Thursday, October 15, 2015
MYTHCOMICS: "WHEN THE SEA DIES" (AQUAMAN #37, 1968)
At the end of RETHINKING THE UNDERTHOUGHT I mentioned that some of the comics I enjoyed for their "lateral meaning," such as the Drake-Premiani DOOM PATROL, were not noteworthy for a lot of abstract meanings. The Silver Age AQUAMAN was much in the same vein. Though the character lasted throughout the early Golden Age, not until the early 1960s did DC Comics try to build him up in his own comic book. The stories of this period range from the ephemeral to the mildly enjoyable. Though the 1968 animated cartoon gave the Sea King a media-boost like nothing he'd ever seen before, the stories of the late 1960s comic book by Bob Haney and Nick Cardy became slightly more ambitious than the cartoon. During the decade the hero had slowly accrued a substantial supporting cast-- sidekick Aqualad, girlfriend-cum-wife Mera, son Aquababy-- which helped maintain the series' light-hearted tone. Yet Haney and Cardy added a note of seriousness by giving Aquaman a new recurring villain, the Ocean Master, who was in truth (though he didn't know it) the Sea King's half-brother. This gave the hero various melodramatic whim-whams whenever he was forced to battle Ocean Master's perfidious plans for world conquest.
"When the Sea Dies" is one of the few stories in the period to get the most out of Nick Cardy's superlative draftsmanship. The story opens with Aquaman and his extended family running into Ocean Master once more, but he's not the main villain this time. The primary foe, the Scavenger, announces himself by infecting Aquaman's oceans with a weird "rotting" disease, so that the water is replaced by discolored pockets of air. Scavenger's purpose: he wants Aquaman to find an alien artifact, the Time Decelerator. Aquaman doesn't know where it is, so he tries to fight Scavenger and his "scorpion-ship." However, the ship is strong enough to withstand a whale's headbutt, and for that matter it becomes difficult for Aquaman and his coterie to fight in a seascape with no sea in it.
As I've said before, cosmological myths are not governed by actual science. The Haney-Cardy concept is nonsense by the actual definition of rotting, which deals with the decomposition of organic matter. Water, not being organic matter, cannot "rot"-- to say nothing of the fact that Haney never explains why the "hollowed-out" parts of the sea simply don't get filled by the rest of the ocean rushing into the empty spaces. Yet visually, it's an inspired notion. The Aqua-family's life beneath the sea isn't really governed by the laws of marine biology anyway. Within the space of the story, the ocean functions not so much as a real-world body of water as like the cytoplasm within a cell. Neither Haney nor Cardy make this explicit comparison-- it's entirely my own interpolation. I simply find it interesting to imagine Aquaman, Mera and the rest as being self-aware occupants of a decomposing cell, aghast to find the very substrate in which they exist falling apart.
And why does Scavenger want the Time Decelerator? Why, to become immortal, so that he won't age and his body won't break down-- the same doom that he assigns to Aquaman's seas. Aquaman and Ocean Master are forced to team up against the common enemy, and as it happens Ocean Master is the one who actually locates the immortality-bestowing device. Aquaman has to slug Ocean Master to keep him from blowing up Scavenger's ship (because Mera and her kid are held hostage inside), and he battles Scavenger once the villain has charged himself up with immortality-juice. However, as an ironic touch that hadn't been done to death in 1968, Scavenger's immortality ends up devolving him to the level of protoplasm. He vanishes and the seas go back to normal, thus concluding the aqua-hero's one Silver Age adventure into apocalyptic destruction.