Know Thy History: Aquaman
“Aquaman’s not lame anymore!”
I have heard this refrain a thousand times. I imagine I will hear it a a thousand times more. It’s usually when writers try to “cool up” Aquaman. Oh, look, Aquaman’s badass now! Not that lame dude from the Superfriends who rode on a seahorse! Or the walking punchline from the Robot Chicken sketches!
Love him! LOVE HIM!
The first time I heard it was during Peter David’s run, where Aquaman lost a hand and replaced it with a hook. Then there was the time my favorite fantasy author, Tad Williams, wrote a bunch of Aquaman stories. And then there was the animated Justice League version. And then the Geoff Johns version where Aquaman is defying the public perception that he’s lame. I imagine it was being said when Aquaman was named leader of the all new, all different, and much maligned Justice League Detroit.
Most recently, people are saying it with regards to the Aquaman of the Injustice fighting game, where he attacks his enemies with sharks. (“Oh, man! They got eaten by sharks! Aquaman’s not lame anymore!”)
Here’s the thing, though. That phrase, “Aquaman’s not lame anymore”? It’s sorta like “This is not your father’s Oldsmobile.” Just by saying it, you’re reminding yourself that, hey, there are quite a few lame elements to the Aquaman character. And then you’re back to square one again.
This is why my favorite version of Aquaman is the guy who ruled the Seven Seas during the Silver Age.
Readers of “Know Thy History” will remember that, in my piece on the Green Lantern, there was an easy breaking point between the Golden Age and Silver Age characters. That’s because they were two different people. In the Golden Age, it was Alan Scott and his garish red-and-green piece. In the Silver Age, it was Hal Jordan… the guy from the movies. He was following in the footsteps of The Flash, who was Jay Garrick in the Golden Age and Barry Allen of the Silver Age. The Flash actually established the reasons behind the different characters by creating the concept of the Multiverse, something that’s gained plenty of traction in pop culture these days … but that’s a story for another day. (Shoot, I was tempted to do a “Know Thy History” on the Flash in wake of Carmine Infantino’s passing, but Arthur Curry won the toss up somehow.)
There’s really no breaking point between the Golden Age version of Aquaman. In the Golden Age, Aquaman was the son of an oceanographer who gained his abilities by harnessing the powers of the ocean, because … he really wanted those powers a lot? I think? The Silver Age one is the King of Atlantis version that current writers are still basing their stories on.
In fact, there’s a raging debate going on right now as to when the Silver Age Aquaman stories start. Was it in 1956 when he got his first sidekick, the loyal octopus friend Topo as some fans contend? Or is it, as the black-and-white collected works insist, the 1961 issue of DC Showcase when Aquaman reveals that he’s the son of an exiled Atlantean queen?
I tend to go with the “Topo represents the dawn of Silver Age” crowd because, well, the Aquaman-Topo team-ups are really fun. There’s a story where Topo and Arthur Curry are stranded on a desert island, for Pete’s sake! Which is totally worth it for this panel:
Look at that! A contemplative octopus!
There’s a specific challenge to being an artist for Aquaman. He lives in a world where you have to take full advantage of three dimensional space. Animals will be plentiful. Backgrounds will often be obscured by the blue expanse of water. Action sequences have to be slowed down a little to represent the environment. When they emerge from the water, they will have to look wet. And there will be many scenes where the characters don’t have their feet on the ground. These are challenges that they guys working on Superman or Batman have to rarely contend with.
Fortunately, Aquaman had two incredibly capable artists to start his Silver Age run. The first was Ramona Fradon, one of the few women to work in the comics field in her day. I adore her style. Her heroes don’t have stunning, Kirby-esque proportions we’ve come to expect from the world of body builder physiques. (Her biggest contribution to the title was creating Aqualad, Aquaman’s young sidekick who looked very much like a teen and not a tiny adult.) As you can see from that panel with Topo, Ms. Fradon was very adept in illustrating sea creatures with personalities… which came into play often since Aquaman’s most prominent (and most maligned) superpower is that he communicates with fishes.
Ms. Fradon went on to create legendary (and very odd) DC superhero, Metamorpho. Incredibly, Ms. Fradon is still working her magic in the comics world. During Free Comic Book day, she was hired to work on an issue of Spongebob Squarepants. Perfect for an artist who spent seven to eight years drawing underwater sea life, right? That’s not all: the issue also feature a character called Mermaid Man, who should look surprisingly familiar! A co-worker asked me once if I was going to go to Emerald City Comic Con. Not being a convention goer (I think I may be claustrophobic), I told him, “Only if Ramona Fradon shows up.”
I was not even kidding.
After Ms. Fradon left, she was replaced by the also incredibly capable Nick Cardy. He brought something different to the table. When Mr. Cardy took over, Aquaman took a turn toward being more action-packed and epic. The undersea creatures took on a more menacing look. Waves just seemed to swell and crash. And Aquaman was a full on action hero. Around this time, Aquaman and Aqualad returned to Atlantis, Mera arrived from another dimension and soon became the Queen, and Aquaman picked up a couple of recurring villains in the forms of Black Manta and Ocean Master. This was the time when Aquaman was more of a king than just some water-based superhero.
Seriously, look at that whale! They’ve gone from being cute cuddly animals accused of a crime they didn’t commit to being the Muggle-flippin’ Leviathan of the Deep!
Anyway, Aquaman was basically the Superman of the Seven Seas … only instead of trying to prank Lois Lane every other issue, he was actually off doing superhero stuff. Stuff which was phenomenally goofy.
During NaPoWriMo (National Poetry Writer’s Month), there was a prompt to write poems from the perspective of a superhero. I decided to do one on Aquaman, highlighting how fun his Silver Age adventures could be. If you’ll let me, I’d like to spin you some rhymes:
Like comets streaking through the sky
An airplane plunges to the sea.
Resigned, they fear the end is nigh
Their grave: ten leagues from Mauna Kea.
But, lo, a strange sight churns the waves!
A pod of whales swim close and swift.
These noble creatures, bold and brave,
Join up to form a landing strip.
I summoned them by mental call
For I’m the mortal they call King.
I’m there when troubled luck befalls
The safety of all living things.
Son of a man who lit the beam
Protecting ships from jagged shore
And an exiled mermaid queen
Whose heritage I once ignored.
Yet oceans held tight on my soul;
Its undertow too swift and strong.
I ventured forth like knights of old —
A hero’s call, my siren’s song.
Uneasy on my brow’s the crown
Not bred was I of royalty.
A lighthouse keeper’s son, deep down,
With pride in humble ancestry.
I thus send forth my finny friends
To stop foul pirates and their kind.
To darkest depths, my crown defends
The oceans from vile sorts of crime:
Bad men who in mad science play —
From island labs, their monsters breed —
To tycoons wrecking coral bays
Through eco-damage born from greed.
I don a suit of bright scale mail
While perched on a seahorse’s back.
The barracudas, sharks, and whales
At beckon call press the attack.
With Neptune’s trident in my hand
The waves roll through some mythic source
I drive back evils from dry land,
The seas’ sanctity enforced.
So thus is Arthur Curry’s reign
The Seven Seas sworn to protect.
I leave, with might of hurricanes,
My villains stranded and shipwrecked.
That should be all you need to know why I’m never really a creators trying to make Aquaman cooler by turning him into yet another dark, brooding superhero. C’mon, we have enough of those guys! What’s wrong with the Aquaman who just likes to help people out because they’re having problems in his domain? I think it’s pretty telling that the most successful recent version of Aquaman is the one from Batman: Brave & The Bold. He was a big, blustery family man that was incredibly capable, but who totally embraced his cheesiness. Going grimdark is solving nothing.
C’mon, DC writers… he’s not Namor.
(For more Aquaman, including reprinted comics, check out the best blog on the internet dedicated to talking about one superhero: The Aquaman Shrine. Also, check out Tom vs. Aquaman, a podcast that looks at old DC issues and comments on them snarkily. It was this podcast, by the way, that introduced me long ago to the glorious adventures of Silver Age Aquaman.)