A birthday tribute to one of the all-time greats — born Oct. 20, 1920 — by Fred Van Lente…
I’m a huge fan of the late Nick Cardy, who was born 100 years ago. Huge.
Typically, we’d run a 13 COVERS birthday salute but this year, we’re going a few thousand leagues deeper with NICK CARDY’s 13 GREATEST AQUAMAN STORIES — RANKED, by writer/historian/13th Dimension contributor Fred Van Lente, who also digs the Silver and Bronze Age stalwart.
So let’s dive right in, shall we?
By FRED VAN LENTE
Hi, my name is Fred Van Lente, and I read old comics so you don’t have to. Or, more accurately, I read a metric crap-ton of old comics, and then I come and tell you which 13 of those you should read, somewhat arbitrarily ranked in order of preference, because the human brain has developed a Pavlovian attraction to listicles. (Note from Dan: I hate the term “listicles,” but hey if it walks like a duck…)
Happy birthday to Nick Cardy, one of the best artists in DC’s 1960s roster. I’ve been watching a lot of cartoons lately as research for The Comic Book History of Animation, by artist Ryan Dunlavey and me. (Issue #1 premieres from IDW on Nov. 25—mark your calendars). One of my favorites has been the utterly crackers 1967-68 Filmation Aquaman cartoon. With scripts from the comic book writers and underwater effects created by rubbing baby oil on acetate, each segment is seven minutes of Silver Age insanity.
Nick Cardy was the artist on the Aquaman book for its first 39 issues – written largely by Jack Miller or Bob Haney — and it was his look that set the basis for the show. He brought to life a bottom of the ocean floor lousy with monsters, wizards and aliens that would have made Jacques Cousteau crap his wetsuit.
The show matches his visual inventiveness to a T, and I doubt The Superman/Aquaman Hour of Adventure (additional adventures from other DC heroes, like the Justice League and Cardy’s other big DC title, Teen Titans, rounded out the hour) would have been the ratings leader it was on Saturday mornings without him.
Here are my 13 favorites of Nick Cardy’s Aquaman. I can’t help but hear the captions in all these comics in the voice of Ted Knight, the narrator of the Filmation cartoon, with the pompous earnestness that made him such a fan-favorite on The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Caddyshack:
13. Aquaman #18, The Wife of Aquaman. Despite Cardy’s great art and some truly whackadoodle stories, this series is pretty dull until extradimensional water-warping princess Mera gets introduced in #11. As opposed to the will-they-or-won’t-they nature of most superhero romances, DC said, screw it, and just hitched the two seven issues later. This is as melodramatic as most superhero weddings, with Oceanus, a rival from Mera’s home dimension, showing up to throw a monkey wrench into the nuptials with his power to create weird monsters out of sea water.
Oceanus conquers Atlantis by conjuring torpedo men, which Cardy conceives of as a horde of murderous dildos. Of course they are the primary reason this issue made this list. The cover is a tease, as the Justice League only show up in the very last panel. Lame.
12. Aquaman #27, The Battle of The Rival Aquamen. My fingers hover over my keyboard, not knowing where to begin trying to explain this comic book without you all thinking I’ve lost my mind. Aqualad is attacked by Mera and Aquaman but is then saved by the real Mera and Aquaman, who think the doubles are robots…but they’re not…they’re…energy duplicates projected by Xen, an alien who collects species for his space aquarium… then he makes the duplicates really big to capture our heroes… and… and I just have to go lie down.
Nick Cardy’s art is really good in it, that’s why it’s on the list. But I have to move on to the next issue, or I fear for my sanity, like I was proofreading the Necronomicon.
11. Aquaman #26. From O.G.R.E. With Hate. Aquaman and Mera go on an undercover mission to the surface world as a vacationing couple named (heavy sigh) the Watermans that require them to sleep with giant water tanks on their heads in their hotel room, which I love. I kind of want an entire Mr. and Mrs. Smith with gills series starring these two now.
If you can guess what O.G.R.E. stands for before the end of this article, Dan Greenfield will wash your car.
10. Aquaman #8. The Plot to Steal the Seas. Somebody’s stealing all the water in America’s lakes, and if you think Aquaman is going to put up with that, well, you’ve got another thing coming. That “A” over his crotch doesn’t stand for “France.” Or…“land.” (Sorry, may have lost the plot on that one.) These redheaded monchichi-looking aliens are the culprits, but one of them defects to Aquaman’s side. They flee in a rocket, crash-landing in an alien ocean swarming with great-looking Cardy-designed sea monsters.
Hilariously, Aquaman doubts he can control these creatures like he can Earth fish, so he does what any American in a foreign land does and just TALKS IN HIS NATIVE LANGUAGE REALLY LOUDLY. Psychically, that is. And it works.
9. Aquaman #33, Aqualad’s Deep-Six Chick! Aquaman has aqua-quired an Aquawife (Mera) and Aquababy, and Aqualad is feeling a little aqua-left out (somebody slap me). So he starts hanging out with a childhood friend named Tula who has grown up and is now hot, whom he dubs Aquachick. She does not immediately slap him in the face because, as this issue makes abundantly clear, she has self-esteem issues.
They groove together to Dr. Dorsal’s Deep Six Discotheque where bobby-soxers do the Twist while wearing SCUBA gear, because that’s a thing. But of course Dr. Dorsal is a creepy weirdo—he runs an undersea disco, after all—and aqua-hypnotizes our aqua-teens into committing aqua-crimes. Aquaman has to go undercover as an old beachcomber to foil this gilled Fagan’s ring of briny juvies. This issue leaves me with one question, which is: “What in hell were they smoking at DC in the ‘60s, and can I have some?”
8. Aquaman #34, Aquabeast the Abominable. Cardy really started coming into his own in his home stretch on the title, and this absolutely bonkers story is one of the best-looking of his run.
Peter Dudley, billionaire, owns a mansion and a yacht, and totally wants to bang Mera, but she has this annoying husband who keeps getting in the way. So he pays a scientist to transform him into an exact duplicate of Aquaman, only to devolve into a roided-out madman. He drags Mera to a forbidden part of the sea defended by pink androids… for some reason? Jacques Cousteau totally missed this: He’s useless.
Hammuri, their leader, is, I think, a giant alien chimp with a colander on his head. Anyway, Aquabeast dies defending Mera from this nut. Good riddance. This comic book makes no goddamn sense but thanks to Nick Cardy, it looks terrific.
7. Aquaman #37, When the Sea Dies! The interior of the comic is as impressively gruesome as the cover, in which the sea starts sprouting gelatinous rotting blobs like a proto-Junji Ito manga. This is the work of a maniac named the Scavenger, who has a giant scorpion mech and a shitty attitude. The Scavenger’s old partner is Ocean Master, Aquaman’s evil, amnesiac brother. This three-way battle on the decaying ocean floor is terrifically rendered by Cardy, particularly the surreal sight of an army of octopi swarming Scavenger’s mech.
6. Aquaman #36, What Seeks the Awesome Threesome? DC was very much the driving force behind the The Superman/Aquaman Hour of Adventure even though Filmation produced it; Magneto (no relation), Claw and Torpedo-Man seem to have appeared in the cartoon first, arriving later in the comics to attack the Atlantean Pavilion at the World’s Fair. The story is a pretty straightforward slugfest, but it’s just a reminder of how the static but stunning Cardy artwork weaves a much more exciting story than the budget-and-schedule-constrained “limited animation” of Filmation could.
5. Aquaman #19. Atlanteans for Sale. This comic is way ahead of its time. The villain is Sea World—I was going to type “evil Sea World,” but that would be redundant. T.T. Taggerts’ Aqua Circus makes a deal with a rival for Mera’s affections to kidnap Aquaman to make him jump through hoops for herrings three times a day, six on Saturdays. (I’m exaggerating, but only slightly.)
Taggert deprives Aquaman of water to try and get to him to bring more Atlanteans to the park. All loyal aqua-readers know that if Aquaman is out of the water for more than an hour he dies. When he seems to expire, a bummed Taggert just dumps him in the ocean like he was an expired orca. Silly surface dweller! Aquaman telepathically commanded a sea gull (which, apparently, is a fish, who knew?) to change the hands on the clock so you just thought it was an hour! Aquaman is lucky Sea World only owns the one clock. Shortsighted on their part.
4. Aquaman #39, How to Kill a Sea King! At this point, DC was getting a little big for its britches, declaring that Aquaman was the “King of the Seas—and TV!” While it is true that CBS’s Superman/Aquaman Hour of Adventure was the top performing Saturday morning cartoon in 1967 with an 8.9 Nielsen rating, Andy Griffith was still #1 overall with a 27.6, so don’t start talking that nonsense in Mayberry unless you want your ass kicked.
The story in this issue isn’t much to write home about, involving an alien siren named (deep sigh) Aliena, sent to tempt Aquaman away from Mera to soften Atlantis up for invasion — but it features spectacular layouts and figure work from Cardy. This was his last issue on the title, before shifting exclusively toward cover and design work, for which he was justly famed. I imagine a lot of kids bought those amazing later Cardy Aquaman covers only to be disappointed by the humdrum interiors from a still-learning Jim Aparo, who would go on to (IMHO) far surpass Cardy.
3. Aquaman #12, The Cosmic Gladiators! Nick Cardy was really good at drawing gonzo space aliens, and in this story he gets to draw a slew of them. Aquaman and Aqualad are tractor-beamed to a far-off world to fight to the death in a gladiatorial fish bowl. Our Spartacus of the Sea quickly rallies his fellow fighters around his escape plan, though. Like Aquaman, each one has a mental power — raising water temperature, creating typhoons, etc. — that can be deployed against their captors. The whole escape is thrillingly paced and rendered by Cardy.
2. Aquaman #35, Between Two Dooms! This is the debut of Black Manta, who, I think we can all agree, has one of the coolest outfits in superhero comics. That outfit was designed by Mr. Nick Cardy, so that’s why this issue rates so high. (Cardy also created Ocean Master, whose mask looks like he’s wearing the Creature from the Black Lagoon’s face.) Though it’s hard to see how a human skull would actually fit into that helmet, which, depending on the angle, looks like a bedpan, a football or a Tylenol.
I wonder if maybe Manta wasn’t meant to be an actual human? Which would make sense, because his original schtick was he commanded the monstrous Manta Men, who look like vampiric bath mats. Clearly destined for great things, in his very first appearance Black Manta poisons the water around Atlantis, driving the Atlanteans to the surface, and kicks the crap out of Ocean Master, yanking the status of arch-nemesis from him instantly.
Bob Haney reworked his script for this issue into the pilot for the Filmation Aquaman cartoon, so DC clearly thought the villain was strong enough to launch the series. (Narrator Ted Knight also provided Black Manta’s voice.)
1. Aquaman #28, Hail Aquababy, New King of Atlantis! I don’t even know where to begin with this completely bananas comic book. After freeing a US Navy ship’s anchor from getting caught in a sperm whale and a giant squid locked in combat, Aquaman and Aqualad are themselves rescued by a lonely mad scientist on the ocean floor.
Dr. Starbuck has — I am not making this up — invented a way to breathe underwater and he has bestowed this gift on himself, a “sea eagle” (who just flies like an eagle underwater now), and a gorilla. Aquaman makes Dr. Starbuck an honorary Atlantean, and of course he repays this kindness by imprisoning Aquaman and Aqualad in an underwater landslide, drugging Mera, and taking over Atlantis by installing Aquababy on the throne.
Babies, as it turns out, make terrible heads of state, although I wonder if part of the reason Aquababy is so cranky is because while every other member of his family swims around in nice spandex outfits, he has to toddle around in just a cloth diaper like an underwater hillbilly. And undoubtedly said diaper is wet all the time because, you know, he’s a baby who lives under the sea. Meanwhile, the water-breathing eagle and gorilla single-handedly commit a wave of sea crimes in Aquaman’s absence. For this the Navy blames Aquaman, and they start bombing Atlantis.
I should point out that we are on Page TWELVE of this comic.
Dr. Starbuck, who claims to speak fluent baby, says Aquababy wants to declare war on the surface world. But the joke’s on you, Atlantis! Of course Dr. Starbuck can’t speak baby at all, he’s just a fruitcake who wants to see the seas, er, burn and this poor baby is his unwitting pawn.
Look, the reason this issue is #1 on the list is because Nick Cardy sells it, man. When an eagle and a gorilla take out an entire submarine you are into it. Making the ridiculous seem plausible and gripping is the Silver Age artist’s job, and Nick Cardy was very good at his job.
Oh, and it’s Organization for General Revenge and Enslavement. You thought I forgot, didn’t you? Email Dan your address and Sunday afternoon availability, winners! — FVL
13th Dimension contributor Fred Van Lente is a comic-book writer, historian and playwright. The Comic Book Story of Basketball, a softcover published by Ten Speed Press, lists for $19.99. (Click here for more info.)
— 13 COVERS: A NICK CARDY Birthday Celebration — 2019 Edition: SUPERMAN. Click here.
— 13 COVERS: A NICK CARDY Birthday Celebration — 2018 Edition: BATMAN. Click here.