Sub-Mariner: The Depths #3
In my American Lit. class the professor assigned a paper in which we are to discuss Henry James's The Turn of The Screw in terms of its status as a ghost story. As those who've read the story know, the whole conceit of the book is that the governess who narrates the tale is the only one to witness the specters. This fact coupled with a handful of other subtle inconsistencies give the story an ambiguity of purpose that critics are still debating 150 years after its publication. Upon reading the third issue of Peter Milligan and Esad Ribic's superb Sub-Mariner series, I concluded that my professor could just as easily assigned the class to discuss The Depths in similar terms, with nearly as fruitful results.
The third issue is unquestionably the best (thus far) in what is shaping up to be one of the most literarily, artistically and philosophically sophisticated comics in recent memory. The book's strength is in its ambiguity and its ambiguity stems from the varied possible explanations--each with its particular strengths, none wholly satisfying--for the mysterious events experienced by the crew. As Nelson discovers Stein's absence in the book's opening pages, only to find that he has ventured out on his own in one of the craft's mini-submersibles, he, as well as the reader, can reasonably attribute Stein's delirium and lack of judgment to the peculiar physical demands of deep sea travel.
The same could more or less be said for Stein's deepening paranoia, but this is where things begin to get a little shaky. As Stein inches continually closer to madness, he clings ever more fiercely to his militant empiricism. The problem of course is that conviction that is as unyielding as Stein's generally signals some sort of underlying insecurity. Nelson recognizes this when he asks, "What kind of man looks for something he know ain't there?"
What's interesting about this first part of the comic is that the narrative focus seems to point toward Stein himself as the source of the bizarre happenings on the craft. This is variously evidenced by the paranoid entries in his journal, the physical manifestations of the stresses of deep sea travel and the deeply rooted insecurity evidenced by his social, cultural and racial elitism and his almost lunatic affirmations of his faith in reason alone, culminating in a bizarre diatribe in which he insists to a photograph that it is nothing but "a product of light and chemicals."
The genesis of the art and narrative in the book's final pages is truly masterful. Whatever was left of the cohesion of the Plato's crew is completely shattered as they board the inexplicably silent Mariana Trench Station and discover the corpses first of McKeogh and subsequently of the rest of the station personnel. As one sailor harps continually on the subject of the station's blue movies, the normally self-controlled Nelson lunges at his throat and has to be pulled away by the other members of the crew. Stein is forced to assert his control as the situation totters toward anarchy, but he fails to realize that his edict forbidding the mere mention of Namor serves only to confirm the crew's conviction that he is responsible for the carnage.
The scenes of discovery are brilliantly rendered--the strange, almost mutilated aspects of the bodies and bizarre blood spatters only deepen the mystery. Ribic subtly alters his use of color and shadow in these pages, magnifying the book's dream-like atmosphere. The comic's closing sequence, in which Stein watches the film discovered in the camera lying next to McKeogh's body, is perhaps the high-water mark of the series to date. The scratches running along the film element and the strange attitude of bemused levity of the speaker give the scene a realistically affecting quality. The odd and really satisfying thing about this peculiar sort of The Blair Witch Project parody is that by contextualizing it with the overarching narrative of the comic it ends up being far scarier than the original.
As Sammy mentioned in his weekly haul post, the debate surrounding The Depths is as to whether or not Namor really exists and is responsible for these strange underwater events. While this question certainly forms the crux of the tale being told, the fact that the answer is more or less irrelevant is testament to the skill of the telling.