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Saturday, November 14, 2009

Aquaman (Vol.1) #57 - Sept. 1977

Comics Weekend "A Life For A Life" by David Michelinie and Jim Aparo.

With no issues of DC Super Friends or Blackest Night to talk about this week, I went looking through my shelf of Aquaman comics and was reminded that, even after three + years of the Shrine's existence, I've barely gotten around to talking about these issues of Aquaman's brief return as a solo star. It started with#57 and ran for only seven issues before becoming a victim of the DC Implosion.

That seems crazy to me, because this run of Aquaman comics--brief as it is--was and remains one of the character's most memorable series of stories for me. I remember buying them right off the newsstands at the time, and it really helped cement Aquaman as my all-time favorite superhero. So let's correct that now, huh?

This issue (continuing the numbering from Aquaman's original title, which was cancelled in 1970) picks up right where Adventure Comics #452 left off, with Black Manta having murdered Arthur Jr., certainly the single biggest event in all of Aquaman's history.

Aquaman, of course, is on the hunt for Manta, and we open right on an action sequence, beautifully handled by Jim Aparo:
Aquaman is brimming with rage here, so he's using his finny friends in a slightly more savage manner than he normally would. After Aquaman being so nice for so long, its kind of a nice change of pace to see him so blunt here.

Miles away, Black Manta is watching all this from the safety of his HQ, and he's infuriated at his incompetent henchmen.

He's accompanied by Cal Durham, who was fooled into helping Manta by believing his stories about setting up an Idylist Sanctuary under the sea, appealing to his sense of racial solidarity. Black Manta, now no longer needing Cal, tells him the truth: Manta is out to make money, and that's all. And if Durham steps out of line, he will regret it. He blasts a small globe into smithereens to make his point.

Aquaman continues his pursuit, and he's stopped by some robotic drones made by Manta, including a giant octopus:
Meanwhile, we find that a member of NATO named General Horgan has been kidnapped, along with other influential world statesmen, by another of Aquaman's foes...The Fisherman!:
The Fisherman is looking for a spy sub that sank somewhere in the ocean, and Hogan accidentally reveals where it is!

Aquaman manages to get free of the octopus by tying some of its tentacles up in knots, and makes way into Manta's stronghold. Filled with rage, he lunges for Manta, only to fall prey to an electrical trap he had set. Thousands of volts flow into Aquaman's body, knocking him out.

Cal Durham can take no more--he can't allow Manta to murder Aquaman in cold blood. He pulls a gun, but Manta uses his henchmen to knock Cal out, as well. He then fires Cal out of a torpedo tube, and within moments Cal runs out of oxygen, and begins to drown!

Aquaman wakes up in a classic super-villain death trap:
As Aquaman hurtles to his death on the makeshift missile, we see Cal's shaky hand reach out and shoot at the ropes holding Aquaman. By divine providence, he hits his target, freeing Aquaman!

The planned explosion goes off, and Manta thinks Aquaman is dead. He is surprised, however, to see that Cal has his henchmen under control. Cal didn't drown--the artificial gills Manta installed in him were a little slow to kick in, but they worked! Cal can now breathe underwater!

But Manta's in for another surprise--Aquaman is alive!
Manta, begging for mercy like the rat he is, gives Aquaman just enough pause that he collects himself and realizes he can't kill Manta in cold blood (chalk this up to the need to have as good a villain as Black Manta around in perpetuity, otherwise known as The Joker Rule).

As Aquaman and Cal tug Manta and his men to shore, Cal begins to choke. Aquaman dunks him underwater, proving what Aquaman suspected: the new gills Manta installed, once they start, can then only breathe water--Cal is now trapped to live underwater.

Later, Aquaman turns Manta over to the authorities:
...and on that bummer of an ending, this issue of Aquaman comes to close.

Looking back over this issue, and the later ones in this run, I am torn. As comic book stories outside of their larger context, they're great: fast moving, well told, superbly drawn by Jim Aparo.

But...once the decision was made to kill off Arthur Jr., whoever wrote Aquaman after this couldn't help but deal with the event and its consequences. This led to years of Aquaman comics where he's depressed, he fights with Mera, and he's estranged from Aqualad.

All that makes for great melodrama, but I also think it was truly the beginning of Aquaman getting bogged down in years of him being portrayed as a tormented, angry loner, with a supporting cast that seemed to hate him. So, taken piece by piece, each issue makes total sense and works on their own level, but in the larger scheme of things I think it was one of the main reasons Aquaman's "star" fell and he stopped being one of DC's A-list characters, constantly swimming from title to title and under wildly different creative teams.

But the six-year-old in me still loves this issue!


Josh Hill said...

Its been so great to read these posts. I definitely plan on buying these comics someday.

Wings1295 said...

I think you really nail it here, Rob. Aquaman was permanently affected by the death of his son, and right so. But the effect over the long-term on the character was much more than anyone anticipated, I think. Death of a child is a heavy blow for a comic book character to get past and be light and fun once more.

Aaron said...

I think the point where Black Manta killed Aquababy is where Aquaman -please forgive me- "Jumped the shark". From there on out it just gets grimmer and grimmer. I want an Aquaman who delivers mail to remote islands and stops to chat with the Coast Guard. An Aquaman who patrols the sea for pirates, but still has time to help with shooting a movie or promoting a political candidate or even hiding a giant safe.

All I'm saying is it's been years since anyone landed an airplane on a hastily improvised runway of whalebacks!

Aaron said...

And I want TOPO!

David J. Cutler said...

I'm with Aaron, as important a moment as this is it feels to me like DC trying to emulate the Marvel method with a character who maybe wasn't suited to it. I'd love to free Arthur from this bit of continuity and return the book and character to swashbuckling adventure on and under the high seas, coloured with Atlantean lore and legend. Damsels, mermaids, pirates, Topo, smugglers, drowners, sea monsters and the occasional super criminal... but alas, this may never be.