A stupid seahorse is all I get: anatomy of a perennial B-lister

It’s fair to say that of the founding members of the Justice League, Aquaman gets the least respect.  The principal reason he’s become a punchline to the general audience can be summed up neatly by the first few seconds of this Cartoon Network short:

However, Aquaman has other factors working against him as well.  I’d like to skip over the whole standard arguments about his quality as a character (aquatic telepathy and only useful in the ocean vs. how much of the planet the ocean covers, and so on) and look at a few of the other things that stand in his way.

(Note that I come here to praise Aquaman, not bury him.  He’s not at the top of my list of favorites, but I’ve always been fond of him.  He was one of two Megos I owned as a kid; I’m buying his current title, and I’ve collected what I could of Peter David’s run on the series (and associated series) and the Showcase Presents volumes.)

1. Whose Golden Age is it anyway?

I know the following about the Golden Age Aquaman: He was a surface dweller whose father used Atlantean science to make him amphibious.  And, um…he had yellow gloves?

I know that not from having read a wide range of Golden Age reprints, but from Wikipedia.  I’ve read exactly one GA Aquaman story, and that was in preparation for this article.  He didn’t make it into The Greatest Golden Age Stories Ever Told (although he was in the 1950’s volume) and the single volume of Aquaman Archives started with the Silver Age.  You don’t see his origin reprinted or retold, because he didn’t really have one. For a character who was in continuous publication from 1941 into the Silver Age, he just doesn’t seem to have been very interesting for the first 25 years of his career.  Even DC forgot about the existence of the Earth-2 Aquaman for at least a decade.

Granted, he’s not the only character this is true of (Green Arrow and the Martian Manhunter both deserve their own articles under this header) but it’s still a drawback.  Reinventing a character by taking them back to their roots has been a go-to strategy for DC in the past, sometimes to good effect, but that only works for a character who had a strong start.  No one’s going to bring back the “altered by Atlantean science” origin.  There are no great forgotten villains from the 1940s waiting to be revived–apparently his main enemies were Nazis and generic ocean-based criminals, so there’s no Dr. Psycho, Hugo Strange or Ultra-Humanite sitting in reserve.

1a. It’s a relatively minor point, since it applies to a lot of other characters, but Aquaman’s creators don’t give him much of a boost.  He was created by Mort Weisinger, who’s primarily associated with Superman these days, and Paul Norris, whose primary work wasn’t in comic books. (Norris’s other superhero work of note was the redesign of Sandman, but his primary work is the Brick Bradford comic strip, which again I had never heard of until reading about it on Wikipedia.) It’s not something that holds the character back so much as it doesn’t give him a boost that more A-list characters have–no Siegel & Shuster, Bob Kane or William Moulton Marston for him.

2. Any club that would have me as a member. The Golden Age Aquaman wasn’t a joiner.  He wasn’t a member, honorary or otherwise, of the Justice Society, or even the Seven Soldiers of Victory.  As a result, he didn’t show up in the JSA/JLA teamups, and he joined the All-Star Squadron for two issues, just in time to be removed from history by the Crisis.

Being a member of the Justice League offsets this problem to some extent, and the Earth-2 version wouldn’t have existed post-Crisis anyway, but JSA membership has kept some characters who would otherwise have been forgotten (Hourman and Dr. Mid-Nite come to mind) in the spotlight.  Perhaps if he’d been in the JSA, DC might have remembered that he existed.

3. Identity crisis. Aquaman’s life has never really revolved around his secret identity.  He has a civilian name, but he doesn’t have a job on the land or anything like that.  This cuts out entire swathes of both potential stories and supporting cast that better-developed characters had. (The up side to this is that he isn’t stuck with three-quarters of his Silver Age stories being about his girlfriend trying to expose his secret identity.)

The supporting cast issue is not unique to Aquaman, as characters who ran in backup features didn’t have as much room to devote to non-plot critical story elements. (Apart from Speedy, Green Arrow’s main ongoing relationship seems to have been with his trick arrows.) While he did develop a supporting cast (starting with Topo the Octopus in 1956), they were all part of his superhero life or, eventually, his role as King of Atlantis.  He didn’t have a group of civilian friends and a group of work friends, as Superman did.

Likewise, having something to do in his civilian identity would have allowed for a wider range of plots than just “protector of the Seven Seas”.  Becoming King of Atlantis was a step forward in this regard, but prior to that there was never really a sense of what he did with his downtime.

4. Judging a man by his enemies.  An issue that carried over from the Golden Age and was also shared with other backup characters: recurring villains.  This didn’t start improving until the mid-1960s, starting a bit weakly with the Fisherman (1965) but adding two stronger contenders in Ocean Master (1966) and Black Manta (1967).  Up until then, there was no one to write home about, the Human Flying Fish not being ready for prime time.

(This became somewhat embarrassing in Justice League of America #14, when Amos Fortune gathered up enemies of the individual League members.  Superman and Batman were often shunted to the side during this era, so none of their villains showed up.  Instead, the flowers of supervillainy he gathered together: Hector Hammond!  Pied Piper! Not GL or Flash’s greatest enemies, but not overly shabby.  Angle Man!  Well, Wonder Woman didn’t really have many recurring villains in this era.  Sea-Thief, a guy we’ve never heard of!  Ummm….

(As a brief digression, Amos Fortune is a classic example of the Will to Fail among comics villains.  When he first appeared, he had made himself wealthy by giving himself amazing luck.  Naturally he decided to go after the JLA, forgetting that being lucky isn’t illegal and they would have left him alone if he’d left them alone.  He’d probably have been banned from every casino on Earth and possibly investigated by the SEC, but I’m sure he’d have been crying all the way to the bank.)

5. Under da sea. While I said I wouldn’t get into the limitations of the undersea thing, there are a couple of specific points that are worth looking at.

One is the weakness of having to submerge at least once an hour. (How did he know that he’d die if he didn’t get water, since it had never happened?  Clearly going through dehydration isn’t fun, so I can’t blame him for not experimenting, but still.) It’s not an issue when he’s on his own turf (er, surf), but unlike Superman and Kryptonite/magic or even Martian Manhunter and fire, it isn’t something that a villain has to actively bring to the table–it’ll happen on its own if he’s not careful–nor is it a problem to be cleverly worked around, like Green Lantern and the color yellow.  This makes him appear weak in a way that these other heroes don’t.

Another issue is tied in to the lack of civilian identity.  Having superheroes deal with Real World Issues has waxed and waned in popularity but goes back all the way to Superman.  The trouble is that, unless surface world social problems are imported into Atlantis, the only issues that really work for Aquaman are ocean-related, and that basically means environmental or conservation issues.  While those issues are a valid basis for a comic, they get old if there’s too much focus on them, and they require a careful touch to avoid falling into Captain Planet-style strawmanitis.

Finally, the underwater setting makes it challenging to do a live-action version of the character (pace Entourage).  I remember someone online complaining that the prospective live TV series would be set mostly on the shore, and insisting that it should be filmed underwater.  In an ideal world this would be nice, but we live in a world where filming in and around water is notoriously difficult, dangerous and expensive even on a film budget, let alone a TV budget. (Part of the reason Waterworld ran over budget is that a set sank, and both the star and director of The Abyss nearly drowned during filming.)

 

As I said at the outset, I don’t think these issues are an insurmountable barrier that prevent anyone from creating a good Aquaman comic.  Rather, they’re limitations that make it harder to point to the character and say “See? That’s why he’s actually awesome” when someone’s making fun of him.  I admire the creators who can get past the obvious and tell an interesting Aquaman story. (As an incidental aside, I’ve also been enjoying the badass Mera that spun out of “Blackest Night”.  It was always an interesting dynamic that Mera was more powerful than her husband, at least when it came to direct displays of power, and it’s nice to see something done with it.)

Until next time, the Woggle-Bug says “Not even Peter David could make me cool.”

(Post title and ending quote from “Arthur Curry” by Ookla the Mok.  Also, speaking of good storytellers, a nod to Nick Cardy; RIP.)

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