By various & Ramona Fradon (DC Comics)
One of the few superheroes to survive the collapse at the end of the Golden Age was a rather nondescript and generally bland looking chap who solved maritime crimes and rescued fish and people from sub-sea disasters. Aquaman was created by Mort Weisinger and Paul Norris in the wake (Sorry – I simply could not resist) of Timely Comics’ Sub-Mariner, and debuted in More Fun Comics #73 (1941).
Strictly a second stringer for most of his career he nevertheless continued on beyond many stronger features, illustrated by Norris, Louis Cazaneuve and Charles Paris, until young Ramona Fradon took over the art chores in 1954, by which time Aquaman had moved to a back-up slot in Adventure Comics. She was to draw every single adventure until 1960.
In 1956 Showcase #4 (see The Flash: Archive Edition Volume 1, ISBN: 1-56389-139-5) re-fired the public’s imagination and zest for costumed crime-fighters. As well as re-imagining Golden Age stalwarts, DC undertook to remake some of its surviving superheroes such as Green Arrow and Aquaman. Records are incomplete, sadly, so we don’t know who scripted the revamp (“How Aquaman Got His Powers!” – Adventure Comics #260, May 1959) nor many succeeding tales, although Jack Miller, George Kashdan, Robert Bernstein and Bob Haney all worked on the strip.
From that issue the hero had a new origin – offspring of a lighthouse keeper and a woman from the undersea city of Atlantis – and eventually all the trappings of the modern superhero: Themed hideout, sidekick and even super-villains! In this volume are 22 adventures that cover that period of renewal and two of Aquaman’s three full-length tryouts from Showcase which eventually led to his own title and even a brief shot at animated TV stardom.
Always captivatingly illustrated, the stories range from simply charming to simply amazing examples of all-ages action that ranks alongside the best the company could offer at the time. ‘Aquaman Duels the Animal Master’, ‘The Undersea Hospital’, ‘The Great Ocean Election’, ‘Aquaman and his Sea-Police’, ‘The Secret of the Super Safe’ and ‘Aquaman Meets Aquagirl’ are all fine, entertaining tales but with Adventure #267 the editors tried a novel experiment.
At this time Adventure Comics starred Superboy and featured two back-up features. ‘The Manhunt on Land’, saw Shark Norton trade territories with Green Arrow’s foe The Wizard. In a rare crossover both heroes worked the same case with Aquaman fighting on dry land whilst the Emerald Archer pursued his enemy beneath the waves in his own strip. ‘The Underwater Archers’ was illustrated by the great Lee Elias.
In the next issue ‘The Adventures of Aquaboy!’ we got a look at the early years of the Sea King, and following that a permanent sidekick, Aqualad, was introduced in ‘The Kid from Atlantis!’ In quick succession came ‘The Menace of Aqualad’, ‘The Human Flying Fish!’, ‘Around the World in 80 Hours’, ‘Aqua-Queen’ (scripted by Jack Miller), and the intriguing mystery ‘The Interplanetary Mission’.
Originally appearing in Adventure Comics #275 – a few months after the debut of the Justice League of America in The Brave and the Bold #28 – the story concerned a plot to secure Kryptonite from the sea-floor. Although Superman did not appear the threads of shared continuity were being woven. Heroes would no longer work in insular solitude.
‘The Aqua-thief of the Seven Seas’, ‘The Underwater Olympics’, ‘Aqualad Goes to School’, ‘Silly Sailors of the Sea’ and ‘The Lost Ocean’ were a fairly mixed bag which just served to set the scene for a Big Event.
In Showcase #30 (January-February 1961) Jack Miller and Ramona Fradon expanded the origin of Aquaman in the full-length epic ‘The Creatures from Atlantis’, wherein extra-dimensional creatures conquer the sunken civilisation. From this point on the fanciful whimsy of the strip would be downplayed in favour of a more character-driven drama. The final Adventure Comics story in this volume (from #282) is a tense thriller entitled ‘One Hour to Doom’ before we bow out with the first appearance of Nick Cardy who would visually make Aquaman his own.
‘The Sea Beasts From One Million B.C.’ (Showcase #31, March-April 1961) is a wild romp of fabulous creatures, dotty scientists and evolution rays that presaged a new path for the King of the Seas, but that is for another time and another volume.
DC has a long and comforting history of gentle, innocuous yarn-spinning with quality artwork. Ramona Fradon’s Aquaman is one of the most neglected runs of such accessible material, and it’s a pleasure to discover just how readable they still are. Why not treat yourself and your youngsters to a timeless dose of whimsy? You won’t regret it.
© 1959, 1960, 1961, 2003 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.