Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

Sea Devils, rebooted! Do you care deeply?

As  I mentioned a couple of weeks back, the comics landscape changed a lot between the start of the Silver Age and 1965. It’s no surprising some characters had to change with the times, for example the Sea Devils. Even though they’d debuted in Showcase just five years earlier, they were looking dated by 1965.

When they first appeared, it was still reasonable to think a non-superhero adventure team could support their own comic. In point of fact, the Sea Devils did exactly that, with a series that ran from 1961 to 1967. That’s a lot longer than Hank Pym’s strip lasted in Tales to Astonish.

“The Golden Monster” introduced us to four scuba divers, each with a personal reason for embracing life under water. Dane Dorrance aspires to live up to the legend of his WW II frogman father, who appeared as team mentor in a couple of their early stories. Biff Bailey’s a musclebound lug, but in the ocean he can be graceful. Beautiful Judy Walton knows that as a diver she’s expected to pull her weight, rather than being treated as a pretty bauble. Her kid brother Nicky gets to be an equal with the adults instead of being told he’s too young to do anything. It’s similar to creator Robert Kanigher’s set-up for the original Suicide Squad, all of whom had deeply personal motives for taking on risky missions.

When the quartet meet in their first adventure, they agreed to form the Sea Devils, a team of heroes for hire long before Luke Cage. The early issues took that aspect seriously, showing the team struggling to land paying gigs and really struggling when they had to replace their shattered boat, the Sea Witch. Within a couple of years, however, they were taking on special assignments for the government just like the Suicide Squad might; presumably they got paid (they had no trouble buying new boats) but the subject never came up. A new reader could easily assume they were doing it out of pure heroism.Sea Devils #22, “Operation Sea Terror,” by an unknown writer, penciller Howard Purcell and inker Sheldon Moldoff, shifts the team into unambiguous super-hero mode. The opening shows the “all-new Sea Devils” have united diving clubs around the world into the International Sea Devils, dedicated to finding and fighting menaces across the Seven Seas. As you can see, instead of the waterfront shop the Sea Devils used to hang out of, they now have a Fortress of Scuba Diving——inside a statue of Neptimus, allegedly the original skin diver (as scuba diving was routinely called back in those days). Not only can they afford this high-tech lair, they also have multiple new vehicles including a hovercraft and the “Crab” device shown on the splash page (see further down).

In past issues, the Sea Devils have routinely run into monsters, sea gods, curses and lost civilizations; now they’re actively looking for threats to fight. Sikki, an Indian diver, reports one. He recently witnessed a clash between Captain X, master of a hammerhead shark-shaped submarine, and Man-Fish, a green-skinned underwater shapeshifter. Man-Fish blames Captain X for his condition; Captain X opposes Man-Fish’s plan to regain his humanity via the magical Coral Jade. Sikki’s worried a feud between the two will tear the oceans apart.By Sea Devils standards, these aren’t unusual foes — they battled another shapeshifter just a couple of issues earlier — but the way they’re handled is. Captain X is actually Dane’s long-lost father (a minor retcon, ignoring his early appearances). Captured post-WW II by the sub’s Nazi crew, he accidentally triggered a device that gave him immortality, as long as he stays inside the sub; leave and he dies (the Nazis abandoned ship before they became trapped too).

Man-Fish was once playboy Juan Vallambrosa. Encountering the sub while scuba-diving, he tried to board, which exposed himself to a different radiation, transforming him into a pissed-off Sub-Mariner clone with the serial numbers filed off (who can blame him for being pissed? All that filing had to hurt!). As you can see, Judy/Dane — a romance that was there, but not played up much — is now Man-Fish/Judy/Dane, modeled on Namor/Sue/Reed.

The writer also mined Marvel by amping up the personal conflict. Dane, for example, doesn’t tell anyone about Captain X’s true identity; there’s no reason for this other than adding to the drama. Like the Fantastic Four, the team now argue constantly. Over the course of the issue Dane chides Biff for clumsiness, Nicky for playing practical jokes and Judy for dreaming of a movie career instead of focusing on work. While Dane’s off having bonding time with dad, Man-Fish flatters the other three and convinces them to help him. Unlike a good FF story, however, the team comes off less as rounded characters and more as a trio of nincompoops with Dane the only capable one.

Oh, there was a plot too, did I forget to mention that? The Coral Jade belongs to Horro, an undersea squid-god who wears it on his chest. Captain X warns Dane that not only will it not cure Man-Fish, stealing it will make Horro very, very cranky. By the time the other Sea Devils learn this is correct, it’s—too late!

Fortunately Captain X saves the team, and Man-Fish, from Horro. However he and Man-Fish are still at war, Man-Fish is still into Judy, Dane’s keeping his father’s secret — more drama ahead, Marvelites — er, DC-ites!

This reboot isn’t as bad as I made it sound. It’s not great, but I love Captain X’s sub and I remember the personal drama getting more polished in subsequent issues (I’ll soon find out if I’m right). As to whether it worked commercially, it’s hard to say. DC cancelled Sea Devils in 1967, so maybe it didn’t; then again, the series lasted until 1967, so maybe it did (Rip Hunter, Time Master didn’t make it that far).

Next week, the Incredible Hulk transitions from monster to super-antihero!

#SFWApro. Showcase cover by Russ Heath, all other art by Purcell.


      1. Greg Burgas

        When you hover over them with the cursor, there’s a box in the corner that opens a side window and shows similar image stuff on Bing. I don’t know if it’s a new automatic feature or if I just never noticed it before, as it’s clear you didn’t do anything different! 🙂

          1. Le Messor

            Greg, that’s not happening for me either. You might have a Bing virus on your device.

            As others say, though, it may be a browser thing. Or depend on your type of device. Looking at John King’s comment, maybe you should ask the creator of ‘Comics You Should Own’ how he did it? 😀

          2. Greg Burgas

            Not a dreaded Bing virus!!!!!

            That guy is never any help, though.

            I guess it’s a browser thing. I’m not using a new one, but maybe I got an “upgrade.” I just wasn’t sure if Fraser did it himself, but I guess it’s just an automatic thing.

          3. Le Messor

            He always acts like he already knows everything you know.

            Probably an ‘upgrade’, and an automatic thing. I’m using Firefox on a PC, fwiw.

  1. Le Messor

    ‘Do You Care Deeply?’
    Hah. Hah. 🙂

    I’m pretty sure I’ve never read an issue of Sea Devils, so as a non-fan, no. But I hate it when something I enjoy gets completely changed, usually into something unrecognisable, to chase after a different audience – say, the trend in the 2000s to make superhero and fantasy stories appeal to a mass market by sucking out all the fantasy.

    So I don’t like the idea, and feel sorry for those who’ve invested in the original only to have the rug pulled out from under them. I keep saying, ‘if I think it’s wrong when it’s done 2 me but right when it’s done 4 me, all I’ve done is double my standards’.

    (I also got frustrated when people kept saying ‘see, we’ve got the normals reading fantasy now!’ Uh, no. They’ve got us reading historical fiction; just because the countries have unfamiliar names doesn’t make it fantasy.)

    1. I hate fantasy stories where the fantasy element is easily removed. I rarely finish them.
      I don’t think the All New Sea Devils would have been unrecognizable back in the day. I certainly didn’t notice until I started reading in sequence (I have a number of back issues but picked up randomly).

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