Aquaman: The Underrated Hero
By now, we all know the jokes. What comic fan doesn’t? Aquaman being useless is as timeless a stereotype in funny-book circles as you could imagine. The fact that these jokes have become the proverbial dead horse that everyone likes to take a turn at beating hasn’t apparently registered with most people, who continue to make them anyway. Part of the reason for that, at least in this writer’s opinion, is that aside from a few sporadic appearances in shows like Justice League Unlimited, Young Justice and of course Batman: The Brave and the Bold, most people simply aren’t that familiar with the Sea King outside of his Super-Friends incarnation. As a result, it’s easy to see why people might wonder precisely what it is his stories have to offer that other superhero books don’t. How, after all, can you make a guy whose primary powers are that he swims really well and can chat about the weather with the local sea life interesting?
Pretty easily, it turns out. In fact, with the right storyteller at the helm, Aquaman has the potential to be one of the most fascinating and absorbing characters DC currently publishes. While his powers are often rather badly misconstrued by the general comic-reading populace, that isn’t really the point of this article. Instead, we’ll be looking at what makes him interesting, and what sort of things a writer could delve into in order to create an Aquaman story that’d blow other graphic novels out of the water – and yes, there’ll be a lot of aqueous puns involved, so brace yourself.
Before we continue with our exploration of the primary factors that make him appealing, however, let’s first look at Aquaman’s publication history and origin stories. His Golden Age origin, now defunct, was first published in More Fun Comics #73 in November of 1941,one of many anthology comics the company that would eventually become DC produced at the time. His creators, Mort Weisinger and Paul Norris, appear to have settled on the concept in order to present a fictional response to the very real threat of German U-boats during the war, though Arthur Curry soon evolved past those initial bounds. Throughout his initial appearances, his origin was a little odd; he was the son of a famous explorer who had used Atlantean science to adapt his child to undersea life, and who lived at the bottom of the ocean continuing his father’s research on the long-dead civilisation whose technology had enabled him to live there in the first place.
However, his most well-known origin story debuted during the Silver Age. Out went the scientific enhancements and war themes, and in came a revitalised Atlantis, no longer a dead civilisation but a fully alive and thriving one. Arthur was now the son of Thomas Curry, a lighthouse owner, and Atlanna, an Atlantean woman. His abilities, rather than being the product of high science, are therefore as natural as breathing air to a human being. Though this changed briefly in the 90’s, where he became a full-blooded Atlantean who’d merely been adopted by a human father, the Silver Age origin story proved popular enough to bring back into mainstream canon, being re-confirmed in the Brightest Day maxi-series of 2010. It even survived the mass reformatting that was the introduction of the New 52, despite radical retcons to many other characters whose readership was more widespread at the time. Now, with Arthur’s backstory out of the way and the driest part of our article done with, let’s get right into it!
The oceans are, in a word, enormous. They are so big, in fact, that sometimes it defies the imagination. Aquaman’s adventures primarily take place in a world we know almost nothing about; only 5% of the entirety of the ocean has ever been explored. There are trenches, deep beneath the surface, where even our most advanced and hard-wearing technology wouldn’t survive the pressure. Imagine, if you will, what might live down there, what sort of secrets could be found if we were only able to explore those depths, and what kind of stories can be told simply by using the fact that virtually nobody on Earth really knows what happens in the ocean. After all, isn’t that fact precisely what made Lovecraft’s sea-based stories so unnerving, that anything could be down there? Indeed, Geoff Johns made use of this very fact in the rebooted Aquaman series to great effect, introducing the Trench and demonstrating just how unprepared for that kind of threat the surface world actually was. Of course, having adventures in the ocean is all well and good, but sooner or later all that blue shading will get boring. It’s inevitable, really. However, the strongest Aquaman stories all have some relation to the surface world; Arthur is half-human, after all. A purely ocean-based Aquaman story, while often perfectly readable in and of itself, suffers due to the fact that humans do not themselves live under the ocean and therefore can’t imagine such a lifestyle easily. Once again, then, we have to turn to Geoff Johns’ work for an idea of how a balance between these two ideas can be achieved.
Johns, rather than starting his Aquaman run in Atlantis, instead stays on or close to land for the most part. By doing so, he shows Aquaman through a human lens, and when he introduces the Trench it is all the more horrifying because we see what effect their attacks have on land-based society – our society, in other words. Such an attack occurring underwater, or in the fictional realm of Atlantis itself, would simply not have the same impact, as we as an audience are much more easily accustomed to seeing stories from our perspective. However, while the mythical kingdom may not elicit so strong a reaction, the sight of hideous piranha-men bursting from the ocean and devouring innocent New England bystanders in a frenzy of violence? Now that gets a reaction all right. New England isn’t some near-mythical place brought out from the shadows of ancient Greek stories – well, as far as I’m aware, anyway – but a living, breathing place that many readers would be very familiar with indeed. As a result, the horror of the attack is grounded in the familiarity of the reader with the place in which it occurs.
There’s also the mythic factor of Atlantis to consider. Fantasy has become quite a bit more popular in mainstream society in recent years, partially due to the success of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series. Since the 90’s, if not in fact before, the Aquaman stories have had a very solid grounding in fantasy. How could they not? Atlantis is perhaps one of the most enduring of human myths, dating back to the time of the ancient Greeks. By definition, any tale featuring it as a central point has to step into the realms of fantasy sooner or later. Peter David, recognising these qualities, seemed to have a particular delight in introducing mythical beings as opponents for Aquaman, and his introduction of Tiamat is an excellent example of this. For those of you unfamiliar with Mesopotamian religious beliefs, Tiamat is a monster said to live in the ocean, a being that represents primordial chaos. In David’s hands, she becomes a near-godlike adversary for Aquaman, a foe that can truly test the might of the Sea King in his own element. Even Geoff Johns, for all the attention he gives to Arthur’s life on land, acknowledges and emphasises the character’s mythical nature. The second part of his Aquaman arc focusses on the search for Atlantean artefacts of immense power, items that essentially form a link to the traditions of mystic weapons in other cultures, such as the British myths of Excalibur and the island of Avalon.
Finally, there’s Arthur’s relationships with the people around him, the people with whom he shares his life both as a king and a superhero. Here the reboot falls down, in my opinion, so to examine what makes a good Aquaman story in this regard, we’ll have to turn to the work of other writers. One magnificent example can be found in the pages of Justice, a story written by Jim Krueger and drawn by Alex Ross. Unlike other heroes, Arthur is clearly totally at home in both his personal and heroic lives here. The usual cliché of hiding a secret identity really doesn’t apply; indeed, the tongue-in-cheek humour more or less relies on it. Mera interrupts his musings to inform him that “there’s a shark here to see you,” and tells him to have a fun time being a superhero in an obviously jokey fashion. The openness of this relationship, and the lack of the somewhat tired and boring status quo afforded by the need to keep his heroics a secret from the ones he loves, is something no good Aquaman story can afford to be without. Many writers, it seems, would agree; Peter David was more than happy to emphasise it, Geoff Johns seemed to have remarkable fun writing about Arthur and Mera’s home life and even Grant Morrison acknowledged it in his work on the 90’s JLA. Some of these writers have made extremely large revisions to Aquaman lore during their time with it, and when they feel that such an element cannot be jettisoned in their restructuring, it clearly has some serious weight when it comes to the depiction of the character. Instead of the more common hide-from-my-friends tale, what we instead read is the story of a hero and the people who support him and care for him, who fight alongside him when the going gets tough and who are there to catch him when he falls. Frankly, there’s a strong argument to be made for that kind of story being more satisfying than any reworking of the secret superhero cliché could ever be.
So what, in the end, is there to take away from all of this? Firstly, that the potential for Aquaman to be one of the most interesting titles DC can produce is great, and secondly that such potential rests on three facets of Aquaman lore. While the ocean offers near-limitless scope for a writer to get creative due to it’s unexplored state, there absolutely must be a link to the land, or else the reader will most likely be unable to really become invested in the story. References and links to mythology, whether that be through mystic artefacts or the reinterpretation of ancient gods, are also prevalent in great Aquaman stories. In many ways the character lends himself to these sorts of tales in a way that is only really rivalled in the DCU’s roster by Wonder Woman. Finally, and in this writer’s opinion, most importantly, the absolute best tales emphasise how his wife and friends react to and support his heroic nature, and how Aquaman never fights the good fight alone. Maybe after all this you, dear reader, still can’t bring yourself to read some of the many great tales out there featuring the Sea King. Maybe he still appears pretty lame to you, even now. Hey, that’s your right and privilege – but if so, you’d be missing out on one of the most compelling characters and some of the most engaging, triumphant and heartbreaking superhero stories ever produced.
What do you think? Leave a comment.