On The Secret Of The Surfer from 1972’s The Defenders #2 by Steve Englehart, Sal Buscema, John Verpoorten, John Constanza, Roy Thomas et al.
The Sub-Mariner had spent most of The Defender’s debut issue trapped and unconscious in a magically-created prison of water. Worse yet, it appeared that the Silver Surfer was part of the conspiracy to place him there. Whether or not Steve Englehart had deliberately kept Prince Namor off-stage while he concentrated on the relationship between Dr Strange and The Hulk, that is the impression that The Defenders #1 gives. Correct or not, it’s a suspicion that only deepens with Namor’s role in the series’ second issue, for The Secret Of The Silver Surfer sees The Sub-Mariner pushed right to the forefront of events. While the tale is probably the weakest of Englehart’s tenure on the book in terms of antagonists and threat, its subtle redefining of The Sub-Mariner’s character in the context of The Defenders is convincing and compelling. Namor is, after all, an extremely difficult character to portray in a way that’s interesting and impressive and, rarest of all, likeable. Too often, he’s been an unstable collection of traits, now haughty, now principled, now capricious, now furious, now vengeful, now conciliatory, now hero, now villain, now lone victim, now petulant and entitled man-child, and so on. Even in terms of his power, Namor occupies an ever-shifting place in the hierarchy of formidableness. At moments, he’s capable of standing, for a while at least, against Thor and the Hulk. At others, he seems, even while in water, a daunting but middle-ranking super-bloke, too powerful to seem endearingly vulnerable and yet too comparatively weak to stand convincingly with the front row of Marvel’s hyper-heavy hitters.
What Englehart brought to Namor’s character is a stable core of relatable characteristics that, on certain particular occasions, would predictably express themselves in the likes of arrogance and violence. But unlike some other creators, it isn’t these extremes that seemed to fascinate Englehart so much as Namor in his – shall we call it? – everyday guise. It’s as unconvincing as it’s eventually tedious to have a character who is perpetually declaring his own magnificence while insulting everybody who he considers to be demeaning his honour. To the contrary of that tradition, Englehart’s Namor is an admirably wise, loyal and, in his own terms, rational human being. What makes him fascinatingly intimidating isn’t that he might fly off the handle at any moment, but that the reader knows exactly when and why he will take matters into his own hands. Rather than unpredictable, as a character without strictly fixed ethics or a stable personality, this Namor very much knows what he’s about. When he throws himself into the fray, it is with an excess of violence and an absolute unwillingness to compromise for compromise’s sake. But this Namor also knows exactly what he’s doing. He’s calculated his values and his options and chosen to, for example, launch himself at the Silver Surfer in revenge for what the Sub-Mariner considers an appalling betrayal. What’s more, the reader can follow his reasoning and sympathise with, if not support, his behaviour. From this comes a measure of likeability and even charisma: after all, the Silver Surfer’s power far outranks his own, but Namor isn’t letting that stop him when the two clash. Englehart brings, if you will, a consistent code of honour on Namor’s part that feels relatable and laudable rather than kneejerk erratic and arrogant.
Elsewhere, Englehart and Sal Buscema – whose wonderfully clear and purposeful storytelling I’ll return to in a future post – continued to deliver a series of snapshots that allow the reader to catch a clear sense of who the Sub-Mariner is this specific title. And so, to take but one brief narrative brushstroke, Namor is shown to be, by human standards, old. This doesn’t make him a particularly sophisticated tactician, but, in an era in which this aspect of his character was far less discussed, let alone set deliberately in the context of continuity, it does set him intriguingly apart from his fellows. One danger of The Defenders as a title where Namor is concerned is that he can be shown to be just another powerhouse, made distinct only by his appearance and snottiness, locked into the second-rank when compared to The Hulk when it comes to destroying people and things. But if power alone can’t make Namor seem like an equal on the battlefield when it comes to his two compatriots, history and character can. And Englehart’s Namor – several years before Roy Thomas started to spell out the character’s WW2 adventures in The Invaders – is a far more interesting character than some others had portrayed him as. On its own, of course, a long life is hardly enough to make a character distinct and intriguing. But the skill of Englehart’s writing is that he touches upon a whole series of qualities which, lightly drawn, do combine to summon up a strong sense of individuality and importance. (This touching on Namor’s past would go on to have enjoyable and even touching consequences in 1973’s Avengers/Defenders War.)
This experience, and even wisdom, on Namor’s part allows him to immediately snap back from his murderous fury when the Silver Surfer flies beyond his reach. Here again we have a point of comparison with The Hulk, who would, to say the least, struggle to suppress his anger while listening to a comrade’s advice in the wake of an almighty dust-up.
Such subtle and telling points lace the pages of The Secret Of The Silver Surfer. Particularly welcome is the introduction of the sense that Namor and Strange are, no matter how awkwardly, becoming friends, as below, where the former shares his frustrations in an open and revealing manner. Similarly, an earlier scene of Strange and Namor in the Sanctum Sanctorum portrays the two as experienced elders discussing suspicions and strategies in a calm and supportive fashion. (Namor’s later abandonment of The Defenders and an even-later decision to make each of the original team-mates alienated from one another never seemed to make sense in the light of these early tales.)
Most surprising, Englehart even gives Namor a convincing if abrasive sense of humour that feels in places like the one the character possessed in his Bill Everett-helmed 40s and 50s adventures. Not for the Sub-Mariner any self-depreciating gags, of course: his tongue is sharp and his intention to wound. But in a tale which might have been little more than yet another story of a one-dimensional and somewhat unpleasant Namor setting out on a brutal quest for revenge, Englehart shows us a far broader and more fascinating character. Each little dab of character helps redefine Namor until, without losing any of his essential virtues and vices, he seems a credibly interesting individual as well as a considerable fighting asset. All in all, this can at moments feel like a decisively different Sub-Mariner to the one that appeared as what was close to being a supporting player in the first three Defenders tales. Even when compared with many of the Sub-Mariner’s solo tales during the period, and especially prior to the return of Everett to his creation in 1972, this Namor appears more rounded, more substantial and, ultimately, more impressive.
Having sketched out his three lead characters and their relationships one to the other, Englehart closes the issue with a scene of the four Defenders – I’ll return to the newly arrived Silver Surfer later – willingly combining their strengths in order to defeat the story’s antagonist Calizuma. I can’t help but feel it’s significant that Namor responds to the call for united action by shouting “We hear, Stephen Strange!”. (See below.) Perhaps we might suspect that that italicised “hear” indicates a certain degree of resentment on Namor’s part at being called to action by somebody else. But I’d rather focus on the way in which the Sub-Mariner speaks to the Sorcerer Supreme, for up until now, Namor has always referred to the magician as “Strange”. Now “Strange” has, at their moment of greatest danger, been suddenly granted a forename. If “Stephen Strange” hasn’t become “Stephen”” to Namor, he has become someone to whom the Sub-Mariner speaks to in a more personal and tellingly less formal manner. Nor is he dawdling to the Doctor’s side with any degree of reluctance, as Sal Buscema’s storytelling shows. Here is a Namor with complete trust, for the moment, in his allies and their mutual purpose.
At the end of The Defenders #2, Englehart doesn’t leave us with the sense that the book’s lead characters are loving friends and to-the-death allies. It appears clear that both constant friction and open conflict between the four of them is always going to be inevitable. The tension hasn’t been bled out of the book, but the alliance has become far more convincing and interesting and human. The four Defenders remain exceedingly lonely characters, marked by terrible traumas and quite possibly irresolvable individual faultlines. But there is a sense that, for a while at least, they can be lonely and lonesome within the boundaries of a peculiarly dysfunctional family of four, The Defenders.