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.
* 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.