One big trick I think Marvel is constantly guilty of missing is that they’ve created this huge and popular universe, filled with vibrant characters and a rich history, yet they only really use it to tell superhero stories. Sub Mariner: The Depths, originally published in five parts under the Marvel Knights banner in 2009, is a rare exception. This claustrophobic psychological thriller, written by Peter Milligan with art by Esad Ribic, is loosely based on Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness (which also served as the basis for the film Apocalypse Now), and is one of Marvel’s best comics in recent years. The tale is a fantastic little examination of what it must be like to live in the Marvel universe, however unlike Kurt Busiek’s Marvels which tackled the same issue, The Depths is more about what we don’t see than what we do.
Set in an art deco Marvel universe before the advent of the super-heroes, Dr Randolph Stein - scientist and ‘professional cynic’ – is hired by the United States government to lead an expedition to establish whether Atlantis, and its protector Namor The Sub-Mariner, is truth or myth. Stein and his crew launch into the depths in pursuit of Captain Marlowe, a deep sea explorer who has returned to the Marianas Trench following his previous expedition where Marlowe’s crew and wife were mysteriously killed. As Stein gets closer to Marlowe, and closer to answering the questions about the myth of Atlantis, he borders on the edge of a psychological breakdown in the confines of the submarine and the blackness of the ocean. As the expedition gets deeper the body count starts to pile up, along with accusations and denials of mysterious sights.
Does Atlantis exist? Is Namor real? I don’t wish to spoil the ending, but the key and the success of the story is ultimately the answers to these questions are irrelevant. It is the fear of the unknown, the myths, the stories, the rumours that pass from sailor to sailor, which drive the terror of the story. The possibility that Namor may be real goes against the grain of Stein’s mantra of science and logic, forcing him to tackle his greatest fear – that he may just be wrong for once. Milligan makes full use of this doubt and confusion, the reader questioning as much as the characters as to whether sightings of mysterious sea dwelling creatures are evidence of Namor being real, or just the visions and hallucinations of men pushed to the limit in the most extreme of circumstances. Cleverly Milligan keeps the action and perspective on the inside of submarines and underwater bases for most of the story. The deep depths outside are as unknown to the reader as they are to the crew on board, only adding to the sense of claustrophobia and pressure. There are some nice little references in places giving a nod to the ideas and inspirations behind the story; for example the first page opens with a quote from Herman Melville, who’s Captain Ahab pursued the white whale with the same crazed intensity Stein falls into as his pursuit advances, also Marlowe’s submarine is called Plato, name checking the Greek philosopher who questioned the nature of truth.
The lush painted artwork of Ribic is a revelation, using the light and shadow of the dark cramped submarine to express the psychological torment of the characters. Yet he brings the visibility and brightness up by washing the pages in pastel greens, blues and yellows. Ribic’s depiction of Namor is truly terrifying, bringing the character back to his original roots as a monster of the deep and protector of Atlantis, rather than the very human looking superhero/villain of more modern portrayals. The storytelling and page layout is second to none; despite the tricky situation of cramped physical locations and numerous characters he makes scenes perfectly clear and easy to follow (aided superbly by letterer Cory Petit). Ribic embraces the emptiness of the deep and the few times we do see outside the submarine his less is more approach ties in with the narrative approach completely
It may be ironic that for such a great Marvel comic, there is hardly a recognisable Marvel character in its pages, yet Sub-Mariner: The Depths is a perfect reminder of the power behind the myths and legends Marvel has created over the years. Milligan and Ribic have created an engaging and engrossing comic the stands up with the very best Marvel have to offer.