Regular readers of this blog may recall that Aquaman was the very last Justice League member with their own book in the late ’60s that I got around to sampling as a solo draw. And, as I posted almost one full year ago, what finally convinced me to pick up the Sea King’s 36th issue had less to do with the comic book itself, and more to do with the fact that the hero just debuted as one of the two titular stars of CBS’ animated series, The Superman/Aquaman Hour of Adventure. As things turned out, that single issue, featuring a story by the regular team of Bob Haney and Nick Cardy, failed to grab me enough for me to pick up the next issue, or the one after that. By the time September, 1968 rolled around, one year later, the TV series had aired its last original episode, and with Aquaman only appearing in roughly every other issue of Justice League of America at the time, there wasn’t exactly a lot going on to spark a renewed interest in the hero’s solo adventures on my part. Still, something convinced me to pick up Aquaman #42 when I saw it on the stands. What could it have been?
Well, duh. It was the cover, of course.
That brilliant Nick Cardy-drawn cover, with its dramatic use of light and shadow, its striking coloring, its story-title lettering (by Gaspar Saladino) that just screams “late Sixties”, and — above all — its arresting design that incorporates the series’ logo into the pictorial composition, all serve to make it (in my humble opinion, at least) one of the most iconic covers of the latter Silver Age. Indeed, back in the summer of 2015, when I chose the comics from my collection whose covers would appear in this (then) brand new blog’s title banner, there was never any question that Aquaman #42 would have to be one of them.
The integration of the logo into the illustration — inspired, of course, by Will Eisner’s regular use of this graphic device in his 1940s newspaper strip, The Spirit — seems to position this cover as the third in a triptych of such DC Silver Age covers, the other two being Batman #194 and Flash #174. Of course, those covers came out a year earlier, in the summer of 1967; and what’s more, they were both pencilled not by Nick Cardy, but rather by Carmine Infantino. Still, knowing that Infantino had, in the intervening months, become first DC’s art director and then its editorial director, and that he was responsible for the design of DC’s covers line-wide in both those capacities, one might logically assume that Infantino had a hand at least in the conceptualization of, and perhaps even did the layout for, Cardy’s Aquaman #42 cover. Based on statements by Nick Cardy himself, it seems that may have been the case — but, on the other hand, it may not have been.
In an interview with Jim Amash that appeared in Alter Ego #65 (February, 2007), Cardy acknowledged that Infantino “designed almost all the covers” for DC during this time, but also went on to state that he (Cardy) “designed all the Aquaman covers” himself, though he “followed his [Infantino’s] ideas”. The book Nick Cardy: Behind the Art (TwoMorrows Publishing, 2008) goes into more detail about issue #42’s cover specifically, with the artist saying: “I asked to put the title logo on the bottom, so I could incorporate it into the ledge of the volcano.” That certainly suggests that the single most important element of the cover layout was Cardy’s idea alone; however, in the same book Cardy also states: “Initially Carmine Infantino gave me cover layouts, but later we would bounce ideas back and forth.” This statement is made in the context of the Aquaman covers Cardy produced after he stopped penciling the book’s interiors with issue #39. Since issue #42’s cover was only the third of these, for it to have been laid out or designed entirely by Cardy would have to mean that Infantino only provided him with layouts for the first two covers.
As neither Cardy nor Infantino are with us any longer, we’ll probably never know for sure what, if any direct input the latter artist may have had into Aquaman #42’s classic cover. What clearly comes through in our extant information sources, however, is the regard that Cardy had for Infantino as an artist, and the appreciation that he had for the greater creative freedom Infantino allowed DC’s artists from the moment he moved into his executive role; and the inspiration that he took from that new freedom for his own work from 1967 forward. It seems fair to assume that Cardy had at least seen Infantino’s Batman and Flash covers, and that he knew that his new boss was amenable to those kinds of experiments — so, at least in that sense, Infantino probably influenced the design of the iconic cover, even if he didn’t have a hand in literally creating it.
But, of course, back in September, 1968, my eleven-year-old self wasn’t aware of a bit of that. Heck, I’m not even sure I noticed Cardy’s signature on the cover. All I knew was that it was awesome, and that I had to buy and read the comic book that lay behind it.
Once I did start reading the comic, of course, I realized that things had indeed changed for the Sea King since the last (and until now, only) time I’d checked in on his series:
The first new thing I noticed, naturally, was that I’d come in in the middle of an ongoing storyline — still a rarity for DC Comics at that time — involving the Atlantean monarch’s “search for Mera, his captured queen”, as the first panel’s caption puts it. The second new thing I noticed was the credits box (Aquaman #36 hadn’t included one), which listed three names — only one of which, that of editor Dick Giordano, was already familiar to me.
I knew Giordano as an editor who’d arrived at DC relatively recently, having seen his name (and read his letter column contributions) in Strange Adventures #212 and Teen Titans #15. However, both of those issues had found Giordano working with creative talent who’d already been on the books when he arrived –so Aquaman #42 was my first Giordano comic in which the editor was guiding the efforts of a couple of talents he had brought with him from his previous position at Charlton Comics — namely, writer Steve Skeates and artist Jim Aparo.*
Both Skeates and Aparo began their run with issue #40 (one issue after Giordano’s debut), which also launched the “search for Mera” plotline. As Skeates would later explain in the 17th issue of John Schwirian’s Aquaman Chronicles fanzine (Summer, 2008), the story concept — which was Giordano’s — was intended to allow the creators to handle the Sea King “as rather a Western character, riding around on his sea-horse, a lone stalwart stranger galloping into a town the cultural and political realities of which he knows next to nothing about.”
The continued story format also made it somewhat easier to open the issue with a fight scene — something else that you were considerably less likely to find in a DC comic than a Marvel one, circa 1968:
On page 3, our hero finds himself caught in the grip of two of the mysterious Maarzons, while a third charges at him with a spear. What better time for a flashback, to recap the events that led Aquaman here for latecomers such as my eleven-year-old self?
“The ring with the five-sided stone” is, of course, the kind of memorable clue that frequently figured into “quest” sagas in 1960s popular entertainment — reminiscent of “the one-armed man” on TV’s The Fugitive, or “the Hook” in DC’s own “Deadman” series (which, perhaps not so coincidentally, was also edited by Giordano during the latter half of its Strange Adventures run).
Luckily, the Sea King’s reverie ends in time for him to break free and subdue his foes. Uncertain why they attacked him in the first place, Aquaman theorizes that maybe they’re the ones who kidnapped Mera, and so have been expecting them. He proceeds on to the Maarzon village, where he’s nearly skewered by yet another spear that comes sailing out of nowhere. “How many of these guys am I gonna have to fight??” he wonders.
Yep, it’s Aquaman’s “sworn enemy”, Black Manta! His arrival on the scene comes as no surprise to us readers, of course, since we’ve already been primed to expect his appearance via the cover.
And despite the fact I wasn’t a regular reader of Aquaman in 1968, I was nevertheless familiar with Black Manta thanks to the aforementioned Superman/Aquaman Hour of Adventure — where he’d appeared in at least four of the thirty-six “Aquaman” episodes. What I didn’t realize back then, however (and, to be completely honest with you, only learned when I discovered it in my research for this post, just this past week), is that issue #42 represented only Manta’s second comic book appearance — his first having come along not much more than a year earlier, in issue #35. (Yes, that’s just one issue prior to my own initial sampling of Aquaman — meaning that if I’d taken the plunge [no pun intended] just a couple of months earlier, I’d be the proud owner of the comics debut of Black Manta, rather than the, um, Awesome Threesome.)
Interestingly, while Manta made his first appearance in print in Aquaman #35, the Haney-Cardy story didn’t give him an origin story, or even a civilian name — and, in fact, represented the villain as having already fought Aquaman on at least one previous occasion, in an adventure readers never actually “saw.”** While Black Manta would quickly become one of Aquaman’s best-known foes — indeed, probably the best-known — he remained almost a complete enigma for the first decade or so of his existence. In fact, readers wouldn’t even see his face until 1977’s Adventure Comics #452, in which writer David Michelinie (in collaboration with artist Jim Aparo) revealed that the “Black” in the villain’s codename had previously unsuspected significance. (Aquaman and Mera’s one and only child, Arthur “Aquababy” Curry, Jr., also perished in that story, as a direct result of Manta’s actions — solidifying the latter’s status as the archest of the Sea King’s arch-foes.) Moreover, he wouldn’t get a bona-fide origin story until 1993’s Aquaman (1991 series) #6 (an origin story which, incidentally, was substantially revised just ten years later, in Aquaman [2003 series] #8; and then was completely overhauled as part of DC’s “New 52” reboot, in 2012’s Aquaman [2011 series] #10). And finally, he didn’t get a real name — “David” — until the 2010 miniseries Brightest Day.
All of which just goes to prove (to me, at least), that a comic book supervillain can make it pretty damn far on little more than a cool name and great costume design.
But, I digress. Getting back to our current story…
The intense, almost homicidal rage displayed by Aquaman, here and on the pages to follow, was an unusual emotional state for any Sixties superhero to exhibit (unless, of course, they were being mind-controlled or otherwise malignly influenced), and that statement should probably go double for DC Comics. Intriguingly, scripter Skeates later said (in the earlier-referenced Aquaman Chronicles #17) that he drew on the dissolution of his own marriage in developing this aspect of the story; regardless of its source, however, the sequence represented a dramatic new approach to the characterization of the Sea King.
Black Manta is not, in fact, responsible for Mera’s abduction, as we readers quickly learn from the villain’s thought balloons — but he doesn’t tell Aquaman this. Instead, he challenges our hero to a personal duel, stating that he’ll reveal Mera’s fate only if Aquaman can defeat him. Of course, Aquaman accepts, and moments later, the battle is joined:
At this point, the story shifts scenes for the first time this issue, to check in on what’s happening back at Aquaman’s home base, the undersea kingdom of Atlantis.
We’ll pause here for a moment to note that, in recasting Aquaman as “a lone stalwart stranger”, the series’ creative team had been required to separate the hero from what had become, by issue #40, an extended family’s worth of supporting characters — including not just his wife Mera, but also their son Arthur, Jr. (Aquababy), Aquaman’s sidekick Garth (Aqualad), and Garth’s girlfriend Tula (Aquagirl). But getting the Sea King away from this gang didn’t mean that Skeates and company would ignore them completely; and, indeed, a subplot concerning serious trouble brewing back at home would continue throughout the “search for Mera” story arc, contributing to the overall suspense of the storyline, and becoming increasingly more significant as the “main” plot moved forward.
Something else worth noting here is the unconventional (for 1968) layout of the panels. In the wake of Neal Adams’ comic-book advent in the mid-to-late Sixties, more and more comics creators were experimenting with alternatives to the standard rectangular format; and as is usually the case with such innovation, some experiments were more successful than others. Case in point — this three-panel sequence, which may work adequately in purely visual terms, but is unnecessarily confusing to the reader trying to follow the progression of text from one panel to another; i.e,, someone reading left to right across the page will likely read Aquagirl’s two thought balloons in the upper right-hand panel before the one printed directly below them, which is obviously intended to be read first. Better balloon placement might have mitigated the problem somewhat, but couldn’t have completely resolved it; at the end of the day, it’s simply a less-than-fully-successful layout.
At this late date, it’s difficult to know who was actually responsible for this design choice — according to Skeates (once again in Aquaman Chronicles #17), he liked to include rough page layouts with his scripts that the artists were free either to use or to ignore; and “Jim [Aparo], more than any other artist, tended to use these layouts”. But regardless of whether it was Skeates or Aparo who was swinging for the fences here, it was a nice try that didn’t quite make it. (Still, a man’s reach should exceed his grasp and all that, right?)
As indicated in Aquagirl’s last thought balloon above, Aquaman had begun his quest for Mera with Aqualad at his side; but, after receiving a stab wound in the arm in issue #40, “Minnow” had to be benched. Then in issue #41, Garth’s problem was compounded when he tried to leave the hospital, fell, and struck his head. In the final panels of page 14 of the present issue, Tula tries to visit him, but is mysteriously rebuffed by the hospital’s medical personnel; as we readers learn on the next page, there appears to have been more to that head injury than met the eye:
Well, that certainly sounds ominous, doesn’t it? But the mystery of Aqualad’s malady will have to wait for the next issue, because our story now leaves Atlantis to return to her monarch — who’s still trying to fight Black Manta without actually looking at him, and having a rough time of it:
Manta manages to slash Aquaman’s left arm with his spear, as well as making our hero drop his own weapon, but then…
Manta, being the duplicitous baddie that he is, has of course provided a secret escape hatch for himself should things go south:
Having seen his foe disappear before his eyes, Aquaman streaks off to intercept the villain’s Manta-ship — only to see it perform the same vanishing act:
Looking back on this story after fifty years, I’d have to say that Aquaman’s reasoning that he shouldn’t call on the creatures of the sea to help him against the Maarzons because “these people are only doing as they were told” doesn’t quite fly. After all, it’s not like calling in the undersea cavalry means he has to use lethal force. We readers know that the Sea King could order, say, a hammerhead shark to hit a Maarzon just as hard (but no harder) than Aquaman does in the panels above with his own fists. One might speculate that the creative team were simply more interested in depicting Aquaman slugging guys than in standing still with concentric circles emanating from his head. (Rather like how Gil Kane seemed to grow bored with drawing Green Lantern using his ring to create energy constructs towards the end of his time on GL, and started having him use his fists a lot more.) But, whatever. We’re just going to go with it (after all, what else can we do? This story is fifty years old!).
Once he gets a little clearance, Aquaman puts his idea for subduing his attackers quickly, and with a minimum of violence, into action:
And on that final, rather unsettling note, “Is This My Foe?” comes to a close. “The Search for Mera”, on the other hand, is just about to shift into high gear.
As I’ve already indicated, this story was my first encounter with both Steve Skeates and Jim Aparo. The latter creator would, of course, go on to be a mainstay at DC Comics for the next few decades; through much of that time, his penchant for not only inking but even lettering his own penciled pages (as he did in this issue) would give his work a distinctive, readily identifiable look that transcended genre, while his dynamism and draftsmanship helped ensure a steady audience for that work throughout his long career (though, to my mind, the stuff he did for DC in his first decade there was definitely his best). Skeates was considerably less prolific (at least at the major American comics companies), but still turned out some very memorable work for DC in the Sixties and Seventies, including some classic tales for the company’s anthology titles (“The Poster Plague”, anyone?).
But, of course, in 1968, my eleven-year-old self wasn’t looking ahead that far. The burning question for me at the time was: Had the new creative direction and ongoing storyline in Aquaman hooked me sufficiently to bring me back in two months for the next issue?
… or, at least, I would have been there, had the gods that controlled American comic book distribution in the late Sixties been more kind. But hey — that’s a post for another day.
*For many years, I’ve assumed that the decision to bump both Bob Haney and Nick Cardy from their respective duties as writer and story artist for Aquaman following Giordano’s first issue (#39) was the new editor’s alone. That may well be true as far as Haney goes, but it appears that other personnel at DC were involved in Cardy’s reassignment, as attested to by a response Giordano wrote to a fan in the letter column of the new team’s first issue, #40 : “Joe Orlando robbed him for a new assignment while my back was turned. Oh, woe!” Cardy himself seems to have been fine with making the change (in the 2007 Alter Ego interview quoted earlier, he jested that he “was getting waterlogged anyway”). And since his new assignment for editor Orlando turned out to be Bat Lash — the unconventional Western series which,short-lived as it was, is today widely considered to be a highlight both of the artist’s career and of DC’s late-Sixties output, overall — most comics fans are probably OK with it, too.
**Then-Aquaman scripter Bob Haney used the same tactic of introducing villains who were simultaneously “new” to readers but “old” to our hero in the very next issue, #36, in which he gave us Torpedo Man, Claw, and Magneto (no, not that one) — all depicted as veteran enemies of Aquaman that had never appeared before. Knowing that Haney was also contributing scripts to the “Aquaman” cartoons at the same time he was writing the comic book, I’m inclined to believe that he was so busy coming up with villains for the Sea King to battle in two different media that he just couldn’t spare the time to come up with origins for all of them. But, we’ll probably never know for sure.