« Suffering sea snakes! Can this really be happening, Aquaman? » — Aqualad has a query.
I just realised, a few days ago, that I’d left something hanging for too long: nearly two years ago, I turned the spotlight on a series of Aquaman covers, casually (in my debonair way) letting it be known that there existed another, earlier, and even longer (well, by one) run of exemplary Aquaman covers. The time has come to see whether I was talking through my hat… or not.
Now, at the risk of repeating myself, it must be stated that, since we’re dealing with DC’s late Silver Age, there’s more to any given cover than a signature. DC’s recently-ascended art director, Carmine Infantino, had a hand in designing virtually every DC cover between late 1966 and early 1976. How strong a hand varied from cover to cover, of course. A good designer sometimes knows when to hold back and be invisible, or just about.
Infantino always strove to improve himself and update and hone his skills. Well into his career (he’d started in 1940 at Timely), he pulled an unexpected (and very smart) move. As he recalled it in The Amazing World of Carmine Infantino (2000, Vanguard Productions):
« Around 1960, I went back to school again, this time to study under a gentleman named Jack Potter at the School of Visual Arts. What Jack taught me about design was monumental, and I went through a metamorphosis working with him. I’d sit there confused and he’d tear the work apart. But then it was a light bulb going off – bam! – and I’d understand everything he was getting at.
After studying with Potter at the SVA, my work started to grow by leaps and bounds. I was achieving individuality in my work that wasn’t there before.
I threw all the basics of cartooning out the window and focused on pure design. Everything I did was design-oriented. That was quite the challenging task. But that’s where Potter’s teaching took me.
… I started putting hands in captions, that was decorative. He taught us to do everything decoratively. I’d always found captions very dull. So I thought I’d break the captions into smaller paragraphs and use hands to get people to read them. I regularly pushed design and perspective to the extreme. »
And speaking of reinvention, I must also salute Nick Cardy’s own mid-career creative burst. Prior to the mid-60s, Cardy had always been one of those genteel, tasteful but entirely unexciting journeymen, the way most DC editors liked ’em. I can think of precious few long-timers that managed to convincingly reinvent themselves and greatly raise their game, well into their career, without utterly misplacing their original identity (that disqualifies you, Keith Giffen) in the process. Alex Toth, Jerry Grandenetti and perhaps Sheldon Mayer come to mind…
At any rate, when Infantino got together with Cardy on those covers, all hell broke loose, in the best possible way.
« Maybe one day I’ll feel her cold embrace and kiss her interface; ’til then, I’ll leave her alone. » — Jeff Lynne, Yours Truly, 2095
Without further tergiversation — here’s the thrilling conclusion of our tale!
In case anyone’s wondering, why do I treasure this particular tale?
Let me count the ways and means: the cosmic adventures are treated as asides, ceding centre stage to Warren Simms’ and Clarissa’s slow-simmering pas de deux. Whatever surprise comes at the dénouement had been carefully and honestly foreshadowed and backgrounded, respecting the reader’s intelligence. Unsavoury implications of the robot/human relationship are brought up, then coyly cast aside, in a ‘we know, but we’re not going there‘ move.
For me, it’s mostly about Joe Gill’s sober, understated writing, though I can hardly envision anyone turning in more lushly complementary visuals than did Mr. Aparo. I’d be over the moon to say that The Imitation People was one bead on a long string of commensurate efforts, but nope, it’s just about a one-off. It was only preceded by Denny O’Neil and Pat Boyette‘s classic Children of Doom (read it here).
Thoughtful science-fiction* in American comics as always been poorly served: with meagre exceptions, it’s been a numbing, near-constant diet of space opera.
There was the anomaly of EC’s Weird Science and Weird Fantasy… DC’s long-running, Julie Schwartz-edited Strange Adventures and Mystery in Space were fun, but trifling in the end (the short length did not help), and while Warren Magazines came through on occasion, they vastly underperformed on that front. Western Publishing’s Starstream tackled some classic adaptations, but the results were a bit staid. Grandmasters Jack Kirby and Will Eisner, of course, could handily pull off the feat: the former’s OMAC was a wonder of anticipation (with an honourable mention to his 2001: A Space Odyssey), and the latter’s tense serial Life on Another Planet (also collected as Signal From Space) kept its focus on the human drama.
« You are not as strong as the Robots. You are not as skillful as the Robots. The Robots can do anything. You only give orders. You do nothing but talk. » — Karel Čapek, Rossum’s Universal Robots (1921)
From the Department of Promises Kept: nearly a year ago, while featuring the late 60s run of DC’s Aquaman, I happened to posit that « Aparo returned to the character just a few years down the road, but by then, he’d already begun his long, painful artistic deterioration. » One reader disagreed. Another clamoured for some Aparo art, presumably his better stuff.
« Even without the benefit of philosophical reflection, anyone who has spent some time in an enclosed space with an excited bat knows what it is to encounter a fundamentally alien form of life. » (Thomas Nagel, What is it like to be a bat?)
Bats and octopuses, now there’s a combination that doesn’t often occur in nature – while both are admirable, fascinating animals, they’re not linked by lifestyle or environment, and neither is the other’s prey. Batman, on the other hand, has definitely tangled with many tentacled monsters in his time (which proves that he’s not a bat). I’m sure today’s post didn’t unearth *all* the octopuses that Batman has had the pleasure of defeating, especially those of a more modern vintage (with mostly horrible art, which is why I’m not too worried)… but today’s selection, you will have to admit, is quite fair.
Bat-Mite Meets Mr. Mxyzptlk(he must be from Poland, with a name like that), scripted by Jerry Coleman, pencilled by Dick Sprang, and inked by Sheldon Moldoff, was published in World’s Finest Comics no. 113 (November 1960):
Since they threatened us with the continuation of the story, I followed up, and dug up more tentacles. Deathgrip, scripted by Gerry Conway, pencilled by Don Newton and inked by Dick Giordano, was published (as promised) in Detective Comics no. 524 (March 1983):
Enigma of the Death-Ship!, scripted by Bob Haney and illustrated by Jim Aparo, was published in The Brave and the Bold no. 142 (July-August 1978):
I mentioned modern comics, earlier – I’ve chosen two examples published relatively recently, with passable art.
The pompously titled Leaves of Grass, Part 3: Comedown!, scripted by Alan Grant, pencilled by Dave Taylor and inked Stan Woch, was published in Batman: Shadow of the Bat no. 58 (January 1997):
Knightmares, Part 4, scripted by Tom King and illustrated by Jorge Fornes, was published in Batman no. 66 (May 2019):
To conclude on a more pleasant note…
Tentacled Terror, number 8 in Topps‘ 1966 Batman ‘Red Bat’ trading card set, boasting painted artwork by Norman Saunders.
When you think of Aquaman, what is the first thing that comes to mind? Is he a brooding, tragic hero? A hapless sap whose prowess extends no further than throwing a starfish at his assailant? A talented swimmer, defender of Earth’s oceans?
« The image of the superhero riding on a chariot made of fish—sporting that classic orange top and green pants—sealed the depths-dweller in public memory as a doofy champion, despite defenders who insist there’s more to Aquaman than talking to fish and riding them places. While later depictions of the character emphasized his serious side, Aquaman jokes abounded especially in the 90s and 2000s—largely thanks to a school of young male animators, including Seth MacFarlane and South Park’s Matt Stone and Trey Parker, who couldn’t help but poke fun at Aquaman’s ineffectual reputation. »|source|
I believe the aforementioned Aquaman’s defenders are slightly missing the point. What’s wrong with catching a ride from a fish, or getting a helping hand from an octopus? In Aquaman’s world, octopuses play the role of indispensable helpers, using their tentacles as lassos, bludgeons and tourniquets, or forming acrobatic formations to give Aquaman a boost. Does this somehow make this superhero wimpy? Do we seriously still believe that treating animals with kindness, or collaborating with them, is emasculating? No wonder this world is going to hell in a handbasket. The audience for superhero comics sometimes seems to be quite devoid of imagination (or a sense of humour).
« Jokes about his wholesome, weak portrayal in Super Friends and perceived feeble powers and abilities […] led DC to attempt to make the character edgier or more powerful in comic books. Modern comic book depictions have attempted to reconcile these various aspects of his public perception, casting Aquaman as serious and brooding, saddled with an ill reputation, and struggling to find a true role and purpose beyond his public side as a deposed king and a fallen hero. » |source|
Okay, I’ve grumbled, and now I’ll move on to the tentacles. Take a seat astride your favourite jellyfish, strap in your fins, and let’s go!
Aquaman, the child of an undersea explorer who learned how to breathe and live underwater “by training and a hundred scientific secrets”, was created in 1941 by Paul Norris and Mort Weisinger. During the Golden Age of comics, he fought various evil guys (usually from water-related professions: sailors, marine biologists, pirates… and Axis villains, too). The whole thing started becoming really interesting (imho) in 1956 (coincidentally, with the advent of Silver Age), when Aquaman acquired his sidekick Topo the Octopus:
Ramona Fradon handled Aquaman from 1951 to 1959, when she became pregnant and had to temporarily withdraw from the comics field until 1963. She deserves a separate post, really, especially since I love her art. In the meantime, read The Woman Who Made Aquaman a Star. As for Topo, I don’t have to explain why I’m fond of the idea of an octopus sidekick.
A few nice Fradon pages:
In 1961, Nick Cardy started working on Aquaman with Showcase no. 31 (March-April 1961). When the sea king got his own title in 1962, Cardy became the regular artist, drawing inside stories and covers until Aquaman no. 39 (May-June 1968), and staying as the cover artist until Aquaman no. 56 (April 1971).
« Cardy proved adept at drawing sea creatures; his fluid, swirling water currents helped create a captivating, eye-pleasing undersea world. He became a fan favorite, not only because of his superb story-telling ability, solid figure work and facile inking, but because of the way he rendered Mera, Aquaman’s girlfriend. Cardy’s women had curves, not angles, and seemed to exist in three dimensions on the two-dimensional page. He never stopped trying to elevate his work, until the later covers in the series were among the most striking and imaginative of the publisher’s entire line.» (source: Comics Journal’s eulogy for Nick Cardy)
Well, that’s high praise indeed, but is it deserved? I can confirm that Cardy covers were really inventive. As for the interior art, let’s take a peek, as these stories conveniently overflow with tentacles.
There’s tentacles getting tangled, the octopus equivalent on panties in a twist…
An army of octopus fighters…
I promised you acrobatics, so here are some octopuses doing a cheerleading routine (Aquaman forgot his pompoms at home):
Continuing our tentacle shenanigans…
One of those Nick Cardy covers we were discussing earlier, so you can decide for yourself whether his women are all angles or all curves:
With Aquaman no. 40 (July-August 1968), Jim Aparo replaced Cardy on the inside art. Issues no. 40 to no. 47 (September-October 1969) were scripted by Steve Skeates (a definite favourite of this blog; read co-admin RG’S post “… and the Dog Howls Through the Night!”) and drawn by Jim Aparo. This creative team is a favourite of many an Aquaman fan. Voilà:
More Jim Aparo (sans Skeates):
You can read issues Aquaman issues no. 1 through to 63 here.
One last thing… I happen to be the proud owner of a piece of original art by Ramona Fradon (of fairly recent vintage), given to me by my sweetie. Lucky me!
In this installment of Tentacle Tuesday, we shall bear witness to a somewhat surprising facet of superhero life: superheroes sometimes struggle with tentacles, too.
To kick off the festivities (and to respect a chronological order of creation and publication), here’s The Flash narrating a story of woe, his almost-deadly encounter with a green monstrosity (Judging by its coquettish pink tentacles, the monster wanted to woo him, not snuff him out.)
« The Liar’s Club », scripted by Gardner Fox and drawn by Lou Ferstadt, concerns itself with three men (one of whom is Jay Garrick, secretly The Flash) holding a fibbing contest to determine who can tell the biggest Flash-whopper.
The Flash may have been embroiled in some purely imaginary tentacles, but his Earth-One counterpart’s teenage sidekick (it’s complicated), Kid Flash, encountered the real deal.
« A Mystical Realm, A World Gone Mad », scripted by Steve Skeates and drawn by Nick Cardy, is actually a pretty good read (with good art!), and I don’t even like superheroes. Just check out the beautiful results of a time travel experiment going wrong (when does one ever go right?), including the evil red eyes of a glaring octopus:
If we throw a whole bevy of superheroes at a tentacled monster, are they going to fare any better?
This cover promises lots of tentacular fun. Instead of that, the Fantastic Four (and an infant) go looking for a new residence, something quiet and secluded – and the house that’s offered to them by a real estate agent appears to be haunted. At the very least, it causes migraines, gradually makes its inhabitants go blind, and shoots stun bolts out of its walls. The usual crap. I don’t want to tell you which super-villain is behind this mischief, but I will, however, point out that the bastard doesn’t have tentacles. Not even one. And neither does his lousy house.
The Flash is small fry, the Fantastic Four are mincemeat, but let’s see how Superman, the most superhero-like superhero of them all, fares when confronted with tentacles.
In “Danger — Monster at Work!”, the villain is a protoplasmic glob: some algae mutates after a lab accident and becomes an out-of-control, garbage-devouring, tentacled monster. Now, trash disposal is important, but when Superman realizes that everything on earth is impure to some degree, he has to stop the seaweed monstrosity before “it cleans Metropolis right off the map!”
Incidentally, there *is* actually an algae farm that’s suspended over a highway in Geneva, Switzerland that gobbles up CO2 produced by car engines. I hope they’re keeping a close eye on it…
How about if we take a superhero who’s quite at ease with water, who can breathe H2O and communicate with sea life?
“Nope, sorry, still gonna gobble you.”
Oh, no! What is our hero going to do? Why, dispatch the octopus in the most far-fetched manner possible, of course!
In conclusion, no superhero is immune from a harrowing encounter with a tentacled creature… but sadly, the latter is more often than not annihilated in the struggle. Next time, I’ll make sure to present you with some material in which the octopus gets the upper hand, so to speak!
Meet an old man’s pet, Poochy. Like most pets, he gets a little impatient and loud around mealtime, but forgive him – he’s just a healthy animal who needs his calories. Who’s a good boy?
It’s Tentacle Tuesday, and today’s offering is this barking mad (hehe) and delightfully nonsensical story with script and pencils by Jim Starlin and inks by Wayne Howard.
« The Hotel » is a mere 2 pages long, so here it is in its full and unabridged glory:
This tale of woe comes from Weird Mystery Tales #4 (Jan.-Feb. 1973), with a cover by Jim Aparo. It re-interpreted the story somewhat, making the thug’s comeuppance a little more immediate, but it’s still the same basic plot device: there’s the Deus ex machina, and there’s what I call Sudden Tentacles. Don’t know how to wrap up your story? Bam! tentacles out of nowhere, and everyone forgets that your tale makes no freaking sense.
Continuing this rather disturbing theme of stay-at-home octopuses, we have another contender for someone’s beloved pet: this sweet little (metaphorically speaking) guy from « Dum-Dum’s Basement » (Boris Karloff Tales of Mystery #93, August 1979).
Then we have the prototypical Sudden Tentacles and set at home, too: this panel from a chilling Tom Sutton and Nicola Cuti story called « Those Tentacles! » (inventive title), published in Ghostly Tales #106, August 1973.
There’s a scene in Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors (at 3:55) that quite terrified me as a kid – a girl reaches over a sink to turn the water on, and the tap sprouts… appendages… and grabs her hand. I wish Freddy Krueger was into tentacles, I would have spent fewer sleepless nights in my youth.
Wishing all of you peaceful nights of slumber… until the next Tentacle Tuesday rolls around – and it will.