DC Comics History: Sea Devils
By Deejay Dayton
Jul 2, 2017 - 18:55
The Sea Devils, an updating of the Frogmen concept, made their debut during the period 1960 – 1964: the Silver Age. After a tryout run in Showcase the team moved into their own book. A group of adventurous divers, the real draw at the start was quite simply Russ Heath’s art.
The Sea Devils make their first appearance in Showcase 27, as Robert Kanigher and Russ Heath reveal their origin. Dane Dorrance is the central character, and will become the leader of the team.
He is the son of a heroic wartime frogman, and longs to do something impressive to earn his father's prize flippers, awarded to him for his actions during the war. Dane sets out to find a treasure ship, and along the way meets Judy Walton, also looking for the same ship. They bond while fighting a shark. Judy is an aspiring actress, hoping for a role in the movie Sea Devils. She is hunting for the treasure to make the news, and ensure herself a part in the film.
She even suggests Dane audition. But Dane is more concerned with finding the ship. The pair of them do, and have a jolly old time playing around in it, until an octopus attacks.
They get rescued by yet another treasure hunting diver, Biff Bailey, wanting the treasure to impress his girlfriend. Then things just go nuts, with a sea monster showing up, and the three working together to kill it. Judy has a younger brother, Nicky, who aided the group while staying aboard the raft.
But since every team needs four people, and a kid is almost a requirement, Nicky winds up becoming a founding member of the Sea Devils, out to hunt for treasure and be "underwater trouble shooters."
There were two Sea Devils stories in Showcase 28. The first story follows up on the prize flippers notion. Dane Dorrance's father offers Dane the flippers for his actions in the previous issue. But as Dane is now part of a team, he believes that everyone should have the right to a chance at them. But though Biff Bailey and Judy Walton are pleased by the opportunity to win the flippers, for Nicky it is a child's dream. So even though each of the three perform some really impressive acts on their competition, each lies and claims not to have, so that Nicky will win.
Nicky catches on to this, insisting that not all three of them could have had dives without something incredibly exciting happening. As he insists that he doesn't want to win by default, a giant whale attacks the ship. The other three get tossed into the water, and Nicky takes control of the ship and rams the whale repeatedly. It would be a terrifying scene in reality. Nicky drives the poor whale away, probably to die. But Nicky wins the flippers.
The Sea Devils officially go into business in the second story, and get a wild adventure. The team starts by rescuing a girl from a really scary giant turtle. It turns out that the girl is telepathically linked to her scientist father, who has vanished. The Sea Devils go in search of him, but wind up getting captured and brought to an underwater city, and imprisoned.
An undersea race is planning to build a rocket bomb to wipe out the surface world. They have captured scientists and endowed them with telepathic powers, in order to drain their brains of their knowledge. The Sea Devils resort to thinking in pig latin in order to plot their escape, and overthrow their attackers, destroying the rocket.
Such an amazing cover for Showcase 29, the last tryout issue for the Sea Devils. The lead story features the Sea Devils battling against a giant who looks like Poseidon, riding a giant seahorse. The story is kind of silly, involving aliens, but it looks wonderful. The team discover the giant when he spears their ship from below, a terrifying scene. The giant turns out to be from Venus, an exiled ruler. The brother of the ruler lets the Sea Devils know what is going on, which is good, or the reader and the characters would have been lost. The team just bomb the guy to bits, and eventually he dies. That's a real shame. The battle with him is over waaay too soon, and he's exactly the kind of villain I would have wanted to see again.
The final tryout story pits the Sea Devils against a rival sea diving team, the Black Mantas. The Sea Devils begin the story by saying goodbye to their ship, wrecked when the guy speared it in the previous story. The Sea Devils enter an underwater scavenger hunt in order to win a new boat. But the Black Mantas enter as well. Is there such a thing as an evil scuba diving team?
Well, there is in this story, and though the Sea Devils find some cool things, they keep losing them. Curiously, for the purposes of the story, the Mantas are not behind this. But they do steal the boat that is the prize. The Sea Devils stop them, and free the guy running the contest.
So the guy just forgets about any other team that might be in the contest, and awards the boat to the Sea Devils. Well, at lest they got a snazzy new ship. The final panel sees the Sea Devils make a direct plea to the reader to write in if they want to see the team again.
Just under a year after the end of their tryout run in Showcase, the Sea Devils move into their own book. There are two stories in the issue. The cover story has the team performing in a movie. That's appropriate, as it was Judy's quest to be an actress that more or less brought the team together, and gave them their name, in their first Showcase story. The director has a big Octopus Man prop, and claims that this is a legendary sea monster, although not one anyone has ever heard of. The first day's shooting goes well, although it is mostly improvised underwater battles against sharks.
The second day, the real Octopus Man shows up, complete with an octopus on a leash. He seems less than pleased with the use of his likeness, and attacks his phony double, and the Sea Devils as well. The Octopus Man does look great, he's the best thing in the issue. At the end of the story, the team lure the creature into an area of underwater quicksand, and he sinks into it and disappears. Underwater quicksand sounds very suspicious to me. Does such a thing really exist?
The second story is even less plausible. The tale seems inspired by Moby Dick, although the whale that everyone is after in this outing is called the Emerald Whale. The whale is so old that the Vikings were also after her, and a hundred years earlier Captain Shark tried to kill it, but both he and the whale got sealed up in an iceberg. Captain Shark wound up preserved in the ice, so in this story, when the Sea Devils find the iceberg and it cracks open, both the whale and the killer captain are still alive. There is a treasure associated with the whale, although that turns out to be a golden harpoon.
Later in the story, it's called an emerald harpoon, which sort of makes more sense, with the whale being called an Emerald Whale. Although how one would make a harpoon out of an emerald is puzzling. But logic is not what this story is all about anyway. Captain Shark tries to kill the Sea Devils, but they neutralize his one hundred year old submarine by encircling it with a giant electric eel. Then the whale comes along and eats the sub whole.
The cover story from Sea Devils 2 features a foreign spy, Mr. Neptune, who lures Dane Dorrance, Biff Baily, Judy and Nicky Walton to his lab, where he uses a shrink ray on the team, and then bottles them up. The Sea Devils are so small that even amoebae are a deadly threat, but they find a way out through a minute opening in the cork.
Mr. Neptune might look evil, and have a cool name, but he really isn't an impressive foe, despite his shrink ray. The team take him down by dropping a bottle on his head while he searches the floor for the group. Then they enlarge themselves. Many years later Mr. Neptune would return under the name Mr. Poseidon.
The second story deals with Pappy, a trained seal that the Sea Devils befriend. Pappy was born in captivity, and is a trained performer, but the Sea Devils feel the seal would never be able to survive in the wild. But as the team sail off to their next performance, with Pappy on board, a storm causes the seal to fall into the ocean.
The Sea Devils dive in to try to rescue Pappy, but the seal uses the tricks it has learned to outwit predators. When Pappy encounters a school of wild seals he winds up fighting and defeating the alpha, taking control of the entire group of seals. Pappy bids farewell to the Sea Devils, and heads off with his new pack. Although this feels far more like a one shot character than a recurring one, Pappy did return.
We see Pappy next in Sea Devils 10. There is some great art at the top of this story, as we meet the god Neptune, and his little mermaid cheerleader. Despite opening the tale, Neptune's role is actually quite small, and he only returns towards the end of the issue. The main thrust of the story deals with a liar's club. Each of the four members of the Sea Devils, Dane Dorrance, Biff Bailey, Judy and Nicky Walton, tell a brief story, but each gets laughed off the stage, as their tales are far too unbelievable. Then, over the remainder of the tale, each one's story comes true. Poppy appears very briefly in Judy's segment, about how the seal (called a sea lion in this story) saves them from a giant octopus.
Corky talks about fighting pirates in an underwater ghost town, and Biff's story involves Martian canals. Biff's segment even winds up having the Sea Devils compete in a Martian version of the liar's club. Dane's tale had him shaking the hand of Neptune, and when the Sea Devils wind up coming to the aid of the Roman god, who is having a very hard time avoiding depth charges, he has that come true as well. With proof of their stories, they return to the Deep Six Liar's Club, but they still lose, as their stories are no longer lies.
Pappy makes his final appearance in Sea Devils 12. The story deals with the most coveted award for skin diving, the Golden Davy. Dane Dorrance, Biff Bailey and Judy Walton are each awarded one at the top of the story, with flashbacks about the daring achievements they pulled off to win them. Pappy's appearance occurs during Judy's flashback, and is actually the chronologically earliest appearance of Poppy, as well as his final appearance, publication-wise. Corky Baxter is miserable that he has not won a Davy, and sets out to do so.
Through the bulk of the tale each of the other Sea Devils does their best to have Corky pull off some great achievement, even if this means lying, or leaving themselves intentionally out of the action. But Corky realizes what the others are trying to do, and this just makes him even more unhappy. At the climax of the tale the other three members of the Sea Devils fall victim to a weird magnetic monster, and signal Corky for help.
At first, Corky does not believe in the situation, thinking they are just trying to set him up for an award. But once Corky figures out the threat is real, he manages to set off a torpedo that destroys the creature, and winds up winning a Davy as the story ends.
Sea Devils 6 was the first one to contain a book length story. A mysterious stranger comes by and shows the members of the Sea Devils some pictures, starting with Biff Bailey. He sees himself in the illustration, battling underwater against ancient Romans. Biff abruptly finds himself transported back in time, where he meets Cleopatra, and helps her fight against the Romans. It's really unclear as to when exactly this is meant to take place. It's certainly not the Battle of Actium, because Cleopatra's forces win. When the fight is all over, Biff finds himself back with the others, and no longer in the picture. For the remainder of the story, the same basic thing happens again and again.
Judy Walton sees herself aiding Ulysses against the Sirens, and then winds up doing so. Nicky Walton's chapter drops the quasi-historical element completely, as he aids mermaids riding giant sea horses. Dane Dorrance sees himself fighting a three headed sea monster, and the entire team wind up taking part in this adventure.
When they come back, they toss the mysterious man out. And that ends the story, with no real explanation at all as to how this all happened, or what the man was trying to accomplish. Yes, it all looks beautiful. But the visuals are just not enough for me on this strip.
In Sea Devils 13 writer France Herron begins an unusual series of linked stories, which will run through the next two issues. As is billed on the cover, this is for a reader's poll to detemine who draws the Sea Devils the best. The logical inference from this is that, now that Russ Heath has departed the book, DC is testing out who to replace him with. While that might have been the intention, in reality it would be Howard Purcell and Sheldon Moldoff who would wind up taking over the art, despite not being one of the teams competing.
In a very entertaining touch, the artists themselves appear in their chapters, beginning with Joe Kubert, who drops by to introduce himself to Dane Dorrance, Biff Bailey, Judy and Nicky Walton. Judy thinks Kubert is cute. Kubert's chapter is by far the best. Because, you know, it's Kubert. But it is also one of the better stories, as we learn that Dane Dorrance's ancestor, Captain English, was a sailor fighting against pirates just after the American Revolution. Oddly, he spells the name of his ship "Honor," although I doubt that weird spelling had already been adopted in the US at this time.
The second chapter is by Gene Colan, who goes scuba diving to meet the Sea Devils and introduce himself. This story sends the Sea Devils back in time, as they aid the ancient Greeks against an invading Persian fleet. Colan's art really surprises me, as it bears virtually no resemblance to the distinctive style he would develop later on.
Ross Andru and Mike Esposito get airlifted onto the Sea Devil's ship for the third and final chapter in this issue. It's a very Andru and Esposito tale as well, which sees the Sea Devils kidnapped by alien fishermen. Before they manage to escape, they discover that the crew of the Marie Celeste were taken the same way.
The god Neptune returns in the cover story from issue 14, which is drawn by Irv Novick. As with the previous issue, the artists themselves show up in the tales, meeting Dane Dorrance, Judy and Nicky Walton, and Biff Bailey. The Sea Devils are attending a big sea carnival, when they get pulled into a battle between Hercules and Neptune. Hercules needs to defeat Neptune in order to achieve god-dom, and has been granted giant size, and the ability to breathe underwater, in order to be able to challenge him. The Sea Devils intervene on the side of the sea god, but also appease Hercules, whose feats are impressive enough to win him an award from the carnival.
Jack Abel provides the art on the second story. The Sea Devils are having a charity race in order to raise money for the Junior Sea Devils, competing against a nasty scientist who has trained sea creatures, including a merman. The sea creatures win the three rounds of the race against the men, but the Merman intentionally loses the final leg against Judy. This pisses off the scientist, who decides to try to kill the team, but just winds up blowing up his own submarine.
Irv Novick does the art on Sea Devils 15, which introduces the father of Judy and Nicky Walton. Professor Walton is a scientist who has developed a new submarine, but on a test voyage, it and the crew go missing. Irv Novick shows up, announcing that he will be drawing this issue. This is the last time that the artist pops up in the story, and also the last issue by Novick. The submarine was designed to go deeper than other subs. In order to hunt for it, Dane Dorrance, Biff Bailey, and Judy and Nicky Walton allow themselves to be genetically altered to become more like fish.
This does not have any obvious visual effects, which is sort of a shame, as it permanently changes the Sea Devils. They find the submarine trapped in the web of a giant underwater spider, and thanks to their ability to withstand the pressures of the deep, they are able to break the submarine free, and defeat the spider. After this, Howard Purcell and Sheldon Moldoff take over the art, which removes the only thing I even vaguely like about this series.
Sea Devils continues in the next period, 1964 – 1967: the New Look.
Sea Devils: Showcase 27 - 29 (July/Aug – Nov/Dec 60)
Sea Devils 1 – 16 (Sept/Oct 61 – Mar/April 64)
Next up – Cave Carson!
DC Comics History: Sea Devils