Thursday, April 05, 2007

The Comics Page #11: Showcase Presents Aquaman

Aquaman may best be known as a punchline for jokes by hipster comedians and websites, a poor reputation stemming from his days on the old SUPERFRIENDS cartoon wherein writers had a hard time coming up with plots that required somebody to command the loyalty of sea creatures. (This was a problem in the JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA comics for many a year as well.) But DC's been taking steps to try and make the character cool again, and in the meantime, have bestowed on us a Showcase volume collecting his early Silver Age adventures, including the first five issues of his own Sixties title. It's a fun collection, with neat visuals and the kind of imagination that DC was known for in that era, although it suffers from that period's stodginess as well.

Aquaman is Arthur Curry, the son of a lighthouse keeper and a woman exiled from the underwater city of Atlantis- he inherited his mother's ability to breathe water and withstand the pressures of the deep, as well as command the creatures of the sea to do his bidding. Unfortunately, this also means that he can't spend more than an hour out of the water, or he'll die. So he sticks to the seas, and uses his army of underwater allies to fight pirates and smugglers and aliens and the like. Eventually he's joined by Aqualad, yet another Atlantean expatriate. (Apparently Aquaman's the only "King of the Seas"- that is, the others can't control octopi and the like- but I'm not clear on why that's so, and I don't think it's explained in this volume.)

At this point most of Aquaman's adventures appeared, appropriately enough, in ADVENTURE COMICS, also home to Superboy and eventually the Legion of Super Heroes. He also made a few appearances in DETECTIVE COMICS, and had guest shots in JIMMY OLSEN and LOIS LANE to boot. What this means, beyond the geekery, is that most of the stories in this collection are fairly short "back-up" adventures rarely taking more than seven pages. The perils are rarely that perilous (though the bad guys do cotton to Aquaman and Aqualad's shared weakness and strand them on land frequently), and frequently the King of the Seas will be engaged in relatively low-action escapades like running an undersea hospital for sick fishes and helping Lois Lane through her difficult time spent as a mermaid. At times the whimsical fantasy approach is actually fairly endearing; there's a consistent sense of fun to these stories, as when the residents of a flooded town decide to convert the whole thing to a modern Venice and Aquaman has to become sheriff of its abused waterways. There are a few "book-length" stories in here- Aquaman's appearances in SHOWCASE followed by his own magazine- and these generally revolve around more serious threats like prehistoric fish monsters, invaders from other worlds and dimensions, evil magicians and the like. (There's also Quisp, a tiny sea sprite with no apparent relation to the cereal mascot, who has an array of vaguely defined magic powers.)

It's always been the "talks to fish" angle that has given Aquaman so much grief from the aforementioned Gen-X snarkers, and I can see why it's dumb summed up like that. In practice, though, it's actually cool. Because DC Comics had yet to introduce personality conflicts into their superhero stories, much of their Silver Age storytelling had an almost puzzle-like quality as the hero or heroes worked to find the solution to the dilemma. So, for Aquaman, part of the fun was seeing the varied uses to which he'd put his undersea subjects. Whales line up to form a landing strip for a crashing plane, octopi (including Topo, another of Aquaman's faithful friends) divert torpedoes and form raiding parties, an anglerfish serves as a nightlight, etc. At some- well, okay, MANY- points the use of sealife defies credibility (I don't think sawfish can actually saw through rock, and the less said about the extensive use of swordfish the better), but then one doesn't read these stories for scientific rigor. The writers occasionally indulge in the classic Silver Age "hero pulls an elaborate ruse to catch criminals he probably could have fought directly anyway" trick, but fortunately not that often.

There is no writing credit for the majority of these stories- comics had yet to get in the habit of crediting writers and artists. Most of the art is by Nick Cardy and Ramona Fradon, and the visuals are consistently clear and polished. Part of the fun of a character like Aquaman is that his stories, naturally, tend to take place underwater, which is to us a weird and fantastic environment even without the fire-trolls or sea serpents. With all that stuff added, Aquaman's adventures become uniquely exotic among superhero romps.

I was personally hoping to get a bit farther into Aquaman's more surreal sixties adventures- just about everything DC put out in the early Silver Age was marked by a certain restraint in levels of weirdness and levels of drama; they were still testing the limits of the renascent superhero genre, not to mention the limits of the Comics Code. But there's still fun and adventure to be had, and the lighter, less consequential stories are usually entertaining enough to hold one's interest for seven pages. The AQUAMAN Showcase doesn't contain any real classics of the era, but it proves the character is a lot more interesting than he's given credit for. I look forward to subsequent volumes.

Grade: B

No comments: