Aquaman, King of the Seven Seas
Aquaman by Alex Ross
Aquaman is king of 3/4 of the planet… so why don’t you care? A member of comic book royalty, Aquaman is not just a superhero but also the ruler of a kingdom, responsible for what happens beneath the waves all over the planet. A founding member of the Justice League of America, he is also one of the few comic book characters with ties going all the way back to 1941, putting his legacy in the same company as Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman.
So… why is there so little love for Aquaman?
Like many comic book characters, Aquaman’s past is a muddled mess. Originally named Arthur Curry, the result of a brilliant undersea scientist’s attempts at bridging the barriers between the undersea and human world, this story was later revised. A hybrid of Atlantean and Human biochemistry thanks to the brief tryst between a lighthouse keeper and an underwater dweller. Possessing great strength and endurance, capable of swiftly traveling the world’s oceans and surviving its depths, his greatest gift was that of undersea telepathy. A stranger in the world of men, Curry sought out his own people. In time he returned to the kingdom that had cast out his mother and became ruler of Atlantis.
Let me start by saying that since there are so many Aquaman comic books in existence I have not read all of them. Yes, even I do not have a complete knowledge of this character.
After a few failed starts, the character finally found a home in the arms of artists Ramona Fradon, the woman behind the character Metamorpho. The Silver Age Aquaman was fairly typical of its time in that each issue featured a self-contained adventure with some gimmicky solution. While his telepathic ability to control sea life is viewed mainly as a joke by modern comic book readers, it’s a large portion of the fun in these old books. Aquaman employed the services of the denizens of the deep to thwart jewel thieves, assist those in trouble or even act as a police force when a small town becomes partially submerged. A fun and brilliant comic, the Silver Age Aquaman stories stand up as unique today but are also a sign of the troubles to come.
Comic book characters that are as old as Aquaman is have a very spotty publishing history due to the fact that creators faced with shepherding the series have one of two decisions to make; shake things up or return to basics. As the Aquaman comic book was so hokey in its infancy and dealt primarily with Aquaman and Aqualad solving problems while educating young readers on sea life… who would really pitch that to editorial? The result is that Aquaman as a character has never really had a core. He has been depicted as grouchy and serious, a family man, an outsider and even a seer. But all of these takes on the character were eventually dashed to pieces as sales plummeted and a new creative team arrived to inject new life by shaking things up… again.
After a rather auspicious debut in a Filmation animated series alongside Batman, Superman and the other starlets of the DC Universe, it seemed that Aquaman had finally found his appeal. However, the series is considered obscure these days and he is more likely associated with his appearance as a member of the Super Friends. Now I do happen to enjoy Super Friends. It’s great fun and a part of my childhood that I cannot deny nor would I wish to. But it is also responsible for giving some very strange notions on my favorite characters that have become stuck in the national consciousness in much the same way that ‘Beam me up, Scotty’ is with Star Trek (Kirk never really said that in the TV series). In the comics, the characters depicted in the Super Friends had several abilities and vast often complex backgrounds. In the Super Friends… not so much. Batman and Robin were useless without their utility belts, for example and Aquaman was… completely useless. The man who was a hybrid of sealife and human kind was depicted as not only boring but unable to travel great distances without a jet ski.
WHAT IS THAT ALL ABOUT??
The comic book version of Aquaman through the 1970′s was still that of an adventurer but also a family man as he married the otherworldly Mera and sired a son. The comparisons between Aquaman and Sub-Mariner are only somewhat valid at this point as the only real commonality is that each rules Atlantis. While the crown weighs heavy on Aquaman’s head he is certainly not as grim or serious as Namor is in Marvel Comics. Aquaman’s publishing history becomes very sparse in the late 70′s/80′s as he became more of a back-up feature than a lead story.
Looking for something new to do with him, DC decided to take the character away from Atlantis entirely so that he could lead a new Justice League consisting mainly of all new characters. A drastic idea that makes little sense given the severity of his responsibility, it also failed to make him a superhero any great impact. That’s not a slight on the comics, by the way. Sure, the ‘Detroit’ era JLA is often attacked as hackneyed but it was in many ways the jab in the arm that the series needed to liven up. Think of it as the ‘Cap’s Kooky Quartet’ era of the JLA and you may see what I mean.
As the 80′s drew to a close so did this last gasp of the JLA. The Crisis on Infinite Earths wiped the slate clean, granting creators a prime opportunity to right any wrongs that had been dealt to Aquaman. Not that he had been mistreated, he just had no real purpose. His roles as ruler, superhero and father were so apart from each other that they failed to make a complete character. The result was a brilliant and inspired mini-series by Neal Pozner and Craig Hamilton.
The 1986 mini-series was a respectful modernization of Aquaman’s past and solidified several ideas into a more coherent story, including Aquaman’s relationship with his half-brother Orm. It also introduced the first costume change that the character ever had, a striking ‘camouflage’ look that excited readers. This was in many ways, Aquaman’s ‘Dark Knight Returns’ in that it was an intelligent story that utilized the character well. It would be many years before this could be said again.
The follow-up series by Robert Loren Fleming would lay the groundwork for a new fantasy-influenced take on Aquaman, stressing his Atlantean background and the other world that exists beneath the sea. No longer a half-breed but a full-blooded Atlantean by a wizard… this version was far more complicated. So complicated was it that it demanded a mini-series devoted only to Atlantis and its history (ingeniously crafted by Peter David and criminally never collected). In this new retelling of his origin, Aquaman is named Orin and left to die by his people who fear that his yellow hair is a harbinger of doom. Cast out into the strange world of men, he found love with an Inuit woman and even had a child with her before being chased off by Orm… still his half-brother in this version. Arthur Curry wandered the seas until he became embroiled in the power struggle taking place in Poseidonis. Discovering the scientist Vulko and his mother who had fallen from grace, Curry discovers that the undersea world is not for him and flees. Once on land again, he takes on the mantle of hero alongside the other remarkable individuals that he finds a certain kinship with.
This modern revision is a very mixed bag of inspired ideas and convoluted concepts but without yet another reality-wiping Crisis, DC was stuck with it. An outcast rather than a hero, Aquaman was aimless and confused, finding his home neither in one world or the other. The character who was once noble and stable was turned into an angst-ridden knot of anger and depression. His family was a mess, his kingdom that he reluctantly agreed to serve was a disaster and he was a less than successful super hero since no one really knew he was around if not for the Super Friends cartoon.
Seeking again to give the character some edge, Aquaman’s arm was removed by Piranha. Right. Thinking quickly, Curry crafted a spear for the end of his arm and grew his hair long as well as a beard. The spear seemed to have special abilities and could launch into the air as a grappling weapon and even be switched out for an armored hand. The numerous accessories and changes to his classic look imply to me that DC had no idea what to do with Aquaman anymore. The ever-popular Peter David had a long run that is fondly remembered but again the character failed to bring in enough sales to maintain his own title. Not only was Aquaman canceled but he was the central part of a convoluted JLA story involving ancient Atlantis and a stone age version of the Justice League. For reasons too confusing to explain, he was again cast out by his people and left to die.
Incoming creator Rick Veitch was touched with equal parts genius and madness with his take on Aquaman as a servant of the ‘Lady of the Lake’ and placed the character on a mystic quest wherein he was forced to learn new methods to deal with his problems. He was also given a new hand made entirely of water that was part of the ‘secret sea.’ While I really liked this version of the character it had little to do with the actual concept and more likely than not angered the few fans still following Aquaman.
Thinking quickly after Veitch left the series to create Army@War, DC introduced a new concept that did not change the character but instead gave him some purpose. That’s right, they gave Aquaman a purpose rather than an entirely new origin or hook hand. After the city of San Diego is submerged and its population finds that it can miraculously breath underwater, Aquaman decides that he will rule over them as his own kingdom. This was brilliant both as a written and visual idea as the land dwellers suddenly had to figure out how to live underwater. The arrival of artist Patrick Gleason lent a particularly memorable touch to the series. In many ways, this remains my favorite era of the character’s long history as it was so simple.
But… all good things need to change apparently. After the massive destruction of Atlantis in Infinite Crisis, Aquaman disappeared. ‘One Year Later,’ Arthur Curry was mysteriously absent in his own comic, replaced by some younger Aquaman. A strange half-squid creature named the Dweller in the Depths attempted to steward this new Aquman into the role of hero, but in the process ended up becoming killed. In time it was revealed that the Dweller was actually a scarred and mutated Aquaman who had somehow used ancient Atlantean magic to return Sub Diego to dry land and in the process become a squid monster. The new, young Aquaman was a product of a brilliant marine biologist Dr. Philip Curry and Aquaman’s ‘water hand.’
Admittedly this all sounds bad but it’s actually one of the more ingenious attempts at making the Aquaman concept work.
So… what a mess.
Aquaman was given a TV pilot that the network passed on but proved to be one of the most successful downloaded TV programs on iTunes when it premiered on their servers. If the star looks familiar it’s because the actor went on to appear as Green Arrow. He has also appeared in the TV series Smallville with some success. He has also appeared in the Justice League as the angry bearded version with a hook, but I really just think this was a sign that the animators had no idea what to do with him and instead wanted to work with a Sub Mariner knock-off.
When I heard that Veitch was leaving the title I had a mad moment and started to work on a pitch to DC Comics for what I would do. It had nothing to do with what had come before and gave Aquaman a new reason to exist. But… I never got my chance.
Black Lantern Aquaman
Currently Aquaman is walking around as a zombie in Blackest Night along with half of all DC Comics characters. What is coming next for him is unclear but writer Geoff Johns, the man who revived Green Lantern, the Flash and Hawkman has stated that he is very interested in giving the King of the Seven Seas a shot. If anyone can make it work, it may just be Geoff Johns. While working on this article it became clear to me that a large part of the problems with this character being a success is that many creators struggle with his origins rather than his purpose. Perhaps if he were given a solid reason to exist, he would be as interesting and dynamic as I know he can be.
Three faces of Aquaman: Black Lantern, King and Squid
Despite this being my longest post to date, there is much more to learn about Aquaman if you are so inclined. I highly recommend the Aquaman Shrine as the most complete resource on all things aquatic.