A quote from the previous entry, to serve as a Reader's Warning - "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 because I never even 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."
1. What's An Aquaman For?
Super-hero. King. Crime-fighter. Outcast and pariah. Warrior-Monarch. Mystic, 'Waterbearer'. Husband, father, friend, mentor. Environmentalist. Lonely guy, angry guy, abandoned guy.
Who is this Aquaman and what is he for?
2. Finding The King At The End Of The World
The first time I ever believed Aquaman was a King, rather than just accepting the fact, was in Grant Morrison's JLA #41: all the peoples of the world have been driven insane with war-madness by Mageddon and on Venice Beach, fighting breaks out between enraged soldiers and the super-heroes who can't hold the chaos back. Zantanna shields the Black Canary as the sands around them are raked with bullets, the Ray is shot from the sky and believes himself about to die. And, as is the way of these things, all order and hope is lost.
An Atlantean war machine rises above the waves. From within, the amplified voice of King Arthur Of Atlantis breaks across the beach. The soldiers pause from their carnage.
"Lay down your arms! I'm serious and I have the firepower to prove it! Sworn protectorate of over fifteen thousand submarine states. My territory surrounds every continent on the planet. I rule most of this planet's surface and almost all of its depths. So don't even think about picking a fight with the King Of Atlantis."
3. The Legal Authority And The Serious Firepower Of The King Of The Seven Seas
My first reaction to this scene was purely emotional. I laughed, and I felt proud of Aquaman. I'd never conceived of the character in the way Morrison, and artist Howard Porter, presented him, but it was as if I had and that someone else had overheard my thoughts and put them down on paper. For I'd always thought that DC's Atlantis ought be a world super-power, and I'd many times imagined Arthur being not a barbarian warrior, but a soldier wielding might through judgement and strategy. And here he was. This was the Aquaman leading a technologically advanced armada into war. This was the Aquaman wielding the legal authority to wage war in defence of a coalition composed of many thousands of undersea states all less powerful than Atlantis, all united in common cause.
It was, perhaps, yet another example of Grant Morrison throwing into his scripts quick redefinitions of characters, as if the Scotsman was permanently scared that he'd never get round to using all the bright ideas he'd generated.
And it all made perfect emotional sense to me. It felt right. And then, after the feelings, came the thinking. Why did this strike such a chord with me? I have little sympathy for the Warrior-Monarch take on Aquaman, the grimly pulpy, sword'n'sorcery Aquaman, the hand-eaten-by-piranhas Aquaman. That Aquaman smelt too much to me of editorial-anxiety, of the grafting-on of current trends onto a character who'd never sat too well with angst before. In fact, the more Aquaman was deluged by ill-fortune - by his lost wife, his dead son, his alienated people, his disillusionment's, his estranged foster son, by his mutilation - the less I could see of Aquaman. The endless tragedies didn't make him more interesting, didn't broaden the character's appeal or deepen his identity. They obscured him.
Aquaman had disappeared for me under the rust of layers and layers of angst and misery and miscalculation and misfortune. After awhile, all I could see was the beard and the hook, the grimace and the canyon-deep frowns. If I looked really hard enough, I still couldn't see the King Of The Seven Seas. I couldn't see Aquaman at all.
For all I admired the craft and sincere good intentions of his creators. I couldn't see Aquaman at all.
4. The Bluff Of Kings
There's an alternative reading to Morrison and Porter's Venice Beach scene. After all, we're only actually shown one war-machine and one troop of "submarine" warriors. Perhaps Aquaman is actually pulling a tremendously daring bluff here? Perhaps it's not that Morrison has sneaked in one of his characteristic re-imaginings of a major character, perhaps there isn't a "protectorate of over fifteen thousand submarine states". Perhaps it's just that Arthur is a bright, brave man who puts himself - and his soldiers - into a war zone in order to face down fighting-mad armies? Perhaps this is an Arthur Curry who's so used to the exigencies demanded of power that he can deliberately play the role of peace-maker cloaked as a war-monger? Not grim and gritty, but playing grim and gritty.
And it was there that it struck me. For as long as I could remember, the character of Aquaman had been the prisoner of the roles he'd been editorially-mandated to play. If Arthur was a King, then he was hemmed in by the role of King, as if he was a helpless figure fated to stand still while his subjects revolted, his enemies plotted, his destiny closed in on him. When Arthur lost his hand, we saw not a man who rose above tragedy, but a man shattered by it, a man so fundamentally changed by his loss that his very personality degenerated. His marriage collapsed when his son was lost, and again Arthur was a victim. Rather than being allowed to take charge, to work with his wife to rebuild his family, to comfort each other through their loss, Arthur was pushed away by his distraught wife. And when - one of many - reconciliations occurred, it didn't show anything other than "love overcoming". The chance to show Arthur and Mera working hard to rebuild their world was never the central point of the narrative. But chance and sentimentality and the accident of 'love' don't create a hero or a heroine. Hard work and bravery do.
Arthur Curry, Aquaman, has too often been a victim. And though one can feel sympathy for victims, it's hard to admire them. Heroes shouldn't be constantly running from persecution, or trapped for years as living water, or mutilated and traumatised, or even living their lives in the undersea suburbs of small American cities.
Not if they're super-heroes and Kings.
And Grant Morrison's Aquaman was a super-hero and a king. The world is ending, the Apocalypse is here, and he's determined to put his own body on the line in order to secure a beach-head of peace. Perhaps he playing an elaborate and brave bluff. Perhaps he's as hard as nails and has at last created a political-military alliance which allows him to act as a major player on the world stage. Perhaps its a mixture of the two.
But he's not a victim. Because he's not a victim.
5. Not Broken, No Need To Fix
The worst thing about monarchies in comic-books is that most writers have no idea how to write them. In their search for conflict which can be used to ratchet up the angst suffered by their lead characters, a Monarchy is too vulnerable a status quo for writers not to disrupt. If Asgard exists, then Odin must stumble, Thor must be exiled, Asgard must fall, and then Thor will return. The Monarchy itself, such a rich seed-bed for epic stories, endlessly becomes reduced to a soap-opera mechanism, creating easily-sparked character conflict that will always end in the same way: the King or Prince is exiled, the Kingdom is threatened, the King or Prince returns.
But after awhile, this cycle breeds weariness, familiarity and even contempt. How many times must Hippolyta, Odin, or Zeus, miscalculate before we conclude that they're fools and unworthy of our affection? And how many times must Atlantis reject to one degree or another Aquaman before we decide that either the Atlanteans aren't worth of our heroes' affection, or, even more dangerously, that our hero isn't worth our respect either?
Too many writers and editors can't resist breaking things just because it generates a little heat. And eventually, when just about everything that can be broken has been broken, the only step left can appear to be to change, for example, Aquaman into a monstrous "dweller in the darkness", and then kill him. Still a victim.
But the character never was broken.
6. A Distrust Of Kings
It's no surprise that the most convincing portrayals of monarchies in superhero comics come from British creators, such as Paul Jenkins and the Ablett/Lanning team with The Inhumans and Neil Gaiman on The Sandman, or from American creators, such as Priest and Hudlin, who have a stake in making sure that their kingly character isn't demeaned. The Brits are stepped in myths of monarchy, of Kings who will return. The Americans have a stake in positively representing Wakanda's monarchy, because that fictional nation's political system is perceived to be intertwined with respect for an important Black character.
Elsewhere, I wonder if American creators instinctively distrust the very idea of a benevolent and competent monarchy. Certainly, the British Monarchy and the person of King George III plays the role of antagonist in the myths and legends of the American Revolution. And monarchies have traditionally stunk of the past to Americans, of previous and discarded political systems replaced by and improved upon by American democracy. It may be that American creators consciously or subconsciously feel awkward presenting a modern day monarchy in a positive light. After all, as Thomas Paine said "England ... hath known some few good monarchs, but groaned beneath a much larger number of bad ones ..". And that's true; there's always been far, far more bad kings and queens than good ones. Perhaps it feels wrong to suggest that a monarchy could ever be a viable, acceptable system. God knows, in reality I have no sympathy with monarchies, aristocracies, tyrannies, dictatorships and their brethren. But there are ways to allow Aquaman to stay a monarch - and be a successful and humane monarch - without offending anyone's political sensibilities.
Arthur could be a constitutional monarch. He could be a state figurehead, responsible for advising the nation, representing it in public, and assuming key responsibilities at times of crisis. In such a way, Aquaman could 'rule' over a people - from Atlantis or across a wider area of the submarine world - while co-existing with democratic rights. (He could even be tasked with the job of protecting the rights of the people when they're encroached upon by government.) Or Aquaman could be, as he was when he first became the King Of Atlantis, an elected monarch, . (There were 13 Polish Kings elected by elements of the Polish people in the late middle-ages, for example. Being a King was not there a matter of absolute power, and rule wasn't passed down to the King's biological successors.) Or Aquaman could take responsibility for some aspect of Morrison's undersea protectorates, securing the peace legitimately without taking absolute power himself.
And there are examples of admirable monarchs in history. Not many, I will readily admit, as a good democrat should, but a few; Alfred The Great, such a brave man constantly losing and brilliantly learning and fighting back against fearsome odds; Marcus Aurelius, philosopher and Emperor and relentlessly warring prince; Cincinnatus, dictator of Rome, called twice to supreme power during nightmare disasters, twice saving the day and then twice abandoning office to retire back to his farm. I'm sure you can think of other examples too. Not so many that we'd ever want a King, but enough for some small measure of sneaking nostalgia to wink in and out of our imaginations.
7. The King Was Never Dead, The Long-Lived King
But why should Aquaman be a king?
Well, part of that is the emotional truth that he's been a King, or an ex-King, for as long as I've known him. I have an intractable fan's heart. Unless I can be convinced that a better solution exists, I'm happy to stay with an established, familiar fact.
And being a King shouldn't stop Arthur playing most if not all of the other roles that he's played in his time. He can still be a superhero, still be a Justice Leaguer, still engage in quests, still play the lone wolf when occasion demands.
But being a King is something few other characters can convincingly be. For Arthur, being King is part of his history. It's a struggle for a creator to remove the imprint of monarch from Arthur Curry's nature: at best after the attentions of the revisionist creator, he's still an ex-King. The label of King doesn't fade, and Aquaman will remain King of The Seven Seas even if not of Atlantis. There's no way to remove him from his past. The kingship will always be there, and if ignored, it'll just be the elephant in the room. It's a major character marker, a unique seller point, a plot-generator, a familiar trope of the hero's identity; it's the character element that keeps on generating plot point after plot point.
Consider again the story possibilities inherent in Morrison's speech quoted earlier in this entry;
"Sworn protectorate of over fifteen thousand submarine states. My territory surrounds every continent on the planet. I rule most of this planet's surface and almost all of its depths. So don't even think about picking a fight with the King Of Atlantis."
And that Aquaman is nobodies' victim; not necessarily some gruff Conanesque figure, nor a '50s American suburban surrogate smiling his way through fishy adventures, but someone with elements of both. He needs no faux-grimness, no cruel exiles, no broken families, no physical mutilations to mark him out as unique or special. He already is unique and special. He's already a super-hero, and he's alot more too.
He's Aquaman and he's the King.
To be continued in Points On A Curve No 3, where we'll take a little trip to Atlantis to consider why any reader should ever want to go there. And in Points On A Curve No 4, we'll question what kind of man Aquaman is , and therefore what kind of King he would be.