One can reduce any superhero into a punchline. Superman is a naive, patriotic boy scout parading about with his underwear on the outside of his pants. Batman is a stunted crybaby who punches other lunatics rather than dealing with his trauma on a psychiatrist’s couch. Wonder Woman is an S&M fantasy born from clay and a sixth grader’s understanding of Greek mythology. Aquaman talks to fish.
Feel free to dismiss comic books as childish. I’m sure your house smells rich with leatherbound Barnes & Noble Classics, and your Criterion Collection Blu-rays are properly displayed by spine number. I’m not here to convince you that spandex trumps Bergman. I’m talking to that other person next to you, the one wearing the Captain America tee based on the Alex Ross design. That’s a rad shirt. Let’s chat.
Marvel vs. DC. Star Wars vs. Star Trek. Beatles vs. Stones. I’m sick of these showdowns. While I understand loyalty to the character or franchise that first sparked your passion, I’ve personally found that by venturing into realms I often rejected as “stupid” or “lame,” the honest result is enlightenment. The ideas are not inherently faulty, but how they are presented to us triggers raised eyebrows or rolled eyes.
For decades, The Caped Crusader was defined by the Adam West parody. Then came Frank Miller with “The Dark Knight Returns” and suddenly Batman is serious, grim business. In 2006, Grant Morrison took over the writing chores on the main Bat-book and championed the idea that all Batmen were valid. He found purpose for Bat-mite, the Batman of Zur-En-Arrh, and, um, Bat-Cow. WTF? Yeah, if you haven’t read his run on the book, you really deserve to treat yourself.
There was an epic journey from gun-toting Batman to rainbow-suited Batman to Batfleck, and each presentation informed the next. Whether Bruce Wayne was ducking from Aunt Harriet in stately Wayne Manor or jamming a Batarang in The Joker’s eye socket beneath the tunnel of love, the character is large enough to support multiple interpretations. You can choose one, but hating the other is senseless and self-defeating.
Recognizing that I could enjoy the BIF BAM POW alongside the guttural growls of Christian Bale opened my mind to characters I once saw as silly or infantile. At the top of the list was Aquaman. My early experience with the King of the Seven Seas was centered around his contribution (or lack of) to the Super Friends cartoon series. The blonde, smiley, scaley-costumed hero who usually popped up on the back of a whale looked rather goofy next to the basic-punching action of Superman and Batman.
To involve Aquaman, the Super Friends writers were forced to manipulate their stories towards the ocean. Even to my kiddie self, such contrivances were irksome and highlighted an ineffectuality next to the rest of the Justice League titans. Add some absurd animations of Aquaman skiing atop dolphins destined to condemn the character permanently via gif, and only the unstoppable charm of Jason Momoa could cause mainstream audiences to take notice of Arthur Curry.
While it is not impossible, it is rather difficult to make Aquaman kick ass on dry land. Just as it’s challenging to have Batman wrestling octopuses below the Mariana Trench. That’s not his world, and he looks a bit off wearing a scuba suit. Keep to the back alleys, bro.
The comics are where you must venture to witness the might of Aquaman and his world. Atlantis is simply another final frontier to explore; a galaxy populated with gnarly creatures and royal conspiracies to rival The Crown. Trade bubbles for stars and you have a canvas as rich and infinite as the ones where Flash Gordon and Luke Skywalker pilot.
Artists like Butch Guice and Scott Eaton find new vigor in depicting a world unlike any other in comics. There’s no need to worry about routine depictions of cars or skyscrapers. Aquaman offers them visuals utterly alien to the average panel. The biology of the sea providing a framework and an aesthetic jumping off point totally unavailable in other books.
Arthur Curry is a man torn between two worlds, the surface vs. the deep. One spends an awful lot of time thinking about the other while one barely acknowledges the other while tossing McDonald’s wrappers from their car window. Depending on his mood, or his writer, Arthur can be either a bridge or a wall between the two civilizations. Like Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman, Aquaman is a powerful tool to communicate the pleasures or frustrations of humanity.
In the ’90s, when Image comics like Spawn and Youngblood were challenging the extreme aggression of Frank Miller’s Dark Knight, writer Peter David took a pass at Aquaman and attempted to harden his clean image for a new generation. He stripped the orange shirt off his back, steeped him in a depression that brought about the long hair and the beard. Still not badass enough, a brawl with forgettable supervillain Charybdis left Arthur without a hand but granted him the gift of a retractable, mechanical hook.
David left after 40 issues, but the run continued after his departure until issue 75, marking it the longest lasting Aquaman volume ever. Arthur remained shaggy and stern for a good long time, a brooding warrior king with a contempt for the surface and condemning readers for the ignorant environmental tragedy they perpetrated upon his world. Throughout the aughts, he picked another short-lived comic series, and other writers would find reasons to slip him into the Justice League.
A few years back, with the launch of DC’s New 52, writer Geoff Johns and illustrator Ivan Reis took the opposite approach to David’s dour soldier. In the very first issue, they addressed mainstream ridicule by having Aquaman sit down with a snarky blogger post-bank heist bust-up. The hipster comes at Arthur with a zillion questions designed to mock his very being. He picks at the orange shirt, the trident, the fish-talking, and he closes out his barrage with “How’s it feel to be nobody’s favorite superhero?”
Aquaman’s response is the sound effect “SHINGG” as he raises his razor-sharp trident into the light, puts his back to the blogger, and goes on to wage war with the most savage batch of sea monsters this side of the Kraken. DC Comics acknowledges the majority opinion of their aquatic ace, but they also know they’re one movie away from turning the tide. Just ask the Guardians of the Galaxy.
A defensive posture used to be the go-to formation for comic book readers. The last 20 years of cinematic acceptance has made things a little easier, and we’ve been permitted to champion the heroes that reside further down the ladder than Batman. Seeing folks accept talking raccoons and ant men no longer triggers a gob-smacked expression. It’s now time for the guy who talks to fish.