Max submerges himself deeper into The Aquaman Archives Vol. 1, experiencing some of the most awful, and therefore awesome, comics. Also: what does Aquaman have in common with Blaxploitation hero Dolemite? No, I’m afraid it isn’t a shared ability to bust fly rhymes…
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Well, I finally got around to reading more Aquaman. Last time we had Super-Fly owner Tony Barry over for dinner, I was talking about reading old school Aquaman tales and he was telling me that he is ordering more copies of the current New 52 Aquaman book for the store than he is over Batman books Batman and Detective! Wow! Of course, the high sales have to be due to the creative team behind Aquaman’s current series, writer Geoff Johns and artist Ivan Reis. Reis’ art I of course covered not too long ago in a blog entry about Rann Thanagar War, and was pretty impressed with it then. His skills have only deepened since then. Geoff Johns is also a favorite writer of mine too, and if he can’t make Aquaman cool, no one can.
But what about these old tales from the Silver Age found in The Aquaman Archives Volume 1?
Well, I liken them to some of my favorite Blaxploitation movies, those of Rudy Ray Moore AKA “Dolemite.” Now Dolemite movies weren’t meant to be taken too seriously, but even though the filmmakers were trying to be silly at times, sometimes everything was just so low budget or poorly acted that the films just came off as so stupid or just so bad that they were actually…good, or at least wildly entertaining. The recent movie Black Dynamite celebrated this about Moore’s movies and the Blaxploitation genre as a whole, so check that out if you want to know what I’m talking about. Or you could read The Aquaman Archives Volume 1 for a similar experience. Just with a white guy who talks to fish in adventures that have no budget or limits on the imagination thanks to the beauty of the comics medium. Not that these tales are wildly imaginative; it’s just commanding tons of aquatic creatures in impossible ways are a bit beyond low budget movie making (not to mention beyond the realm of possibility outside of fiction!).
Fradon’s art is crisp and has a just a touch of a cartoony element to it, and she renders Aquaman and his undersea allies fantastically, yet the stories themselves are just corny and silly, sometimes intentionally, sometimes not. Either way, the result is usually pretty goofy and not much of a comic experience to crow about, making them awful and awesome at the same time, because the corniness and silliness make the stories so bad, they’re actually kind of good. I mean it’s groan-tastic at times, but also funny stuff if you’re willing to go along for the ride.
For example, the second story in the Aquaman Archives Vol. 1 is called “Aquaman Duels the Animal-Master” where appropriately enough Aquaman fights a guy called the Animal Master who can control animals like Aquaman does fish. At the thrilling conclusion, the Animal Master sends a gorilla, an elephant, and a lion one at a time after Aquaman, but Aquaman is still in shallow salt water, so Aquaman’s fish friends save the day every time: electric eels shock the gorilla; luminous fish beam blinding light into the elephant’s eye; an octopus ties up the lion. Even after the Animal Master comes at Aquaman with a sword, a swordfish jumps up and parries it out of his hand. But Animal Master has an ace up his sleeve! He calls a buffalo carrying bombs on its back to destroy Aquaman. Of course, this doesn’t work either…and the buffalo obeys Aquaman instead and drops the bombs safely away.
“That’s where you made your mistake…” says Aquaman, “My authority over that buffalo overrides yours!” Then Aquaman punches Animal Master out and says: “You see, he’s a WATER buffalo!”
GROAN! THAT’S AWFUL! But awesome at the same time because there’s a lot of story coming before this building everything up: like how the Animal Master was a circus animal trainer going bad robbing armored cars, Aquaman stopping his robbery when Animal Master flees on a boat, and Aquaman nearly causing his death at sea leading him to crave nothing but revenge once he washes up on a desert island. It’s understandable; Aquaman assumes the Animal Master drowned and doesn’t even look for him!
Safe upon the island, the Animal Master then trains all the animals on the island to obey him much like fish obey Aquaman. Finally, after securing control of all the island’s animals, he sends out several messages in bottles out to sea with fake S.O.S.s inside them claiming to be from someone held captive by a pirate gang. These fake messages are collected by sea creatures and lead Aquaman to the island, where he is ambushed by Animal Master. ALL of that, just for that stupid fricking joke. But I’m laughing relating it despite myself.
I really enjoyed the first story in the volume with Aquaman’s secret origin; that was cool. But the rest is pretty bad—albeit in a good, sometimes painful way. Adorable, humorous, but nothing really you could take seriously these days. I mean, in one story, Aquaman takes place in an election by promoting a candidate who keeps getting his campaign efforts shut down hard by the richer, corrupt candidate. So Aquaman takes up the cause, making signs out of electric eels, getting octopi to throw campaign material, and putting on a sea show. Oh, did I mention this is all happening in a seaside country? Naturally, it has to! Interfering in surface politics is the last thing the Aquaman of today would do, I think.
So that’s about all I’ve read so far, along with a story called “The Undersea Hospital,” which is probably my favorite so far of these sillier stories, where Aquaman starts treating all the injured fish of the sea. That one is fricking hilarious, because among other care he does for his injured fish pals, Aquaman pulls a shark’s bad tooth with lobster pliers! Jeez! I almost expected the lobster to say “It’s a living!” Flintstones style! It’s all very corny and silly, but I laughed my head off reading the title page to “The Undersea Hospital” and hopefully can produce a readable scan of it (I think I did OK). Though while funny, these stories are just goofy fun and as I’ve read in other reviews of the book, are probably best enjoyed by children.
However, Aquaman does exhibit some cool uses of his powers such as using the mouths of whales as storage units or swimming in a whirlpool to disorient his foes—things that have since probably been deemed silly and antiquated in favor of modern “cooler” things like writers giving Aquaman bulletproof skin since he can withstand the pressures of the deep, or Aquaman giving a bad guy a seizure by communicating with the reptilian part of his brain using aquatic telepathy (both of these used by Grant Morrison in his run of JLA I believe). I mean, those are cool ideas too, but these old stories really emphasize the abilities of the sea creatures Aquaman controls and how he can benefit from them.
The next story takes place in a town called “New Venice” and is called “Aquaman and his Sea Police.” I guess Aquaman can’t get caught in a landlocked town after all! I’ll look forward to reading that soon.
In the meantime, I’ll swim outta here for now until next time…
NOTES FROM NOW (9/16/12): Rudy Ray Moore is a comedic legend in his own right and his movies are classics, so I’m not trying to diss him or soil his memory comparing him to Aquaman. Yet reading these Aquaman tales reminded me of watching some of Rudy Ray’s movies. Groan-tastic. It’s the best word for it.