Ask Elle #284: What if Aquaman is Actually the Best?
Q: Why are there so many people defending Aquaman and not any other unpopular super-hero? — @Ettore_Costa
A: First off, I don’t entirely agree that other unpopular superheroes don’t have their share of defenders. There’s a loud minority of people who really, really love Cyclops, for example, and can defend him all day long. My own favorite super-hero is Boom Boom, and all you have to say to bait me into an argument is, “But isn’t she really boring except in that one Warren Ellis comic where she’s an idiot?” There are probably even people who really like Red Tornado (I have never met these people).
But each maligned hero has their particular problem, and that colors how they’re defended as much as it does how they’re attacked. When someone points out that Cyclops is a tightly wound stick in the mud, the best you can really say is, “That’s true, but you have to realize he’s dealing with a lot, he had a terrible childhood, and he’s easy to identify with if you have anxiety, and also he cares a lot about his team, and he tries really, really hard to do the right thing even though he often screws up.”
When someone tries to tell me that Boom Boom is too superficial and materialistic to be a good superhero, I do my best to explain that Boom Boom grew up with nothing, in an abusive household, and ran away when she was thirteen because her dad beat her for being a mutant. So of course now that she’s on her own, she wants her life and everything in it to be fabulous. She’s not a spoiled rich kid; she’s indulging in all the things she grew up believing she didn’t deserve and would never have.
And when someone says that Red Tornado is a boring robot with silly powers who cries too much… I’m sure there’s a defense of him too, but I’ve never heard it. Anyway, the point is that the criticisms of these heroes aren’t necessarily unfair. It’s just that they have more going for them that casual fans don’t necessarily see, and for readers who love them that makes all the difference.
But then there’s Aquaman. Aquaman’s been around since 1941. He’s one of five DC heroes (along with Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, and Green Arrow) who never stopped appearing in comics between the Golden Age and the Silver Age. He’s a founding member of the Justice League. He’s appeared in ridiculous kids’ stories where his best friend is an octopus, and gritty stories where his son is murdered and his wife can’t forgive him for it, and all sorts of stories in between. He’s also probably the best character on the beloved Batman: The Brave and the Bold cartoon.
And what do people say when the criticize Aquaman? “He’s dumb because all he does is talk to fish.”
Look, I get it. There’s a good chance your idea of Aquaman comes from Superfriends cartoons or old Justice League comics. Or it just comes from other people making fun of Aquaman (everyone who's ever made fun of anything has made fun of Aquaman).
And it’s true, when you’re on a team with Superman and Green Lantern, and you’re trying to stop an alien invasion force that’s raining death from the skies, being able to summon octopi and swordfish to do your bidding is not very useful. Half the time Aquaman either isn’t given much to do, or the story’s structure is twisted to somehow incorporate water for the sake of his contrived hero moment. Neither one is a good look.
And then there’s the added problem, which is that over the years a lot of writers have incorporated their own defensiveness about the character into Aquaman’s own persona. So he becomes the angriest guy in the Justice League. The long-haired badass with the pirate harpoon hand. The Geoff Johns Aquaman who grumpily declares that he doesn’t talk to fish (let me tell you about Aquaman: he definitely talks to fish). If you’re already disinclined to like Aquaman, none of this is going to help.
The animated Brave and the Bold found a much better way of dealing with this problem. The Aquaman on that show, voiced with booming bravado by John “Jake the Dog” DiMaggio, isn’t angry or defensive. He’s just absolutely certain that he’s totally awesome, and he wants to tell you about it. Here’s the secret thing about Aquaman: He actually is pretty awesome. And I also want to tell you about it.
The key to Aquaman and his fish-related powers (and this seems like it should be obvious but a lot of people seem to miss it) is that all the best Aquaman stories take place in and around the ocean. On land, or on the Justice League satellite, Aquaman is literally out of his element. But underwater, Aquaman is The Guy. Aquaman is the Superman of the ocean.
This has become a cliché, but I can’t avoid saying it: The ocean is freaking enormous. There’s way more ocean than there is land on this Earth, and it’s incredibly deep and still not terribly well-explored. And that’s Aquaman’s home turf, the part of the world he’s in charge of. What’s more, his ocean isn’t even our ocean, it’s a DC Universe ocean where there are at least five or six different sentient undersea races, as well as sea monsters, ancient Atlantean magic, and hidden portals to other dimensions. The ocean is big enough to hold all kinds of stories, and Aquaman is a versatile enough hero to star in them all.
Are you a fan of that patented Silver Age DC craziness? Check out Silver Age Aquaman. He time travels, meets a clown who dresses just like him, and befriends a magical imp from another dimension (every DC hero had one of those, but Aquaman’s was the friendliest). In my book, Aquaman ranks just under Superman for pure Silver Age gonzo fun.
Looking for an early 70’s monster comic? Try Aquaman. There are some creepy things down in the black depths of the sea, and Aquaman’s the only line of defense between them and the surface world.
How about some of that Bronze Age melodrama? Allow me to recommend Aquaman. It’s easy to be sick of dark and sad superhero stories now, but the story where Black Manta kills Aquaman’s son predates all that, and it’s genuinely wrenching. Black Manta does what super-villains always do — he kidnaps the kid and puts him in a death trap, then challenges Aquaman to save him in time. And this time, Aquaman fails. I can’t even imagine how shocking that must have been in the 70’s. Obviously, this cements Black Manta as Aquaman’s #1 archenemy, despite the face that his own brother is an evil wizard. Also, check out that Jim Aparo art.
Or perhaps you’re looking for a high fantasy epic. This Neal Pozner/Craig Hamilton/Steve Montano miniseries is one of my favorite Aquaman stories. He gets involved in the politics of a neighboring undersea kingdom where magic rules, confronts Ocean Master (his aforementioned evil wizard brother), and learns to get in touch with his feelings. There's a ton of stuff going on in these for issues, but if anyone brings up the series at all, it’s to make fun of Aquaman’s short-lived (and admittedly ill-advised) blue costume.
Which is sort of the Aquaman problem in a nutshell. He’s been in as many great stories as bad stories (and what superhero hasn’t had their share of bad stories?) but most comic fans are too busy making fun of what’s on the surface to even engage with what makes him interesting. Aquaman is the ruler of an undersea kingdom, but he’s also trapped between it and the surface world. Both realms are a part of him, but he truly belongs to neither. He has close allies among his fellow superheroes, but his position as protector of the part of Earth they barely understand sometimes puts them at odds. He was one of the first superheroes to get married (his wedding to Mera predates Reed and Sue) but inevitably that relationship has hit its share of snags over the years.
There are all sorts of stories you can tell with Aquaman, but to do that you have to let go of the tired old jokes about how worthless he is. Aquaman is only worthless if that’s what you want him to be. Personally, I would much rather see him be a hero.
Ask Elle art by Lauren Moran.