Ask Chris #137: Aquaman Is Basically Terrible
Over a lifetime of reading comics, Senior Writer Chris Sims has developed an inexhaustible arsenal of facts and opinions. That’s why, each and every week, we turn to you to put his comics culture knowledge to the test as he responds to your reader questions!
Q: Why is it that despite the fact that every other character was portrayed as completely useless on Super Friends, people still hold onto the idea of SuperFriends Aquaman as being regular Aquaman? — @ericafails
A: Because Aquaman is basically terrible.Okay, okay, maybe that’s not entirely fair. To be honest, a lot of it has to do with the simple fact that for Aquaman, Super Friends was his only real presence in pop culture until Brave and the Bold made him a breakout star in 2008. With the exception of the Wonder Twins, who are also pretty commonly (and accurately) regarded as being dumb as all hell, almost everyone else on the show had something else to balance things out. Superman was a more-or-less constant fixture in pop culture from the beginning through the radio show, the George Reeves show, the movies and so on, Wonder Woman had the Lynda Carter show, The Flash eventually got that show in 1990, and Batman is Batman and needs no justification for his actions. Or at least, he had Batman ’66 in syndication, and even though that show was frequently as silly as it could possibly be, it also had a charm that Super Friends most definitely did not.
Which is another big point: Super Friends is f**king terrible. Seriously, this was a show that frequently forgot whether or not the Flash could fly, with animation that was only slightly better than a flip book and plots that seemed like they were written, edited and approved in about the time it took to watch an episode. I realize that a lot of us look back on things fondly through the lens of nostalgia, but if you can honestly watch an episode of that thing and think that it is in any way well-made or enjoyable, those aren’t lenses. Nostalgia has you in a blindfold and may have slipped a roofie into your drink.
So really, it’s kind of unfair that a character like Aquaman, who has such a long history as a DC mainstay, has that show as his one major exposure to the world outside of comics. It’s one of the worst possible portrayals of all of those characters, but for Aquaman, it’s his only portrayal to a wider audience. That’s a huge part of why his reputation is so bad.
But like I said, the other part is that he’s not very good, and never has been.
This, incidentally, is an argument that I have at least once a week with comics writer and occasional contributor to this column Benito Cereno, who loves Aquaman and cannot understand why I have nothing but disdain for the character when I am thoroughly enamored with Silver Age Superman, weird old Batman comics and other things that are a hell of a lot sillier. But really, it’s not the silliness that’s the problem. And despite what you may have heard, there’s nothing wrong with the powers, either.
Look, we’ve all heard the constant jokes about how Aquaman sucks because he talks to fish lol, and I will 100% agree with you that they are terrible, lazy gags that have been beaten so far into the ground over the past three decades that I’m amazed nobody struck oil. Worse, they became a shorthand for superheroes as a whole, so that anyone who wanted to look down on the entire genre of superhero comics — and frequently the entire medium — could smirk their way through repeating them ad infinitum as a way of alienating readers. They’re persistent and annoying, and while they’ve gotten less so now that we live in a world in which everyone you know has seen a movie with Hawkeye in it, I still wince every time I run across one.
But the thing is, they’re not exactly crafted from whole cloth. The thing that really makes them sting, that made them the ultimate superhero reader put-down for so long, and the thing that Aquaman’s ardent defenders don’t want to admit is that they’re true. At least, they’re true in part. The problem with Aquaman isn’t that he talks to fish — telepathically communicating with animals is actually a pretty cool power, especially when they’re sharks and deep-sea fangly fishes and whatever Finding Nemo was — it’s that he doesn’t do a whole lot with those powers.
That’s what makes Aquaman such a lackluster character for me: He’s barely a character at all. He’s a set of powers and an environment with the seeds of an interesting backstory that have never really sprouted into anything worth reading. I like Silver Age comics a lot, but while Superman stories from that era have an undeniable charm and a boundless sense of imagination coupled with a bizarre and often arbitrary set of rules that the writers are constantly trying to get around with dream sequences and Red Kryptonite, and Batman stories have these bits and pieces of a unique character and world evolving as they go, Aquaman comics just tend to be bland.
Bob Haney and Jim Aparo are two of my absolute favorite creators of all time, and one of the best teams to ever make comics, but even they couldn’t do an Aquaman story that I liked. There’s none of the incredible personality that Haney brought into Metamorpho (and that bled over into his jive-talking, adventure-loving Batman), and in its place is just a bunch of generic stories that take place in or near the ocean, with a generic do-gooder using swordfish and sawfish in a way that is not even close to scientifically accurate. If you want a fun project, grab an old issue of Aquaman, take it to an aquarium, and see how fast your local marine biologist has an aneurysm at the sight of a sawfish cutting a hole in the hull of a ship full of “modern-day pirates.”
Incidentally, you don’t have to worry about issue numbers. Any Aquaman story from 1950 – 1970 has a 90% chance of having that exact scene in it.
That might seem like nitpicking, but that kind of Looneytunesian cartoon logic is something else that makes Aquaman easy to dismiss, even among people who swear that a guy who flies around in red and blue tights shooting laser beams out of his eyes and using Super-Ventriloquism is one of the most important figures in modern fiction. I’m all for creativity, and there actually are a lot of examples of Aquaman doing interesting stuff with animals, but they go off the rails so often that it’s hard to find even a shred of that logic that holds an adventure story together. Batman might be able to pull whatever Deus ex Batcave gadget he needs out of his utility belt, but at least it is a belt and remains so throughout the story. It doesn’t turn into a wisecracking marmoset halfway through. Unless Bat-Mite’s involved, I mean.
Point being, while Aquaman stories are goofy and inconsistent, Aquaman himself is just boring, which is the exact thing he shouldn’t be. In our most recent argument, Benito mentioned that he was King Arthur with the powers of Golden Age Superman who fought pirates by mind-controllng sharks, and while my counter was that he’s King Arthur without the knights, the rags-to-riches origin story, the Holy Grail, the interesting enemies or literally anything else that makes King Arthur interesting, he’s not wrong. That’s a solid premise for a superhero comic. The problem is that Aquaman doesn’t act like a guy who does that stuff.
It’s hard to talk about Aquaman without comparing him to the Sub-Mariner, mainly because Marvel and DC both somehow managed to have two Kings of Atlantis with the exact same origin story that seem completely different in every other respect. The reason? Namor has a personality that you can describe without ever mentioning that he’s a fish-man with wings on his ankles. He’s a king and he acts like it, he’s got this arrogance and swagger that make him fun to read about. He’s a guy who will show up to fight a monster with the Hulk and Dr. Strange, but also might roll up into New York, punch the Thing through a wall, try to f**k somebody’s wife, and then act like you’re the dick when you call him on it. I’m not saying that Aquaman needs to have that personality (more on that in a second), but there’s a reason the joke is “Aquaman talks to fish” and not “Namor is a weird horny merman who wears tiny green pants and shouts nonsense Latin all the time.”
Namor is defined as a character in a way that Aquaman never was back in the day — and he’s not the only one, either. Green Arrow, despite having the awesome, sells-itself premise of being a Modern Day Robin Hood, was the same way: A bland, boring Batman clone under a different coat of paint until someone came along and figured out how to make the person as interesting as the trick arrows. Incidentally, it’s worth noting that both Aquaman and Green Arrow spent a significant portion of the Silver Age living in a cave with a teenage boy, and guys. Really. In the DC Universe, the position of “crimefighter who lives in a cave with a teenage boy” is already filled. Thank you, but we are not accepting applications at this time.
Anyway, while Green Arrow had some success with his rob-from-the-rich, give-to-the-poor attitude being taken to the logical conclusion of becoming a cartoonish caricature of a liberal who also shot things with arrows, Aquaman never really did.
Again, part of the problem was that he ended up getting rebooted, and in the DC Universe, rebooting a character means squeezing it until every last drop of fun has been excised so that you can replace it with mopey symbolism. Thus, Aquaman got some powder blue underwater camo and an origin that involved cursed blonde hair (?), before eventually growing out his hair and his beard in case you forgot he was supposed to be King Arthur and replacing one of his hands with a hook in case you forgot he lived in the ocean.
You know, like a pirate? Who has a hook for a hand? Because pirates live on the ocean? It’s pretty subtle, you can take a minute to think about it if you need to.
It’s also during this time that the emphasis shifted to talking about how tough Aquaman had to be to survive in the depths of the ocean and how he was hella strong and was absolute ruler of 75% of the entire world so yeah I guess he does a little more than talk to fish, man. This came up a lot in the ’90s, and while it’s all pretty true to his character and his powers, it always sounded like someone desperately trying to convince someone that Aquaman isn’t dumb, a shrill, constant “Is not!” to the joke about how talking to fish is a stupid power. And as we all know, nothing shuts someone up like loudly bringing up something to contradict it, as that never, ever devolves into a constant “is too!” from the other side. Never ever.
To be fair, Mark Waid and Grant Morrison both had success writing an interesting version of Aquaman in this period, in JLA: Year One and JLA, respectively. Waid put the emphasis on Aquaman as a literal fish out of water who was uncomfortable on the surface world, who spoke softly because he was used to sound carrying further underwater. That’s more than a little on the nose, but it’s also an interesting character development that gives him an underlying structure that can come out in his interactions.
Morrison ran with it, too. The Aquaman of JLA still did a lot of posturing and growly reminding about how life under the sea had made him tough and strong, etc., etc., but there were also moments where you could see beneath the posturing to someone who was still a little uncomfortable.
Most of Aquaman’s lines in that book involve some variation of “I think I can…” or “what should I do?” rather than the definitive statements that you got from guys like Superman, and it really works well — it shows him as a guy who’s still uncomfortable in this world, but for whom being in the League is a relief. It’s the one place where he doesn’t have to be the leader, where he’s not the guy wearing the crown with all the responsibility on him, and it’s also the one place where he trusts the people around him enough to do that. He still has this desire to prove his worth, but they come from that discomfort and the nobility that drives him to defend people. It’s all internal — there’s character, even if it’s a character that relies on being part of a larger ensemble to really come through.
And then there’s the latest reboot, which is just awful.
Aquaman’s reintroduction in the increasingly inaccurately named “New 52″ is just mind-blowing in how little sense it makes, because it is nothing but a reaction to the Aquaman Sucks joke. Everyone in that comic who is not Aquaman or sleeping with Aquaman is constantly telling Aquaman how awful he is, despite the fact that there is absolutely no reason for them to think that. Aquaman is presented as a superhero who is reasonably capable, but he’s constantly being reacted to by people who apparently have the same jokes in a world where Aquaman actually exists and helped save the world from an alien invasion by brutally stabbing Parademons with a trident as we do in a world where Aquaman was a character on a stupid cartoon thirty years ago. There is a scene in Justice League where a bunch of people watch Aquaman rescue every passenger on a capsized cruise ship, something that would be impressive as hell and is presented as such, and they stand around cracking jokes like they’re the writing staff of Robot Chicken.
It makes. No. Sense. And believe me, I have spent a lot of time trying to figure it out. It’s the weirdest kind of proselytizing, where there are a bunch of characters — including the hilariously hipstery reprsentation of The Internet in #1 — straw-manning around the story contradicting everything that’s actually happening, so that the petulant “NO IT’S NOT!” mentioned above is now accompanied by an equally grating “AND YOU’RE STUPID!” And keep in mind, these are themes being directed exclusively at people who are already reading a comic with Aquaman in it. Those aren’t the folks you need to convince, and the people who hold Aquaman sucks because he talks to fish, lol, as an unshakeable conviction aren’t going to read the comic anyway. Just write him as a character and it’ll all work itself out.
The big recurring mistake through the modern incarnations, I think, is that they try way too hard to pretend that Aquaman isn’t inherently silly, and end up trying to stress that rather than crafting adventures and personalities. And he is inherently silly. He’s a crime-fighting merman. That might not be quite as dumb as a plutocrat who makes his butler sew up highly inaccurate costumes with a big picture of a bat on the chest so that he can go get into anonymous karate fights, but it’s up there. The trick isn’t to talk about how serious these things are and draw attention to them, but just to accept them as part of the world these characters live in.
That’s why the most successful and interesting version of Aquaman is, for my money, the one who showed up on Brave and the Bold.
That dude had personality to spare, but more than that, he had a personality that made sense. He had the confidence of a king, but his driving force was the love of adventure. It was clear without ever being said that he wasn’t on the surface because of a begrudging obligation to the Justice League, but because he wanted challenge, fights, adventure worthy of his station, and there just wasn’t much going on back in Atlantis. Admittedly, he was essentially just Marvel’s Hercules, but it worked. It embraced that inherent silliness and made it work by making him a boisterous, larger-than-life character to fit his boisterous, larger-than-life world.
BATB also tweaked his powers just a little, and giving him Mera’s ability to create swords and shields out of water is a really smart choice. It’s visually interesting and dynamic, it gives him something to do that doesn’t just rely on a Bugs Bunny understanding of electric eels and seahorses, and it helps tie him thematically back to King Arthur. It’s a good fit, and how an Aquaman reboot happened without all of us just saying “Okay, this is Aquaman now” is a mystery I can’t even begin to solve.
That’s all we have for this week, but if you’ve got a question you’d like to see Chris tackle in a future column, just send it to @theisb on Twitter with the hashtag #AskChris, or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org with [Ask Chris] in the subject line!