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They Ain't TPBs...But They Should Be:

THE QUEST FOR MERA

Writer: Steve Skeates. Pencils: Jim Aparo. Editor: Dick Giordano.

Aquaman (1st series) #40-48 (1968).

(These issues were also reprinted in the 1980s in Adventure Comics digest #491-499 -- 100 page digests with other stories and characters, too. Probably a slightly cheaper way to track them down).

Sometimes when considering notable story arcs that have -- yet -- to be collected as a TPB, it's interesting to consider them in the context of the times (or at least, to speculate as much as one can looking back decades and from an amateur pop culturalist's perspective!)

In the case of what can be dubbed The Quest for Mera arc, it's an epic, 9 issue storyline that -- in a manner perhaps less common today -- is comprised of shorter, stand alone stories connected by a story thread and sub-plots. Back in the halcyon days when Aquaman was king of Atlantis, with his wife, Mera, at his side, Aquababy on his knee, and stalwart Aqualad and Aquagirl as his comrades, a mysterious whirlpool swirls up one day and in the confusion, Mera is kidnapped by shadowy figures. This then leads into the multi-issue saga as Aquaman sets out to find her, his journeys taking him to previously unknown undersea kingdoms and into conflicts with surface world mobsters (and a one-issue tussle with Black Manta).

It's written by Steve Skeates, a DC Comics regular of the time, and artist Jim Aparo, apparently marking his first work with DC (a company that would remain his primary publisher for the rest of his career). Aparo's initial work is certainly good (he had already done work for Charlton and others) but even over this story arc it improves dramatically, becoming more atmospheric and compositionally ambitious -- arguably among some of his best work. I was always a fan of Aparo but, particularly in his later years, his art got a bit looser, whereas here there's a lot more emphasis on shadows, and evoking the otherworldly environment of the underwater setting (I assume he's inking himself for the most part, as he usually did, but at least one issue mentions an uncredited inker).

And the reason I say it's interesting to consider in the context of its time is that I'm assuming there was an editorial decision to shake up the Aquaman comic -- part of overall shifts in the DC line to make their comics reflect the greater ambition of rival Marvel Comics.

Prior to this, the regular Aquaman creative team was writer Bob Haney and artist Nick Cardy, the two delivering entertaining (and thanks to Cardy's moody art, atmospheric) adventures -- but fairly breezy, tell-it-in-one issue plots, with only minor continuity aspects bleeding over from issue to issue. And where characters uttered epithets like "Sufferin' Starfish!" It's an enjoyable run (I liked Showcase presents Aquaman vol. 3 which featured that era) but definitely Old School.

So you can't help but infer a dramatic editorial re-focus when the creative team (writer and artist both) is changed and immediately launch into a multi-issue saga -- all in a single issue (though Cardy stayed on as cover artist). As much as I love Cardy's work, Aparo's art seems intended to shift things toward a slightly greater realism, or at least more dynamic composition, and Skeates' scripts seem to be aiming for a little more maturity (characters exclaim "Good God!").

One can even wonder DC was attempting to mimic the model of Marvel's Sub-Mariner who around this time had jumped from the anthology comic, Tales to Astonish, to his own self-titled series to go head to-gill with Aquaman (Aquaman was modelled after the Sub-Mariner anyway, the two constantly echoing each other in terms of powers, setting, and themes). Multi-issue quest arcs were an established staple of Sub-Mariner stories, after all.

As well, reading these old Aquaman comics, I noticed a slight similarity between Aparo's art and Sub-Mariner artist, Gene Colan -- the same tendency toward figures twisting and bending in dynamic ways. In the earliest issues of this arc, Aparo tends to draw Aquaman a bit blockier, a bit squarer than I normally associate with his style (getting leaner and more "Aparo-esque" as the saga progresses) in perhaps a deliberate attempt to gradually transition from Cardy's burlier Aquaman. But also the male figures often have oddly wide hips -- a distinctive trait of Gene Colan's style. So I wonder if when Aparo was hired, he was encouraged to initially affect a style that, though still his own, deliberately borrowed a bit from Cardy, while adopting aspects of Colan.

At first, the saga is maybe nothing special (I had read the first couple of issues years ago as a kid when they were reprinted in the Adventure Comics digest) as the "quest" theme is basically an excuse for a kind of Star Trek-like format of Aquaman (and Aqualad) coming upon unknown civilizations. The stories are minor in terms of plotting, but okay, and even here perhaps reflect a slight turn towards less kiddie-oriented ideas (in one issue, Aquaman discovers a city where the inhabitants have a symbiotic relationship with some sea creatures -- a relationship that occasionally entails the sea creatures randomly eating the inhabitants; but the story ends with Aquaman swimming off, pragmatically deciding not to judge the culture). But as the issues trundle by, Skeates fractures the plotting more, to create a greater sense of an epic saga -- a "graphic novel" -- cutting between Aquaman's quest, Aqualad off on his own, and brewing unrest back home in Atlantis (not that you should question how time progresses in the various threads relative to each other). The latter sub-plot was perhaps reflective of the late 1960s, with a tyrant taking control of the kingdom and young rebels plotting against him at a time when civic unrest was high in the U.S. (the leader of the rebels is even bearded with slightly long hair and a hippy-era "peace" sign can be seen incongruously in the background at one point). Not that Skeates is making any profound political statements (despite the tyrant, the rebels are also chastised for not having faith that Aquaman would return to set things right).

The accumulating plot threads give the saga a greater weight as it unfolds, so that it does feel like a genuine story arc (as opposed to just an excuse for stand alone adventures). And some of these adventures start to tie together, so that when things are explained toward the end, it does feel like a culmination (as opposed to simply a beginning and end with a bunch of random adventures in-between).

And it does it with little reliance on recurring villains -- with only arch-foe Black Manta cropping up for one issue. Admittedly, comics back then (particularly at DC) weren't as obsessive about recurring foes, not requiring them for every issue. But it is interesting to note their scarcity in a 9 issue run (another epic saga from around this time -- Superman: Kryptonite Nevermore -- featured no recurring foes). Contrast that to today where it often seems like epic sagas are just an excuse to parade out the hero's rogues gallery for issue after issue of grudge fights!

Skeates perhaps should also be given credited for setting Aquaman -- as a character -- on the road he would later follow (also, in its way, borrowed from the Sub-Mariner). Prior to this, Aquaman had been a traditional, clean cut, DC Comics hero (with an occasional tendency toward a slightly hard-boiled, tough guy demeanor). But in these issues we see the emergence of a slightly more tarnished, feet-of-clay Aquaman. Not dramatically so, but we see the beginning of a more impulsive, hot-headed Aquaman, an Aquaman whose personal needs (his quest for Mera) causes him to neglect his responsibilities to his kingdom (thereby, in a sense, contributing to the crisis). An Aquaman who, in the story involving surface world mobsters, at one point thinks it doesn't concern him and considers just swimming away. He doesn't, but it does seem to signal a shift from perceiving Aquaman as a super hero whose purpose is to fight crime, to Aquaman as an undersea king to whom "crime fighting super hero" is more an imprecise label.

It is intriguing reading this arc. I had actually delved into it partly just out of curiosity as an early Aquaman epic. As mentioned, I was aware that the early issues had been okay, but nothing more. But overall I found it a somewhat ambitious saga. It does form a genuine story arc with a beginning and end. And though I'm not suggesting this is some unheralded high-water mark of sophisticated characterization, or mature plot development (the dialogue can still be reflective of its era, the individual plots not exactly Byzantine) it's definitely titling that way, with its increasingly multi-threaded storyline, its occasional aspects of deeper philosophical or socio-political themes, and slightly more naturalistic dialogue. (With even a possible ecological metaphor involving the Atlanteans having to adjust to some environmental shifts).

With its introduction both of the multi-issue quest theme and a slightly edgier, brasher Aquaman, it could be argued it's a seminal story for the later directions of the character and his adventures.

I almost wonder if DC editors had been intending to collect this at one point. The third Showcase presents Aquaman volume (collecting the chronological run of the character) ended reprinting issue #39 -- right before this arc, as if they intended it either for a Showcase vol. 4, or its own TPB. But as of the writing of this -- no such collections have been published.

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