December, 1968, saw the publication of the fourth issue of Neal Adams and Bob Haney’s run on Brave and the Bold — a partnership that had begun with the duo’s “The Track of the Hook” some six months earlier, and which was gradually evolving the image of Batman towards a darker, more mysterious vision, one closer to how he’d originally been concerned by Bob Kane and Bill Finger thirty years before. That vision was slowly becoming established as the proper take on the Caped Crusader in the minds of comics pros as well as fans (though there was as yet little evidence of its influence in the other series in which Batman regularly appeared). And while this emerging new direction for Batman was inarguably driven almost entirely by the artistic efforts of Adams, Haney’s scripts — more grounded and serious than most of his earlier work with the character in BatB, which he’d produced during the TV show-inspired “camp” era — were consistent with the visual tone set by Adams’ drawings, and usually managed to carry their share of the weight in the ongoing enterprise of re-imagining DC Comics’ Darknight Detective. That was true even in the context of a story like “The Sleepwalker from the Sea!”, which brought one of the publisher’s more fanciful heroes into the increasingly gritty urban milieu of Gotham City.
As in many of his stories of this era, Adams here eschews using a traditional full-page splash panel to begin his and Haney’s story — choosing instead to leap right into the action:
Adams has stated on several occasions that he made very few changes to Haney’s scripts, such changes generally being limited to shifting scenes from a daytime to a nighttime setting. It seems likely, however, that Haney envisioned a dead-of-night timeframe for this scene — involving a creepy guy following a beautiful woman along a deserted waterfront, only to be set up by her for his own sudden murder — all on his own. In any case, the sequence well demonstrates that darkness is the appropriate environment for (in the words of the first page’s opening caption) “the dread stalker of the night… the Batman!”
Nope, Batman quickly corrects Commissioner James Gordon — it really was his old Justice League teammate and buddy Aquaman he encountered on the dock. And that information, plus a spear wound, aren’t the only things the Caped Crusader has brought away from his recent misadventure:
Bob Haney probably did more than other “Batman” writer in the mid-to-late Sixties to give the hero some kind of romantic life — something that had been evident to my younger self ever since my first Brave and the Bold comic back in December, 1965, even if I didn’t know the writer’s name at the time (like this story, that one bore no credits).
It’s worth noting here that in this particular story, Bruce Wayne doesn’t seem to be just performing a playboy role with the goal of protecting his secret identity, as he does in many other comics. Rather, Bruce seems to be all in as regards his pursuit of model Ailsa Dubois, “the most beautiful girl in the world!” — to the point that Alfred even wonders if his boss isn’t thinking about settling down. And, as we’ll see on the very next page, Miss Dubois isn’t the only beautiful woman Bruce has been making time with as of late:
Going by his cavalier treatment of Honor (who’s never given a last name), Bruce Wayne doesn’t just play a cad for appearance’s sake — he really is one. And so, when things go seriously south on the next page, it’s hard not to feel that Bruce kinda has it coming to him:
“Okay, Brucie-boy…” When the “dark stalker of the night” addresses himself that way, you just know you’re reading a Bob Haney story.
“Orm”… gee, that’s a unusual name. And one which might have seemed familiar to readers in 1968 who’d been following Aquaman more regularly than myself over the past three or so years, though it meant nothing to me.
In any event, neither Orm nor Ailsa have any idea that the still-living Bruce Wayne is eavesdropping on them from the office foyer. Not only has he overheard their nefarious plans, but he’s also on hand to witness the unveiling of a painting that Ailsa has just completed for her lover. (“You mean you have other talents besides beauty and treachery?” Orm asks Ailsa. What a smooth talker!)
When the painting is revealed on the next page, its subject is one which Bruce finds “somehow familiar” — and those aforementioned Aquaman readers likely found it so as well. My eleven-year-old self, on the other hand, probably didn’t recognize the figure at all — though it’s at least possible that I’d glimpsed this purple-favoring character in DC’s house ads, or on the covers of comics I’d seen on the spinner racks.
“You know me… Bruce Wayne… you know who I really… Stay back…!!” Jeez, Bruce, that was a close one. I guess we can chalk up this uncharacteristic sloppiness re: your secret identity to your lingering shock over Ailsa’s betrayal, but still…!
It’s clear both from Bruce’s near-slip above, as well as from the dialogue on the following pages, that Aquaman is supposed to know that Bruce Wayne is Batman. That was pretty much par for the course in Haney’s BatB stories — despite the fact that over in Justice League of America, the member heroes didn’t know each others’ secret identities, as a rule (though there were notable exceptions, such as Superman and Batman, Flash and Green Lantern, and the Atom and Hawkman). We can justifiably hang this discrepancy on Bob Haney, who was famously lackadaisical when it came to the notion of line-wide continuity — but it’s hard to really blame him for writing this way, since having the heroes be privy to each other’s secrets obviously helps streamline the process of plotting a single-issue story teaming up two disparate characters. (This was evidently important enough to Haney that on at least one occasion when his two headliners had never met, he worked Batman’s co-star’s discovery of the Masked Manhunter’s alter ego into the story.) Indeed, the clear advantage of Haney’s approach is probably the main reason that team members’ shared knowledge of each other’s civilian identities is pretty much the standard state of affairs in virtually every super-group comic book these days.
Wait, what was that about “Golden-Hair” being Marius’ brother? Again, long-time Aquaman fans would probably already know, but less-enlightened readers such as yours truly would have to wait for a couple more pages.
First, though, we’d see that Bruce and Aquaman have escaped their apparent death by pile-driver, Bruce having somehow managed to drag them both out of sight below the dock. The story now moves ahead one hour, where we find the Sea King being interrogated by Batman and Commissioner Gordon at police headquarters.
It all began long ago, Aquaman explains, “when my Atlantean mother died and my father married a woman from your air-breathing world…”
The panels above present a faithful retelling of Ocean Master‘s origin, as originally chronicled in Aquaman #29 (Sept.-Oct., 1966) — which should come as no surprise, considering that that story was written by Bob Haney himself, during his 28-issue stint as the regular writer of the Sea King’s title. Ocean Master was one of the most successful villainous creations that Haney and his artistic collaborator Nick Cardy came up with during their lengthy run on the title, during which they were as likely to come up with an Awesome Threesome as they were a Black Manta. And unlike Manta — their one other truly memorable villain, but one whom they never gave an origin, a civilian name, or even an actual human face — Orm, the amnesiac super-pirate, had a personal connection to Aquaman that made him inherently more interesting than virtually every other bad guy the King of the Seven Seas ever faced in his own book. Indeed, after making his debut in #29, Ocean Master was brought back for another three appearances prior to Haney and Cardy’s departure with #38 — which suggests either that reader response to the character had been very positive, or that one or more of his creators really liked him. (Maybe it was a bit of both.)
With the next page, Aquaman’s narration moves from relating events from his past that had been previously chronicled by Haney to more recent history — more specifically, the storyline that was currently unfolding in the hero’s own title, having been launched in issue #40 by Haney’s successor as Aquaman‘s scripter, Steve Skeates (a storyline which, incidentally, my younger self had been following since issue #42):
In 1968, I don’t think that my younger self found it at all unusual that the creators of BatB #82 had tied their story into the “Quest for Mera” saga that was running in Aquaman at the time, in much the same way that they’d tied BatB #79’s Batman-Deadman adventure into the “Quest for the Hook” storyline from Deadman’s strip in Strange Adventures. Fifty years later, however, the choice seems a bit more curious; after all, I’m now much more cognizant of the reputation (mostly well-deserved ) that both Bob Haney and his editor on BatB, Murray Boltinoff, earned for how they generally ignored other creators’ continuity over the years. And while I can see that they had little choice but to pay attention to Deadman’s ongoing storyline when they used him in issue #79 (even setting aside the fact that Haney’s collaborator Neal Adams was the main creative force on the Deadman feature, that hero’s quest for his killer was essentially baked right into his core character concept) — Haney and Boltinoff could have ignored what was currently going on in the Aquaman book, when they were putting together the story for #82. So why didn’t they?
I can think of several reasons, actually. One is that DC’s late-Sixties editorial staff was so unused to the very concept of long-running storylines that, when one was sitting in front of them, they couldn’t see any way to deal with it but directly. Even the explanation routinely used these days by both DC and Marvel to account for apparent chronological discrepancies — i.e., “the events in this story take place before those in Superguy #101″ — might not have occurred to them. Another reason might have to do with wanting to spark reader interest in (and spur sales of) Aquaman’s own book; even with the structure of independent editorial fiefdoms that was extant at DC at that time, it was obviously to everyone’s benefit that all the company’s books do well. Yet another has to do with an overlap in creative teams between Aquaman and this issue of BatB; the editor of the former title, Dick Giordano, was also the inker of Adams’ pencils for “The Sleepwalker from the Sea!”. While it seems unlikely that Giordano, working in a freelance capacity on this story, would have made any significant contributions to the plot, it’s at least possible — especially if the other creators expressed any concerns about whether the Sea King’s guilt over killing an innocent scientist would be enough, on its own, to unhinge his mind. Could Giordano have suggested the idea of drawing on Aquaman’s rage and grief over Mera’s disappearance as additional mental stressors? For sure, the depiction of the hero’s mental state by Steve Skeates and Jim Aparo back in Aquaman #42 had impressed me with how the guy barely seemed to be keeping it together.
Perhaps it was some combination of these factors, or none of them, that led Haney and company to tie BatB #79 into the “Quest for Mera”; however it happened, however, Haney’s use here of material developed by his successors on Aquaman suggests to me that he didn’t have any hard feelings over having lost that particular assignment. That doesn’t seem to have always been the case in regards to similar situations in later years, based on statements Haney made in published letters or in interviews — so it would be nice to think it was true in this instance.
But getting back to the matter of our poor Atlantean monarch’s disturbed psyche, and the question posed by his buddy Batman on page 15 – how, indeed, “does one wash the mind of a… Sea King?”
Yep, a single therapy session under the influence of a psychoactive drug, and Aquaman’s as right as rain again. But that’s pretty typical of the way mental illness was treated (in both senses of that word) in the comic books of the Silver Age. (Exhibit B: Norman Osborn.)
Yep — Batman actually had the gall to call on the young woman Bruce Wayne treated so shabbily earlier in the issue, Honor Whatshername, to help him out by impersonating Mera. Not cool, Caped Crusader. Did that kiss-off sting a bit? If so, it serves you right, IMHO.
But wait — if Dr. Link was being impersonated by Jim Gordon, what happened to the real Dr. Link? Or was there even a real Dr. Link to begin with? Batman told us he had a “hunch” Orm Marius was behind the whole thing, but where’s the proof? I’m sure we’d all like to know the answers to these questions — but if Bob Haney knew what they were, he didn’t bother to tell us readers — not on this page, nor on any of the ones that follow, all the way up through the conclusion of the story. Damn.
The fully-recovered Aquaman is now ready to go after Ocean Master and help Batman and the GCPD smash his criminal enterprise — but there’s a catch:
Breathing device or no, Batman is still vulnerable to the depredations of Ocean Master’s aquatic beasties. When he’s snagged by an octopus tentacle, Aquaman manages to exert just enough telepathic control to make one of the sharks bite the cephalopod, which releases the Caped Crusader. Batman then returns the favor by squirting some black dye into the tank from another compartment in “that fantastic utility belt of his”, hoping it’ll provide cover for him and the Sea King to escape — but, in the very next moment…
If this story was being produced today, its creators would probably try to find a way for the heroes to get out of this jam without causing harm (or death) to the poor innocent sea creatures — after all, they’re supposed to be Aquaman’s pals, right? In 1968, however, Haney and Adams took a rather different tack:
Orm’s abandonment of the wounded Ailsa is dastardly, of course — but it’s also consistent with how romantic relationships have fared throughout this whole story (with the notable exception of the love between Aquaman and the absent Mera, which is, of necessity, more spoken of than actually seen).
Our heroes and their police allies break through the hatch just as Ocean Master’s craft is submerging. One of the officers manages to get off a shot with his bazooka, but…
As both Aquaman and his half-brother sink out of sight (and range), Batman tells a fuming Gordon to chill; he’s sure that the Sea King will manage to bring his evil sibling to justice, someday, somehow: “There’s a different ‘law’ for them… Ocean Master will pay for his crimes in their world!” And besides, they stopped Orm from looting the marine development the way he’d planned, so really, they can call the whole thing a win. “I suppose you’re right… as usual, Batman!” the Commish grudgingly allows. But what of the lovely, if perfidious, Miss Ailsa Dubois?
Wow… talk about an ambivalent ending, at least in the emotional sense. I suspect that the complexity of Ailsa’s response to Batman’s offer of help mostly went over my eleven-year-old head in December, 1968; today, however, it impresses me with its nigh-adult sophistication — or, at least, with something that’s as close to sophistication as mainstream American comic books ever came in the late Sixties. It’s a conclusion that helps elevate this story well above the average, allowing it to stand as one of the best Bob Haney-Neal Adams collaborations — a well-done superhero crime story that, despite its plot’s loose ends (not to mention its naive approach to mental health treatment) holds up pretty well a half century after its release.
The Ocean Master’s appearance in Brave and the Bold #82 was, of course, far from his last. He’d make his return roughly one year later; and when he did, Neal Adams would once again be involved.
In the lead story of Aquaman #50, written by Steve Skeates, drawn by Jim Aparo, and edited by Dick Giordano, Ocean Master turns up on Aquaman’s Atlantean doorstep to warn him of a forthcoming alien attack. It appears that Orm has somehow regained his memory of being Aquaman’s half-brother, and has had a resulting change of heart towards his previous arch-foe. But how has this startling change come about?
For the answer to that question, readers had only to turn to the same issue’s backup feature — the first installment of a new “Deadman” serial, written and pencilled by Adams, and inked as well as edited by Giordano. In this story, the living spirit of murdered aerialist Boston Brand enters the body of the costumed pirate, and upon realizing that part of Orm’s mind is closed off from his control. breaks through the mental blockage that has prevented Ocean Master from remembering his past — including his relationship with the Sea King.
These dual, complementary storylines played out over the next two issues of Aquaman; and at the conclusion of both, Ocean Master was left with his regained memories intact. But he was still a bad guy; and, over time, his newfound fraternal affection for his half-brother ebbed. (Which, when you get down to it, is rather more realistic than Haney’s original notion of “he’s my brother, so I can’t fight him” — which essentially reduced the sibling relationship to a sort of psychological Kryptonite.)
This version of Orm, however, essentially died with the rest of DC’s “Earth-One” in the publisher’s 1985-86 Crisis on Infinite Earths crossover event. In the new continuity which followed, Aquaman and Ocean Master were still half-brothers; but, as chronicled by writer Peter David in the Aquaman: Time and Tide miniseries (1994), they were now both sons of an Atlantean father. This origin was revised yet again with DC’s 2011 line-wide reboot, the “New 52”, which made the two men sons of the same Atlantean mother. What both of these origins have in common, however — and what distinguishes them from the character’s initial conception — is that the familial connection between villain and hero now comes through their Atlantean, rather than their human, side. This, essentially, is the version of Orm which has appeared in adaptations into other media over the last few decades — including 2018’s Aquaman feature film, in which King Orm/Ocean Master is portrayed by Patrick Wilson.
I have to admit to having mixed feelings about how DC reinvented Ocean Master, post-Crisis. On one hand, there are obvious advantages to having Orm be fully, or even half, Atlantean — giving him the ability to breathe underwater, and super-strength besides, makes him both a more natural and a more formidable foe for our aquatic superhero. More importantly, the theme of two royal brothers vying for the throne is a classic one with proven appeal, with a cultural resonance that even aspires to the mythic (a notion that Peter David leaned into in another ’90s miniseries, The Atlantis Chronicles, in which he revealed that such fraternal conflict had occurred over and over again throughout all of Atlantean history).
On the other hand, the very familiarity of the rival-royal-brothers theme can work against it, making it seem overfamiliar, even trite; as I’ve seen pointed out in numerous places online, its use in the Aquaman movie — which is likely to be seen by millions more people than have ever read an Aquaman comic — may well remind many viewers of the similar rivalry between Thor and Loki in Marvel Studios’ films. Meanwhile, there’s something very appealing — at least to me — about the original, fully human Ocean Master; a guy without any super powers whatsoever, whose resentment of his more-than-human sibling runs so deep that it survives an almost-total memory loss, and ultimately leads him to challenge said sibling for the right to be called King of the Seven Seas — with nothing but his wits and his will to get him there.
Maybe I’ll change my mind after I see the movie (I hear it’s pretty good); but for today, at least, I think I prefer Bob Haney’s version of Orm.
As noted at the beginning of this post, Brave and the Bold #82 was the fourth issue produced by the team of Bob Haney and Neal Adams. It also represents the effective midpoint of their run, as Adams would leave the book rather abruptly following issue #86 — simultaneously taking his “new” vision of the Darknight Detective with him, to inform his future work on the Batman and Detective titles, while also leaving it behind, as a model for his successors on BatB — who would include both Nick Cardy and Jim Aparo, among others — to follow.
But before leaving the title, Neal Adams had one more contribution to make to another established superhero’s virtual reinvention — a makeover that was almost as dramatic as that which the artist was in the midst of performing for Batman.
Most readers of this blog will already know which hero, and makeover, I’m talking about. But if you don’t (or, hey, even if you do), come back in around six months. I promise I’ll tell you all about it then.