This one would have been an impulse purchase, I think, when it arrived at my local 7-11. I wasn’t reading BRAVE AND THE BOLD religiously, though I had picked up a number of the recent issues. Typically, it would all depend on who the guest star was, because I’d worked out that the style of story typically feature in the book’s pages wasn’t entirely to my liking. I wasn’t ever a huge fan of Aquaman, and at this point I hadn’t read artist Jim Aparo’s earlier stint on the character, so I wasn’t motivated by nostalgia particularly. So I expect I just grabbed this book because it was there, pretty much. It was a solid and entertaining enough choice, though I don’t know that I’ve looked at again since.
The reason I didn’t love BRAVE AND THE BOLD really boiled down to the very personal and offbeat story instincts of writer Bob Haney. We’ve spoken in the past about how certain writers in the 1970s tended to try to write Batman as a sort of weird gimmick detective–rather than being Greek and sucking on a lollipop he wore a full Bat costume, one that he wore everywhere, even on commercial flights. Haney steered into this interpretation more than most, and though his plots tended to be a bit more ripped from the headlines than most, his execution of those plots could always be counted upon to be somewhat daffy. So his work can be very entertaining if you can engage with it on its own level. As a reader of 11, though, that wasn’t always an easy thing for me to do.
The iron man of BRAVE AND THE BOLD was artist Jim Aparo, who always made each story look its best, regardless of how ridiculous the events of it were. This particular job looks especially cool and crisp to me, with some excellent coloring from DC mainstay Jerry Serpe. I don’t know whether Aparo himself was feeling any nostalgia at being reunited with the Sea King he had worked on in the past, but judging from the results, I wouldn’t be surprised. Aparo was a rare artist who not only penciled and inked his work, but lettered it as well–one completed page a day every work day every calendar year, barring holidays and paid vacation. He was so rock-solid steady that a clock could be set to him.
This story opens with Batman tracking down a drug ring, as he often does. He’s working his way up the chain of command, with each lower-placed pusher pointing the fearsome crusader to his boss further up the chain. But his next stop, Digger Fallon, is in the wind, and the only clue the Gotham Guardian can find is a reference to the ship the Alhambra, which sank years before. Investigating further, Batman learns that something mysterious had happened on the Alhambra, with a stowaway who managed to make it off the ship and the Captain in cahoots with whatever oddity was happening. With no other option open to him, Batman decides to attempt to deep sea dive down to the wreck of the Alhambra and try to recover the ship’s log, which may hold the answer to its connection to the drug trade.
So down into the deep Batman goes–but as he searches, he finds his efforts being thwarted and stymied by a bunch of different fish. But the obsessive crime-fighter isn’t so easily dissuaded from the trail of justice, and so he perseveres–only to be assaulted by a scuba team of killers from the Drug Cartel. And now the fish come to the Masked Manhunter’s aid, as does their master Aquaman and his wife, Mera. But Aquaman is determined to keep Batman away from the wreck as well, for reasons that are unclear. The bad guys are more than happy to shoot at three super heroes just as readily as one, so Aquaman and Mera find themselves drawn into the larger conflict as well. They’re after the lost log of the ship as well, and Aquaman means for that book’s secrets to stay buried.
Over the course of pages, Batman is able to work his way into the stricken old ship and access the safe containing the log–but the Alhambra was carrying combustive chemicals and will detonate at any moment. This doesn’t slow down Aquaman, who is relentless in trying to get the lost log away from his JLA comrade. Especially given that they outnumber Batman and are fighting in their native environment, you would think this would not be difficult. But Batman is able to reach the surface, where the tables turn and the odds are more in his favor. Eventually, after a pounding at the Caped Crusader’s hands, Aquaman relents.
And then the truth comes out. Aquaman was concerned that the sinking of the Alhambra was the fault of his father, the lighthouse keeper. Actually, that balloon looks to my eye to have been rewritten after the fact, and I suspect that Haney’s original story called for Aquaman’s father to be the captain of the ship. But somebody, possibly editor Paul Levitz, realized that this would have violated the established continuity and so made this adjustment. It isn’t a perfect fix, but it’s workable enough. Ultimately, though, the log exonerates Aquaman’s dad, and points to the stowaway as being the Mr. Big of the drug trade. And his identity was–To Be Continued! I don’t know that there could be much of any name in that book that would have felt compelling to me, apart from something out of left field (“Thomas Wayne?!”) But this ending did create something of a cliffhanger to try to bring readers back the next issue. And I did come back, so apparently it worked.
The letters page in this issue is noteworthy in that I believe this would have been the first that I heard about the upcoming DC Explosion. We’ll see more about this in the days to come, but the gist is that it was getting to be time for another price increase, and rather than simply going up to 40 cents, much as they’d tried earlier in the 70s, DC intended to increase the size of all of their books and retail them at 50 cents, adding back-up features in most cases. In BRAVE AND THE BOLD, the back-up series would be the Human Target, a character I hadn’t yet encountered before. Ultimately, the DC Explosion turned out poorly for the company, resulting in a severe reduction of its title count and the loss of jobs–but we’ll get to all of that as it gets here to us.