature who is exactly what his name implies. While on his quest for a cure for the Atlanteans, Namor was jumped by the blood-hungry Piranha last issue–and this time out, we learn that he is an actual Piranha mutated into human form by the experiments of another of Namor’s old enemies, Doctor Dorcas.
The idea for the Piranha was a good one, though his origin is a bit lacking, and his design is also on the unattractive side. But piranha fish had been in the news during the 1970s–every kid knew about them by reputation, because there was something cool about flesh-eating fish. Not only was Piranha himself created by the radiation from Dorcas’ destruction, but he gained the ability to mutate other fish into his flesh-hungry minions as well. After a bunch of fighting in a circle, overwhelmed by superior numbers, Namor attempts to cut and run–he’s got no real stake in the fight, and all of his countrymen are depending upon him to restore them. If he dies in a stupid fight, all of them die alongside him.
Piranha isn’t having it, and he pursues the sea-king, preventing Namor from taking to the air above the ocean where he will not be able to follow. He drags the Sub-Mariner back below the waves and the two continue their combat. At a certain point, Piranha grabs the vial of a prospective restorative formula that Namor has retrieved from his foe’s belt and races away with it, forcing Namor to pursue him. This of course pisses Namor off and gives him the resolve to begin battling once more in earnest. Piranha lures Namor into an old sunken wreck and then brings the whole place collapsing down atop the two of them. But he hasn’t reckoned with Namor’s undersea strength, which is prodigious, and which allows him to smash his way through the obstacles that might ensnare him.
Alas, the Piranha himself isn’t so lucky, and he gets trapped underneath several pieces of collapsed bulkhead. What’s more, he’s been injured in the process, and so his own blood is now seeping into the water (unseen on panel–this is a Comics Code-approved book, of course.) Namor retrieves the serum from Piranha and then leaves him there, to be devoured by his own mutated flesh-eating minions–which seems maybe just a bit reckless, given that all of those other killer fish will still be out there. But Namor’s got bigger fish to fry, so perhaps it’s understandable. Anyway, on that classic horror note, the issue ends. There’d only be one further issue of SUB-MARINER, and it was done by a totally different creative team, so for all intents and purposes, this is how the series wrapped up. But as I mentioned earlier, the Marvel of this period didn’t leave loose ends dangling forever, and Namor’s quest to restore his people would eventually be carried on in SUPER-VILLAIN TEAM-UP.