Wednesday, 10 March 2010

Points On A Curve No 4: So Who Exactly Is This Aquaman Fellow Anyway?

For the last of these "Points On A Curve" entries on Aquaman, I sat myself down and, with an old-fashioned pencil and a single dog-eared piece of paper, made a list of all the truly memorable visuals involving Aquaman that I could think of. In truth, there weren't that many, especially considering that the character's been being published for 70 years, but obviously those that've stuck in my memory have played a considerable part in creating "my" Aquaman, and thinking about how he came to be is the purpose of "Points On A Curve". So, my Aquaman is in part evoked in a panel from a comic published in 1963, from a 2005 cover, from a punch-up with a old enemy in an 1984 issue of Justice League: none of them connected by a particular story or a recognisable theme or even a consistent take on the character and his powers. But added together, they form their own 'continuity'. (It's all very post-modern, though I don't think there's anything distinctively modern about the process.) In order that each image sits well together, the mind unconsciously connects each image to each other, creating an Aquaman all of its own. Who knows what this Aquaman of mine might have been if I'd've never seen a particular image, or if my emotional state had been different when reading some other Aquaman stories. But there we go. From all these little components comes what feels emotionally like the 'real' Aquaman. Join the points up and there's your King Of Atlantis and the Seven Seas.

In talking through these examples, I thought I might group them in response to some of the most common objections to Aquaman. In truth, I was just interested in whether the images in my memory could constitute part of a defence of Aquaman against his critics. And because the images did seem to achieve that end, to my own mind, it made me wonder how much of my understanding of Aquaman has been formed not just by what I've read of the character's adventures, but also of all the criticisms I've come across of the character's viability.

1. What's The Point Of A Superhero Who Can Only Survive For A Short-Time Above Water?

Those who feel that Aquaman needs to loose his hand to piranhas and his baby boy to the machinations of his brother Orm in order to develop a little gravitas may just have missed the point. Even the apparently happy-go-lucky early-Silver Age Aquaman was by his very nature already a tragic hero. It's not just that his mother died while Aquaman was young, nor that his father never lived to see his boy Arthur's adult achievements, nor that his mother's home city of Atlantis had declared him an exile, though all of that would be tragic enough for most of us. The real tragedy of his existence lies in Aquaman's inability to stay alive on land for longer than very short periods. Though as much a man of the land as of the sea, his traditional lore stated that he couldn't survive above the oceans for longer than approximately an hour. His father's world is something he can only briefly visit, and only then at great peril to his life. He's permanently in exile from one of his homelands, granted by his biology just the occasional temporary visit before retreating back to the safety of the ocean again. It's as if Superman could only visit Lois in Metropolis for an hour a time, and then at great cost to his life. (And I have often wondered how compelling it would be if Aquaman fell in love with a surface woman.)

It's hard to imagine how Arthur must long to walk across our world without having to be constantly calculating when he can next immerse himself in water. How very much he must long to walk in the desert, or indeed in any environment where plentiful water is absent. Imagine; those everyday opportunities that we so take for granted are denied him. He can't even just step out onto a city street and keep walking. It makes his every trip out of the ocean an example of bravery and determination. I wonder how far many of us would go out from the shore and under the water if we could breathe there for just one hour? Every time Aquaman steps out of the waters in order to try to do some good, he's literally taking his life in his hands. In many ways, this makes Arthur the closest 1960's DC came to the kind of super-hero that Stan Lee revolutionised mainstream comics with. For as Tony Stark, for example, had a dodgy heart which was only kept functioning by his armour, and just as every battle clothed in the Iron Man armour threatened Stark's heart with death, so too does Aquaman literally put his life on the line every time he hauls himself up onto the land.

And yet he does, particularly when the greater good would be served by his doing so. Every second that passes is a second closer to not a distant, but to an immediate, death. Every action he undertakes out of the sea must inevitably weaken his ability to stay alive. Just stepping into JLA HQ must immediately cause his mouth to start drying out, and his facial muscles to tighten. He will be thirsty pretty much all the time. His heartbeat and his respiration rate will quickly increase. He'll be fatigued, shattered by headaches, muscle cramps and nausea. And this will all start to hit him pretty quickly after setting foot on dry land, for if he has but 1 hour before he's fatally dehydrated, the symptoms of that process must kick in quickly. It's a good job that he's so perfectly adapted to life far beneath the waves: he has unbelievable strength and stamina, otherwise he'd never be able to put one foot before the other while on land. As it is, he must feel so clumsy and vulnerable on land compared to his life beneath the sea. He can surely never be relaxed or feel completely safe in our everyday world.

But you'll notice that none of the Atlanteans we see on dry land whinge about this process. They're obviously a stoical lot, far hardier than we surface-dwellers. The sheer pleasure of experiencing the extremes of life above water, and sometimes the necessity of fighting there, must outweigh the quickly-developing suffering that they accept they'll simply have to endure. *1

2. He's Married, He's Got Kids, He's Just The Wrong Man For The Age Of The Permanently Adolescent Fan.

I've always felt uncomfortable with the character and appearance of Mera. In the first decade and some of her existence, she was little more than the beautiful princess from a far-off land completely besotted with and devoted to Aquaman. She seemed neither particularly strong, nor particularly distinctive, unless, of course, the avid fan decides to take her flipper feet into account. Despite that, I never had a problem with Aquaman being married. It was refreshing to have the character committed to a lifelong relationship. It added something far-less-than-typical to the mix. And given that Aquaman, in whatever version of his origin the reader wanted to run with, had endured considerable loneliness in his adolescence, it felt appropriate that he should have someone worthwhile to create a home with. And since Mera did have an interesting super-power, in her ability to manipulate water into a variety of solid forms, and since she did have her alien heritage as potential for future development, it always seemed that there was considerable promise for the couple's future development.

And then, in the usual way of comic book companies trying to generate interest through the imposition of angst into a leading character's status quo, Aquaman's marriage was prised apart. His son - Arthur Jr - was murdered, his wife rejected him, and then began to go mad. On and on continued the estrangements, the irrationalities, the insensitivity's, until I ceased to care about the marriage or Mera herself. That is, until I saw the photograph below in an issue of Wizard Magazine.
Now, I'm not in the habit of cutting out photographs from Wizard Magazine, or indeed of reading Wizard at all. But that photograph amused me, and, as it amused me, it struck me that it felt "right" for the characters. I'm not suggesting that Mera should suddenly change her sex, but the obvious strength inherent in Mr DeForest's take on her - the untypical relative height for a woman, the imposing sense of alieness brought about the trans-gender portrayal - immediately said to me that this Mera was no bitter ex-wife, lovelorn teen bride, or mentally-fracturing female stereotype. (On reflection, the couple in this photograph have much in common with John Byrne's portrayal of the She-Hulk when she was dating the much shorter, but still physically substantial, Wyatt Wingfoot.) There is a sense that this is a unique couple, and a couple who are together because they love each other even when their relationship obviously exists outside the boundaries of what a "normal" affair is usually considered to be. And then, when in recent months Geoff Johns reintroduced Mera into mainstream continuity as a determined - and then exceptionally violent - Red Lantern, I couldn't help thinking that Mera ought to look somewhat taller, and just a little less feminine.

And I suspect that an Aquaman that tolerant of, and excited by, difference might be simultaneously interesting enough for today's audience and yet still compatible with the family man of the '60s and '70s. Otherwise, yes, he's in risk of seeming to be just a staid old family man, or far worse, a serial failure as a non-serial monogamist.

3. He's Too Nice A Bloke And He's Too Grim And Gritty A Bloke Too

Anyone picking up the recent black and white reprints of Aquaman's adventures in the early 1960s in the first Showcase Presents" volume will have noticed how writer Bob Haney managed to portray Arthur Curry as being both a happy-go-lucky superhero and, at times, a far more melancholic character. It wasn't that Aquaman was ever bent with angst. In fact, he was remarkably stoical about his unhappy past, in the way that heroes of that now-distant past wore their suffering lightly, but unhappy his past undoubtedly was.

And it is that Aquaman that I always emotionally return to. The idea that the Aquaman of the past was a two-dimensional, happy-smiley character misses the darker dimensions that Haney brought to the strip. And because so many creators and commentators have associated Aquaman's continuing failure to attract an audience with his supposed lack of emotional depth and angst, they've dragged him further and further into the darkness without ever recapturing the character's mid-60's popularity. In fact, the more that Aquaman is mutilated, emotionally and physically, the less appealing he becomes to his audience. And the reason for his decline is, I suspect, that the balance between a strong and well-adjusted nature with a melancholic past has been fatally unbalanced in the direction of the melancholy. Yet the Aquaman of Haney and the Super-Friends didn't whine or rage. He didn't often brood. He was actually damn good company, comfortable with men, respectful of women, possessed of a beautiful smile and damn good head of hair. The tragedy was there, but it was rarely stage front and centre. That's why we admired him.

It's not that I want Bob Haney back writing Aquaman, knocking his scripts through to our world from the afterlife via ouija board, and I surely don't want the simple, innocent stories of the early '60s anymore than I want the grim'n'gritty ones of the past oh-too-many years. But I do want an Aquaman that I look up and who I'd like to spend time with. And Haney's Aquaman was a kind and decent man, touched, but not marked, by self-obsession and darkness. There was some kind of joy to him.

Could we say the same of many of Aquaman's later incarnations?

It's the fact that Aquaman had both his light public face and his darker private one that gives his character a useful depth. We can see some of the character's less-affable side in the painting above by Alex Ross. It is part of a King's responsibility to take charge of less pleasant situations, and I have no doubt that Aquaman is capable of executing a danger to the state if such is necessary and legally sanctioned. That's what I see in this painting. A man who is capable of doing difficult things without descending into public displays of self-gratifying self-pity.

We've already discussed how decisiveness is a key quality of "my" Aquaman. It's also displayed in Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely's Justice League graphic novel "Earth-2", where Aquaman's brief cameo appearance shows him quickly and effectively taking out the exceptionally powerful alien supervillian Power Ring. When the big time beckons, Aquaman is confident, but not foolhardy, and decisive, if not impulsive.

And when the battle is over, Aquaman will revert back to being a prince among men, and not a sulking, childish bore. Because a sulking, childish bore is not who he is.

4. There's No Crime Underwater And The Sea's A Boring Place To Be

It's hard to imagine that anybody believes that the sea isn't an exciting environment to set a superhero adventure series. Anybody walking on the shore while even a mild winter storm kicks up the white froth on the waves can testify to the terrifying potential for violence inherent in the ocean even in the slightest of its tantrums. And that's just one of an almost-infinite number of moods that the sea can offer up as a backdrop to a superhero's adventures. But it does seem to me that artists have rarely been bothered to step out and actually take a look at the sea before they begin to draw it. At the very least, they might rent a couple of relevant DVDs, or subscribe to one of the middlebrow satellite nature channels. Ramona Fradon's effective shot, shown above, of Aquaman and Aqualad riding into a storm is still one of the best examples of an artist thinking about how to portray the perils of a stormy sea , and that's from more than 40 years ago. It isn't that Fradon's panel is such a masterwork. In truth, it isn't. She's used some effective artistic shorthand to show the waves swirling and rising, to show the character's hair blowing in the wind, to show Aquaman having to lean into the gale to keep his balance. It's a non-specific cartoon version of a storm at sea, but it's an effective one, and it shames most of her successors.

The sea, with its almost-literally endless vistas and moods and denizens to set scenes in, should be the greatest gift that any Aquaman creator could ever think of. (The opportunites for undersea-life inspired BEMs alone is unimaginably huge.) And yet Aquaman's world has so often seemed like an undersea desert. Where are the plants? Where are the creatures? Why does no-one in Atlantis put the sea-life to use? Why when an artist shows us an underwater community don't we see tame and/or friendly dolphins acting as guards, or trained mantas pulling goods into warehouses. For that matter, has anybody ever sat down and worked out - even roughly - what sort of sealife exists and prospers where Atlantis sits?

I believe that I would make it a rule that each new writer, artist and editor assigned to Aquaman had to read - yes, actually read - one of Conrad's great sailing novels. "The Rescue" would do it, would help to show that the ocean isn't a flat blue desert through which Aquaman might occasionally stick a strangely-perfect haircut out of. Conrad's autobiographical novels might actually help establish something of the sea's extremes and countless subtleties too. Because as things have stood, the ocean has been a dull, dull place in Aquaman, and something needs to open folks' eyes to the fact that there are real oceans out there and they are as different and complex within themselves and between themselves as any variations that the surface continent can provide.

A noble exception to this rule was Kurt Busiek and Butch Guice's run in "Sword Of Atlantis", where a significant amount of artistic grey matter was obviously invested in thinking about how to represent undersea life in an interesting and fictionally-believable form. What a shame that Mr Guice was deliniating such a dull and hopeless undersea world. If, as we discussed in "Points On A Curve 3", a succesful setting for a superhero tale is one which inspires the reader to wish, to one degree or another, that they could visit the world in question, then "Sword Of Atlantis" was doomed to failure because it chose to show little but darkness, poverty and barbarism. It's a terribe shame that Guice's artistry wasn't directed to portray something more positive than sword'n'sorcery wastelands, so that the reader might have had somewhere less depressing to imagine in addition to the after-the-end-of-the-world Mad Max-isms.
The same problem of creators not engaging with the facts of the oceans has crippled attempts to provide Aquaman with a unique, appropriate and engaging gallery of villians. It's a fact that Jack Kirby's Deep 6 were more terrifying as seabound protagonists in their original appearance in the New Gods than anything Aquaman's own strip has delivered in 7 decades. (And that certainly includes the appearance of the Deep 6 in Aquaman's own strip decades after Kirby first introduced them.)

It isn't that the ocean is the only setting for Aquaman's adventures. But, ironically, of all the arenas where he has been put to play out his various parts, it's the undersea world that has been the least developed and the least special. And from that has come some of the resistance to Aquaman as a character: folks often decry the value of an underwater setting for superhero stories and we Aquaman fans struggle to defend the strip because there's so little we can put under the noses of the doubters to prove our case.

Isn't it ironic? The undersea superhero's undersea world is the least visually developed part of his mythos. And until the opposite becomes true, there'll be no point listing all the crimes and conflicts that can engagaingly occur down below the waves.

But as soon as a few folks start thinking about Aquaman's world, as Busiek and Guice did on "Sword Of Atlantis" and Morrison and Quitely did in "Earth-2" when they showed the Atlantean Navy in the panel shown below, the potential in the oceans as a backdrop for adventure becomes obvious. And enticing.

5. Aquaman's Not Powerful Enough: He can't compete with Superman and Batman

It's not that Aquaman isn't a powerful enough character. We've discussed that. And he's certainly a massively powerful superhero too. Those who'd have it that he can only swim and talk to fishes are either ignorant or enjoying the illicit pleasures of knowingly playing up to stereotypes. The problem is not that Aquaman isn't powerful, on land or sea, the problem is that he's rarely shown using his power in exciting and involving ways. Grant Morrison understands this, and understands how this has undercut Aquaman's appeal. In the fourth issue of his Justice League, Morrison shows Aquaman being taunted by an immensely powerful White Martian: "What can you do? You can't run or fly fast, can you? Your skin may be tough but not so tough I can't just cut through."

This of course sets up Aquaman to respond by declaring that he " .. can locate your brain's basil ganglia, the part inherited from your marine ancestors ... And just for starters, I can give you a seizure".

It's a perfect comic-book moment, one in which both character and writer win our applause because of the way they unexpectedly manouvre themselves out of a tight spot by exploiting a perfectly logical escape. And in showing Aquaman's powers in a visually arresting as well as an intellectually interesting fashion, it immediately promotes the character to the front-rank of super-hero fighters. But if Aquaman can cause a superman-powered White Martian to collapse with a stroke, then he should be shown doing so regulalrly. And the effects should be fearsome, because the power is a fearsome one. It doesn't matter whether it's difficult or morally repugnant to him. If he can do it, then needs to be shown doing it, and doing it in interesting ways.

It's remarkable how rare it is to see Aquaman drawn in interesting and appropriate ways when he's using his powers. While under the sea, Aquaman's main attributes are strength and speed, but too often these attributes are shown in dull, prosaic drawings. If Aquaman can swim incredibly fast, then he must be constantly shown moving at incredible speeds, as Nick Cardy did in the drawing above and Jim Aparo did in the drawing below.

And Aquaman's strength needs similarly to be shown in imaginative and engaging ways. He has incredible power and density. He'll come at you so fast that you can't see him coming, and he's too strong for you to be able to hold off. Above or below the sea, the man is a tank. Just as Luke Cage is for Marvel, so Aquaman needs to be for DC. A tank.

Above the ground, he's still incredibly powerful. He can take his blows as well as dish them out. He can leap very small buildings, which can be damn impressive if an artist has his wits around him. He can run fast, though he's probably something of a slow starter. And he's tough. He gets in-between dangerous people and their helpless victims. George Perez illustrates this in the panels below from JLA #193.

In conclusion: Aquaman is an incredibly fast-moving, water-breathing, super-strong tank who can give you a stroke just by thinking about it and command pretty much all non-human life beneath the waves. How utterly cool is that? What could be the problems with that?

6. His Powers May Be Impressive, But He's Still The Superhero Who Talks To Fish

The beautiful panel above by Ramona Fradon is a comic-book Rorschach test. Anybody who isn't charmed and thrilled by the sight of the young Aquaman taking the salute of hundreds of undersea creatures has no business reading comic books.

But the key point isn't that Aquaman can talk to fishes, and whales, and sea-dragons, and to quite frankly any kind of undersea life that you care to remember or invent: the key-point is that Aquaman is loved by most everything under the sea. The lonely boy who lost his family and knew no home was accepted as King by " ... every sea creature ... " long before Atlantis elected him its monarch in a desperate attempt to stave off civil war. There's an emotional truth to this that no amount of comic-book illogic can undercut. (In fact, the scene relies on ill-logic. Where have all the creatures come from? Why do they recognise young Arthur as their king? How can they recognise Aquaman as being anything at all given that most of these sea creatures are barely conscious? What service does Aquaman owe in return for their allegiance?)

But there's something terribly sad and poignant about these scenes. Since the early '60s, when these panels were drawn, the oceans have been terribly emptied of life by over-fishing and environmental pollution. If Aquaman is the protector as well as the King of undersea life, then he's perhaps not done a terribly good job of it, imagining that the DC Universe is not unlike our own. Perhaps we have to picture Atlantis existing in another dimension, or underneath some great force field, where the threatened - and extinct - species of our world can be safely protected until sanity returns to the oceans.

8. So, Then, Who Is Aquaman?

In the end, all these random images and idle thoughts of Aquaman coalesce into a distinct, circumscribed figure. He's not an Aquaman who can do anything or be all things to everyone. He has limits, his weaknesses and his inflexible core attributes. And it should be no surprise, of course, that this should be so. The human mind imposes order upon the world even when there's no order to be had. It's only to be expected that my Aquaman would possess significantly more coherence and purpose than the constituent parts which inspired him did.

My Aquaman is fast, and strong, and tough. He's good-natured and decisive and, of course, brave. He's been alone and knows what it feels like to be hopeless, but he keeps his miseries private. He's a constitutional monarch of a seafloor empire with the occasional responsibilities of a tyrant. He's a family man surrounded by a court of wife, son, step-son and assorted friends, allies and rivals. He's King of the Seven Seas and all the creatures in it. He's a passionate humanist and a loyal friend. He'll kill you if he has to, but he'd much rather not.

He's Aquaman.

* 1: It does seem strange that Aquaman hasn't developed some strategies for helping him survive in the hostile conditions on land. Perhaps the Atlantean Embassies and Consulships should keep emergency vehicles containing H20 atmospheres. Perhaps emergency waterdrops could be organised with friendly governments or organised using the JLA transporters. If nothing else, there should be water-suits available for long stay visits. After all, Aquaman and his court can't be the only Atlanteans living in the surface world. Diplomats, students, dissidents, draft dodgers, traders, artists: if the ocean floor is crawling with humonoid life, then our world should be full of water-breathing visitors.



  1. A great conclusion to a great series! I could read 10 more installments of this! :)

  2. They say Hamlet is the most tragic figure in literature. Well Aquaman is the most tragic figure in comics. And unjustly if you ask me. What did Aquaman ever do to get this kind of treatment? I know it sure wasn't to make him a more well rounded character. He just grew to be more uninteresting as he went along.

    I always liked the earlier Aquaman. The Golden Age one. The guy who would jump out of the ocean onto to a pirate ship and just beat everyone up. That's when he was a tank. If Superman was the cool kid and Batman was the rebel kid then Aquaman was the muscle head jock. The guy you want having your back in a fight. He would be the guy blocking the door so no one gets out or the first one to land a punch when you said jump.

    I also liked the Silver Age Aquaman. He seemed a bit more level headed. He swam from place to place and got his finny friends to help along. That's how I think of Aquaman really. He's the guy that tries to rally people together. He's not the leader but the guy who knows the value of having friends working with you. He believes in teamwork.

    I think this is based on him wanting to have a family. He lost his mother at an early age and his connection to his Atlantean heritage. He lost his father Tom Curry (I only accept him as his biological father). There must have been a space between them since Aquaman is half Atlantean. He never fully felt one way or the other. Plus we know his relationship with his brother Ocean Master. It’s because of this that family and closeness means a lot to him. And why the lose of his son and his wife Queen Mera affected him so deeply.

    This is the part of him I can identify with. But this aspect is never explored. He wants a family. This is why he took Aqualad under his fin. This is why he joined the JLA and the Superfriends. He felt like he had no family and wanted to have people around him. He was also of two worlds so it was hard for him to find his place. He found friendship with those he felt were on the outside. That is why he and J'onn J'onz connected as they have.

    I think Aquaman as King of Atlantis doesn't work. He's a guy searching. Atlantis makes him settling. He needs to keep searching. He needs to keep looking for his place under the sun. He's not a superhero because he has some sense of duty or obligation. He's doing it because there's something missing inside of him. He wants to fill that void. Since he is a head strong guy he doesn't run from his problems or avoid them, he goes looking for the answer. He finds that answer when he saves people. And since he is looking for love and friendship he will always greet everyone with a warm inviting smile on his face.

    This is the Aquaman I see. This is the one I think about. This is the one I love. I hope one day others will see him as I do. Not as the arrogant angry monarch but the happy go lucky hot head he once was and like all of us is just looking for love.

  3. I randomly decided to read this entry last but I'm glad I did. What a great article! Aquaman fans are the best kind of fans if you ask me, because he's a character that is so unique and anyone who wants to say they love the character has to really be someone special.

    This was a great read. I'm totally going back to read the others.

    That paragraph towards the end where you talked about what Aquaman is to you -- wow, I think you hit it right on the money.

  4. They've pretty much retconned away the 1 hour limit in the past decade or so. He still gets weaker while on land, but he can stay up there for at least several hours now, if not an entire day. Here's hoping Brightest Day brings the classic Aquaman back.

    Very well written! Thanks for taking the time to put it down in a blog!

  5. Rob: Thank you as always for your kind words! The strange thing is that the more I wrote about Aquaman, the more I kept finding that I could have written about. Mera. Aqualand. I'm sure that somewhere in my mind is a post about Topo.

    Shellhead: Isn't that the strange thing about continuity, that no matter how it's re-written, certain things seem so fundamentally important & moving to some individuals that they reject the changes & stick with their own versions of "continuity"? Kryptonite keeps slipping back no matter what anybody does to do away with it! And to many of the readers who've grown up with the Aquaman who has far less trouble surviving on land, that'll be the Aquaman that feels right to them, another of the points on their own curve, as it were.

    Thank you for visiting TBTAMC & for your kind words. I share your hopes for Brightest Day too!

  6. David said: "Aquaman fans are the best kind of fans if you ask me ... "

    Isn't that odd, David, that Aquaman should be a character who inspires such a decent bunch of fans? I'm tempted to say that that's because of the sheerness "niceness" of the '60's incarnation, as if that smiling orange and green superhero struck a chord with people who saw that kind of friendliness as an ideal. But in truth, I've found the same quality in Aquaman fans inspired by all Arthur's different incarnations, including the far darker ones! An explanation therefore escapes me, but I'm glad it's so!

    David said: "This was a great read. I'm totally going back to read the others. That paragraph towards the end where you talked about what Aquaman is to you -- wow, I think you hit it right on the money."

    That's very kind of you to say so. It's easy to underestimate how rewarding the little pleasures in life are, & sometimes it feels indulgent - as it indeed is - to sit down & write about Aquaman and other superheroes. But as your words show, these strange comic book characters do matter in their own way, just as great popular music & whatever else of less traditional cultural importance does. It was good to hear that Aquaman is a character who has been rewarding for you too.

  7. JRainey: Another excellent set of points! I've THOROUGHLY enjoyed reading everything you've written in reply to these "Points On A Curve" entries. I particularly like how you've SHOWN how what you've read has led to a specific conclusion on your part about Aquaman. I may not, for example, see Aquaman as a "happy go lucky hot-head", but I can see perfectly why that Aquaman is closest to your heart & that makes me warm to your ideas. (I'd buy that comic about the hot-headed, happy-go-lucky Aquaman, by the way! Sounds like fun - as well as something more emotional than just fun - and fun is a much-missed quality in Aquaman adventures.) The point about Aquaman gathering a family about himself because of the losses he himself suffered earlier is a particularly good one. I was going to write about Aquaman and his family, but felt that four of these essays, as Rob so kindly called them, was already over-egging the pudding on a new blog for a while. But if I ever do, I'm going to agree strongly with what you're saying. Whenever I would read of the "gritty" Aquaman being rude to his son, or indeed just about anybody, I would always think "This is a man who knows what it is to be utterly alone. He isn't going to make those nearest to him feel wretched!"

    As I say, your comments have been inspiring. It would be redundant for me to go through & pick out all the parts I've enjoyed here, because the whole argument fits together perfectly on a logical and an emotional basis. If I had come across your ideas on a blog site, you can be sure I'd be a regular visitor. My thanks to you, and if you're ever over this way again, please do feel free to drop in.

  8. I grew up with Superfriends and Aquaman was always my favorite. I was a swimmer and swimming is tough, so I believed he was the toughest. Also his voice on the show, he just sounded like a hero. Aquaman rules!

  9. Anonymous: You're absolutely right that the sheer physical effort involved in swimming is an incredibly demanding discipline. And mentally it requires marked patience & determination. The more you think about Aquaman, the more impressive a character he becomes. And it's odd, isn't it, that the basic issue of swimming practically never comes up in Aquaman? We rarely see specific strokes, hear swimming jargon - and I don't necessarily mean slang there - or get any colour from the world of swimming just to add that little unique spin to Aquaman's stories. Perhaps none of his writers have been what you were, somebody who actually was a swimmer.

  10. Just read through all four parts of your Aqua-manifesto-- not quite a thesis, but perhaps a synthesis. Building a Better Aquaman. Arthur's always been one of my favorites for reasons that are hard to quantify or explain, but you did quite a good job-- I suspect our personal visions of the character jibe pretty well.

    I think I've found a new blog to follow. Great stuff!

  11. Bill: Thank you for your kind words. I think you've put your finger on a large part of Aquaman's appeal when you say that he "always been one of my favorites for reasons that are hard to quantify or explain". It's been a poor show on DC's part as a corporation with clear financial interests to let their trademarked character "slip" so much from the clearly recognisable & well-defined Aquaman of the '60s, from a clear set of powers, friends, locales etc , BUT that has meant that the reader's imagination inevitably comes into play to reconcile all the contradictions & unexploited potential. Which makes everyone's take on Aquaman their own to a degree that's greater than many other characters.

    Please do feel free to drop in here again & let me know what you think. Have a good day!

  12. Great article. I look forward to the day when a well written Aquaman book hits the stands again.

  13. Thank you, Zebtron. I look forward to the same, though I wonder if it's likely that any book will ever be as good as the one we each carry around in our own heads.

  14. A Happy Go Lucky Hot Head may not be the best description for him but I've always seen Aquaman as the fun in the sun guy. There have been some early comic pictures where you see him hanging out on a beach and playing with his finny friends. He's a guy that likes to have a good time. I often imagined this was due to years of being cooped up in the lighthouse with his dad and not getting out and having fun. I picture Tom Curry always having young Arthur training and not hanging with kids his own age. So now as a grown man he wants to let loose. He gets to travel to exotic places and enjoys himself. He likes being around people and so he presents himself as a like able guy. He's also good looking so he attracts women.

    But as much as he is a happy person he has a bit of a temper. He doesn't like his good time interrupted. When someone comes and disrupts things he blows his top. He goes from one extreme to the next. And having a father like Tom Curry who trained him hard he could have built of a bit of resentment. Mess up his good time and he'll snap. He looks very happy but there is a lot of anger underneath.

    But since his father did train him hard he has become a very determined person. He wanted to live up to his father's expectations. This determination is shown in how he goes about things. He will travel to the ends of the Earth to fix a problem. There is no stopping him. This also can be a flaw in his character where he can easily lose sight on things around him. I think this makes him more complex. Happy but with a temper. Determined but a bit short sighted. I think it makes him more human.

    I think also he may be a bit cocky. Not arrogant. But he did train to hard. His father tried to teach him how to be an Atlantean however his father wasn't one. Having mastered certain abilities, I can see Aquaman thinking very highly of himself. He overcame certain limitations in his life and finally gained his father's approval. He would show his abilities with a bit of flair. He would have fun with them.

    I can talk about Aquaman forever. I really like your articles and your opinions. I was wondering if you are going to do one on Aquaman's Rogue Gallery. I have much to say about them and how they could help improve the Aquaman universe. A Superhero is only as good as the Villains he faces. I don't think they have made them all they can be. If they did then I'm certain we'd get more out of Aquaman than we have so far.

  15. I really like this article. I had to read it again. It addresses the questions that non-fans tend to have. I had someone ask me, How much crime is there underwater? My reply there may not be a lot underwater but there is crime on water and along coastlines.

    I think one problem with Aquaman is that they took him away from real world events and placed him in this fantasy Atlantean bubble that removes him from a world we can relate to. People like Batman because he seems like he could exist in our world. Well why not Aquaman? Let's look at him this way. Take away his powers. Why not a guy that fights crime on water? What crimes on water? How about pirates? Wasn't that a big story last year. What about drug smugglers? Slave traders? Terrorist? Whale poachers? How about kidnappings that occur in the Caribbean? Or highjackings on tourist ships? If Aquaman were a regular guy dealing with these issue he'd be amazing. However we are dealing with a guy with Superpowers. Okay. He can face the same scenarios but with villains of a higher caliber.

    I like Black Manta but I never understood what he was after. Here's a supervillain that has a lot going for him but no real motive to make him interesting or compelling. He's always trying to either take over or destroy Atlantis. Why? Here's an idea, make him the number one smuggler in the world. Drugs, guns, people, jewels, technology, whatever. He's got an army to help him do it. He's a guy trying to keep his business going but here comes Aquaman messing things up for him. After awhile he gets pissed and starts targeting things that mean something to Aquaman. Like his son. He would leave Aquaman alone if Aquaman would leave him alone. But since he's the bad guy that won't happen. And there's endless stories there. Also they can take place anywhere in the world.

    I don't understand Ocean Master either. He wants Atlantis as well. Why? I say make him another of those I want to rule the world types and he wants the secrets of the underwater in order to do it. He still wants to attack Atlantis but his ultimate goal is the world. He's the Ocean Master. There's four oceans and they cover the world. He wants to rule them and the land sticking out of them. Now he becomes our problem. And imagine how he feels about anyone crossing over his so called oceans.

    The problem with Aquaman's villains are they want something we can't relate to. I think for the most part no one cares about Atlantis. If the motive of the supervillain is to take it over or destroy then the story is not really interesting. Let them do whatever. But if you get these guys coming up and doing things in our world--the surface world--then Aquaman becomes more appealing. The threat is on our turf and someone needs to stop them. Sure a number of Superheroes can do it once they are on land but you need someone who is going to stop them from the start and that's out at sea. That guy happens to be Aquaman.

  16. JRainey - (1)You must get yourself a blog! You must. I say this without any sarcasm or irony or anything which might seem at all snotty. I am absolutely serious. Your comments are thoroughly interesting & I'd like to see what you've got to say on other subjects. (Or the same ones actually!)

    (2)On the topic of Aquaman's villians - I don't think I'm at the moment going to deal with them. This is because I don't have any strong feelings about those characters, which means I'd be telling creators how to do things right rather than putting together a picture from all the things I already feel. And at the moment I don't feel comfortable saying how something I'm not attached to should be improved. Yet I will admit as I typed this some thoughts came to mind ... I certainly agree with you about the existing criminals meaning nothing to us readers. It's a key point! That's where the challenge to any new writer will lie.

    I mean that about wanting to read your blog. Send me the address when it's up and running, and thank you as always for contributing your splendid comments here. Have a splendid day!

  17. Well, hi, anonymous. Thank you for popping in, and feel free to have a natter if you're ever around this way again. You'd be very welcome to.

  18. Hello anonymous, and thank you for the kind words!

  19. If Aquaman can give any living creature a brain seizure, shouldn't that become his dominant or sole mode of combat? Sinestro? Seizure. Mongul? Seizure? Doomsday? Seizure. So Aquaman defeats all foes (except robots and silicon-based life) and conquers the universe. The DC Universe becomes peaceful and DC stops publishing comics.

    I guess the response will be that these beings are aliens. But white Martians are aliens, and I doubt DC has established that they come from a Martian ocean. If Aquaman can affect Martians, he can affect any race of aliens from a water-based planet. Writers will have to invent excuses why Aquaman can't disable this alien or that alien.

    In short, I don't think the seizure power is creatively viable. Which may be why writers before and after Morrison haven't used it. Some sort of out-of-water telepathy may be a good idea, but not this version.

  20. Hello Rob:- I think that's a grand point and it does raise the question of what to do with heroes who can solve pretty much any crisis they find themselves in. It's a problem that dogged the Flash for decades past the Broome/Infantino classics until the post-Crisis run of fine writers on Wally's book decided to sidestep it by focusing far more on the character rather than his powers, because, of course, any Flash with half a brain can solve pretty much any problem in less time than it takes to trigger the JLA panic button.

    The question therefore is whether powers which can essentially close a great deal of conflict before it can begin are, as you say, "creatively viable". It's a damn good question too and one which I've not given much thought to recently. When I discussed Aquaman in the above, I wasn't so much discussing what Aquaman SHOULD be so much as what he was to me, because I'd always wanted to discuss the fact that superheroes exist separate to whatever companies choose to do with them, as indeed do all fictional and - now I come to thing of it - realworld figures too! In short, I found that something about an Aquaman with those mental powers enhanced his appeal for me, gave him the status of a character that's as fearsome as he is absurd, a mixture of qualities I always tend to respond to.

    I can think of a number of ways in which Aquaman's mental “I’ll-give-you-a-stroke” powers could be limited here. He could have ethical restraints. He could need to concentrate, or need to concentrate to achieve a precise and limited amount of damage, meaning that he'd only use the ability under either specific conditions or upon an antagonist who HAD to be stopped or who Arthur didn't think was worthy of being treated humanely. (Some grounds for interesting stories there, I suspect.) There could be specific conditions which restrain his mental abilities, and so on. He could even suffer himself when affecting someone else. It could be a process with left him vulnerable during the act, or dangerously weakened afterwards. All of these qualifications might actually increase the options for jeopardy and enigma in a story, though I would say that I know that I’m talking about managing the problem you quite rightly present rather than solving it.

    But your question is one I can't - I wouldn’t! - claim to answer in any definitive way because in essence it’s a vital and “live” question about the superhero genre; to what degree should superheroes be designed with limited powers to make conflict easier to generate, and to what degree is it up to creators to take characters with story-stymying, fight-closing powers and still make their adventures interesting?

    Thank you for getting my mental wheels turning on the above, Rob. I very much appreciate you doing so.

  21. I'd abandon the seizure power rather than fine-tune it to make it work. Use Aquaman's telepathy in some other way. For instance, with land-based creatures, he can "nudge" them rather than control them. Or he can read their surface thoughts enough to anticipate their movements. Or he can control their minds enough to cause a jolt rather than a seizure. A jolt equivalent to a punch, which would mean he'd have a remote punching capability. Seeing a cocky villain like Power Ring or the White Martian get slapped around as if by an invisible assailant would be fun.

    One of my pet peeves is superheroes who have too much power to be plausible. That would include Superman, Green Lantern, Flash, Thor, and Dr. Strange. When Superman fights Doomsday or Mongul, why doesn't he deliver 100 super-punches per second at super-speed? When Green Lantern fights anyone, why doesn't he simply teleport the person to jail? Etc.

    Heroes like this need fewer powers, not more powers. I think Batman, Spider-Man, and Wolverine are the world's most popular superheroes because their limitations are as well-defined at their abilities. So I wouldn't strive to make Aquaman too powerful.

  22. I like the rest of your ideas. Especially making the undersea kingdom(s) a political force and giving Atlantis and the Atlanteans a recognizable style. I've read many of the previous series and you've convinced me Aquaman may be a viable character.

    One question you didn't address: the role of his costume in making him credible. I think it's a problem. The orange-and-green costume kind of works and it's kind of interesting. But it's also kind of wildly inappropriate for a deep-sea dweller and a monarch.

    I think committing to a new costume would help the character. I'm not talking about one of the existing alternatives. I don't think we've seen the right outfit yet. It should be like one of Cockrum's Legion of Super-Heroes upgrades (e.g., Lightning Lad or Karate Kid). Something that evokes the original but is clearly styled for the 21st century.

  23. Hello Rob:- Firstly, I'd have no problem at all with the fine-tuning you mention. In fact, I hope the whole point of this piece was to say that though I've my own preferences, I have no desire to claim them as being objectively good for the character at all. I absolutely LOVE hearing about how other people view characters, as I fear I've said several times above. There's a form of rorscach test going on in how folks construct their own takes on characters, I suspect, though I hasten to say I can't read the signs! Still it's always fascinating to read how others make sense of favourite characters.

    I myself have no problem with the pet peeve you describe, though I must say you make an extremely good case for an equation which reads:- limited, tighly-defined powers = popularity. Yet I find myself as fond - not more fond, but equally fond - with the possibilities inherent in the most powerful of characters. To my mind, it's a mark of a fine writer that they can take characters who would defeat most creators - such as Alan Moore with Swamp Thing, Jim Starlin with Warlock, John Ostrander with The Spectre and Neil Gaiman with the Sandman - and consistently make something splendid of them. And it's surely true that Mr Moore and Mr Gaiman's work here has also proven to be massively succesful in the tpb and hardback markets over time. Not as popular at all as the characters you mention, but in their own, very popular, and often to markets that the more street-level superheroes don't reach. I say this not to challenge your POV, but to supplement it. I'm a huge fan of the characters you describe, and indeed Spider-Man is one of my three favourite superheroes. Yet I'd hate to see the possibility for a tale such as All-Star Superman limited by a closing-off of the extremes of Kal-El's powers, just as I'd be loath to see Batman as anything other than a "typical" human being. (If only I were so typical ... )

    In the end of course, it's all a matter of taste. And in the end, my taste is often for creators who can make the most difficult of properties swing,just as it is for those who take the more apparently limited possibilities inherent in a less-powerful hero and make them swing too.

  24. Cosmic heroes like Warlock and the Silver Surfer can work in outer-space settings. "Supernatural" heroes like Swamp Thing and Sandman can work in alternate or parallel realities. But I don't see these characters joining the Justice League and fighting alongside Green Arrow and Hawkman against Dr. Light or the Royal Flush Gang.

    I read the first volume of Ostrander's Spectre stories. Ostrander did about as well as anyone could with the character, but I didn't feel compelled to read more.

    I doubt anyone ever toted up big sales on a Spectre book. Like Dr. Strange, the character is too powerful for mundane, earth-bound stories. He's not relatable like Batman, Spider-Man, or Wolverine. He also needs redefining to make him work.

  25. Thank you for your kind words, Rob. I've enjoyed thinking about your points, especially now at the end of a long day, when it's good to get the old grey matter turning just a touch before slumbering.

    I think you're right about the costume, and it does my heart good to hear from someone else who recognises how splendid those Cockrum re-designs were of the LSH, taking costumes which were charming but dead-in-the-water for anything other than 1963 and making something fantastic of them. Yes, there MUST be a genius somewhere who can make something recognisable and viable out of the traditional Aquaman costume, and manage to do so at least to the degree of success that NeaL Adams achieved with Robin's costume in - I think - the early Nineties.

    I so agree about, for example, Lightning Lad's costume by Mr Cockrum. It's SUCH a great design, and something in the Cockrum line would indeed be a life-saver for Arthur Curry. It's at times like these that I wish I were an artist with an inspired approach to costume design. It's not that I loath the traditional design, but I do agree; it's not good enough.

    My best to you, Rob. I hope the evening finds you well.

  26. Adams's redesign of Green Arrow's costume is one of my all-time favorites. His Tim Drake/Robin redesign was great too. Something like that would do the trick for Aquaman.

    I designed my own Cockrum-style outfit for Aquaman decades ago. I don't claim it's great or anything, but it still works for me. I could scan it and e-mail it to you if you wish.

  27. Hello Rob:- my apologies for the delay in replying. I've been elsewhere on the business that caused me to put up a "I'll be absent for 96 hours" piece up in my Jan 2011 section.

    One of things I always wanted to make sure that I didn't do on this blog was to keep disagreeing with folks on matters of taste, which, as I'm sure you've seen elsewhere on the net, seems to be the norm in places. For me to debate your well-made points would, I discover as I read what you've written, be for me to write BUT I SAID ... ! And of course that would be daft. I've not convinced you, but that's OK. We have differing ideas about the value of the more-powerful, less-well defined/constrained power sets.

    On the design you mention you mention, I would like to see it, and that raises for me the matter of getting up some kind of board connected with the blog just so that folks can put up relevant material, links, designs and the such, as well as an e-mail address that's solely for this blog.