Marvel’s Mutant Avenger is Secretly Terrifying

Sub-Mariner: The Depths is an aquatic, horror-filled Apocalypse Now, turning Namor into a mythical being wreaking havoc on a deep sea rescue team.

Namor the Sub-Mariner is one of Marvel’s oldest characters, not only in his publication history but also in his own lore. Born to a human father and an Atlantean mother, Namor is known as one of the first mutants in Marvel’s history. His Atlantean heritage allows him to breathe underwater, swim with blinding speed, and communicate with sea creatures, while his mutation gives him enhanced strength and the ability to fly, benefiting him enormously as the ruler of Atlantis.

Across his publication history, Namor has appeared both as an ally to groups like the Avengers and the Fantastic Four, as well as an adversary. Because he acts only in the interests of Atlantis, Namor is a morally-gray character from the perspective of most of humanity. This aspect of his character played out spectacularly in Peter Milligan’s 2008 series, Sub-Mariner: The Depths, where Namor was less of a hero and more of a legendary creature disturbing the minds of aquatic explorers.

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Namor as a Monster

Namor as monster

Set in the 1950s, Sub-Mariner: The Depths tells the story of acclaimed scientist Randolph Stein, who is chosen to lead a rescue mission into the Mariana Trench to recover a captain who was lost while searching for Atlantis (written by Peter Milligan, art by Esad Ribic, and letters by VC’s Cory Petit). The captain, named Marlowe, reportedly went insane before disappearing, making Stein, who made his career off of debunking popular myths and legends, a natural counterweight. But the further Stein ventures into the depths of the sea with his crew, the more he begins to fear that the legends of Atlantis, and of Namor in particular, might actually be true.

If the story sounds familiar, it is because The Depths plays out, to great effect, like an aquatic mashup of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (and Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now) and John Carpenter’s 1982 film, The Thing. Even Captain Marlowe’s name is a reference to the narrator in Conrad’s original novella, which documented the search for a wayward but brilliant ivory trader named Kurtz in the Congo Free State who was suspected to have descended into madness. Because The Depths adopts this particular form, Namor becomes a monstrous legend in defiance of conventional science, instead of being an awe-inspiring superhero. As Milligan’s writing reveals, Namor functions much more effectively as a horror character, instead of a superhero.

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Namor Reaches His Full Potential

Randolph Stein looks out into the ocean in Sub-Mariner: the Depths.

Because Namor is hardly present for most of The Depths, his presence becomes a mirror in which Stein’s faith in Western rationality and the objectivity of science become obscured. The Depths is not so much a superhero story as it is one man’s psychological experience with a being outside the laws of reality. Taken as a whole, it presents a rare view of an average human’s brush with the fantastic in the Marvel Universe, one that is not the uplifting experience that readers have grown familiar with, but one full of horror and dread.

The Sub-Mariner is a character deeply rooted in myth, which The Depths takes full advantage of in order to dramatize the clash between science and legend. For the past several decades, characters from superhero comics have achieved their own type of mythological status. This is partially due to the moralistic undertone of many superhero comics, which often resembles some of humanity’s most archetypal stories, combined with the heightened sense of theatricality common to myths like Icarus, King Arthur, and more.

Eschewing these comforting undertones, Namor’s character is used to show how discovering the real-life precedents for myths might be far more frightening than comforting. The series tackles the question of coexistence between science and myth by demonstrating the harmful effects of pursuing a scientific explanation for something with mythic value. Despite telling himself over and over that he is a man of science and of rational thought, Stein descends more and more into a state of madness as the evidence for Namor’s existence mounts. This perspective of the mythic and of Namor places the character in a new light that is not ordinarily seen in the genre. Instead of superheroes coming to save the day, they are now driving humans into madness.

Related: Apocalypse Wanted Namor The Sub-Mariner As His Horseman

Namor Makes More Sense as Horror

Namor the Sub-Mariner with Dr. Randolph Stein in Sub-Mariner The Depths #5.

Presented as a horror character, Namor powerfully straddles the line between two of the biggest forces in Marvel Comics: science and myth. This is why The Depths is such a terrifying comic. Beyond the fact that Stein and his men are thousands of feet below the surface of the ocean, trapped in a precarious metal container, the true horror of the story is the suffocating experience of discovering the inadequacies of one’s own belief system. It is the slow-burning realization that the empirical and evidence-based world of Western thought is actually a fallible collection of beliefs utterly unequipped to reckon with the existence of beings like Namor. Myth cares not for the prestige of scientific achievement, evidenced in Namor’s cold interactions with Stein and his crew.

The horror of The Depths functions not through Namor startling the crew through sudden appearances, but on an existential level. It exposes the arrogance of Stein and of science as a whole, not because of his skepticism towards Namor in the first place, but because of his fear that he might be wrong in his understanding of aquatic life. To admit that Namor is real is to admit that he, Dr. Randolph Stein, does not have a full grasp on the world as he knows it. Namor often feels at a loose end in modern comics, given a general lack of interest in the mysteries of the sea when compared to space or other dimensions, but by removing him from a world in which he’s often forced to become a blustering aristocrat, this story finds a new way to use the character, and it’s possibly the most effective he’s ever been in a comic.

Sub-Mariner: The Depths ultimately uses Namor as a starting point for a story about the subconscious darkness of discovery. Instead of squabbling with some of Earth’s mightiest heroes about a cosmic problem, the Sub-Mariner wordlessly confronts humanity’s hubris through his interactions with ordinary people trespassing on his domain. Namor’s presence in the story as a figure of horror and legend hints at a broader idea that the abyss is not actually a void, but a territory outside the realm of human understanding. Through this framework, Namor the Sub-Mariner reveals more about human nature than he ever has before.

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Updated: November 21, 2020 — 4:01 pm

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