When last we left Aquaman, the King of the Seven Seas had just been reunited with his long-lost Queen, Mera, and the two were swimming swiftly back to Atlantis to confront Narkran — the man whom Aquaman had trusted to rule Atlantis in his stead while he searched for the kidnapped Mera, and whom he’d since learned had actually been conspiring all along with surface-world gangsters to take and hold Mera prisoner. Both King and Queen were unaware, however, of three other critical situations that were unfolding at the same time: the first (and most urgent) being the solitary battle of Aquaman’s junior partner Aqualad against a fearsome sea monster called the Bugala; the second, a burgeoning popular movement of rebellion against Narkran’s despotism by a band of young Atlanteans; and the third, an ongoing series of tremors that were rocking the undersea kingdom’s foundations.
Behind a typically well-rendered (and atypically not too misleading) cover by Nick Cardy which highlighted the first of those three crises, the first few pages of the story picked up on the second one. Meanwhile, the credits on page 2 also alerted readers that the “SAG” team of Steve Skeates (writer), Jim Aparo (penciller, inker, and letterer), and Dick Giordano (editor) were all back at all of their accustomed jobs, following Aparo’s having been spelled on inks by Frank Giacoia in the previous issue:
Steve Skeates had given the black-haired, bearded rebel leader a name in the previous issue — Mupo — but seemed to have forgotten it by the time issue #47 rolled around, as he never refers to the guy as anything but “the rebel leader” henceforth; either that, or he’d become anxious over the possibility that some higher-up at DC Comics would figure out that the counterculture-identifying writer had derived the name from the backwards spelling of the word “opium” (yep, it’s a drug reference) — despite editor Dick Giordano having already prevailed upon him to change the original spelling from “Muipo”.*
Along the same line, the observant reader will also have noted the presence of a popular peace symbol in the rebel headquarters’ decor — a not-especially-subtle means of visually suggesting a kinship between Atlantis’ rebel movement and the real-life youth movements of the Sixties.
Poor Imp had been left behind back in issue #43, when Aqualad was first taken captive by the purple-skinned humanoids of Eldfur, who would later force him to fight their local sea monster. Recalling that there’s a valley nearby where dwells “a rather advanced — rather peaceful civilization” (a reference to the Eldfur folk, who have undergone a significant decline since Aquaman last encountered them), Aquaman suggests that he and Mera delay their return to Atlantis long enough to take a detour to that valley to see if Aqualad might be there. They then swim off in that direction, inexplicably leaving the faithful Imp behind; sadly for domesticated giant Hippocampus fans, the seahorse would make no further appearances following this issue. (Aquaman’s own mount, Storm, almost suffered the same fate after the Sea King [and Steve Skeates] abandoned him in similar fashion, back in issue #42. Time would prove kinder to Storm than to Imp, however, for even though the royal steed never reappeared during the “SAG” run of Aquaman, he’d be brought back into service in later years by other comics creators.)
Some of the rebels figure that Narkran is only bluffing, and won’t really harm Aquagirl; Mupo, however, is unwilling to risk it:
Meanwhile, Aquaman and Mera have reached the valley where the Sea King remembers that the people of Eldfur used to have their habitation; but…
Meanwhile, back at the royal palace of Atlantis, Mupo gets decked by his former lieutenant, Dex**, who proceeds to take command of the rebels:
…and there, after 16 not-entirely-full pages, is where the penultimate chapter of the fabled “Search for Mera” story arc ends. SAG weren’t even able to get to the third of the incipient crises (the earth tremors) this go-around, and so had to resort to hyping it (“a gigantic undersea earthquake“) in the final panel’s “next issue” blurb.
Back in July, 1969, this development brought my younger self up short, since every other issue of Aquaman I’d ever read had featured a single full-length story. We’ll get to the “why” of what happened here just a bit further on, but for now, let’s answer the obvious question: How did editor Giordano fill those seven remaining pages of Aquaman #47?
Why, with a reprint of “The Adventures of Aquaboy” — written by Robert Bernstein and drawn by Ramona Fradon, and originally published in Adventure Comics #260 (Jan., 1960):
I don’t recall exactly how I responded to this tale in 1969, although I figure I probably liked it OK. (For what it’s worth, I’m probably better able to appreciate its charms now, in 2019, than I was then.) Mainly, though, I was just impatient to get to the next and final chapter of the continued story I’d been following for ten months. And since Aquaman was only published bi-monthly, that meant I would have to wait until September.
Unfortunately, I ended up waiting a good bit longer than that. Because (stop me if you’ve heard this before) I never saw a copy of Aquaman #48 on my local spinner racks, and thus wouldn’t learn how things turned out until a couple of years later, when I managed to pick it up as a back issue.
Don’t worry, I won’t leave you hanging. But before I offer you a recap of the SAG team’s “A Kingdom to Re-build!” — which like #47’s “Come the Revolution”, came in at 17 pages, and was backed up by a Bernstein-Fradon oldie — let’s deal with the hanging question of why the concluding chapters of “The Search for Mera” were shorter than what had, up to now, been the norm for Aquaman stories.
Several months later, in Aquaman #49’s letters column, Dick Giordano responded thusly to a fan asking about the truncation of issue #47’s lead story:
Decades later, writing in the 17th issue of The Aquaman Chronicles fanzine, Steve Skeates echoed Giordano’s explanation, and also slightly expanded on it — noting that Jim Aparo had been ill, and that his illness had also been responsible for his being unable to ink the previous issue, #46, which had been finished by Frank Giacoia.
It seems obvious to me that the late, if not necessarily last-minute, conversion of one 23 page story into two 16-page ones must have required some adjustments to the story’s pacing, and perhaps even some padding. To my mind, this is the best way to account for certain aspects of the final two installments of SAG’s epic nine-parter that have always seemed a little odd to me, such as the amount of on-panel time devoted to Mupo in #47 (who, remember, isn’t even referred to by name at any time in the story), seemingly at the expense of Aquaman, Mera, and Aqualad.
But, speaking of those heroes… issue #48 at least leads off with them, picking up right where we left them on page 12 of issue #47:
Aquaman is ultimately successful at driving off the Bugala, at least for the moment; and so, he, Mera, and Aqualad proceed to hurry away from the scene — Aqualad, in particular, being more than eager to put the land of Eldfur behind him as quickly as possible:
But perhaps, the old men of Eldfur have learned from the brave example of Aqualad and his friends. Maybe they’ll be able to rally against the Bugala, and save themselves and their way of life before it’s too late…
…or maybe not. We never saw these guys again, so your guess is as good as mine.
Meanwhile, in Atlantis, rebels and soldiers fight in the streets, while Mupo and Narkran continue their private duel in the palace’s royal chambers, above — while elsewhere…
Vulko notes that the tremors are coming with greater and greater frequency, but that he hasn’t really had much time to study the phenomenon, and anyway, as long as the revolution is going on, they’ve got more pressing problems…
Aquaman orders both factions to stand down, and disperse — and almost instantly, they do so. All, that is, except for three confederates of Narkran — the same three guys who kidnapped Mera back in issue #40 and handed her over to surface-world gangsters, and who now figure (probably quite accurately) that they’re likely to be executed if Aquaman retakes his throne and Mera I.D.’s them.
Aqualad and Aquaman subdue the other two no-goods on the following page, but it’s Mera’s personal takedown of one of her kidnappers that provides the most satisfaction. That said, the whole multi-page sequence could have been more efficiently handled in less space — and probably would have been, had the story been told in one single 23-page installment as originally planned.
That, of course, is something that could also be said about the Mupo-Narkran fight that’s been going on since page 15 of issue #47:
“Up against the wall, baby!” If Mupo hadn’t already proven his American youth counterculture bona fides with his long hair, beard, groovy medallion, and peace symbol poster, that bit of phrasing would surely have closed the deal.
“As for you, young man…” After the largely sympathetic treatment the young rebel leader has received throughout the last three issues, his dressing-down by the Sea King here, as the story draws to a close, strikes something of a false note. The concern over the potential loss of life resulting from violent revolt is well-founded, of course (as it was when Aquagirl raised the same objections earlier), but Aquaman’s characterization of Mupo and his comrades’ resistance to tyranny as “senseless” feels overly harsh; and Mera’s admonition that they “should have had more faith” that Aquaman would ultimately return and make everything hunky-dory again sits uncomfortably with the anti-Establishment subtext that’s been running through the series since at least issue #46.
If the final resolution of the “youth rebellion” theme falls a little flat, the conclusion of the “earthquake” plot thread feels decidedly anti-climactic. Issue #47’s “next” blurb had promised “a gigantic undersea earthquake” in #48 — but if you blinked while reading page 13, you might have missed the whole thing. And rather than setting up a potential future storyline focusing on Atlantis’ future rising, the expository dialogue on page 15 functions as more of a wrap-up, as both Vulko and Aquaman’s statement imply that there’s really nothing for the Atlanteans to worry about, at least in the near term, as long as they earthquake-proof all new construction. The tidiness of this resolution, not to mention Skeates’ apparent reluctance to have used any of his extra story pages for a more expansive depiction of the earthquake, suggest that he may have tossed the “tremors” element into his plotline back in #43 on something of a whim, without really knowing where he wanted to go with it.
But I really don’t want to hammer too hard at this story’s weaknesses, here at the end.; for, while it has its fair share of flaws, “The Search for Mera” still stands as a solid achievement. As an extended, multi-part saga, it broke new storytelling ground at DC Comics; and it’s an engagingly written and superbly drawn effort, besides, which deserves to be remembered as a high point both of DC’s late Silver Age and of Aquaman’s nearly eight-decades-long history.
The Skeates/Aparo/Giordano run on Aquaman would last another eight issues, before it — and the Aquaman title itself — came to an abrupt end in early 1971, with issue #56. The book’s failure can readily be seen as an excellent example of how high quality has often failed to succeed financially in the comic book marketplace — but if your humble blogger wants to indict the comics readers of the late ’60s and early ’70s for their shortsightedness in not supporting the SAG Aquaman, he’ll have to indict himself as well. Because Aquaman #47 was the very last issue I bought off the stands.
It wasn’t the last one I ever saw, or thought about buying, however. No — I have a distinct memory of standing by the spinner rack in the Tote-Sum convenience store on Triangle Drive, flipping through one of the issues in the three-part “alien dimension” storyline that followed soon after the conclusion of “The Search for Mera” — probably the first chapter, issue #50, since that’s the one that heralded the appearance of Deadman on the cover, and that would definitely have caught my eye.
Though I wouldn’t be aware of this fact until may years later, this three-parter was another consequence of Jim Aparo’s recent illness. He was still recuperating in late 1969, necessitating another short run of 16-page stories following a single full 23-page job in issue #49. But this time, rather that slotting in reprints to fill the remaining pages, Giordano enlisted Neal Adams to write and draw a three-part Deadman serial which would cross over with the lead Aquaman tale. It was a novel and innovative notion, and largely successful in its execution — with the ultimate kicker being that Aquaman, Mera, and the rest of the cast never even realize that the invisible, intangible Deadman has been involved in the adventure and, in fact, has saved their collective goose.
The final “Deadman” chapter in issue #52 also has the distinction of incorporating artwork by Jim Aparo and Neal Adams into a single composition on the same page — which is certainly something you don’t see every day:
Yep, these were some good comic books*** — as I’d learn for myself, years later. But not in 1970, when they first came out — because, after flipping through that one issue at the Tote-Sum, I put it back in the spinner rack.
How come? I don’t really remember, but I’m inclined to think that I was really burned by the fact that I’d been unable to buy and read the end of the “Search for Mera” storyline — after faithfully trying to follow the saga for over a year, and having already missed one important earlier chapter (issue #45). I looked at this comic, realized that it was part of another continued story, and (perhaps) decided at that point that it wasn’t worth the trouble to buy it, ’cause I was likely to be disappointed again.
I may also have been influenced by a general malaise, a sort of overall disaffection with comic books that began creeping up on me in the latter half of 1969 and which, come the spring of 1970, would lead me to actually drop comics cold, at least for the length of one month. If you read my last blog post, you’ll know that one reason I’ve posited for the onset of this mysterious affliction is Marvel Comics’ move away from continued stories — which makes it ironic, if not actually contradictory, that here I see myself having turned away from a book because of a continued story.
Of course, my abandonment of comics didn’t last long. Soon, I’d be back, big time — and it wouldn’t be all that long before I began castigating myself for not having bought the latter issues of the SAG Aquaman in general, and the “Deadman”-backed issues in particular. Steve Skeates, Jim Aparo, and Neal Adams? How in the world could I have ever passed that up?
Over the decades, however, I’ve learned to cut my younger self a break. I was twelve, and y’know, I didn’t know everything then that I’d learn in the years to come. You live, you grow, you learn. That’s the way it goes.
And besides — it’s not like those Aquaman comics vanished from the face of the Earth once they were no longer available at the Tote-Sum. When I was at last ready to read ’em, they were out there. (No longer selling for 15 cents apiece, unfortunately — but hey, that’s life, too.)
*Skeates describes the origin of Mupo’s name in a retrospective he wrote for the seventeenth issue of the fanzine The Aquaman Chronicles. According to the same source, he also based the moniker of the deputy ruler Narkran — whose perfidy wasn’t apparent in the early chapters of the “Search for Mera” storyline — on the slang term “narc”, intending it to be a subtle clue to the man’s duplicitous nature. (It’s also another drug reference, of course.)
**Short for “Dexedrine” — again, per Steve Skeates’ account in The Aquaman Chronicles #17.
***Remarkably, these stories have never been reprinted together in a single edition. Here’s hoping that DC’s recent Aquaman: The Search for Mera collection does well enough sales-wise to make more reprints of the SAG-era Aquaman economically feasible.