Sunday, January 16, 2005

Retro Reviews - More Fun Comics #73

I've decided to go back through the various Aquaman tales over the years and do a bit more in-depth reviews of them. This will be an on-going project, depending entirely on my mood. I am, at this point, only missing sixteen solo Aquaman stories from my collection (out of an estimated 485 and counting), so I think a series of reviews is a good next step for me as a collector. In addition to covering the stories, I'll be trying to put them into historical context and possibly tell a bit about the writers and artists if I know anything.

More Fun Comics #73

The only story in this book that I'm really concerned with is, of course, the Aquaman tale. However, this anthology is one heckuvan effort, and it would be a pity for me to ignore the rest entirely. In any case, this issue of More Fun Comics is historical for more than just Aquaman. It also features the first appearance of Green Arrow and Speedy, and excellent stories featuring Dr Fate, The Spectre, and Johnny Quick.

The cover date of the book is November 1941. It was actually on the stands before that, maybe as early as September. Unfortunately, I do not have a copy of this book or an accurate representation of it, only the Millennium reprint, which apparently got the order of the stories wrong and does not include the ads. In addition, the coloring on the Aquaman story is completely wrong, using the colors of a later reprint (Secret Origins #7) instead of the original. The splash page I use here is actually from the back pages of one of the Aquaman mini-series, from an essay about Aquaman's origins, and has the correct coloring (as far as I know).

Historical Context: This story was written in the summer or fall of 1941, well before Pearl Harbor. You can draw some conclusions about the general state of the American minds about the war from the story. The Nazi characters are cruel buffoons, easily defeated by Aquaman. The bad guys are in the process of killing innocents whose nationality is never revealed. While it is safe to say they can't be Americans, who the refugees are and their final fate is a bit of a mystery. More on that in the review of the story.

Aquaman's Origin: According to Paul Norris, the original artist on Aquaman, Whitney Ellsworth (the editor of More Fun Comics) told him to develop a water-based character. Ellsworth doodled a design during their meeting, but it was of a cigar-chomping fellow with flippers and a fin on his head. Norris used his own initiative to create the real design (yes, including the coloring) and Ellsworth assigned Mort Weisinger to write the first story.

The Other Stories: According to the GCD, the Doctor Fate story, "Mr. Who" led off this issue of More Fun Comics. As Fate was also the cover feature, this makes a lot of sense.

Next up was Green Arrow and "The Case of the Namesake Murders". The title is taken from Speedy's last speech balloon. You cannot tell from reading it that this is the first ever Green Arrow story as there is no hint of an origin, just a jump into the action.

Next up was Radio Squad, the ongoing feature of two cops, Larry and Sandy, who use the new radio technology in their squad car. While their stories usually involve the radio somehow, this story seems to be a straight up detective yarn, complete with a cowboy to make things interesting.

At this point, the GCD and the Millennium reprint diverge. According to the GCD Aquaman's story is the fourth in the book. In the reprint Johnny Quick battles "The Black Knight" and saves some priceless artwork.

The GCD says that the next feature after Johnny's is Clip Carson. During a secret mission in Honduras, Clip rescues the presidente and captures gun smugglers.

Next up is The Spectre who battles vanishing menaces while being pursued by the cops, including detective Jim Corrigan.

The last story in the book was a two page whodunit called, appropriately enough "Who Did It?" If only the killer had been kinder to the cat, he might have gotten away with it...

Aquaman's Tale:

The eight page Aquaman story appeared in the middle of the book, and featured art by Paul Norris and a story by Mort Weisinger. The splash page shows a scene that never actually happens in the story, of Aquaman bursting from the sea, holding a refugee woman and her baby in his right hand while he swats away a shell fired by the guns of a Nazi U-boat with his left. In the background, a ship is sinking, and dark clouds and lightning bolts add to the atmosphere.

The action starts immediately with two panels in the lower right corner, explaining that "an unarmed ship" on an "errand of mercy" is attacked by a submarine raider and hit by a torpedo. When the captain of the sunken ship calls out from a lifeboat that his ship was defenseless, the Nazis in U-112 decide to cover up the evidence of their war crime by firing on the lifeboat. But...

...A man coming up from the ocean drags the lifeboat out of the way, then attacks the submarine. He kicks the Nazi gunner into the sea, and the Nazi captain runs and orders his men to dive. The gunner, identified as a lieutenant earlier, isn't seen again. Presumably he drowns.

As the submarine dives, the strangely clad man dives into the water and collects a group of "friendly porpoises" and speaks to them "in their own language". At his urging, the porpoises push the boat to land where the astonished captain asks what land their rescuer is from. "From NO Land, my name is -- Aquaman!" The captain begs to know how Aquaman has performed "these miracles" and Aquaman spends the next four panels expounding on his origin.

Aquaman tells the captain that his father is "a famous undersea explorer" and says "if I spoke his name, you would recognize it." It never occurred to me before this moment to find out what sort of famous undersea explorers were around in that era, but I doubt we could link Aquaman up to any real world explorer. Suffice to say that in the Golden Age DC universe, Aquaman's father was famous enough that the average sea captain would have heard of him.

Aquaman then says "My mother died when I was a baby" which does not eliminate the possibility that she came from Atlantis. Such an origin doesn't really make sense, especially when we get to the next three panels, but it is possible that Aquaman's mother was a water-dweller. It is not implied, though.

While Aquaman is still a baby, his father discovers the ruins of an ancient city "in the depths where no other diver had ever penetrated." Note that his father, in the visual flashback of this point in the story, is wearing shorts, a tank top, and a bell jar over his head. I think maybe his father was already part Atlantean to survive at such depths without a pressure suit!

Aquaman claims that his father made "a water-tight home in one of the palaces" and studied the knowledge and tech of the people he believed to be Atlanteans. Aquaman says that "He learned ways of teaching me to live under the ocean, drawing oxygen from the water and using all the power of the sea to make me wonderfully strong and swift. By training and a hundred scientific secrets, I became what you see -- a human being who lives and thrives under the water." (emphasis mine) Aquaman claims to be an altered surface dweller, not the child of a parent or parents who could already live underwater.

Aquaman abruptly ends his story, saying his father is dead, and races off, declining the award that the captain says his country will provide. There is no indication of where Aquaman left the people from the lifeboat, nor do we know where they are from. All we can tell is that there were seventeen people in the lifeboat and he got them to some sort of land.

The fish, in particular a porpoise, show Aquaman where U-112 has headed, "A little-known island near the sea lanes," and we learn from the establishing panel that the Nazis were well aware that they were attacking a defenseless ship as the captain reports to his commanding officer. The commander doesn't believe the tale of Aquaman, but doesn't have to remain skeptical for long as Aquaman attacks.

The Nazis grab a "sub machine gun" and fire at Aquaman, who dives and punches a hole in their sub. With one hand. He sinks their submarine with one punch. As the Nazis watch the sub going down, Aquaman leaps to the dock and tells them not to threaten him, as "I'm no helpless refugee woman aboard a peaceable ship!" I think he's a little ticked at them. They run away from him, into their arsenal, where they... um... drop a sledgehammer on his head. Yeah, they are in their freakin' ARSENAL, and the best they can do is drop a sledgehammer on him.

Instead of finishing him off, they tie him up and dump him back in the water. This is the first of several idiot bad guys dropping Aquaman back in the water when they capture him. Oddly enough, Aquaman has no problem calling for help and breaking his bonds. Then he returns to the island to deal out some justice...

I just want to pause here and note that both the captain of the submarine and his commander are wearing monocles. Just where did that stereotype come from?

After punching out the captain, Aquaman pursues the commander back to the arsenal where this time the bad guy throws a grenade. Aquaman catches it and throws it back, blowing the arsenal sky-high. Says Aquaman: "The submarine sunk -- the supply of weapons destroyed -- the leader of murder dead -- so ends one labor of Aquaman." Makes you wonder who might have put him up to laboring on the surface.

Observations: There's a sense of a little distance in Aquaman's journey from wherever he left the lifeboat to the island of the Nazis, but not a lot. The captain of the U-Boat has time to tell his commander the story of Aquaman's attack, but not enough time to leave the dock. And Aquaman himself was busy telling his story to the lifeboat survivors.

Aquaman has strange gaps in his knowledge. He can speak at least two languages (German and whatever the refugees speak) and knows what an arsenal is, but he describes the sub as a "metal fish that strikes like a killer shark" and doesn't know what a grenade is. At points, Aquaman's thought balloons remind me of Namor, who had a reason to not understand surfacer objects and technology. Paul Norris may never have read Namor features, but that doesn't mean that Mort Weisinger didn't.

Aquaman definitely communicates with sea life in three instances. The first is when he calls on the porpoises to help him get the lifeboat to safety, the second is when the fish guide him to U-112's island, and the third is when he uses a plant to attract his sea friends to save him after being tossed back into the water. In the last case, there are other fish around, but Aquaman makes no effort to communicate with them. He ONLY talks with the porpoises.

Aquaman's first shown abilities are strength and speed. He's able to push the lifeboat out of danger and swiftly attack the submarine before they have time to fire again. Later in the story he is unable to break chains when he's deep underwater, but when the porpoises push him closer to the surface he snaps them easily. And don't forget he punches a hole in the sub with one fist.

When Aquaman is trapped in deep water and needs to attract the attention of the porpoises, he uses a "bright, greenish fluid" that a "cluster of rare sub-ocean plants" secrete. Apparently seeing a whole bunch of green stuff floating in the water when Aquaman is near is a good signal for porpoises to investigate.

When Aquaman sinks the Nazi sub, they mention that they are cut-off and will have to wait for another sub to stop by. They have a small boat which they use to dump Aquaman into the deep, but apparently it's too small to reach any major land mass. Which begs the question of where Aquaman left the refugees. If the island was too far from any mainland for help to arrive, and Aquaman didn't travel very far to get to the island, then did he abandon the refugees on some little nowhere island? Did he go back to help them later?

The story does not have a name beyond "Aquaman", but the GCD designates it as "The Submarine Strikes" which is good enough for me. I do not have the DC code for the story.

Body Count: At least two Nazis die from Aquaman's attack, the aforementioned gunner on the sub and the commander who was in the arsenal when it blew up. There were only 17 survivors from the sinking of the refugee ship, so apparently quite a few people died there.

Named Characters/Places/Ships: Only Aquaman is identified by name, but the Nazi sub is identified as U-112. A little (very little) research into that designation indicates it was a Type XI boat, of which only four were made... if they were actually made. The design on these boats was poor, and they were abandoned, apparently in 1940.

Loose Ends: Where did Aquaman leave the refugees? What about the other Nazis on the island? Who was Aquaman's father?

Concluding Thoughts: Not the most perfect start, as there are the false notes in Aquaman's knowledge. The art is wonderful, solid from start to finish. I cannot comment on the coloring. The book as a whole was great, and what a bang for your buck at only 10 cents, even in 1941.

Lastly: If you have the original book and would be willing to make color photocopies or color scans of the 8 Aquaman pages, I would owe you forever. I fully intend to buy a copy for myself when I get rich. Ahem. And I have urged DC several times to reprint the story with its original coloring restored.

In addition, I still have a wantlist of Aquaman solo stories. Again, I fully intend to buy the originals when I have the money, but if you know of where I can get *just the Aquaman stories* in color photocopies or scans, I would appreciate hearing about it.

Next up: The first Silver Age story. Maybe.