The concept of the scapegoat is an ancient notion most humans are, at the very least, acquainted with. If a child breaks something important to his or her parents, they are likely to blame their imaginary friend or the family dog. If a high-schooler is caught with a joint, he or she is likely to claim that they are merely “holding it for a friend”. If a world leader cannot find a war criminal, “newly-discovered” documents will falsify connections to a foreign leader they don’t like anyway in order to lead an assault on a country that has nothing to do with the war crime in question.
In times gone by, many scapegoats were, to put it mildly, slightly more fanciful than those that exist today. If a season’s crops died out, witches could be blamed; if an illness swept a village, it was clearly the Devil’s fault; if a tragedy befell a young child, it was because the Gods demanded a sacrifice.
Peter Milligan and Esad Ribic’s Sub-Mariner: The Depths presents disastrous events which are blamed upon the supernatural, but this is the rare comic book that asks, through the lens of a man of science, if these legends, myths and superstitions could be real.
Atlantis, the hypothetical sunken city first discussed by Plato around 360 BCE, is a permanent fixture of science fiction and fantasy. It has been the subject of a Disney film, the resident kingdom of DC Comics’ Aquaman, and the Lost City of the Ancients in the universe of the Stargate franchise. In classic Marvel context, however, Atlantis is widely known as the domain of Prince Namor the Sub-Mariner, the self-righteous ethnocentric warrior with a vendetta against the surface world who fought with the Invaders against the Axis Powers in World War II, who has an on-again/off-again partnership with Latverian monarch Victor von Doom, and an intriguingly bizarre sexual tension with The Invisible Woman, wife of the Fantastic Four’s Reed Richards.
In The Depths, Milligan re-imagines Namor as a legend somewhere along the lines of an underwater Chupacabra or The Mothman in a time of early Cold War paranoia, in a world where, among other disasters, Namor the Sub-Mariner is blamed for the sinking of Titanic. Thus, Atlantis has become a sort of anti-Shangri-La to experienced sailors and “deep men”, and Namor has become a sort of boogie man who haunts those brave enough to explore the waters that cover 70 percent of the Earth’s surface. Into this world walks (or, rather, dives), the skeptical scientist Professor Randolph Stein, proud debunker of all things in the world of cryptozoology, who may or may not be about to have a life-altering experience.
To dismiss Sub-Mariner: The Depths as a mood piece or a character study is to do the series a grave injustice. Peter Milligan, whose fantastic X-Force segued into a grossly uneven run on X-Statix, fires on all cylinders as he both emulates and elevates the style of old pulp fiction tales, adding dashes and strokes of Edgar Allan Poe and Mary Shelley as Professor Stein descends both underwater and into madness. One is reminded of the narrator of “The Raven” or even of Victor Frankenstein himself as the journey worsens, discoveries are made, murders occur and reality is questioned. This may be Milligan’s finest work to date. The only real quibble one may have with it is the ending, which is a little more clear-cut and less ambiguous than the rest of the series. Maybe Milligan — or Stein — wants it that way, or maybe not. Still, it may be a little too eyebrow-raising for some.
Milligan’s artistic partner-in-crime for this endeavor is Esad Ribic, known for his intense depictions of the Asgardian gods in Loki and his jaw-dropping work on every character from Spider-Man to Galactus in the recent Silver Surfer: Requiem. Ribic’s work is consistently praised by fans and critics alike, so it goes without saying that his painting here only serves to highlight the brilliance of Milligan’s story. His characters look as if they’ve jumped out of the time period and onto the comic book page, and are alive with a vibrancy not unlike the titular figure in Steve Darnall and Alex Ross’ Uncle Sam or the casts of the defunct HBO television series Deadwood and Carnivàle.
The real issues addressed by The Depths, however, are what make it such a compelling read. Milligan and Ribic seem to be attacking a laundry list of questions all at once: How far will one go to prove his or her beliefs right? What does one do when their worldview begins to fall apart? What is the proper response to constant, unceasing terror from an invisible enemy? How does one classify that which is beyond not just classification, but human explanation? Who should the individual blame for his or her own failings? And finally, knowing what one has done in the past, how in the world can that same person find respite at night?
All of these questions are answered by the characters of The Depths as the survivors feel are applicable to themselves and their situations. At the end of the series, however, the reader must wonder if the choices made by the characters who have traveled to The Depths were, considering the outcome of the tale, the right ones and what decisions could, would and even should have been made.
And at the end, after figuring all of that out…if the reader had been in that position, and things had gone the same way, they are forced to figure out who should be blamed.