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Aquatic Heroes


Action Girl Cover Image

Thrill-O-Rama #2 © 1966 Harvey Comics. COVER ART BY GEORGE TUSKA AND JOE SIMON.

Visionaries as diverse as novelist Jules Verne and oceanographer Jacques Costeau have captivated readers and viewers with accounts, imagined and real, of the beauty beneath the sea. Yet horrors exist in the murky depths, evolutionary atrocities, mutated monstrosities, and oceanic overlords that can only be vanquished by the defenders of the deep: the aquatic heroes.

The most legendary of their nautical number—Marvel Comics' Prince Namor, better known as the Sub-Mariner, and DC Comics' Aquaman, at one time the King of the Seven Seas—originally swam in opposite currents. The imperious Sub-Mariner loathed surface dwellers, routinely attacking sailors (particularly Nazi submarines during World War II) and the city of New York. Antithetically, the accommodating Aquaman aided endangered seamen and protected coastal (and other) communities from sea-spawned dangers, such as The Creature that Devoured Detroit, an algae-monster oozing from polluted waters in Aquaman #56 (1971). The line dividing the two ebbed with passing years: Sub-Mariner's hostility waned and he formed apprehensive partnerships with landlubbers, while Aquaman's surmounting vortex of misfortunes embittered him.

Subsea adversaries have plagued the watery worlds of both heroes. Sub-Mariner's rogues' gallery includes the Shark, a sharp-toothed pirate who jets the waters in a shark-shaped ship; U-Man, a pariah from Namor's oceanic home, Atlantis; the Man-Eating Monsters, aquatic aliens who inhabit the forms of earthly sharks; Dr. Dorcas, a psychotic biologist commanding an army of mutant Men-Fish; and the fin-cowled Tiger Shark, an Olympic swimmer-turned-supervillain. Aquaman has clashed with the Human Flying Fish, a gimmick-enhanced thief plundering both sky and sea in his garish yellow-and-purple gear; the Fisherman, who reels in loot; the Ocean Master, Aquaman's demented half-brother who simulates his sibling's ability to breathe underwater with a seashell-shaped helmet; the Black Manta, one of Aquaman's fiercest foes, responsible for the death of his son Aquababy; the hideous water witch Gamemnae; and the Thirst, a sea-devouring mud-golem.

According to superhero lore, there are undersea kingdoms filled with water-breathing humanoids. Sub-Mariner and Aquaman both hail from their respective publishers' versions of Atlantis, the fabled sunken continent now a vibrant oceanic city. Marvel's Atlantis contains blue-skinned inhabitants, including the late Lady Dorma, Sub-Mariner's wife. DC's Atlantis has spawned bipedal inhabitants and a race of mermen and mermaids. Migrating there was the estranged wife of Aquaman, Mera, a native of a watery dimension where denizens manipulate the density of H20 (Mera commands hard-water powers). Lori Lemaris, a mermaid, attended college on the surface world and hid her fishtail in a specially constructed wheelchair; she met and fell in love with classmate Clark Kent (Superman). During her youth, the Silver Age (1956–1969) Wonder Woman dated Merboy (alternately called Mer-Boy). Wonder Woman's maritime encounters did not end with her seafaring suitor: The Amazing Amazon's classic 1966 Aurora model kit depicted the heroine roping a hostile octopus with her magic lasso, and a (comic) book-and-record set released by Peter Pan Records in 1978 pitted Wonder Woman against the jaws of a great white shark.

Both Sub-Mariner and Aquaman splashed into comics during its celebrated Golden Age (1938–1954). They were not alone. First seen in Eastern Color's Reg'lar Fellers Heroic Comics #1 (1940), scientist Bob Blake creates a chemical that enables him to transmute himself into living water and uses his uncanny abilities—which include cascading through pipes and exiting through faucets, changing himself into a geyser, and creating waves and waterspouts—as Hydroman, a goggled crusader who wears, curiously, a see-through shirt. Hydroman safeguarded American shores and skies from invading Japanese, and sometimes teamed with a young sidekick named Rainbow Boy. Hydroman's name and powers were arrogated by a Spider-Man villain in 1981 who, in the 2000s, literally drizzles on thrill seekers in the interactive 3-D Spider-Man amusement-park ride at Universal's Islands of Adventure in Orlando, Florida.

Marvel Comics introduced the Fin in the pages of Daring Mystery #7 (1941). This costumed crime fighter, originally naval officer Peter Noble, survives a deep-sea calamity and discovers he can live underwater, a gift afforded him by some strange whim of Mother Nature. Donning a tan wetsuit with a shark-fin headpiece, the Fin wielded his steel-piercing mystical cutlass against Nazis and other marine menaces for a few issues before sinking into limbo. Noteworthy is the fact that three of the Golden Age's aquatic heroes—Sub-Mariner, Hydroman, and the Fin—were illustrated by the same man, artist Bill Everett.

The family of Everett's most famous aquatic superhero expanded when Namora, Sub-Mariner's cousin, dove into her own series in 1948 as part of Marvel's unsuccessful attempt to spotlight a line of superheroine comics. This Sea Beauty was more jovial than her raucous relative, relishing her morning swims (This really works up a good appetite!) but paddling into cancellation after a mere three issues. Decades later, another Sub-Mariner relative, Namorita, was part of the teenage superteam called the New Warriors.

In 1960, Aquaman met Garth, a young boy exiled from Atlantis due to a genetic defect—his purple eyes, considered a foreboding omen among his people. Befriended by the Sea King, the boy became his sidekick Aqualad. More recently, Aqualad has mastered Atlantean sorcery and is now known as Tempest. His first girlfriend, Tula (a.k.a. Aquagirl), died heroically, and Garth later married the undersea adventuress named Dolphin, a character originally introduced in a superhero romance tale as a mysterious sea nymph with whom a sailor fell in love, in Showcase #79 (1968).

Marvel's Triton is one of the Inhumans, a shunned race of beings mutated by the mysterious Terrigen Mist. Green-skinned and scaly, this gilled explorer is adept in the ocean's depths, but cannot exist outside of water, requiring a water-immersing body harness when surfacing. Stingray is another Marvel aquatic hero, an oceanographer named Walter Newell whose red-and-white super-suit's glider-membrane cape enables him to soar through the skies and the waters, and imbues him with enhanced strength and the ability to fire electrical stings. He has been known to operate from an island headquarters he calls his Hydrobase.

Tower Comics' Undersea Agent (1966–1967) is actually Lieutenant Davey Jones, part of an aquatic-based espionage force called U.N.D.E.R.S.E.A. This Davey Jones apparently owns a locker stuffed with uniforms: He changed costumes throughout his six-issue run, his gear ranging from a midnight-blue wetsuit with a bubble helmet to more colorful variations (orange with red boots, red with blue fins, and green with red fins). Undersea Agent and his team thwarted the tyrannical Dr. Fang, who mocked the heroes on the cover of their first issue: Those fools! Who do they think they are, to try to overcome the invincible Dr. Fang? Jones' underwater world was besieged by oceanic oddities such as jade-skinned barbarians with tridents, a dog-faced shark that bites through subs, and a giant robot.

Similar grotesqueries challenged DC Comics' Sea Devils, a thinly disguised aquatic version of Marvel's Fantastic Four. Led by Dane Dorrance, the Sea Devils encountered giant octopi—tentacled terrors that have populated heroic fiction for decades—as well as an assemblage of undersea rogues like Captain X, Manosaur, Mr. Neptune, the Human Tidal Wave, and Octopus Man. The thirty-five-issue run of Sea Devils (1961–1967) is best remembered among collectors for its photo-realistic illustrations by Russ Heath, whose stunning covers employed an artistic technique appropriately called a wash effect.

Other seaworthy stalwarts have paddled in and out of superhero adventures, including Harvey Comics' Pirana, an aquatic James Bond in an emerald wetsuit whose high-tech arsenal (a scuba gun, his toss-net, and his aqua-plane) enabled him to checkmate the world's most brilliant villain, Brainstorm; the Amphibian (a.k.a. Amphibion), an Aquaman pastiche appearing in Marvel's supergroup the Squadron Supreme; Mark Harris, a gilled hybrid with webbed hands and feet, portrayed by actor Patrick Duffy in the short-lived live-action television series The Man from Atlantis (1977); Manta, an animated TV superhero (on CBS's Tarzan and the Super 7 [1978]), whose ability to communicate with fish led to litigation by DC Comics citing copyright infringement of Aquaman; Moray, the wife of Manta; the Little Mermaid, the Danish do-gooder from DC's Global Guardians whose legs can mutate into a fishtail; Fathom, the water-based superheroine from Bill Willingham's Elementals; Marrina, a yellow-skinned alien who migrated from her overpopulated world to Earth and joined forces with Marvel's Canadian-based superteam Alpha Flight; and Abe Sapien, the amphibian ally of Mike Mignola's occult hero Hellboy.

In DC's Firestorm the Nuclear Man vol. 2 #90 (1989), the water elemental Naiad is introduced. Radical environmentalist Mai Miyazaki single-handedly protests an oil spill when a rigger's crewman fires a flare toward her. Engulfed in flames, Mai abandons ship, and Maya, the spirit of the Earth, magically makes her one with the sea. Now Naiad, Mai is living water, and can summon—or even become—waves, tsunamis, or whirlpools. In 2003, DC introduced the Lady of the Lake as the concierge of the unexplored Secret Sea, a peculiar realm where Aquaman now resides. The Lady of the Lake regenerated Aquaman's missing hand, which he lost in battle, with an appendage made of water.

Lastly, many non-aquatic heroes have battled demons from the deep. Captain Marvel wrestled an angry tiger shark on the cover of Whiz Comics #19 (1941), and the little-known superhero Master Key was entangled by a humongous eel in Scoop Comics #2 (1942). DC's Shark was a sea creature that climbed the evolutionary ladder after radiation exposure, becoming a humanoid with heightened mental capabilities, which he used to combat Green Lantern, Superman, Aquaman, and the entire Justice League of America. Luke Cage, Marvel's Hero for Hire also known as Power Man, clashed with a scaly scalawag calling himself Mr. Fish, as well as a street enforcer named Piranha Jones. Even the Legion of Super-Heroes, the superteens living 1,000 years in the future, combated an amphibious mutant called Devil-Fish, before learning that the creature, who lacked the ability to communicate with them, was not their enemy. —ME

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