Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Grading Aquaman: Justice League of America #7-10

When people talk about how lame Aquaman is, they usually compare him to other superheroes and highlight his helplessness in the Justice League of America and the Super Friends. I thought it would be interesting to look at Aquaman’s membership in the JLA and document exactly how he contributed (or didn’t) to the cases they took in their early years. Is his perceived ineptness actually just perception? Or is it fact?

Along the way we'll also poke some fun and/or express some frustration at the convoluted goofiness that infected DC's Silver Age comics.

It's been a while since we've done one of these, so if you need to catch up, here are Part One, Part Two, and Part Three.

Justice League of America #7: “The Cosmic Funhouse”

The Case: Aliens take over a carnival funhouse and use it to transport visitors back to the aliens’ world so that the aliens can take the visitors’ place and conquer Earth. There’s more to it than that, but the aliens’ scheme is way over-complicated, so that’s the short version.

Aquaman, Attack!: The JLA decides to go undercover to investigate the carnival in their secret identities. Since Aquaman doesn’t have one, he’s left behind to “report on any developments that may arise.” Oddly enough though, that’s not the end of his involvement.

At the carnival, Green Arrow, Wonder Woman, Flash, and Green Lantern are trapped. Flash and Green Lantern are replaced by aliens who return to JLA headquarters to send Superman, Martian Manhunter, and Batman on a wild goose chase. They also send Aquaman back to the carnival, thinking that he’ll be easily trapped as well. He’s not though and he ends up helping his four teammates who’ve been transformed into real-life funhouse mirror distortions of themselves so that they can’t use their powers. He doesn’t use his own powers and his role is completely supportive of the other heroes, but he does save the day.

Aquaman’s Participation Grade: C

Sea serpents, alien conquerors, and Felix Faust after the break.

Justice League of America #8: “For Sale – The Justice League!”

The Case: A scientist invents a mind-control device and then accidentally drops it out the window where a crook picks it up and figures out what it is. The crook decides to control the Justice League and auction them off to help other criminals steal stuff.

Aquaman, Attack!: Aquaman and Green Arrow are both bought and controlled by people who want to loot a floating casino. They arrive at the same time – Aquaman on porpoise-back; Green Arrow in his plane – but Green Arrow strikes first. The casino’s safe is sitting out on deck, so Green Arrow’s able to grab it with a suction-cup arrow. Aquaman has some swordfish cut GA’s line though, so the safe falls into the water.

Not beaten yet, Green Arrow shoots a “reverse-rocket” arrow that goes underwater, turns around beneath the safe so that it’s pointed directly at it, fires its thrusters, attaches itself to the bottom of the safe with some kind of gripping-material, and lifts the safe back out of the water. Boy, it’s lucky he had that particular arrow in his quiver that day, huh?

But Aquaman’s not done either. He calls a sea serpent to the surface to wrap itself around the Arrowplane so that he can get the safe when it comes back down. Unfortunately – or rather, fortunately for the heroes’ reputations – the safe doesn’t fall back down when Green Arrow’s rocket gives out. It keeps ascending; being stolen by someone else.

The other heroes experience similar defeats and the criminals decide to at least take advantage of the League’s helplessness by getting rid of them. Of course, they do this by putting each one in an overly elaborate trap, all in close proximity to each other. Aquaman’s trap, for example, is a tank full of water that drains when a signal is given. The idea being that he’ll die after an hour, but why fill the tank with water in the first place? The other traps are just as ridiculous, with the worst being Green Lantern's. He’s chained to a bulls eye and an automated, golden (ie yellow) machinegun fires golden bullets at him in a perfect outline around his body. The last bullet in the magazine, we learn, will fire into his body and kill him. Forgetting that these crooks were complaining earlier about how lousy business has been thanks to the JLA, but somehow can get their hands on a machine-gun made of gold, why not just riddle GL’s body with bullets instead of outlining his body?

Anyway, we don’t learn this until later, but it was Snapper Carr – using Doctor Destiny’s flying disks from Justice League of America #5 – who prevented the JLA from completing their thefts. He now takes the mind-control device from the crook who found it and frees the heroes’ minds. Aquaman acts first and has a school of flying fish weave a giant blanket of seaweed in which to carry enough water to extinguish the fire that threatens Martian Manhunter. Manhunter then saves Wonder Woman who saves Green Arrow and so on. After that, they easily capture the crooks.

The whole story sucks, but Aquaman acts quickly and intelligently thoughout and uses a frickin sea monster. Nice work.

Aquaman’s Participation Grade: B

Justice League of America #9: “The Origin of the Justice League”

The Case: When the ruler of a distant planet dies, the seven claimants to his throne go to war to determine who’ll succeed him. Not wanting to destroy their own planet, they decide to hold the war on Earth. Each claimant is of a different race and has the ability to turn humans into members of his race and soldiers for the war.

The claimants land in scattered locations around the world and the various heroes who’ll eventually make up the JLA fight them individually. By coincidence, they all gather simultaneously at the landing site of the last claimant.

The story is told in flashback by the JLA to Snapper Carr and Green Arrow at an anniversary party for the event. Which anniversary isn’t specified, but there are three candles on the cake.

Aquaman, Attack!: The alien that Aquaman fights alone is a glass-creature who lands in the Indian Ocean (a nice globe-trotting touch since the Atlantic is Aquaman’s usual base of operations). Aquaman is turned to glass by the alien’s power, but before he’s subjugated to its control, he warns away the other sea life in the area, calling in just those he needs to fight the alien. He tries several species of fish against the creature before a school of noise-making drum-fish find just the right frequency to shatter the glass-being.

Aquaman learns from local authorities that there’s an unhatched alien who’s landed on the east coast of the United States. He races there and arrives just in time to be transformed to wood alongside Martian Manhunter who’s also just shown up. Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, and the Flash get there about the same time and are also trapped.

Aquaman saves the day by using his strength to move his hardened limbs and rub against the wood that’s covering Green Lantern’s ring. Aquaman’s uncovering the ring starts a chain of events that allows Wonder Woman to eventually defeat the wood-creature. Green Lantern explains that his willpower was so weak that he couldn’t penetrate the wooden covering by himself. Whatever. I’m glad that Aquaman got to be useful, but it’s too bad that they had to artificially weaken Green Lantern in such a lame way to do it.

The five heroes hear that the seventh alien is in Greenland, so they go there and find Superman and Batman just wrapping up their battle with it. Inspired by their own teamwork and that of Batman and Superman, the heroes decide to form – as Flash declares – “a league against evil … to uphold justice against whatever danger threatens it.”

Aquaman’s Participation Grade: B-

Justice League of America #10: “The Fantastic Fingers of Felix Faust”

The Case: Felix Faust, a would-be sorcerer, wants to make a deal with three, ancient demons so that he can become the most powerful man in the world. Unfortunately, he’s only able to contact the necessary spirits, not resurrect them physically. They claim that they’re unable to bestow their power on him unless he can bring back their bodily forms as well. In order to do that, Faust must find three artifacts in which the demons hid the secret to their release. Once Faust has those, he can cast the spell that will return the demons to physical form.

The demons promise Faust that it will take them a century to regain complete freedom once the spell is cast. In the meantime, they’d be able to access their powers and would be willing to let Faust make use of them. The catch is that the artifacts were hidden by an enemy of the demons and are protected by supernatural beings. Faust realizes that only the Justice League are equipped to retrieve the artifacts, so the demons help him gain control of the League.

At the demons’ instructions, Faust creates totems that – when a real-life counterpart is touched by a League-member – will cause the hero to fall under Faust’s power. Most of these are absolutely ridiculous. Batman’s totem, for instance, is a sea shell, so he’s captured when he accidentally touches a mother-of-pearl light switch. Martian Manhunter’s is a “death’s head,” so he’s nabbed when he flies through a moth-shaped cloud.

Aquaman, Attack!: The Justice League is fighting the Lord of Time and his armies when Faust strikes. Aquaman’s battling a Viking ship with the help of a giant squid, a porpoise, and a hammerhead shark. Unfortunately, he touches the shark during the melee and since Faust picked a mallet as Aquaman’s totem, the Sea King is captured.

Faust commands him to team up with Green Lantern and Snapper Carr to find the Silver Wheel of Nyorlath at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. It’s protected by a lightning spirit (yellow, so Green Lantern can’t touch it), but Aquaman calls in a giant electric eel to fight it. Aquaman easily grabs the wheel, but the lightning creature manages to shoot a bolt at a nearby cliff, causing an avalanche that threatens to bury Aquaman.

Green Lantern – in a supporting role for once – is able to help out with the rocks and saves Aquaman’s life (though I’m sure Aquaman could have saved himself by quickly swimming out of the way). Snapper even contributes by coming up with a way for Green Lantern to trap the lightning creature without touching it.

The team rejoins the other heroes – who have also been successful – at Faust’s lighthouse hideout and they all turn in their artifacts. Faust is able to cast the spell, but before he’s able to reap the benefits, Aquaman has a whale whip some flying fish into the lighthouse with his tail. The fish pummel Faust, making him lose concentration and release the heroes. They take him into custody and vow to study the artifacts until they can figure out what Faust was doing with them.

As Faust goes to jail, he smirks evilly, knowing that the demons will rise in a hundred years to conquer the world for themselves. We’re promised the sequel to this story next issue.

Aquaman’s Participation Grade: A+


Colin Smith said...

Michael, if I'd've read that JLA story with the amazing serpent, I'd've had written about as an absolute highlight of 'my' Aquaman. “But I who know all the secrets of the seven seas - know where they dwell and how to command them." That's fantastic! It's a shame that Aquaman is riding so benignly on a porpoise while he's delivering this stirring line, but even so, evidence that Arthur Curry was always impressive is always welcome on my computer screen. Thank you!

Michael May said...

It IS a shame. And early-'60s Aquaman is full of these missed opportunities. The writers insisted on making him just another superhero instead of really opening him up to see what kind of potential he had.

I understand that changed later on, but I haven't got to those stories yet.


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