Notes on the Sub-Mariner, Space Hippies, Marvin Gaye, and Ecocriticism (Final Thoughts from Columbus)
“Discarded items–can these surface men do naught else, save pollute?”
–Namor’s opening reflections from The Savage Sub-Mariner #72 (September 1974), by Steve Skeates (w), Dan Adkins (p), Vince Colletta (i), Artie Simek (l), L. Lessman (c), and Roy Thomas (ed.)
If Grass Green is an Afrofuturist, is Walt Kelly a pioneer of American comic art and ecocriticism? For the last two weeks I’ve been thinking of a question Rebecca Wanzo, Associate Professor of Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Washington University, asked me about Walt Kelly’s final book, We Have Met the Enemy and He Is Us. What might a genealogy of ecocriticism and American comics books and comic strips look like, she asked? What artists and writers should we include? Does environmental awareness in comics begin with Kelly—whose late work, Finis Dunaway reminds us, had an enormous impact on the first Earth Day in 1970—or can we locate earlier examples in the North American comics tradition? And what about examples of ecocriticism in other comic art traditions from around the world?
There are so many possibilities for research, not only in Kelly’s work, but also, for example, in John Porcellino’s comics, especially Thoreau at Walden (and in any number of strips over the years in King-Cat), in Simon Moreton’s recent (and excellent) Grand Gestures, and in Alan Moore’s run on Swamp Thing (see Qiana Whitted’s essay in Comics and the U.S. South). After our Walt Kelly panel, Nancy Goldstein pointed out parallels between Kelly’s images of factories and smokestacks in the later Pogo strips and Jackie Ormes’s work from the early 1950s. I’ve been trying to think of other examples of an ecological awareness in comics, especially ones from the early 1970s, such as the final issue of Marvel’s The Savage Sub-Mariner from 1974 (#72), which opens with this image:
While not as elegant as Walt Kelly’s depictions of the Okefenokee Swamp, Dan Adkins’ splash page, featuring inks by Vince Colletta, is atmospheric and evocative. The rope divides the image in half, with Namor, our hero, in the upper right corner, smaller and less distinct than the tire and the black tennis show that fill the rest of the page. The text boxes and the title—“From the Void It Came…”—at the bottom of the page add to the clutter.
For all its atmosphere, this is a difficult page to read, with all sorts of details competing for our attention. Skeates even includes a clever line about the comic book convention of the thought bubble. In the lower, right-hand corner of the page, we read,
He swims…and the thoughts that trail him—past battles forming present memories—these thoughts enlarge like balloons formed from the bubbles created by his own churning movements[,] thoughts that then transform into slow-burning rage.
In rest of the comic, there is a sometimes awkward relationship between word and image—Skeates’ elaborate prose juxtaposed with Adkins’ large, sparsely detailed panels, often in grids of three.
Over the course of 31 pages, most of them filled with advertisements, Namor battles two surface-dwellers, one of whom attacks because, he explains, “we don’t need any crummy fish-men hanging out around here!” There’s a green space creature who blinds the Sub-Mariner and then miraculously restores our hero’s sight a few pages before the end of the story. Finally, there’s an almost happy ending, as the more tolerant of the two dock-workers rescues his friend and exclaims, “Let’s go back to my pad and have a few drinks. I just bought a new professional wrestling magazine!” Is this another narrative, one embedded in the text—two young men cruising, one tolerant, the other filled with hatred of himself and of anyone else who represents difference?
Anyway, the panels on page 27 are rather tender and surprising. While Namor’s redemption on page 31 is predictable, the first of two panels on page 32—filled with the blue-skinned corpses of Namor’s fellow Atlanteans—returns us to the splash page’s dread and clutter. Look to the right of these final, apocalyptic images and there is an advertisement for fishing poles, lures, and tackle including “50 natural bait lures” and “sure shot action with shrimp, minnows, grasshoppers, mayflies, bumblebees, crickets, leeches”:
I’m certain the production staffers who placed this ad at the end of the comic did so without intention or irony. A Marvel comic book published in 1974 is filled with advertisements, usually for products and services targeted at boys and young men. But how do we read this ad for bait and tackle in light of the comic’s focus on pollution, intolerance, and final redemption? How does one shape our reading of the other? In his notes for the Arcades Project, Walter Benjamin describes the consumer products that might illuminate a history of the 19th century: “These items on display are a rebus: how one ought to read here the birdseed in the fixative pan, the flower seeds beside the binoculars, the broken screw atop the musical score, and the revolver above the goldfish bowl—is right on the tip of one’s tongue” (see The Arcades Project 540).
I imagine any discussion of comics and the American environmentalist movement would require an analysis of the relationship between, for example, Walt Kelly’s We Have Met the Enemy and He Is Us and Marvin Gaye’s “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)” from his 1971 song cycle What’s Going On. How might this final issue of The Savage Sub-Mariner from 1974 be read in relation to Jimi Hendrix’s “1983…(A Merman I Should Turn To Be)” from his 1968 double-record Electric Ladyland? That miniature Afrofuturist rock opera imagines a world so devastated by nuclear war that the protagonist, like Melville’s Ishmael or the space hippies of Crosby, Stills, and Nash’s “Wooden Ships,” looks to the ocean for escape and survival.
What “1983,” “Wooden Ships,” “Mercy Mercy Me” and even the Sub-Mariner share in common is the sense that our only possible salvation from the environmental catastrophes of the present involves the prophetic use of the imagination. Like the time-travelers of Chris Marker’s 1962 film La Jetée, in which, the narrator tells us, a nuclear holocaust has made space travel impossible, our only hope lies in our ability to move not in space but in time through an act of memory: “Space was off-limits. The only hope for survival lay in Time. A loophole in Time, and then maybe it would be possible to reach food, medicine, sources of energy” (read the fill English translation of the script here).
In Jimi Hendrix and Marvin Gaye, we encounter an Afrofuturism that engages with the present by calling into question our stewardship of the environment. What is the connection between Marvin Gaye’s radical transformation of what was possible for Motown and for soul music and the Sub-Mariner’s struggle with the “surface men” who, he says, do naught else, save pollute”? This Sub-Mariner story is clearly another product of the “relevance” fad that swept comics in the early 1970s. But would it be possible to trace the origins of this socially-conscious form of popular storytelling to the American psychedelic rock, r&b, and funk of the late 1960s?
There’s a story here waiting to be written. Here are a few other places to begin: in Dianne D. Glave’s 2010 book Rooted in the Earth: Reclaiming the African American Environmental Heritage; in Finis Dunaway’s already-mentioned article on the first Earth Day in 1970; in Richard Todd Stafford’s recent Popular Culture Association paper on ecocriticism and Joe Sacco’s comics. I also wonder if Heidi MacDonald’s call earlier this week for a closer analysis of the idea of place in the work of artists including Julia Gförer and Lilli Carré might be understood as an invitation for an ecocritical reading of these contemporary comics. MacDonald points out, for example that
There is a large body of comics work, mostly by males, that deals with the sea and exploration (Nick Bertozzi, Kevin Cannon, Drew Weing, Cristolphe Blain) WHO WORE IT BEST?
Would an ecocritical reading of Anders Nilsen’s Rage of Poseidon be possible? If so, what shape would it take?
I’ll end with a few more notes from Benjamin:
Method of this project: literary montage. I needn’t say anything. Merely show. I shall purloin no valuables, appropriate no ingenious formulations. But the rags, the refuse—these I will not inventory but allow, in the only way possible, to come into their own: by making use of them. (See Benjamin, The Arcades Project 460)
Thanks again to Jared Gardner, Lucy Shelton Caswell, and all the other great folks at OSU for the opportunity to be part of the Academic Conference at this year’s Festival of Cartoon Art at the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum. It was a wonderful opportunity to see old friends and to meet new ones. For a more detailed final analysis of the Festival, see Tom Spurgeon’s detailed notes and photos at The Comics Reporter.