01 Heroes & How We Wish We Could Swim, Like The Dolphins Can Swim
From the epilogue to "From Democrats To Kings" by Michael Scott;
"As I write, Greek TV is hosting a popular competition for the greatest Greek in history. It's a strong likelihood that Alexander the Great will win hands down. His figure, his story, sums up a lot of what Greeks like to think is best about Greece, just as Britain chose Winston Churchill in its 2003 greatest Briton competition, as America might choose Martin Luther King, or South Africa Nelson Mandela. We choose these figures scattered through history, because they represent the essence of who we are, or want to be, today. Though we can't choose our own parents, we can make choices about the kind of historical examples we want to guide us in our future."
And, it's worth adding, as well as choosing particular figures to guide us in our future, we also pick certain aspects of those figures. We choose the defiant Winston Churchill of May 1940, facing down the defeatists in his own war cabinet while refusing to surrender to Nazism, but we try to forget the Churchill of 1919 who supported an RAF request to drop poison gas on Kurdish tribesmen. ("I do not understand this squeamishness about the use of gas.") We pick Alexander the victor at The Battle of Issus and forget Alexander the drunkard, the murderer of Cleitus The Black.
2. Remaking The Batman: the Fan-Not-Fan Approach
When the sales of the Batman titles flatlined following the decline of "Bat-Mania" and the cancellation of the Adam West TV series, Julius Schwartz sought out Denny O'Neil and Neal Adams to revamp the character. Adam's visual take on the Batman, already gaining plaudits in the pages of "The Brave Of The Bold", sat well with Schwartz and O'Neal's desire, in the words of the former, to " ... go back to the way it used to be." In essence, this was the first high-profile revamping of a classic headline DC character in which something of the fan mentality was present in the decision-making process. Previous attempts by DC Comics to update older superhero properties in their library had very often involved dramatic changes in character's secret identities, costumes and sometimes, as in the case of The Atom, even a total makeover of the super-heroes' powers. But the revamping of "the Batman" into "The Batman" was directly inspired not by what the DC editors and writers thought the new audiences would buy so much as by a careful reading of the first year or so of Batman's appearances in "Detective Comics" and "Batman". The first tales by Kane and Finger and Robinson thereby took on the then-unfamiliar status of a comic-book urtext, from which new generations of creators could deduce fundamental truths about the Batman. No longer would editors, writers and artists feel free to completely ignore the comic books of the past; those books were now conceived of as having, to one degree or another, permanantly pertinant rules for future developments. No more would old characters be utterly revamped as if their original appearances - indeed, most if not all of their appearances - were of no importance. As more and more time past, the old reams of fourty and fifty and sixty and seventy years of comic books began to take on the status of super-hero holy writ, and only by engaging with that ever-massively-increasing corpus of material could creators justify innovation.
Unlike some later creative teams, however, Schwartz and his men still felt quite free to pick and choose which elements they wanted from the original Batman tales, their intentions being no more bound by the original texts than their desire, in O'Neil's words to Les Daniels, to " ... simply take it back to where it started." Their reinvention never was intended to mean literally returning Batman to his earliest roots. Batman had begun his career by regularly throwing henchmen off roofs, punching criminal masterminds like 'Alfred Stryker' into acid tanks, and even wielding a gun to fire silver bullets into vampires. There would be none of that in the new take. Nor, despite the reputed return to first principles, would The Batman loose his gloves, or the yellow oval around his chest insignia. Back to basics wasn't, of course, a literal policy. They took what they liked and discarded the rest.
What's most important here is that O'Neil never felt he needed to try to explain away this new take in the pages of the comics. It was a simple matter of introducing this Batman and getting on with it. There was no attempt to devise a continuity explanation, no transition scenes explaining how the Batman became more fearsome and violent. It was as if The Batman had always been this way. Essentially, the urtext had been respected and influential, but the already substantial mass of Batman tales never were integrated into the new direction. It was if the creators didn't care whether those tales were canon or not. They had what they wanted, "The Batman", and they were free with their relatively uncluttered new canvas to head off wherever they wanted to go. They had no cares about contradicting anything that had gone before ouside of the absolute basics of the Batman mythos. It's a kind of fresh start undreamt of today.
And I'm sure that Schwartz and his team never questioned, never even considered, that their new-and-yet-old Batman would one day, perhaps very soon, be replaced by another long-eared costumed detective fresh off the reinterpretation production line, one which would also appear out of the blue, without explanation, and without a need for one. As O'Neil would later say; "There is no right way to do this character any more than there is one right way to do Hamlet ... ".
Similarly, there is obviously more than "one right way to do" Aquaman.
But what if, after almost 70 years of his existence in comic books, there is no fundamental urtext for Aquaman? What if there is no single coherent body of work from which to abstract and re-abstract the Sea King for today, and tomorrow?
What if there's an Aquaman, what if there's a legion of Aquamen, but no "The Aquaman"?
4. The Imposed Creativity Of Comic-Book Poverty
For the first 20 years or so of my comic-buying life, it was a difficult business simply getting hold of my favourite books. The distribution of comics from America to Britain was geographically spotty and generally inconsistent. There was no guarantee at all that next month's issue would ever appear. Special formats, such as Treasuries and Annuals, were almost never to be seen. And there were years in the 1970s when the major Marvel titles from America weren't distributed at all, reportedly because Marvel UK was soon going to have rely on those issues for their black-and-white reprints.
And if it was hard to consistently find American comics in the 1970s, it was worse in the '60s, and the '50s, blighted by a fearsome moral panic against "horror" comics, were something of a desert.( That didn't just mean that comics were relatively thin on the ground. Back issues were, as a consequence, rare too. MK from the estimable Out Of This World Blog wrote; " .. on the extremely rare occasion when I found a pre-'59er, it was like finding some ancient treasure. I remember getting a couple of 1957 Hopalong Cassidy comics from a second hand bookshop down by the Angel, and almost fainted with excitement!") On occasion, superhero stories appeared in various reprint books from different companies, out of sequence and often awkwardly edited from their original appearances.
This meant that British readers rarely had the opportunity to see how characters progressed and developed as intended over a period of time. Instead, we would have to piece together a mosaic-like impression of characters and their interactions from a wide variety of often incomplete and disparate sources. No two young readers would be able to have exactly the same understanding of any given hero, or even of that hero's history. (In some cases, such as the "Hero For Hire" comic from the early '70s, no single early issue was ever officially distributed, and there was nothing but a great gaping hole in our knowledge, filled out in small part through snippets of information in adverts, front cover pictures, and guest spots.)
I don't think that this poor distribution was in any way a bad thing, though it undoubtedly felt like it at the time. It certainly made each comic that could be found feel very special indeed, and each sequence of comics that could be pieced together became a real achievement. And the absence of so many comics, of so much information, necessitated creativity on the part of the reader. Those story-lines had to be imagined, those inconsistencies had to be mentally managed and resolved. I can't help but think that this was a really involving and stimulating way to think about comics, quite different from the more 'continuity-determined' understanding which consistent distribution and fan-culture encourages. And I wonder if the success in America of British writers such as Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman didn't in some small way stem from these inconsistencies of distribution, from the fact that these writers had already been forced as a matter of course to recreate in part the DC and Marvel Universes when they were younger.
I've always had an immense fondness for Aquaman, but I'd find it hard to be able to give even the vaguest logical explanation of why that should be. I saw but one copy of the sea-king's first solo book in the years before I was almost out of my teens, and that was a brief glance at a comic held by a fellow Cub Scout who delighted in never swapping or sharing his cherished darlings; perhaps that very scarcity and denial explains the inexplicable affection I have for the King Of Atlantis.
But the truth is that, even when later I collected every single Aquaman title and guest shot and team appearance I could, I never found a story about the character that I could hold up and say "You see! This is why Aquaman is such a great hero!" This isn't to say that I didn't enjoy many of those stories, and much of the art by the likes of Nick Cardy, Ramoda Fradon, Jim Aparo and Neal Adams I remain impressed by even to this day. But there's no equivalent for Aquaman of "The Dark Knight Returns" or "Absolute Superman", or even of a run of issues that equals, for example, the Steve Engelhart or Ed Brubaker takes on Captain America. Aquaman's history has been of one of engagingly competent stories, occasionally spectacular appearances in other titles, and an almost impossible inability on anyone's part to incorporate the character and his history into a take on "Aquaman" which would lastingly capture a wider audience.
If I'm being honest with myself, I don't suppose that I can even say that I prefer the Aquaman of one era to that of another. The early stories are charming but often bland, the later ones become progressively more coloured by angst and re-vamps, until Aquaman isn't even Aquaman anymore. I really am partial to Aquaman, but there's never been an "Aquaman" for me.
It could rightly be said, therefore, that I don't actually like Aquaman at all. After all, I'd couldn't be a fan of Sherlock Holmes if I was lukewarm about the overwhelming majority of his appearances, if I had never believed that his character was consistently well-defined or involving enough. But I don't believe that's how we all grow to love certain comic books and certain comic book characters. I think there's a more natural and creative way that we engage with them. We take the images and the words that appeal to us and we - consciously and unconsciously - join up the dots to create, for example, an "Aquaman" that never existed, and never will, outside of our heads, the Aquaman against which the "real" Aquaman will always be measured, a personal Platonic ideal Aquaman.
Here then, by way of illustration, will be "my" Aquaman, and it's a character composed of brief comic book moments, images taken somewhat out of context, and suppositions barely supported by evidence. On reflection, this Aquaman bears no relation to any canon, not of today or any past era, and it ignores great swathes of work by very able creators; not because their work was poor, but because it didn't strike a chord with me, or perhaps even because I never read their work. My Aquaman isn't owned by any corporation, open to any critic's challenge, or amendable as a concept even by myself.
Which, counter-intuitively, makes "my" Aquaman all the more real to me.
To be continued in: Points On A Curve No 2: Aquaman the King Is Not Dead, Aquaman the King Is Dead