Aquaman: The Underrated Hero

Aquaman, as depicted in "Justice League"

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.

Golden Age Aquaman
Aquaman in his Golden Age incarnation

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 Silver Age Aquaman
Aquaman, as he famously appears in the Silver Age.

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.

Aquaman Vol. 3 #15
Aquaman comes face to face with Tiamat

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.

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Sean is a comic book devotee, and a pretty dedicated one at that. He is also an avid fan of slightly cheesy and very dated horror films, especially if they have huge monsters.

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  1. Jamie Tracy

    Kudos Sean.
    I appreciate your analysis/synopsis of Aquaman. I have always been a fan of his ever since I had his underoos as a kid. I find it disheartening that he has become a joke for so many readers and writers.
    I enjoy the direction The New 52 has taken him, particularly with his interactions with the Justice League. He and Wonder Woman have many similarities and I wish they would be explored more. It amazes me that Marvel can do no wrong with Thor but DC struggles to keep their myth based heroes relevant.(Wonder Woman, Hawkman and Aquaman).

    I’d also point new readers to his relaunched series in 2002 and the subsequent sinking of San Diego to become Sub Diego.

    By the way, I love the Batman: Brave and The Bold Aquaman. He is amazing.

    Well done Sean.

    • Sean Hodges

      Thanks very much for the kind words!
      I’d have to agree, while there are aspects of the New 52 Aquaman reboot I think should have been done differently, overall it’s been a solid read from start to finish. I think it’s probably Johns’ most solid work, at least in modern times, and I do like that even with the emphasis on “realism” there’s still room for magic and mysticism within his title.

      I couldn’t agree more about the DC/Marvel thing. Thankfully, keeping Wondy relevant is usually a fairly easy task – or it is as long as you assign her some good writers – but for the others it can be quite a struggle, and Aquaman has the additional disadvantage of having Super-Friends in his legacy.

  2. Liz Kellam

    I admit, I know less about Aquaman then the other Justice League members. Probably because I have read very few of the comics, but also since he is very underplayed in modern media. Like you stated, the other references made to Aquaman are usually jokes, and the Smallville Aquaman was laughable on grounds of acting. Maybe there needs to be a darker, gritter interpretation of him to get people interested, since that seems to be the current superhero theme.

    • Sean Hodges

      Well, I hope this article helped somewhat!

      I think, all in all, that if they were to bring Aquaman to the big screen they could do worse than to use the current run as it’s basis. It’s really solidly told and I believe it wouldn’t be too difficult to convert it to TV or film!

  3. Jemarc Axinto

    Still love the article :). While I have not read a ton of Aquaman (I’m more a Marvel fan myself) I greatly appreciate what I know about his lore. He’s certainly underrated and needs more Justice (pardon the pun) given to his character. Also, he’s my main on Injustice heheh =]. Good work!

  4. I love this! Thanks for providing all the history, the evolution of comic book characters is always interesting. My first introduction of the character was through Brave in the Bold. But there seems to be su much more to the character than I thought.I’ll be certain to check some comics of his in the future.

    • Sean Hodges

      Awesome, and no problem – discussing this sort of thing is what I love doing.

      If I may drop in some recommendations, Aquaman: Time and Tide is a fantastic little book, and basically serves as the gateway to the character’s 90’s reinvention. If you can get past the Silver Age storytelling, Aquaman: Death of a Prince is also great, and of course the New 52’s run has been consistently solid from a storytelling perspective.

  5. Ted Wilson

    I love how we live in a world where Aquaman has as many books out as Wonder Woman. On the other hand, it’s really sad that comics leading lady is only on par with what the mainstream sees as the biggest joke of a hero.

  6. I haven’t read any Aquaman comics before, but I’m interested. He seems more appealing than Superman IMO, I wish they’d release a comic of his with the art style of hawkeye’s.

  7. Awesome. It’s really great to see that characters like Aquaman are getting more importance.

  8. I loved The Others arc. Only problem is DC keeps adding books that I want to read and the wallet can’t take it.

  9. Sean, I appreciate your choice to shed light on Aquaman. I can agree that many comic lovers have a tendency to down play his character and I never knew his origin story until I read your article. Creating a fictionalized character to battle underwater submarines is an interesting fact. Would you consider writing a script for an Aquaman film? What would your plot be?

    • Sean Hodges

      Heck, if I was ever offered ANY kind of superhero script job I’d jump like a shot at the chance!

      As to an Aquaman story… well, there’s a few ways it could go, but I feel that, no matter what, it’d have to take place primarily near land, for the reasons I’ve stated in this article. That said, I wouldn’t mind seeing Aquaman in a more environmentally-conscious hero role, either, if someone could manage that with the right degree of subtlety.

  10. ScorpiusNox

    I gotta admit, I do very much enjoy the joke Aquaman that exists in myriad webcomics and on shows like Robot Chicken. Overplayed the puns may be, but I always get a kick out of ’em x) .

    That said, I’ve always been one to acknowledge that Aquaman has more worth as a superhero than the common citizen is inclined to give him, and I think you’ve done a great job of pointing that out here. That second-to-last paragraph especially resonates with me: so many heroes place so much importance and making sure that no one knows they’re heroes, so a hero who is who he is at home and during adventures has got to be an interesting change of pace.

    Sure, the argument that one’s loved ones are endangered when one’s “secret identity” isn’t secret does sorta hold up, but as fun and awesome as having superpowers must be, you’d think more characters would be forthright about it. I think we could stand to see more heroes like that.

    • Sean Hodges

      They’re a real guilty pleasure for some, and I don’t blame them. Sometimes they *are* actually quite funny!

      And I’d agree there! I mean, the argument for protecting loved ones with a hero’s anonymity is a very strong one, and there’s a good reason that sort of thing is used as much as it is. That said, when a hero’s loved ones are as physically powerful as the hero himself – and in the case of Aquaman’s wife, Mera, can actively control the water around her – you could argue that they face no greater amounts of danger than he does.

  11. BradleyGray

    I think DC is really starting the push to flesh out the other parts of the universe not Superman or Batman, maybe one day in this series when it syncs with the present, Aqualad takes up AC’s mantle with the others? Other heroes i wouldn’t mind seeing a secondary book would be Flash, WW and a damn MM solo book!!!

  12. Buchanan

    I was super stoked Aquaman was getting recognized and a well deserved second title, he’s definitely a favorite, but I’m bummed DC keeps cranking out titles for characters who already have titles. I would rather see a Martian Manhunter, Booster Gold, or (what Geoff Johns’ has hinted at) a Cyborg/Shazam! Team-Up book.

    Well, Sinestro getting his own title, so I guess I can’t complain.

  13. ive noticed that Aquaman is starting to becoming cooler over the years…good. I’ve always kinda liked him and thought he was a truly misunderstood character.

  14. I dropped aquaman after Geoff Johns left.

  15. Little Boyd

    I read the first volume of N52 Aquaman, and I very much enjoyed it. Still need to get caught up, but this new series will be a fun jumping on point I imagine.

    • Oh no!! U MUST READ THRONE OF ATLANTIS!!! That would be volume 3, dude best story to come out of the new 52 books IMO.

  16. Hopefully Zach Snyder gets to direct an Aquaman movie, his use of CGI and the fight scenes are really necessary for Aquaman.

    • Benjy Willz

      I think James Cameron would be a great choice as well just imagine if he could bring atlantis to life like he did with Avatar.

    • Sammy Cobb

      idk about Snyder directing it, but as far as casting goes, i honestly think Daniel Craig would make a pretty badass Aquaman despite his age.

    • An Aquaman movie would be awesome , but I don’t think Snyder needs to direct EVERY DC movie lol. (unless they get Geoff Johns to write the screenplay).

  17. Very well done. I enjoyed reading this article, especially the explanations and analyses of the different versions of Aquaman. I am going out to pick up an issue and read it because now I have something to consider while reading. I think you have shown a depth (no pun intended) to the Aquaman character which would prove literary value.

  18. cumminga

    aquaman is one of DCs best series

  19. Riviera Handley
    Riviera De TyTy

    Candidly, I have never heard of Aquaman, although I’ve never read a comic book, either. From a surfer’s vantage point, though, Aquaman is the best – he sounds pretty cool! I enjoyed your article, Sean, particularly paragraph five.


  20. WillSullivan

    I have had little exposure to Aquaman myself. I fell in love with the Brave and Bold incarnation and grew really upset when I cracked a new 52 Aquaman to find a hero that was dark and gritty. I understand why “realism” appeals to some but aren’t we getting tired of up. To me superheroes are their best when they are fantastical and live nowhere close to reality.

    If I were interested in reading some Aquaman comics that were closer to the Brave and the Bold incarnation could you suggest some arcs?

    Also to your comment on getting bored of blue backgrounds and always in the ocean have you read Synder’s Wake?

  21. Preston Micalizio

    I have had people recommend the New 52 version of the character for some time now. Thanks to those recommendations and your informative article, I very inclined to check out the comic.

  22. PerkAlert

    Interesting article! I particularly enjoyed reading about Aquaman’s back story. I’m not so much a comic book devotee, but rather a “superhero shows/movies devotee” (particularly Smallville and Arrow), so I’m always interested in reading about the material these shows draw upon! And I agree that some superheroes are very underrated, Aquaman being one of them. I’d love to see a movie/show based upon him. I think it could be really great!! Also, you’re quite right that people enjoy shows that are “closer to home.” The Day After Tomorrow comes to my mind on that aspect–it was kind of terrifying how “realistic” that story seemed!

  23. I loved the New 52 Aquaman, particularly the idea that even humans in that world are a bit baffled by him. He’s actually quite an alien presence in the world, and I think any adaptations should really play that up.

  24. kbarak

    I read this as someone who does not know much about comics BUT who is around comics enough to have noticed the jokes. The Lego Batman 2 video game, Robot Chicken (as ScorpiusNox mentioned above), and other surprising nooks in pop culture present this character to non-comic readers as a joke. So it’s interesting that people without any knowledge of this history or personal familiarity have the impression that his character is useless. It will be interesting to see how this plays out in future iterations of the Justice League in wider popular culture (i.e. blockbuster movies and reboots). I feel like you’re offering Aquaman a much needed redemption!

  25. uhstevedude

    Jason Momoa will be portraying Aquaman in the movies, which I am really excited about. I guess they got the feedback on making Aqualad black from the Young Justice series and decided to take that and revamp the character to have more of an appeal to audiences. I feel going a culturally diverse direction with Aquaman would probably improve the audience’s outlook onto him.

  26. Robert Gilchrist

    As a fan of Aquaman for a long time, I appreciate the points you bring up here and show how he isn’t just a joke. This is an article that all the people who mock him should read.

  27. I want Paul Pope to do an Aquaman! Who is with me?

  28. New52 Aquaman is easily one of my favourite DC hero. I loved how they played with the misconceptions associated with Aquaman in the first issue. It definitely interests the new readers, and makes them want to read more to find out who Aquaman really is behind all the jokes and myths

  29. Grindrod

    In 1990, Peter David and Esteban Maroto created a fantastic saga entitled The Atlantis Chronicles which gave fans of the DC Universe a history of Aquaman’s ancestors. While it was not required reading, Peter David used the tapestry of Atlantic Chronicles to weave out some of the best super-hero sagas during his Aquaman run from 1994 to 1996. While it does have some tones of humor, it helped develop the character and make him one of the most powerful beings instead of the often mocked ‘fish talker’.

  30. scole

    With the new Aquaman movie coming out, I am stoked! Aquaman was the first superhero I got into when I started reading comics the top five at least and everyone always tells me he’s irrelevant or he doesn’t matter to the Marvel universe, but I think he’s such a great character, personally.

  31. Aquaman has definitely been on of my favorite heroes. It pains me to hear people make fun of him, when they truly do not understand his true power.

  32. “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.”

    Yes, I believe that this was in Jeff Dunham’s ventriloquist routine at one point.

  33. “In the early twenty-first century, Aquaman had been figured as a worthless superhero because his superpowers were contained to the ocean, a geography implicitly posited as outside of and beyond Human concerns
    and affairs. As exemplified by ‘The Big Bang Theory,’ even self-identified
    nerds, those typically outside and critical of dominant narratives of power, agreed that Aquaman ‘sucks’.” Ryan Poll (illustrating how humans don’t give a crap about the oceans).

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