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Know Thy History: Aquaman

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“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.

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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:

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.)

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About El Santo

Somehow ended up reading and reviewing almost 300 different webcomics. Life is funny, huh? Despite owning two masks, is not actually a luchador.

Posted on May 1, 2013, in comics, Know Thy History and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 18 Comments.

  1. I think the next move for DC is to have Frank Miller do a new series for Aquaman, maybe “The Dark Fish” or “The Dark Scuba King” it will be like Game of Thrones, but underwater. ;-P

    • “What, are you dense? Are you retarded or something? Who the hell do you think I am? I’m the goddamn Aquaman.”

      • You know, given that All-Star Batman & Robin had some fantastic (in that nutty insane ways) with some of the Justice League — such as the Green Lantern scene where Batman taunts Hal Jordan with lemonade — I’m surprised that something like this didn’t happen.

        I mean, it could’ve happened in The Dark Knight Strikes Again! … but even I have my limit when it comes to reading trashy comics.

      • “I’m Aquaman, not the hero the world needs, (breathing heavily) but the hero it deserves” (Growling whisper)

  2. Well, if he basically has all sea-life at his command and all the oceans are his kingdom, he’s more powerful than one might think. In fact, if he would go mad and evil like the original Green Lantern, he could do some really horrid stuff, like awaken the Kraken or the sleeping giant in R’lyeh to do his bidding. Or that he could simply make it so that all the fish in the seas would refuse to be caught or outright be incredibly hostile towards any human presence, effectively making 1/4th of the humanity in danger of starving to death and unable to cross the seas with boats. Or simply help melting the icebergs and the many trapped ancient bacterias and parasites to start all kinds of new plagues on top of flooding the world. Or order millions of crabs and other hard-shell sea-life to fill the exhaust pipes of nuclear factories to cause overheating and meltdowns.

    Not to mention scour all the depths for any fallen comets to harvest for possible kryptonite or any other crash-landed alien that didn’t manage to crash on the ground to have some powerful assets against other superheroes. I know at least thats what I would in his place if the other DC heroes would ever think that I’m worthless. “You think I’m useless now, huh?!”
    Aquaman is kinda like that 5th kid in Captain Planet, everyone thinks of him as the wimp, but when you really think about it, he’s easily way more powerful than the other four kids of the group. Its just all in a matter of HOW one uses those powers on whether thats cool or not. Making fun of a guy who can talk to sea-life may be easy first, until that guy gets pissed off and orders tiny sea-life to make your all household taps stuck and pour disgusting animals out, or order the Deep Ones to barge into your home and eat your family.

    And I just realised I would make a horrible superhero.

    • I should have mentioned that Aquaman fans are probably the most passionate superhero fans in the world. 🙂

      • Well actually I’m not even that big of a Justice League fan. I just figured theres hundreds of ways to make Aquaman “cool” and “potent”, but I find it silly that they resorted to trying to make him look cool by making him look like Thor and make him have a hook for a hand. One could easily turn that hero into one of the most powerful underdogs of the DC-universe if they’d just try to figure out how he can use his powers creatively. You know, instead of “90’s”ying him up with ridiculous “badass” costumes. He is the king of the seas after all right? So his kingdom is thus the biggest kingdom or even a nation in the world. 😀

  3. Aquaman’s problem is that he doesn’t fit well on a team that deals with mostly land-based threats without dumping a bunch of powers that work on land on him. Which makes me wonder why the hell the Superfriends cartoon made him the fourth wheel instead of Green Lantern or Flash.

    • I think because sea animals are kid appeal!

      So when the Justice League cartoons came around, they ditched Aquaman and relegated him to a back-up character. (He didn’t even make the main roster when it was significantly expanded for the JLU seasons.) However, when Batman: Brave and the Bold shows up, Aquaman regains his main event status once again.

      Hence! Aquaman is a member of a superhero team whenever the Adam West version of Batman is around.

  4. Reepicheep-chan

    The ‘Aquaman is lame’ idea is pretty interesting to me. There have been so many incarnations of the guy and most of them were fine, the lame one everyone remembers is the Superfriends version. But… Superfriends Batman was also really lame and he does alright.

    • Well, I think the comics may be partly to blame, too… the 1980’s in particular. They tried to make Aquaman awesome again by making him the leader (and sole legacy hero) of a revamped Justice League. Yup, no Batman, Superman, or Wonder Woman… this was Aquaman’s time!

      Unfortunately, this was the Justice League Detroit, the most maligned incarnation of the Justice League in history. (Though I personally liked them just because there was charm in them being so terrible.) It also didn’t help that the sole reason Aquaman decided to revamp the Justice League on his lonesome was because he was having marital troubles. I mean… come on, Aquaman. Way to bury the premiere superteam of the DC Universe just because you and Mera needed to see a marriage counselor.

  5. There is a fish that will swim up your dick.

    • I’ve heard of that fish before…disturbing isn’t it…?

      • sonofsplatman

        Having a lot of trouble loggin-in and leaving comments, Mr. El Santo. [So I’ll comment here… to my own comment] Thanks again for the wonderful Aquaman history! An OCTOPUS for a SIDEKICK!!! Coincidentally, Pop was just suggesting that we throw OCTO-PIES. Better than his other idea: to throw PORCU-PIES…(OUCH!)

        • Awww, sorry about your troubles with commenting, Splatman’s son. Don’t know what’s going on there. Hopefully it was a temporary WordPress hiccup and not a regular thing.

          • Sonof Splatman

            …er…sorry, but my jokes have been sorta flat lately. In fact a lot of me has been sorta flat lately…(must be the fish…)

  6. sonofsplatman

    “Aquaman isn’t lame anymore”…Splatman…er, still workin at it. Funny you should feature David Herbert’s essay on “Writer’s Block.” It’s easy coming up with mediocre stuff. It’s the good stuff that eludes me. Think writing in general is hard? Try telling better jokes. Like the man said: “Pieing is easy; comedy is hard.”

  1. Pingback: Titan Books – Nick Cardy : The Artist At War | Comichype.com

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