Bizarro Back Issues: Aquaman Minus Aqua (1959)
I've made my share of jokes about him before, but I'm really starting to think that 2017 is going to be the year that I do my best to get into Aquaman. As much as I love DC's Silver Age, he's my biggest blind spot of the entire era, and it's time to fix that. There's just one problem: I don't think I actually like reading about underwater adventure, and that's... that's gonna be an issue.
But maybe there's hope. This week, Twitter's own @YellFeat and Local Aquaman Expert Megan Nielsen alerted me to the existence of "Manhunt On Land," a story where Aquaman takes on a landlocked crime spree by loading up a pickup truck with his underwater friends and driving around with a fishbowl on his head. And it's amazing.
The story comes courtesy of Robert Bernstein and the always fantastic Ramona Fradon in Adventure Comics #267, and if you're looking for an all-killer, no-filler back issue to pick up the next time you're going through the boxes at a con, this is the one to get. Not only is there a great story about the Legion of Super-Heroes traveling back in time to have Superboy exiled from Earth, but the two backup features are actually tied together in a weird sort of crossover, with Bernstein writing both and Lee Elias doing art for the Green Arrow story that follows.
See, this one opens up in prison, where two criminals --- one apprehended by Aquaman for Sea Piracy and one brought in by Green Arrow for somewhat drier crimes --- are plotting an escape that I think we can safely refer to as completely bonkers.
Understandably, each of the two criminals -- "Shark" Norton and Horace "Wizard" Kates -- wants to avoid being brought in by the hero that took them down last time. To that end, Wizard decides to take to the high seas, where Green Arrow can't stop him, and Norton decides to become a "land pirate." Or as we usually call them, "a robber."
I'll catch up with how Green Arrow did in a future column, but a couple things about this: First, both of these dudes are aware of the other's situation, which means that the guy who decides to commit sea crimes is definitely aware that Aquaman exists and has a pretty solid track record of bringing in ocean crooks.
Second, I feel like the obvious decision here would be for Aquaman and Green Arrow to just, you know, switch villains, with Aquaman taking on "Wizard" in the ocean and Green Arrow rounding up Norton on land. But that is not what happens.
I love this so much. Not only do we get a quick and harrowing "But --- gasp! --- I totally suck on land!" moment from Aquaman, but his solution here is just to drive around with a pickup truck full of fish and hope it all works out for the best.
You'd think Aquaman would have a little trouble adapting to life out of water, but surprisingly, for the member of the Justice League least likely to have a driver's license, he does pretty well for himself. Of course, that's easy to do when the laws of reality are willing to warp around you.
Again, there is so much to talk about here. Not only do these fish have such a powerful bioluminescence that it shines through the truck cab itself, but it never occurs to these crooks that maybe they should try shooting the fish, or the tank. Or Aquaman.
Maybe they're just not good at shooting, and that makes sense. As we all know, the best and most accurate shots come from octopi that have flung themselves onto land to fight crime.
And again, maybe the best part of this is Aquaman just casually mentioning that this octopus-powered siege engine he has invented is just an old trick. Classic Topo.
While Aquaman is able to chip away at "Shark" Norton's gang, the man himself manages to elude him, and even starts to adapt. And really, that makes sense. Think about it: If you have trouble with Aquaman out in the ocean, you have to expect that, and if he follows you onto land, okay, that's unexpected, but you still have to consider it's a possibility. But there's one place that dude can't touch you. The sky!
It's the perfect way to avoid Aquaman! Of course, you have to worry about running into Superman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, Hawkman, Batman's Bat-Plane, and the Flash, if there are any big ramps nearby.
But still, that's the plan. And a nebulous understanding of sea life saves the day once again.
Having been thwarted at every turn, Norton decides that it's time for a final showdown, and demands that Aquaman face him --- and curiously enough, he does this at an aquarium. Like, I don't think Star City is canonically near any deserts, but you have to imagine that if you're in the position to pick your own battles, there has to be a better place to to lay a trap for Aquaman. Like, say, all other places.
Sure enough, when "Shark" unloads his machine guns at Aquaman, he only succeeds in causing a cascade of water and sea friends --- Aquaman always refers to his animal sidekicks as "fish friends" or "sea friends," which I actually think is pretty pleasant --- to rain down and destroy any chance he had of not being dragged back to jail by an octopus.
And with that, Aquaman --- who never once has to face the threat of having his fishbowl helmet cracked, or running out of gas in the Aquatruck --- proves that he's as capable a hero on land as he is in the ocean. Shark is captured, and he returns to the sea, wondering how Green Arrow did on his switcheroo mission. And you know, as skeptical as I might be about him in general, I'm pretty into it.
I mean, if Aquaman modeled all of his crime-fighting tactics after Burt Reynolds in Smokey and the Bandit, he'd probably be my favorite super-hero of all time.