- Action Comics #399
- Adventure Comics #405
- Aquaman #56 / (Sub-Mariner #72)
- Detective Comics #410
- The Flash #205 (Reprints, won’t be covered)
- Mr Miracle #1
- The Phantom Stranger #12
- Superboy #173
- Superman’s Girlfriend, Lois Lane #109
- Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen #137
- Superman #236
- Teen Titans #32
Bolded entries are covered in this post, the others will be covered soon.
“The Creature That Devoured Detroit!”
Writer: Steve Skeates
Penciler: Jim Aparo
Inker: Dick Giordano
Letterer: Jim Aparo
Editor: Dick Giordano
“The Cave of Death!”
Writer: Steve Skeates
Penciler: Jim Aparo
Inker: Dick Giordano
Letterer: Jim Aparo
Here we have one of the all-time great Aquaman covers. It’s exciting, titanic in scope and promise, and other than the rather muddy colors, is pretty much a perfect composition. It’s got an old-school monster flick feel, right down to the title, like a 50s sci-fi film…but unfortunately it also bears little in common with the story inside. Just imagine what could have been, a massive struggle between the King of the Sea and a colossal monster from the watery depths! Instead, we get an offbeat, if unquestionably interesting, tale. I imagine I might have been a more than a tad disappointed if that cover had persuaded me to pick the book up off the newsstand, only to find no massive monstrosity within.
Instead, the final issue of Aquaman begins in rather simple fashion. A husband and wife bicker over the minutia that can grow into its own sort of monster in a marriage, but the debate is postponed by the tuning in of a television to the “Warren Savin Show” (interestingly, that’s actually a pen-name that Skeates has used from time to time). The show promises to feature, of all people, the King of the Seven Seas as their special guest, but it is interrupted by a special report about a massive algae growth on Lake Erie threatening to consume the city of Detroit.
This bumper bloom seems to be caused by a mysterious satellite which is reflecting light onto the city and its surroundings at night, keeping the area in a perpetual daylight that has sparked this overgrowth. When the cameras cut back to the show, the Sea Sleuth is missing! The Aquatic Ace has rushed out of the studio to see what he can do about this threat, answering the call to action.
Arriving in Detroit, Aquaman finds the green gunk everywhere and decides to look up an old friend of his, a former police scientist named Don Powers, to try to get a handle on the situation. Meanwhile, we cut to a strange figure in a garish costume, and we’re informed that this bargain-basement Batman is ‘The Crusader,’ a superhero who is ignoring the growing plight of the city to chase a car theft ring. We get a nice action sequence as the Crusader jumps the gang he’s been tracking and barely manages to subdue them.
After we see the orange and black clad figure finishes his fight, we switch over to follow Aquaman as he goes to consult his old friend, now a successful businessman and scientist, and the Sea King finds him at his corporate lab, where the fellow is completely unconcerned with the growing green tide swallowing the city, instead bragging about the reduction in crime thanks to the perpetual daylight and revealing that the mysterious satellite is, in fact, his.
During their debate, Powers brings up the Crusader, and Arthur reveals that the League had refused him membership because he was considered unstable and too violent (He’d fit right in today, no doubt!), which is a fun little detail. When the Marine Marvel tries to take matters into his own hands, Powers and his flunkies jump him, and sadly, you guessed it, Aquaman earns another slot on the Head-Blow Headcount! Skeates really loved this device a bit too much.
With the real hero disabled, we watch as Powers slips into his private office and dons the costume of…the Crusader! In internal monologue, he reveals that he had an ulterior motive for launching the satellite. His low-light vision is fading, and he’s willing to let the whole city suffer just so he can continue playing costumed crimefighter. He justifies his selfishness by arguing that the case he’s working on is too big to abandon, and once he solves it he plans to destroy the satellite. Powers also thinks that this case will be his ticket into the big time, that it will help him prove himself. Now, just for some perspective, let’s remember that the case he’s trying to crack is no doomsday plot, no terrorist’s master plan, no city shaking scheme, just a car-theft ring. Priorities man, priorities!
While the Crusader continues his…well…crusade, Aquaman awakens on a park bench, having been dumped there by Powers’ goons, and before he can get back to the lab, he sees a young girl threatened by the growing green goo and rushes into the morass to save her. He does so without a second thought, putting her life ahead of his own, though the peril of the situation doesn’t entirely come through as well as I imagine Skeates intended.
On his way back, he discovers a crowd surrounding a still figure on the pavement. The Crusader lies dead, not felled by an enemy’s bullet or having met his death in the line of duty. He just tripped over a wire and fell to his fate on the street below, his eyes finally having failed him. He is the very soul of anti-climax. When his mask is removed, the Sea King recognizes his friend and things begin to become clear to him. Rushing back to Powers’ building, the Marine Marvel smashes his way inside, taking no chances, and locks himself inside the control room until he can find the proper switch. The issue ends with the button pressed, the satellite destroyed, and the menace ended.
So, not exactly what one would expect from that cover, is it? This is a strange issue, but certainly an inventive and intriguing one. Skeates is doing what he has done all along, trying new things and experimenting with the medium. The story at the heart of this comic, the contrasting of two different concepts of heroism in the person of two very different heroes, is actually a great one. It’s still quite pertinent today. It’s the examination of the perennial conflict, between selflessness and selfishness. Aquaman’s selfless conduct throughout, abandoning the TV show to help Detroit, putting his life in danger to save the little girl, and even risking who knows what kinds of consequences to destroy the satellite, stands in relatively effective contrast to the purely selfish motives of the Crusader. That myopic manhunter, for his part, ignores all other concerns in search for his own fulfillment and fame, endangering the entire city, a city that he supposedly protects, in order to continue his callous crusade. The concept is a fascinating one, yet Skeates’ treatment thereof isn’t entirely successful.
The story is far too rushed. We meet the Crusader and see his futile death in just a few pages. He’s not given the time to really develop the comparison appropriately, and compressing the setup and payoff into one book renders Aquaman’s contributions fairly slight. Part of the trouble is that the threat to the city doesn’t ever quite seem tremendous enough to justify everyone’s concern. We see the sludge surge up and endanger one little girl playing too close to the water, but that’s about it. Skeates commits one of the prime storytelling sins. He tells us about the threat rather than showing it convincingly. Now, part of the reason for that simply has to be lack of storytelling space. Nonetheless, this tale is certainly noteworthy for its innovation, and the central concept is worthwhile, despite its flaws. This was a remarkable plot for its time. Characters getting killed off was rare enough, but having a “hero” die, especially in the story in which he was introduced, was almost unheard of.
Of course, it almost goes without saying that the book is beautiful, with Aparo creating yet another cast of distinctive, interesting faces, lovely action, and rich settings. Perhaps the greatest calamity in the cancellation of the book is the fact that Aparo stops working on the character that he captured better than anyone else. Unfortunately, there is no shortage of four-color woe to be found in this comic’s cancellation, so that loss has plenty of competition. Nonetheless, this is a fun and entertaining read. It may be an offbeat ending to the series, but at least it’s an intriguing one. All things considered, I’ll give this final Aquaman story 3.5 Minutemen.
This issue also contains a super brief backup with Aquagirl, where she rescues a little boy foolishly playing too close to an ominously named threat called ‘The Cave of Death.’ Something of a theme this month, apparently. It’s only two pages, so really too brief to rate as a story by itself, but it’s always nice to see Aquagirl in action. It seems clear that Skeates was setting something else up, and this is just one more way in which the sudden cancellation of the book is a shame.
The Savage Sub-Mariner #72
“From the Void It Came…”
Writer: Steve Skeates
Penciler: Dan Adkins
Inker: Vince Colletta
Colourist: Linda Lessmann
Letterer: Artie Simek
Editor: Roy Thomas
You can see what else Marvel put out this month HERE.
For our special feature, we once again pass across the aisle to Marvel comics, but this time it isn’t ersatz counterparts we see but an actual story-line continued. It’s a shame that the rest of the SAG team wasn’t able to join Skeates for this revival of his Aquaman work, but he’s creating with a new team. The results are surprisingly fitting for a Marvel comic considering the origins of this yarn over at DC.
While DC’s Sea King is my favorite comic character, I’ve also always had a soft spot for Marvel’s ocean monarch, Namor, the Sub-Mariner. He’s not one of my favorite Marvel characters, but I’ve always liked him, and when I read through the classic Fantastic Four stories where Stan Lee and Jack Kirby brought him back, I really started to appreciate comics first anti-hero. Incidentally, Kirby’s work on the history of Namor’s Atlantis is one of the coolest things ever. While Namor’s temper can wear thin after a while, I’ve always appreciated the unfailing regalness of his character. He’s one of the few times where comics have captured the ideal of royalty. I’m just now starting to read his Silver Age solo series, and I’m only up to the 40s at the time of this posting, but I’m quite enjoying those adventures. For this outing, I’m skipping ahead a few years, so I’m reading this tale without much context.
It begins with the Sub-Mariner himself swimming through the terribly polluted waters offshore of a major city and commenting, in usual fashion, on how terrible us surface dwellers are. Notably, at this point Marvel’s Sea King is wearing his more substantial costume that replaced his green trunks. It’s certainly a more dignified look, and it’s grown on me, though, being something of a purist, I tend to be biased in favor of original looks. Sartorial concerns aside, the Sub-Mariner takes to the sky, still meditating on the evils of the surface world.
Our narrative lens shifts, and we move into space two years previously where a strange green blob, some bizarre alien lifeform, drifts through the cosmos and lands upon a certain satellite, just before a (blue) gloved hand destroys its temporary lodging. Take a look at that image. Does it look familiar? That’s right, Skeates intentionally evokes the last panels from Aquaman #56 in order to tie these two stories together in a subtle crossover.
The creature rides the wreckage down and splashes into the ocean nearby where Namor will come ashore. The being observes the sealife that passes by and decides to emulate those ocean dwellers by creating a body out of the slime on the seabed and the wreckage from the satellite. The process takes the intervening years, and we get a really nice series of panels as the alien heads to the surface to explore.
Meanwhile, the Sub-Mariner has encountered trouble in the form of a strange pair of humans. There’s something just a bit odd about these guys, and you might not be able to put your finger on it. I wasn’t, at first. Don’t worry, we’ll come back to that. These two toughs decide, with suicidal bravado, to pick a fight with Namor because he’s different. It’s a case of prejudice, and bizarrely, the attack is accompanied by a quote from Hitler which talks about the effectiveness of visuals in delivering messages. Oookay.
The Prince of the Blood, who, let’s’ remember, has traded punches with the Hulk, belts his normal human antagonist and somehow doesn’t turn his head into a fine red mist, instead sending him flying into the drink. The thug’s friend jumps Namor in reprisal, voicing a rather strange response to the attack, “You’ve probably ruined him for life!” How odd. As the two tussle, the curious alien being reaches the dock, and they smash into him, leading all three to tumble into the water. Interestingly, the narration notes that Namor has become somewhat unstable because of his constant battles, so that he meets the strange, monstrous newcomer with open hostility, just assuming that it’s a foe, and thereby leaving his original human antagonist to his watery fate.
While the fellow’s companion drags him to the surface, the Sub-Mariner and the star-spawned creature trade blows. Namor pours all of his rage, all of his frustration, into this fight, attacking blindly, but the creature literally blinds the Atlantean in response. Even that doesn’t stop the Sub-Mariner, who grapples with his slimy foe.
Finally, having had enough of this whole ‘body’ business, the being launches itself skyward once more, though, having meant no harm, as it passes into space it uses its powers to restore life to the drowned man and even, surprisingly enough, restore Namor’s sight. Skeates plays with superhero conventions here to some pretty good effect, raising some questions about the violent ways such characters tend to respond to the unknown.
For his part, before his eyes are healed, the Prince of the Blood realizes that his metaphorical blindness may have trapped him in literal blindness. His anger and rage kept him from trying to communicate with the creature and may have doomed him to perpetual blackness. It’s an interesting and relatively effective message about understanding and tolerance of the “Other.” And with that, Namor heads for sepulchral Atlantis (previously destroyed, it seems) while the two humans head home as well, with one of them saying, seemingly apropos of nothing, that he just got a new professional wrestling magazine. With these scenes, our story ends.
So, what was the discordant note that the two wharf rats kept striking? Well, these two toughs, Skeates later confirmed, were meant to be a gay couple. Hence the rather flamboyant dress of the first thug, who was, by the way, named Bruce, a moniker with some associations with the gay community at the time, as I understand. Now, you may wonder what in the world their sexuality has to do with anything in this oddball story, but it really does add a little depth to Skeates’ treatment of the theme of intolerance and metaphoric blindness. You’ve got these two characters acting as bigots who have themselves suffered from intolerance, abuse, and bigotry, which is ironic. While it could just be seen as anti-gay, it could also be read as an indication of the depth to which distrust of the “Other” is built into human nature, how deeply the disease goes. Even those of us with reason to sympathize with societal outcasts can find it easier to lash out than attempt to act with understanding.
Nonetheless, that was certainly an unusual wrinkle for comics in 1974, when you could not present any openly gay characters. Once again, Skeates is experimenting with the genre. The story itself is solid enough. It’s more effective in its delivery of its message than in telling a particularly compelling and enjoyable adventure yarn, though. Yet, I do enjoy the focus on Namor’s reaction to the mysterious creature. It makes rather perfect sense given the Sub-Mariner’s characterization over the course of his series and the endless series of conflicts and reverses he’s faced. There’s a very human element in his blind rage. Still, the story feels a bit disjointed, with the conflict with the two morons on the dock coming out of absolutely nowhere. I know people are plenty stupid, but who says to themselves, ‘I think I want to pick a fight with that guy that can punch through steel!’ In the end, I suppose I’ll give this story a 3.5 as well. It’s an interesting one, if not stellar.
P.S.: Oddly, this story, picking up from the final issue of Aquaman, falls on the final issue of the Sub-Mariner, who has outlived his distinguished counterpart by three years at this point but falls prey to a similar fate, and, ironically, with the same hand at the helm! Steve Skeates had to wonder if he was jinxed when it came to aquatic characters!
The Head-Blow Headcount:
Poor Aquaman adds yet another appearance on the Wall of Shame. This really illustrates just how much Skeates relied on the head-blow plot device. Whenever he needed to remove the Sea King from the story for a few pages, it seems a sock on the noggin was the first club out of the bag. The results are self-evident, with Aquaman more than tripling the next most common resident on the wall in total head-blows. At least one benefit from the lamentable cancellation of his book is he won’t be adding many more entries in this feature any time soon!
These two comics make for an intriguing pair, a unique case (at the time) with a story translating across both companies and years (Of course, the Marvel character Mantis will see a similar transition later in the decade). Even more unusually, the stories are very reflective of their universes, DC and Marvel, with each comic fitting surprisingly well into the style of their respective companies. The DC story is full of bigger ideas, while the Marvel tale is much more melodramatic and emotionally focused. The contrast illustrates Skeates’ skill as a writer, as one of the great tests of an author’s mettle is the ability to write well in different styles.
I’m really curious what shape the second story would have taken if it had graced the pages of Aquaman as intended. One wonders if the muck creature from the cover of #56 might actually have put in an appearance after all, perhaps on a much grander scale than Namor’s unwitting sparring partner. If we assume that the alien creature and its curious attempt to explore our little globe was always the core of the concept, then perhaps it would make sense for all of that algae coating Detroit to be incorporated into the being’s new body. We might have gotten a version of that massive monstrosity after all. Sadly, we’ll never know what might have been.
That is, truly, the greatest misfortune to be found in the sudden and unlooked-for cancellation of the Aquaman book, the loss of what might have been. The SAG team had been paving the way for a whole era of stories, layering in hooks for coming arcs and continuing plot threads, setting up some really intriguing story possibilities, and creating a fascinating setting for the Sea King. There are too many lost opportunities and abandoned elements in this run to count, like the rabble-rousing politician and his bid for power, the rocky relationship between Tula and Garth, the myriad underwater civilizations we’ve encountered in the preceding pages of the book, the microscopic world in Mera’s ring, Ocean Master’s recovered memories, and so much more that could have been. I’ll always wonder what plans the SAG team had, what heights the book might have reached in the years to come. How might the undersea setting have grown? How might the Aqua-Family have evolved? The possibilities really dazzle the imagination, don’t they? Instead, we get this rather off=beat finale. The book ends, not with a whimper, but neither does it close with a roar worthy of what has come before. Instead, it slips away without fanfare or acknowledgement, without the slightest hint that this is the final issue.
It’s one of the great comic calamities, and so it is with a heavy heart, that I bid adieu to one of the best Aquaman runs and one of my favorite creative teams. And it is also time that I say goodbye to this post. I hope you’ll join me again soon as I resume our regularly scheduled Bronze Age browsing. Until then, keep the Heroic Ideal alive!