Friday, January 27, 2017

BLB: Aquaman

Here is another in my ongoing series of reviews on the 1968 Big Little Book series. You can find others by clicking on "BLB" at the bottom of this post.

This time, to help celebrate Aquaman's "birthday" on January 29 I want to talk about one of my favorite BLBs, Aquaman in Scourge of the Sea, written by Paul S. Newman and published in 1968. It is number 17 in the 1968 Big Little Book series. It follows Space Ghost but is before Daktari. Does anybody here even know and/or remember Daktari?

Big Little Books were a series of story-books published by Whitman Publishers from the 1920s thru the 1980s. The books I have are 250 pages but very compact, only 10 cm x 13 cm x 2 cm (approx 4 inches x 5 3/4 inches x 1 inch). There is text on one page and an illustration on the other. Although the writers were always credited, the artist never was. From 1967 thru the early 1970s such then-popular TV celebrities as Lassie, Flipper, the Lone Ranger, Bonanza, Shazzan, Frankenstein JR, and, yes, Aquaman, were featured. Eventually the TV series' stars fell by the way-side and were replaced with perennial favorites like Mickey Mouse, Bugs Bunny, and Woody Woodpecker.
Scourge of the Sea begins 100 miles off the Eastern US seaboard. A US Navy aircraft carrier tracks a UFO that is sighted and then splashes into the ocean only three miles from their position. Captain Dudley orders a helicopter launched to investigate. The pilots' Geiger counter picks up enough radiation for the site to be dangerous for Navy frog-men, so they drop a warning buoy and return to their ship. Concerned about what might be below the waves, Dudley blows a special conch shell, calling Aquaman and Mera. They appear almost immediately, and Dudley explains the situation to them. He lends them a miniature Geiger counter, and they dive down to investigate.
Before they get very far, however, they are captured in a strong net. They cannot swim against it, as they are pulled along the ocean bottom. They realize that they are being dragged toward the nearby volcanic hole to be burned alive. Aquaman calls for some friends to help, and as they get closer to the steam of the volcano six dolphins arrive to pull them to safety.
Once they are out of danger, Mera uses her hard-water powers to create a pair of scissors to cut them free. They head back towards the area of the UFO, but now Aquaman's Geiger counter does not register any radiation. In fact, they don't see anything out of the ordinary until suddenly, they are both struck by an electrical bolt, knocking them unconscious. Nearby, the leader of the alien invaders, Pisces, watches as they float to the surface, hopeless. He knows that if they do not breathe water in the next hour, they will die.
Pisces orders his twenty fish-men to begin "operation diamond," and they all head off determinedly. One group arrives at an east-coast pier and attacks a Navy freighter. Another group cause huge oil tanks to explode. The guard and the Navy men can't believe they are being attacked by aliens.
In Atlantis, Aqualad is concerned that Aquaman hasn't returned. He orders a school of barracudas out to search for him. Aqualad waits around the royal throne room until one of the fish returns with news. They speed off, and Aqualad pulls Aquaman and Mera underwater, then back to Atlantis. Their doctor tells him that they are suffering from shock, but should recover.
Meanwhile, in New York City news of the attack on the Navy freighter and on the oil tanks is making the rounds. Citizens begin to think that Earth has been invaded. Aquaman and Mera revive just in time to hear Pisces make a world-wide broadcast, telling everyone that they are from the planet Pisces and "the invasion is on!" Pisces explains that they are from a more advanced civilization, but that they need Earth's diamonds to power their world. He demands $1 billion in diamonds, and threatens the city of Boston to show that he means business.
Boston panics. The Governor of Massachusetts calls out the National Guard. The White House holds an emergency cabinet meeting. And Aquaman, Mera, and Aqualad hold a council of their own to discuss what they can do next.

In Pisces' underwater base, he turns on the quake-activator, targeting Boston. Fifty miles off-shore, the sea floor begins to tremble. The Coast Guard stationed in New England notes two 40 foot high waves heading their way, and warns the city to evacuate the coastline. Thanks to the advanced warning, when the two waves hit millions of dollars worth of damage occurs, and dozens are injured, but no one is killed.
Meanwhile, Aquaman calls in Topo to camouflage the Marine Marvels so that they can investigate the aliens' base. Aquaman has guessed its probable location, and with the help of Topo's dark ink, they manage to get close to it. When a cold current sweeps the ink away from them, the fish-men see them and attack. Mera's hard-water wall knocks them dizzy so that the trio can retreat. Aqualad is angry that they can't attack immediately, but Aquaman tells him he has a plan to learn more about them so that they will eventually be defeated.
Inside the base, Pisces doesn't understand how Aquaman and Mera are still alive, but vows to kill them the next chance he gets. Aquaman calls three sea-horses and the three of them ride to the kelp fields. Once there they break off clumps of the grass for another camouflage caper. Surrounded by it, they are once again able to get close to the aliens' base. They watch as the fish-men inside build up energy. Pisces pushes another button, causing huge waves and criss-crossing currents to strike the Atlantic Ocean. The trio confer, not understanding why fish-men would need air. Aquaman orders skates (rays) and hammerhead sharks to attack the aliens' base. As hundreds of his friends do so, Mera drills into the side of the base with her hard-water powers, and the three heroes sneak in. They grab a fish-man and pull off his mask, revealing a man in a fantastic wet suit.
Additional fish-men attack our heroes, but they manage to hold on until Pisces' electronic bolt stops them again. They are tied and held out of water as Pisces makes another announcement, telling the world where to drop off their diamonds. He also sends out another tidal wave, this time targeting the coast of France.
However, the US Navy in the area of the airbase notes the latitude and longitude Pisces gave for his diamond drop request, and Captain Dudley sends out jets to drop depth-charges on the location. Pisces uses his "current-stratifier" to send an electric current through the ocean, altering the current. The depth charges then are swept away from the aliens' base and explode underneath the Navy ships. The fleet sustains substantial damage.
In the aliens' base, Aquaman has called on sea borers to eat through the bottom of the aliens' base. Suddenly, water begins to seep in from their efforts. Pisces notices the water and orders his men to drain it out with the base's water pumps. Several fish-men use plastic spray-guns to seal the holes. While this was being done, however, Aquaman and then Mera and Aqualad twist their chairs and fall into the water, rejuvenating themselves. Mera then uses her hard-water powers to cut themselves free. Pisces blasts at them, but Mera uses her hard-water powers to create a wall, protecting them.
Outside, a small group of loyal Atlanteans head towards the aliens' base to attack it. The fish-men head out to meet them, and use their electronic beams to stun the Atlanteans. Aquaman sees the battle on Pisces' view-screens, so orders giant crabs to help. They raise billows of sand, which reflects the force-beams away from the Atlanteans. The fish-men are on the defensive.
Pisces then uses negative polarization, which shocks the Atlanteans but does not affect his fish-men. Secure that his base is still safe, he then tries to use an electro-magnetic force on our heroes. Mera and Aqualad are magnetized to the floor, but Aquaman leaps up onto a table to escape. He manages to jump from desk to computer to table before he smashes into the control panel Pisces had been using. Sparks fly everywhere as the computer system goes down. Moments later, Pisces goes down as well. The invasion is cancelled! The Marine Marvels then hand over all of the human crooks to the US Navy.

Of all of the Big Little Books that I ever had, this was one of my top three favorites. (The other two were the Fantastic Four and Batman.) I don't remember ever watching the Filmation AQUAMAN cartoon as a kid (I would have been about 2 or 3 years old) but my guess is that the existance of this book has everything to do with that cartoon. When BATMAN came to TV in 1966 and kick-started the super-hero boom, Aquaman benefited from that extra exposure with his cartoon. Superman's rights I believe were already tied up, so Whitman Publishing picked up Batman and Aquaman when they went to DC. Oddly enough, there were no Flash or Green Lantern Big Little Books, and the Fantastic Four was the only Marvel book for more than ten years.

This book was always in my house. I remember reading and re-reading it over and over again until I broke the spine. As I got older I cut out some of the pages to put the pictures up in my room. I still have that copy of this book, but bought another in order to have the whole story.

This book really treats its characters right. The story begins as a science fiction UFO story, then morphs into a "monster invasion" story, then becomes a disaster film, becomes a mystery for a chapter or two, and then ends as a straight super-hero drama. That's a lot of story to cram into such a small package!

I especially love the way Aquaman, Mera, and Aqualad interact in this story. They are clearly a family that loves each other. It is never explained who Aqualad is or how he is related to them, so I imagine some people may have thought he was their son. On the other hand, at this time teen side-kicks were all the range, so maybe nobody thought anything about it....! I also like how each character gets something exciting to do: Aqualad saves the others' lives, and Mera is directly responsible for getting them into Pisces' base and freeing them from his traps.

As mentioned above, the writing is credited to Paul S. Newman, but the illustrator is uncredited. This is a shame, as the fish-men are appropriately creepy and the undersea scenes very atmospheric. Aquaman's undersea friends are also drawn very well. Special cheers to having Topo appear (and named!) as well as the sea-horses from the Filmation series, although their names are not used.

If you are a fan of Aquaman, you owe it to yourself to track down a copy of this book. You will not be disappointed.

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