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Monday, February 27, 2012

Memories of Mera: Steve Skeates

Life with Mera: Not Exactly A Sitcom

Back in the waning days of the sixties, I didn't know from Aquaman, let alone Mera, Aqualad, Aquagirl, Aquathis, Aquathat, Storm, Imp, Black Manta, Ocean Master, and all those other creatures of the sea! Truth be told, I didn't even know that much about the ocean, though if prodded I probably could have recited the names of all seven of those overblown ponds and even given you an approximation as to where each one is located! Hey, I went to college, y'know! Oh sure, I had heard of Aquaman, knew he was that blond dude who was a member of the Justice League and that he even had his own book, though I'd never read it. I also even somehow understood that he was married (though I couldn't have told you his wife's name) and that he was a king of some sort and that he and his subjects lived in a domed kingdom on the ocean floor somewhere, but that's about it! Thing is, that was probably enough!

So, there I was, newly acquired by DC Comics, visiting what appeared to be the main office of a batch of corporate lawyers or certified public accountants or some such, a place from all appearances that had nothing to do with sequential art, balloon placement, and garish sound effects, yet this was the headquarters of one of the biggest comic book companies around! It was like they weren’t just being pretentious; they were trying as well to hide the fact that what they did there was something as silly as comics, while I was in the business of dropping by there for what I figure was the third time -- or was it the fourth? Those first two or three times I had been applying for a job there; didn’t get very far with that; I think they thought I was too much of a "hippie-beatnik,' someone those pretentious editors, assistant editors, and whatnot hardly had any desire to hang around with, yet now here I was working for them! More specifically, I was standing in front of a desk that was quite clean, did not yet have thousands and thousands of papers piled upon it as editors’ desks often get, behind which sat my old friend and favorite editor, the late great Dick Giordano who also was a relatively new acquisition there at the home of Superman, Batman, and the Flash! To cut to the chase, I’d come in to pick up my very first DC writing assignment!

As it turned out I was given a surprise in that I was given a choice, and this is where my knowledge of Aquaman, as pathetically limited as that knowledge may have been back then, came into play! It seems, you see, that Dick had gotten bestowed upon him by the higher-ups there at DC two books that were faltering sales-wise, two comics that were teetering upon the brink of cancellation, and it had fallen to Dick (most likely assisted by those regulars of his who had accompanied him when he performed his editorial leap from rinky-dink Charlton Comics to the big time at DC – myself, Dennis J. O'Neil, Pat Boyette, and Jim Aparo) to revitalize these two comics, up their sales, somehow make those two actually profitable! One of them was of course Aquaman! The other was something called Bomba The Jungle Boy! It appeared then, since I wanted above all – had wanted for some time -- to write for a fairly well known character (why else give up all the fun I had been having working for lowly Charlton?), and seeing as Superman and Batman were (I gathered) unavailable, it looked like I'd have to settle for Aquaman!
It was only after I had chosen Aquaman over Bomba that Dick informed me that I'd be teamed on this series with none other than Jim Aparo whom I had previously worked with on that seemingly unending speculation concerning the missing years in the legend of Beowulf, a continuing back-up in the Charlton Hercules comic, a series that bore the title "The Thane of Bagarth"; furthermore, Jim had provided the art part for a number of my ghost stories and even one of my westerns! To say I was quite pleased by this announcement on Dick's part would surely be selling reality short! I loved Jim's art! Often, back in our Charlton daze, he would take a fairly pedestrian story of mine and transform it into something that came off like a veritable gem – what’s not to love about that?

And that was just the beginning! Somehow, there in that strangely stodgy stuffed-shirt environment where Dick seemed almost as out-of-place as I was, the pleasant developments just kept coming! Dick next informed me of his plan for revitalizing the Aquaman book, and, though the term had yet to come into common use comic book-wise, what this was was a story arc! Aquaman’s wife, the Queen (and I at last learned that her name was Mera!) would be kidnapped, and Aquaman would travel from one underwater society to another and another and another in his attempt to find his captured Queen! I liked it! I really liked it! Shades of Route 66, Run for Your Life, and The Fugitive – a main character who was on the move, a new setting every issue, one big fat freakin' quest with reuniting with the love of his life being the prize at the end of what would surely seem like it was gonna be an almost endless saga! Hey, wow, yeah!

What I didn't realize at that point, not completely, not until I abruptly late in the arc came face to face with the facts, is that by setting Mera up as the prize at the end of the quest, making the story all about her even though she was hardly in the story at all – she of course made an appearance in the first issue to be produced by the Giordano/Skeates/Aparo/Cardy team which was the one where she got kidnapped, but she didn't show up again until the very last page of our sixth issue, and since this was a bimonthly book that was almost a whole year later – by doing all of that we were in effect idealizing her, making her more and more of an icon, transforming her into the ideal mate, an idealized woman; all of that having something to do, I suppose, with that ancient adage about absence making the heart grow fonder! Or something like that!
And, since this was neither a horror story nor a comedy we weren't about to turn all of that on its head, have Mera once found turn out to be a big disappointment, no longer exactly beautiful and (as but one way to go) bitchy as all git-out, belittling Aquaman for taking so long to find her! Nahhh, none of that! Instead, there in our seventh issue I was faced with the task of making Mera live up to what by not being there she had (in our minds) become!

So, I showed her agonizing within that tiny cell she was being held within over the possibility that her captors had, as the main villain had informed her, also captured Aquaman, and if she didn't do as she was told Aquaman would die! She was fairly certain this was merely a ruse (which it indeed was), but what if it wasn't? Then, when the door to her cell was accidentally activated and Mera made her escape, attempting above all to find out if her hubby was really there somewhere, I demonstrated both her strength and determination by having her disarm and render unconscious a pair of villainous underlings within but a page! All in all, then, despite the big lie on the cover (which showed Aquaman dealing with an unconscious Mera when inside the book it was exactly the other way around) Mera owned our seventh issue, but whether or not I was able to make her into everything she needed to be at this particular point is hardly anything this particular individual known as me should be the judge of! All, then, that I can say even at this late a date is that due to this story Mera abruptly became one of my all-time favorite comic book characters!
What I liked most about her (and was proudest of having -- no matter how large or small -- some piece of responsibility for) was that she was a woman! Most of the female characters I had dealt with in comics, especially within the realm of superheroics – Lilith, Wonder Girl, Supergirl – were (as two-thirds of those names right there flat-out indicate) mere girls! Easy on the eyes, yet their personalities still under construction! Not that I had (or have) anything against writing comicbook stories starring teenagers! On the contrary – I've always felt that the superhero concept was a rather adolescent idea anyway, and therefore teenaged superheroes made more sense to me than some actual adult running around in his long underwear fighting bad guys! Also, back in the late sixties and early seventies, teenagers and even those younger than that were still the main audience of the comic books we were devising tales for!

sgOh sure, there were other female comicbook characters with fully formed personalities! Wonder Woman, for example, comes immediately to mind! In other words, Mera wasn't exactly unique! But she did come off that way to me! Gorgeous, especially when drawn by Jim Aparo – all that cascading red hair which probably wouldn't have really worked all that well under water, but worked for me!! And, personality-wise, pretty much the only female character I've ever worked on that I would even consider comparing to this real-life woman right here, the one in that other room there who at the moment is busy watching Boston Legal re-runs, the woman I've known for over thirty years and whom I indeed intend to spend the rest of my life with!

--Steve Skeates



Anonymous said...

SO glad Mr. Skeates didn't choose Bomba! I've mentioned before how that issue of Mera's escape was a personal favorite, and the reasoning behind the way it was crafted makes so much sense! Thanks, Mr. Skeates...and Rob! Great read!

Joseph Brian Scott said...

Another coup! Really enjoyed this. Kind of off topic, but I also really liked Mr. Skeates' Supergirl stories; there was some well done characterization and adult emotion in those stories that seemed mature for the medium at the time.

Kent G. Hare said...

This is a great little memoir. I loved this 'story arc' then and love it now. I do not understand DC's negligence so far in failing to collect it for modern readers. It's far and away above much other material they have collected.