RETRO REVIEW: Aquaman #56 (Mar. 1971) & Sub-Mariner #72 (Sep. 1974)

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Or – “Marvel Vs. DC, 25 Years Or So Early…”


There was a time in comics when the creator pool was a much smaller, and much tighter knit group, and when editorial control was pretty much limited to “Hey, Marv wants to use your guy next month.”  Creators might travel back and forth between the various publishers (though there was a Big Two, even then) and carry concepts and characters with them, as Steve Englehart did with Mantis and her various counterparts throughout his work.  Eventually, this would lead to unofficial crossover stories (one of which birthed the concept known as the Squadron Supreme.)  And then, there was the case of writer Steve Skeates, who single-handedly created what may be the first inter-company crossover with issues that came out nearly two YEARS apart!  You KNOW you wanna read ‘dis…

AQUAMAN #56
Scripter: Steve Skeates
Penciler: Jim Aparo
Inker: Jim Aparo
Cover Artist: Nick Cardy
Letterer: Jim Aparo
Publisher: Marvel Comics
Cover Price: 15 Cents
Current Near-Mint Price: $25.00

 

 

SUB-MARINER #72
Scripter: Steve Skeates
Penciler: Dan Adkins
Inker: Vince Colletta
Colorist: Linda Lessmann
Letterer: Artie Simek
Publisher: DC Comics
Cover Price: 25 Cents
Current Near-Mint Price: $17.00

 

Previously, on Aquaman and/or Sub-Mariner: Arthur Curry is an Atlantean-human hybrid, raised by his lighthouse-keeper father on dry land, learning as he grew that he had the power to breathe underwater and telepathically control sea-life.  Namor MacKenzie is an Atlantean-human hybrid, raised by his royal mother underwater, growing up to discover that he has the power of flight, the ability to redirect electricity, and that his massive strength is uncommon on dry land.  Both eventually become the king of Atlantis, both join their world’s respective greatest super-teams, both would rather have the proportionate strength of a praying mantis than deal with the tsuris that comes with the underwater monarchy.  More importantly, each is (albeit a few months apart) getting his title cancelled…

We start with Aquaman’s book, as a beautifully rendered married couple fights over her cooking, his mother and anything else under the sun when a special bulletin breaks through during the Tonight Show, declaring that Detroit is under a state of emergency thanks to algae growth on Lake Erie…

I think that Aparo slipped in a Julius Schwartz sighting in that last panel, a practice that always makes me smile when I run into it.  Returning to regular programming, the host is stunned to see that his special guest-star, Aquaman, has fled the studio, having found bigger (you should excuse the expression) fish to fry.

Every panel of this book is awesomely put together, by the way, as Aparo reminds us that comic storytelling isn’t about big splashes or shots of the hero, but about creating a compelling world for the hero to inhabit.  Arthur quickly looks up an old friend of his, Don Powers, and gets the 411 on what’s going on:  the city has been without darkness for over a week, thanks to a mysterious satellite that provides light and also feeds the algae (much like Otter Disaster’s fishtank in college.)  Don, however, isn’t worried…

Don goes so far as to have Aquaman roughed up and thrown out, before setting off for his “night job…”

Artie’s old pal is secretly Detroit’s newest crimefighter, The Crusader, sort of a low-rent orange Batman who is losing his low-light vision.  I happen to love this particular plot-point, by the way, casting as it does an entertaining light on the current status quo of the Batman: a vigilante obsessed with protecting his city from crime, who goes to extreme lengths to save his city regardless of consequences.  As for Aquaman, he wakes up just in time to see the slime engulf an innocent little girl…

Sadly for the Crusader, his end comes ignominiously, as he fails to see an obstruction and falls to his death from a rooftop.  Aquaman discovers his old friend’s secret and barrels back to the lab to finish what he came to town to start…

This odd moment ends not only the book, but the initial run of Aquaman’s comic book, as #56 was the last issue.  (It was later relaunched with the same numbering.)  Some months later, writer Skeates made his way across town to the competition, where he ended up writing the adventure of Prince Namor, the mighty Sub-Mariner.  Namor’s wanderings bring him ashore in Detroit, aghast at the state of the rivers and lakes…

The strange alien mass makes it’s way to Earth orbit, where it ends up clinging to a particular orbital device, implicitly owned by one Don Powers…

Those five fingers, my young friends, as are the shape of Spawn/Batman’s to come, constituting what is (to my knowledge) the earliest explicit crossover reference between Marvel and DC.  The exploding satellite drops debris to Earth, including the alien creature…

Dan Adkins may not be Jim Aparo, but he was a very strong artist in his own right, and could kick some serious old-school ass when necessary.  When Namor is accosted by a pair of xenophobes who don’t want no “Aqua-Mariner” fish-men stinkin’ up their docks, the Avenging Son takes a page from…   well, actually, himself, and opens a can of Bronze Age whupass on his attacker.

The Slime Monster gets the bum rush, and attacks the Sub-Mariner in panic, as Skeates’ narrative muses on the futility of fighting and the silliness that is the comic book clusterschmozz fight scene.  It’s kind of a weird dichotomy to see a full-on hero vs. monster battle while the text asks “What is the color of battle?  Who cares?”  But it’s completely in keeping with Bronze Age Marvel, as is the symbolism when the creature robs Namor of his sight…

Also interesting are not-so-subtle bits that make me think that Namor’s attackers are a pair of gay men, making their intolerance even more ironic, possibly even in the correct sense of the word.  The creature realizes that it can’t win, and exits by launching it’s head into orbit (!!) while Subby confusedly holds it’s body.  Namor laments that he could have TRIED to understand the monster before he started throwin’ elbows, another fit of irony, as the fleeing alien somehow understands his plight…

Once again, though, such concerns are put on hold, as this issue is the last of Namor’s book as well, and his quest for his people isn’t picked up again for several years, what with him getting tied up in the Defenders and all.  I actually owned BOTH of these comics for several years, completely by coincidence, before I became aware of the fact that the stories were tied together, making for a fun back issue retcon experience for me.  Skeates is a name I better know from his time writing “Spectacular Spider-Ham” in the 80’s, but the ingenious use of this old plot hook makes me want to go dig up more of his work.  As for the art, I’d walk over glass for a good Jim Aparo story (I’ll have to Retro Review some of his superlative work on ‘The Brave and The Bold’ sometime) and Dan Adkins is no slouch, and inker Vinnie Coletta seemed to be having a good day with Subby #72.  Overall, Aquaman #56 has a more interesting setup of characters, and Jim’s art gives it a bit of an edge, leading to 3.5 out of 5 stars overall. The O’Henry ending for Crusader is both pathetic and appropriate.  As for Sub-Mariner #72, like Namor itself, it’s harder to get a handle on, earning 3 out of 5 stars overall. Stephen hates it when I give quarter stars, so we will grade on a curve, and give the entire “Steve Skeates Wraps Up The Adventures Of The Kings Of Atlantis” cliffhanger 3.5 out of 5 stars overall…

Rating: ★★★½☆

Faithful Spoilerite Question Of The Day: Most everyone knows about the Marvel/DC story that brought us the Squadron Supreme, but did you know that The Invaders and the Freedom Fighters also had a crossover in the 70’s?  Who votes we cover that one?