Monday, June 9, 2014

Uncharted Waters -- Aquaman on the BAB? Adventure Comics 435 and 436

Adventure Comics #435 (September/October 1974)(cover by Jim Aparo)
"As the Undersea City Sleeps"
Steve Skeates-Mike Grell

Adventure Comics #436 (November/December 1974)(cover by Jim Aparo)
"The King is Dead; Long Live the King!"
Steve Skeates-Mike Grell 

Doug: Talk about a superhero who is more often than not the butt of the joke around here (and elsewhere!). Aquaman... is he anyone's favorite character? I know he has his apologists; neither Karen or I would be among them. But is it the character we malign, or what has/has not been done with him? Several months ago I decided to take the plunge (heh heh) and purchase the trade paperback The Death of a Prince. The book reprints Aquaman's Bronze Age tales from Adventure Comics and then in his own self-titled magazine. The issues included begin in Sept./Oct. 1974 (today's review) and conclude in Aug./Sept. 1978, and maybe those statistics tell a large part of the story -- over a four year period the character never saw the spinner racks on a monthly basis. In all, there are 27 stories, yet only a handful are full-length (18+ pages); most run the length of your typical split-book allotment, which is around 10 pages. So due to that fact, I selected the first two stories in the tpb to tell you about today. By no means do I endorse these tales as the best in the book, nor would I say they are the worst. They're simply the first two, I like Mike Grell's art, and so that's why we're going with them. Seems fair. One more thought -- those Jim Aparo Spectre covers are sweet, aren't they? Makes me wish I had those stories in reprints, too. Shall we head under the sea?

Doug: Aquaman is swimming toward the domed city of Atlantis after some time away dealing with Justice League of America affairs. He remarks how good it feels to be back in the depths, when suddenly he begins to feel lightheaded -- something isn't right here. He spies some "farmers" asleep on the ocean bed, and then immediately spies the Manta Ship and his old nemesis, Black Manta! Manta and his goons are... rustling squid. SCREEEECH!! That was the sound of my ride coming to a sudden halt. Say what?? Farmers? Rustling squid? Hokey smokes -- now I know why I've never read Aquaman comics! And we're three panels into this.

Doug: The preceding paragraph break was to allow me to regain my composure. OK, so Black Manta takes advantage of Aquaman's stupor and bests him in hand to hand combat. As Aquaman kneels to clear his head, the Manta releases an inky substance akin to that emanated from the very squid he had just pilfered. In his present condition Aquaman is no threat, and Black Manta gets away. Back in the palace, Aquaman ponders his next step. Of high import is determining exactly what sort of chemical or compound Black Manta had used to cause the Atlanteans to become drowsy. Aquaman consults Dr. Vulko to see if he's been able to isolate the threat. No dice. Outside a few days later, we see a shrimp farm (man...) suddenly attacked by several projectiles, each releasing a chemical into the water (I'll tell you this -- I was pleased that the term "gas" was never used in this underwater story). As had been the case earlier, the farmers fall to the ground, unconscious, and Black Manta and his men emerge on the scene to steal the shrimp harvest. He's going to be rich from all this heisting! By the way, do any of you marine biologists out there in BAB-reader land know if squid and shrimp can survive in depths to the ocean floor?

Was Rob Liefeld in charge of backgrounds on this page?
Doug: As Black Manta gloats, one of the farmers begins to rise. Manta looks at him incredulously, , when suddenly the man's cloak comes off to reveal Aquaman underneath! The Sea King outfitted himself with an air tank, and as he could get his oxygen from either air or water, he could make himself immune to whatever pollutant Manta had introduced to the waters around Atlantis. Since this is a superhero mag, our two antagonists mix it up a bit, with Arthur Curry getting the better of his big-domed opponent. In fact, Aquaman threatens to break Black Manta's arm if he doesn't call off his goons. Inside the Manta Ship, though, the thugs are just waiting for an opportunity to fire a blast ray. Because that's what thugs do. However, those of us who know Aquaman best from the Super Friends shows know that mental telepathy with sea creatures is his dominant power. And that's indeed what he uses, calling several whales to him to buffet the Manta Ship.

Doug: While everyone's occupied with the whales, Aquaman batters Black Manta senseless. He thinks to himself that this is about the 47th time he's knocked out his foe. Aquaman surfaces, where the Manta Ship has gone in hopes of getting away from the whales. He hurls Manta toward the ship and tells them to get lost. Say what? Don't they have some sort of dungeon in Atlantis, or some underwater version of Arkham Asylum? As the Lord of Atlantis returns to his kingdom, he thinks that sooner or later all this messing with Black Manta is going to come to a head. Duh... did you get a look at the title of this trade paperback, bro?


Doug: The second story flat-out wastes a page at the beginning, with a three-panel look at the climax! Inside, we begin in the royal chambers of Aquaman's palace. One of the ages-old tropes in DC comics is the stand-in robot, and here we get the underwater version. One of Atlantis's scientists has basically invented the DC version of the life-model decoy, prospectively to be used at state functions when Aquaman is away. Aqualad (yes! -- loved the Teen Titans!) is present, but takes leave right away. He's miffed that Aquaman seems to be shirking certain state duties in exchange for convenience. Aqualad just thinks that a king's place is doing a king's business. But as he swims away, he encounters a large underwater fish/lizard -- the Bugala. Having fought the beast in the past, and knowing that he cannot defeat it alone, Aqualad quickly returns to Atlantis.

Doug: In the palace, Aquaman has picked up the presence of the Bugala on his video monitors. Understanding the danger, he readies to head out to engage it. But Mera cautions him that his meeting with the Canadian ambassador is about to commence. Aquaman shrugs it off and tells the science staff that now would be a great time to test their robot. Outside the dome of the city, Aquaman swims toward the Bugala. He pulls up short, and attempts to influence the creature telepathically. However, he decides that the beast must have developed immunity to his commands. Trying a more direct approach, the Sea King is instead battered down onto a coral reef, and slumps to the ocean floor. Reeling, he attempts to clear his mind and to quickly deduce the goings-on. As he locates the Bugala, it is only a short way from the dome.

Doug: Aquaman swims as fast as he can to catch the leviathan, but then zooms past it and into a hatch in the dome. He swims headlong into the meeting he was supposedly attending, alarming the Canadian dignitary. Then Aquaman busts the head clean off the robot and clutches a small remote control-looking doohickey, that had been in the neck of the robot. Aquaman crushes it in his hands; outside, we see the Bugala collapse. Turns out that big beastie had itself been a robot, but was being controlled from inside the city! And the scientist who created the Aquaman robot? He's making tracks, but Aquaman overtakes him. Question of the day is -- who put him up to it? And out on a bluff, waiting for the dome to fall? Black Manta and a larger-than-normal army of goons.

Doug: I really can't say that I enjoyed these stories. The Mike Grell art was nice -- jibed nicely with what he was doing in Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes around this time. But Steve Skeates's scripts were pretty pedestrian. That's part of the problem with any done-in-one and I think handcuffs an author; but a seven-page done-in-one is a whole 'nother animal. Another issue that strikes me is the difficulty in drawing underwater stories. In most of the panels in the first tale above, there is very little to show the reader that the setting is beneath the waves. Additionally, I think almost all artists have deficiencies in differentiating swimming poses from flying poses. With Grell's Legion work as my only basis for this statement, I can declare that throughout the 15+ pages I read there were many times I felt like I'd seen a particular action pose but in an airborne situation. I'm not knocking Grell's figurework, which again I generally enjoy. But it would have been nice if more often we could have seen some sort of swirling effect, certainly some bubbles, to show us that we were not in a surface setting and that motion was perhaps slowed by the resistance of the water. But all that being said, I am intrigued enough to continue reading the Death of a Prince trade; I'm looking forward to the advent of the Jim Aparo stories, as Aquaman is one of his hallmark characters.


Murray said...

I can only rehash what I've said to friends and other comment boards: one of the problems for me with the underwater heroes is the vagueness of their world. They're always spouting off about "you air breathers concern yourselves with 30% of the Earth while I have to deal with the remaining 70%! I have responsibilities you can't imagine!"

And yet, 99.9% of what we ever saw was Atlantis. Someday in the once-upon-a-time, a gang of creative types should've ordered some pizza and beer and roughed out a fantasy map of what is under the oceans. Like Conan's Hyperborea, to name one. An in-house "bible" of realms and characters and places for the underwater guy to visit in a consistent way. Opening a story with "Aquaman was swimming in the Indian Ocean when..." is like writing "Batman was driving the batmobile in North America when..."

And the other Problem is making Aquaman (and Namor) king of Atlantis. Where did the first writer get the idea that handcuffing a character to the dreary responsibilities of a throne would be a good story generator? He should be the Hero of Atlantis like Superman is to Metropolis and Batman to Gotham City and that's just fine.

Anyway, fixing Aquaman (and Namor) is a fascinating fixer-upper project that quickly feels pretty pointless. Especially before breakfast.

J.A. Morris said...

Nice review, great art from Grell here. Since I'm a stickler, about re-coloring,here's a link that shows scans from the original pages from 435, courtesy of The Groovy Agent:

Comparing the original with the reprint, I'd say the tpb looks pretty good, just more glossy.

I have to agree with what Murray said about Atlantis, that's why I've never been a fan of Aquaman or Namor unless they're a member of a team.

Edo Bosnar said...

Aquaman was never my favorite character, either. And I think your review (nice job, by the way) and Murray's comment above pretty much lay out the reasons why he never really became an A-lister (and also the butt of many jokes).
That said, I would still really like to have that "Death of a Prince" collection, mainly because I love Aparo's art on Aquaman. (And by the way, I have the book that reprints the Spectre covers and stories who posted up top - great stuff.)

As the for the farmers - well, Atlantis is a pretty big city, so it stands to reason that they had to have some sort of operations set up to supply it with food. Don't know exactly what type of crops they would plant - maybe big kelp beds?
And I don't know about shrimp, but I think quite a few species of squid live at pretty extreme depths.

William said...

Nice review. Love that artwork!

I used to read these issues of Adventure Comics when I was a kid. I bought them mostly for the Aquaman stories because he was my very first "favorite" superhero. And even though he was eventually usurped as my favorite by cooler heroes like Spider-Man, I still have a soft spot for the old King of Atlantis.

Speaking of which, I have to agree with Murray that Aquaman (and Namor) would have been much better served as characters if they weren't both saddled with the responsibility of governing an entire race of people. All the political stuff associated with Aquaman (and Namor) used to bore me to tears.

That was always a problem with DC Comics in general back in the Silver and Bronze Age. In those days almost all of their heroes had to be either millionaires, or kings or queens, or princesses, or the pinnacle of whatever it was they were into. They were very rarely just normal people. Which is what made Marvel's characters so appealing. A lot of them were just regular people with regular everyday faults and problems, but they also just happened to have some kind of superpower.

Even the Marvel heroes who seemed to have it all were still flawed. Reed Richards is the smartest man in the world, but he's a lousy husband and father because he's a workaholic. Matt Murdock is a successful lawyer, but he is also blind. Tony Stark is a billionaire playboy, but he has a bad heart (or used to), and he's an alcoholic. Hank Pym the rich, genius scientist suffers from low self-esteem and is prone to nervous breakdowns. Even prince Namor (the other King of Atlantis) has major anger management issues.

But DC Comics' heroes were always pretty much squeaky clean in the old days. Aquaman was a beloved monarch and a respected member of the Justice League. Bruce Wayne was a millionaire (now billionaire) who never really seemed to have many problems in his personal life (aside from that whole parents being murdered thing). Oliver Queen was a millionaire/billionaire who skated through life and shot trick arrows at bad guys for fun. Hal Jordan was a dashing and heroic test pilot. Barry Allen was a respected police scientist, and so on.

Of course now it's swung in the other direction where almost all superheroes (both Marvel and DC) are hopelessly flawed individuals with enormous personal problems that completely overshadow their heroic adventures. I think I preferred it the old way better.

Dr. Oyola said...

These stories look pretty terrible, but I do think that there are plenty of good stories that could be developed around the idea of the King of Atlantis, so I don't agree with Murray.

What a character like this needs is a good supporting cast - allowing for different stories that can develop separately and come together. The SIZE of the ocean also means that writers can be creative - develop other cities and people and civilizations down there - it could basically be outer space, but under water.

david_b said...

Great comments by William and the rest of you all.

Arthur's always been a hero I 'wanted' to enjoy, but as mentioned, typically the stories always fell short. You almost think the old animated Saturday morning 'Adventures of Aquaman' stories on CBS were far more exciting than the comic ever was.

Again in the post-Dozer late Silver Age with the likes of Adams and O'Neil, it was hard for some titles like like Wonder Woman and the Titans, (to name a few) figuring out which way for titles to go after the camp influence played out. By it's very nature, Marvel didn't have have that handicap like DC did.

Not a fan of Grell during this period, like in Superboy's League, his body depictions were still somewhat awkward. But I'd probably prefer him over Aparo. Sorry, I'm just too used to Cardy on the Silver Age stories..

Oh, and WHAT WAS UP WITH Aqualad's hair..? He looked like Peter Brady.

Garett said...

Grell's art looks ok here, but seems simplified compared to his later art on Warlord and Jon Sable. I haven't read Aparo's Aquaman yet, but he can certainly draw underwater scenes well, as seen in Brave and Bold. Something tells me that Jim Starlin could create a great Aquaman story--add mystery and strangeness and drama.

Humanbelly said...

DavidB, your comment about the old Saturday morning cartoon being, possibly, better than the comic book itself was EXACTLY the point that first came to my mind! So, I'm gonna second it for ya. I seem to recall that it and Superman were on right near lunchtime at some point-- the memory of the cartoon evokes the taste of a nice baloney sandwich, chips, and a glass of cold milk. . . (maybe chocolate milk, if we were lucky).

I think Grell's art here nicely gives an idea of how great he'll one day become, but very much like early Starlin he has some rather awkward problems at times getting his body proportions under control. The head/neck/torso arrangement gives him problems even w/ the pages sampled here.

My only real extended exposure to Mr Curry was when I picked up a lot of that last pre-Crisis JLA run (wow, was it, like, almost 30 years ago??), where the team was largely a Kooky Quartet-esque bunch of rookie heroes, and they massively crashed and burned under Aquaman's leadership. (Am I remembering that correctly?)
Although he was a very compelling figure wracked w/ doubt and feet of clay, it was somewhat hard to resolve that with the fact that he was, of course, a guy who had been running an undersea KINGDOM for years and years. One assumes it was the differences in scale of the respective group dynamics . . . .uh, maybe?

Boy, do I ever agree on the issue of drawing heroes underwater-! Y'know who was GUH-REAT!-? Gene Colan during his Tales to Astonish run on Subby's feature. Man, not only did he create great, craggy sea-beds-- but he did manage to often create a feel of bodies moving in a liquid environment.

Another good one ('cause I rarely get away w/out mentioning my favorite Silver/Bronze character) was Herb Trimpe in Hulk #118. You feel throughout that whole issue that you are underwater, fighting through that resistance of the surrounding fluid. Also, splash panel of Hulk #165-- walking on the seabed-- Herb just captures that feeling of being "buried" (under water) in a wide open space.

HB (the only guy who could bend and Aquaman topic into a Hulk topic. . . )

Anonymous said...

A: I want to echo Mr Murray and his link to Groovy's site. All of the stories covered thus far, Ant Man and Aquaman, are available at his site. A word of caution, you will find yourself spending quite a bit of time there as you start reading one story, then following a link to another story which gets you to splash pages to fill in stories to debuts........oh you get the point.

Secondly: There is an old saying that goes something like this; it is poor workman that blames his tools. Aquaman was, in my opinion, just another DC character. As many have mentioned, his situation was pretty much by the book. King, special powers, yadda yadda yadda. And his stories were severely hampered by the lack of his own title. Both of these stories were self contained. In the first story, Manta's motivation was money, in the second it was usurping the throne. Why did the undersea city need a dome? Did it function as walls of a castle would? The same chemical that put the farmers to sleep put the city to sleep. Couldn't Manta and his men have just walked right in?

The Prowler (late for his date at the Enchantment Under The Sea dance).

david_b said...

HB, thanks for the kudos, and you bring up an interesting point I wasn't aware of regarding DC editors and character continuity....

I never read the post-Crisis JLA, but it's interesting Arthur could run a kingdom, yet suck as a group leader. It's a direct contrast to Dick Grayson's early '80s dual stint as Titans leader and Batman's sidekick: Wolfman wrote Robin as a brilliant tactician in NTT, yet usally came up as a dunderhead in the Batman titles.

HB, you're such a genius. Thanks for highlighting yet another awesome quality of Mr. Colan, the master of both murky shadows and underwater adventures.

Humanbelly said...

Oh man, David, I need to bring my daughter in here and show her your referring to me as a genius. . . oooooh, that will NEVER go down well--! (You're too kind. . . thank you. . . )

Hey! Heyheyhey!
It's edo's birthday today!
I'm TOTALLY throwing him under the bus! Woooohoo!


Humanbelly said...

But back to Aquaman--
I did want to add that Black Manta is about the creepiest-looking arch-foe ever, regardless of the fact that his "master plans" seem to put him on a par w/ your average third-string Roy Rogers nemesis.

I mean. . . what IS he? That freaky helmet/headgear thing can't possibly cover a real human head-- it's far too small and flat. He's truly a supremely menacing-looking character.


Edo Bosnar said...

Yep, HB, you got me: today's my b-day. Question is, how do you know that? Did I mention that here in one of the comment threads? Don't remember doing that...

Anyway, I definitely agree with you about Black Manta. He is one of the coolest and scariest looking villains ever.

Humanbelly said...

Well, edo, one hates to give away one's clever secrets, but. . .

. . . waaaaaaay back in 2010 you joined the Avengers Assemble board, which keeps track of members' birthdays- well- pretty much forever, regardless of status or activity. And I happened to check today, and there you were!

Happy Advanced Age to you, now, hear-?

(Y'know, they used to have a chocolate-flavored Milk of Magnesia. . . )


Anonymous said...

Happy Birthday Edo!!!

Well now, Aquaman? Most of the stuff I was gonna say was already so eloquently said by William, so I'll just keep it short.

Aquaman was never my cup of tea; personally I felt Namor was a better water based character. I always thought he could have been a good character but was underutilized. Grell's work looks good here, of course it's not as detailed as his later Warlord or Legion work. Aquaman is one of those titles where I loved the art (especially Aparo's work) but never really got into the script or the story.

- Mike 'Atlantis disassemble!' from Trinidad & Tobago.

Teresa said...

These Aquaman stories are so boring. Pretty, but boring. I was unaware of the Aqua-Grell work.

Aquaman needs to be in his own corner of DC. With only the rare special guest star.

I want tO read an Aquaman book that is part West Wing and part The Abyss.
The underwater kingdoms are many and there is a lot of politics. There are also strange and dangerous things hiding in the depths.
He juggles being a leader and a hero.

Graham said...

I remember these first time around. I was into the Spectre, but I also really dug Mike Grell and Aquaman, so I enjoyed these stories (okay, I was ten or eleven....probably would feel differently now).

However, I really got into Aquaman when he took over the lead story in Adventure and Aparo came on board.

Edo Bosnar said...

Ah, the Avengers Assemble board. Don't spend much time there, because honestly, there doesn't seem to be a lot going on.
Anyway, thanks for the b-day wishes, everyone...

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