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Sub-Earth Man

by Jess Nevins

Up from the ground came a bubbling crude....comic strip, for today's Timely Golden Age Hero is Sub-Earth Man.

(Which is actually something of a misnomer, since Sub-Earth Man is not the hero of the piece)

"The long dormant volcano of Las Palmas, deep in the interior of Mexico, comes suddenly to life, threatening at any moment to erupt and bury the small town at its base with hot, molten lava. But even as the panic-stricken townspeople prepare to flee, the volcanic disturbance subsides, then ceases entirely. The peculiar behavior of the volcano attracts Bob Roland, a young geologist, and his fiancee, Carol. Together they decide to investigate."

And we see, in a three-quarters-page panel, a large yellow figure emerging from the volcano, flames shooting up around his body as he looms over the town.

Bob and Carol leave Las Palmas (as far as I can find, there's no "Las Palmas" in Mexico, although there is a large port by that name in the Canary Islands) and head for the volcano, which they find. It's still smoking. Bob and Carol's dedication to their task is clear - I wouldn't go near a smoking volcano, would you? - and they climb up the side of the volcano.

Once at the top, they make their way down into the crater - Carol saying "This is fun!" - and Bob notices a stone door.

Bob: "Those pictures are Mexican hieroglyphs. They mean - `All hope abandon, ye who enter here.'" (Time to go, kids; doorways that quote Dante should remain closed) (How would Aztecs or Mayans would have known to quote Dante....oh, never mind).

Bob: "Maybe we can pry it open." (No, Bob, that would be A Bad Idea)

Narrator: After forcing open the heavy stone door, they enter the cave - to find a number of small tunnels leading off the main one.

Bob uses a rock hammer on some small rocks, and Carol starts looking around, prompting the grinning Bob to say "Watch out! Remember that warning on the door!" (Does he think it was put there for a joke?)

Sure enough, Carol "has not gone a hundred feet, when weird, flaming figures, clad in asbestos suits, suddenly surround her." These figures are yellow, and are obviously wearing padded suits, but the outsides of the suits are flaming in places. (It's interesting how asbestos was seen as such a wonder material at the time; any time you needed something to be resistant to fire, you just put in the word "asbestos" (rather than a made-up word for made-up material, like "adamantium"), and the audience apparently accepted it. Asbestos shows up more than a few times in the Human Torch's strip - the Torch even had his arch-enemy, the Asbestos Lady). Most interesting is how faces of the men in the suits are drawn; some have only the briefest of lines to indicate their facial expressions, but one has the look of a Japanese demon.

Bob appears, gun in hand, but he's grabbed by the asbestos-clad men; "as his arms are drawn back, the gun comes in contact with a flaming head - and melts!" (I have to say that this is something of a problem with the plot; the asbestos-men are on fire, but only on the parts of their body that don't come into contact with Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice. Too arbitrary for my tastes, that)

Bob and Carol have their hands tied and are brought in front of a huge figure. He's easily sixty feet tall, and he's sitting on a smoking volcano. He's got kinda beige skin, with flames running up and down his body; he's wearing only pine-green boots and a pine- green skirt (or maybe they're shorts; he's sitting down, and it's hard to tell), and he's holding a rock-hammer in his hand (it's small by his standards, but is longer than Bob is tall).

The giant says, "Trespassers, eh? Into the lava with them!"

Bob, thinking quickly, says, "We meant no harm. If we must die, we should at least know the reason!"

Carol chimes in, "Yes! Who are you, anyway!"

The giant says, "That's fair enough. I am the Sub-Earth Man-God of the Middle Earth. Long ago men knew and feared me. I was god of the ancient fiery earth." (In that panel we see only his grinning face, surrounded by orange and red flames) "There was a time when I ruled supreme - when the earth was a fiery planet. Gradually it cooled and my power was lessened." (And in this panel we see the earth, in space, with flames running off its rim). "But I'll soon remedy that!" (And in this panel we see him posing dramatically, hammer held aloft, as flames shoot up all around him)

Now, it must be said that this sequence does pose a few difficulties. As in, there weren't any men on Earth when it was still a "fiery planet;" earth's volcanic phase was about 5 billion years ago (or so), which predates humanity by, oh, 4.96 billion years. But let's be charitable and assume that Sub-Earth Man-God is indulging in hyperbole. That, or he's a complete nutter.

Anyhow...Sub-Earth Man leads Bob and Carol on a tour of his facilities, showing them where the lava is mixed and where he (or his droogies) manufactures "the force that makes earthquakes and volcanic eruptions." He then launches into a description of his plans: "Little by little, I am driving people from the face of Earth. The day is not long distant when the planet shall be mine to rule again. After many years I am ready to make my final attempt and this shall be the greatest of them all."

Sub-Earth Man orders Bob and Carol thrown into the Pit of Lava, but Bob - again thinking quickly - says that he'll tell Sub-Earth Man "where your earthquake will do the most harm - a location underneath a great city!" Sub-Earth Man tells him to pull the other one, it has bells on, and why should Bob want to help destroy other humans?

Bob says, "I am a geologist, and I am doing it to save our lives!"

Carol pleads with Bob not to do this, but he ignores her words. Sub-Earth Man says, "I'll give you a chance. But I warn you - if you fail - you shall suffer worse than death!"

Bob doesn't seem to pay much attention to Sub-Earth Man's words, and points the way towards his target. Sub-Earth Man takes Bob and Carol (who says to Bob, "I'll never forgive you for this") on another tour of his demesnes: "This is a lava stream from one of my pits. This is the base of an extinct volcano - from which I once shot molten lava. Here are my flame men - preparing poisonous gases. These stones are being sent to the central pit. They will soon be hurled through the crater of a new volcano. Below you see the steam and power of my might. When the time comes I shall release it."

Sub-Earth Man then takes Bob and Carol to where Bob has directed him to go; Bob and Carol hold on to Sub-Earth Man's arms (remember, he's enormous; his forearms are as long as their entire bodies) - "with the speed of light, he transports Bob and Carol thru the twisting underground corridors." Sub-Earth Man inspects the spot, finds it fitting, and then sends Bob and Carol on their way, back to the door where they first entered Sub-Earth Man's kingdom.

As they leave Bob says, "Boy - it's good to see daylight again!" Carol, naturally tells him that "You don't deserve to live!" Bob says, "Don't be foolish! I directed Volcan to a spot beneath the ocean! Nobody will be hurt!" ("Volcan"? That's the first time his name has been mentioned in the strip...)

No sooner has Carol apologized for jumping to conclusions but Sub-Earth Man makes a volcano erupt in the Pacific, causing a big blast and lots of steam. Sub-Earth Man is gloating to himself when one of his flame men (wearing a pair of gloves and boots and nothing else) tells him about Bob's trick: "that eruption was under the ocean. Water is pouring through the fissures!"

Sub-Earth Man is, naturally, outraged, but Bob and Carol are long gone. However, the volcanic eruption caused a tidal wave, which is flowing towards Bob and Carol. Sub-Earth Man is satisfied, and tells his little yellow flame men to direct the water that's leaking into his underground kingdom toward his "steam cauldron." He says, "the more steam we make, the more power I will have to blow thru the Earth's crust."

"The huge waves, created by the eruption, increase in size as they roll toward the land." (A concise description of the cause of tidal waves) Bob and Carol find the construction camp abandoned, and make their way to the dynamite hut. They notice the tidal wave coming, and Bob gets an idea. He takes a long fuse away from the hut and sets it off from a distance.

Narrator: "Bob and Carol barely reach the protection of a boulder when the dynamite explodes - tearing a huge gap in the volcano's side - from which pours a torrent of lava."

Bob: "There! I can make eruptions, too! Now - if the lava only follows down that ravine!"

Narrator: "As Bob hoped, the lava pours down the ravine and to the ocean where - it spreads out along the shore, forming a hissing, sizzling wall that halts the tidal wave, saving the city." (Ooooookay. What-ever)

The story ends with Bob (Carol clinging stereotypically to Bob's body) saying "So far - so good. But that man still must be dealt with." Unfortunately, however Bob and Carol did foil Sub-Earth Man's future plots - if indeed they did - those adventures must remain a secret, for they did not appear again.

"Sub-Earth Man" appeared in Mystic Comics # 5, cover dated March 1941. "Sub-Earth Man" isn't the "Black Widow," but it's not "Hercules," either; it's a mediocre, average strip. The artist, whoever she or he was, seems to be working from a more descriptive, decorative graphic tradition than many of the Timely artists; he (or she) seems to be making an attempt to emulate adventure strip artists like Milton Caniff or Noel Sickles, rather than the more stripped-down art of a lot of the comic book artists of the time.

The problem is, though, that the artist's skill doesn't seem to be up to the challenge of what s/he is drawing; s/he is singing above his/her range. There are panels in "Sub-Earth Man" where the artist merits comparison with the better artists of the time; the figures look wholly natural, the backgrounds are portrayed well with a nice brevity of line, and the artist shows a very skilled touch with both the pencils and inks. But for every panel like that, there's at least two more where the artist lets down his (or her) material. I've no way of knowing whether the artist was rushed for time or was simply incapable of portraying events and figures with the skill necessary to make the story work.

The panel when the volcano erupts into the sea, for example, shows lots of waves being thrown about, and the silhouette of the exploding volcano, along with some red force lines emerging from the mouth of the volcano; but the overall effect is, I'm sorry to say, not just underwhelming, but poorly drawn. This isn't the only such panel with this flaw, either. The panel with the tidal wave racing toward Las Palmas seems (to me) to be obviously influenced by...well, okay, a somewhat shameless rip-off of the famous Hokusai print - but not so convincingly done. While there are some panels that are quite nicely done, most of them, especially the action panels, are lackluster and visually uninvolving. And Sub-Earth Man himself, and his flame men, seem to be to be simply poorly conceived; that is, their visual designs are unimaginative and dull. This wouldn't be so bad, except that the artist showed him/herself of being capable of much more; inconsistency is more of a sin than a lack of talent.

This is crucial because, with an adventure strip - and that's what "Sub-Earth Man" is, rather than a straight super-hero strip - the art has to carry the burden of the story, rather than the plot. In superhero comics the focus of the story is on the individuals - the heroes and the villains, and their interaction. Backgrounds are a necessary part of the story, but the story's focus is on the characters themselves. Which means that, in superhero comics, you can get away with panels that have no background whatsoever, but only the hero and/or villain and a blank backdrop.

In adventure strips you have to have an impressive environment with which to contrast the hero; Tarzan, for example, is far more impressive if we see him running through the streets of Opar or swinging on vines through a jungle than if the reader simply sees him in a closeup. In a real sense, the background/environment/ milieu is the second- or third-most important character in adventure strips.

Which is why, in adventure strips, the artist has to be able to portray the milieu in which the hero operates in a compelling manner. The great adventure strip artists - Hogarth, Raymond, Caniff - did this. The artist for "Sub-Earth Man," regrettably, did not. Mystic #5, as I've said before, consisted of backlogged stories from the Funnies, Inc shop, and there was an eight-month gap between Mystic #5 and #6; given the failure of the art in "Sub-Earth Man" in #5, I'm somehow not surprised that the strip was not continued in #6.

The writing for "Sub-Earth Man" isn't particularly memorable, but it's not especially flawed, either. The characterization is rather perfunctory, but that's to be expected; "Sub-Earth Man" is only a ten-page strip, and the focus was, naturally, on adventure rather than the characters. There's an acceptable mix of action and plot, and in better hands the story would have been more memorable, but unfortunately as presently constituted "Sub-Earth Man" is just another strip.

Finally - and this may be something of a stretch - but the idea of a tyrannical figure living underground, commanding hordes of small yellow men, and plotting the destruction and conquest of the outer world, sounds familiar to me. Perhaps Stan Lee used Sub-Earth Man as a template for the Mole Man or the Lava Men?

All in all, I'd grade "Sub-Earth Man" a C.