Many of comics’ most popular heroes have been around for decades, and in the case of the big names from the publisher now known as DC Comics, some have been around for a sizable chunk of a century. As these characters passed through the different historical eras known in comics as the Golden Age (the late 1930s through the early 1950s), the Silver Age (the mid 1950s through the late 1960s), the Bronze Age (the early 1970s through the mid 1980s) and on into modern times, they have experienced considerable changes in tone and portrayal that reflect the zeitgeist of the time.
With this feature we’ll help you navigate the very best stories of DC Comics’ most beloved characters decade by decade. This week, we’re taking a look at the best Aquaman comics.
1940s: “The Undersea Lost World”
Adventure Comics vol 1 #137, by Otto Binder and John Daly
Aquaman first appeared in 1941 in a story that established him as the son of an underwater explorer so famous that he couldn't be named for fear that the reader would recognize it. Rather than the son of Atlantis that he would be portrayed as later, here Aquaman was a human whose childhood living in a watertight sea lab with his father trained him to be able to breathe under water and speak to fish in their own language. Throughout the '40s and '50s in first More Fun Comics and then later in Adventure Comics, Aquaman would fight pirates and Nazi U-boats.
The selection here presents a story in which Aquaman helps a marine scientist to explore previously unknown sections of the ocean floor, where they uncover a lost world full of what appear to be aquatic dinosaurs. Hindering them in their attempt to claim this land for the United Nations, however, is Aquaman's Golden Age arch-nemesis, the pirate Black Jack.
Best of the rest: “Aquaman” (More Fun Comics #73), “Four Fish to Fetch” (Adventure Comics vol 1 #104), “The Monster and the Mermaid” (Adventure Comics vol 1 #110), “Aquaman Goes to College” (Adventure Comics vol 1 #120), “The Man in the Iron Shoe” (Adventure Comics vol 1 #126)
1950s: “Aquaman Meets Aquagirl”
Aquaman was one of the very, very few superheroes — including, notably, Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman — to continue publication throughout the 1950s. Perhaps this is because he kept a low profile — Aquaman did not appear on a comics cover until the first appearance of the Justice League, a full nineteen years after his first appearance — but I like to believe it was because he was appearing in inventive little stories by such writers as Otto Binder, Robert Bernstein, and Jack Miller, but most notably, drawn by Ramona Fradon.
Fradon was the regular artist on the Aquaman feature for over ten years, starting in 1951. Not only was she one of the few women artists working in comics at the time, she is — in my opinion, at least — one of the finest cartoonists of all time. The selection here is a fine example of her work, where she and writer Bernstein introduce the first of many characters to bear the name Aquagirl in a charming little mystery story.
Best of the rest: “How Aquaman Got His Powers” (Adventure Comics vol 1 #260), “The Manhunt on Land” (Adventure Comics vol 1 #267), “The Whale That Was Wanted for Murder” (Adventure Comics vol 1 #174), “The Mystery of the Aqua-Dolls” (Adventure Comics vol 1 #207), “The Tom Thumb Aquaman” (Adventure Comics vol 1 #230), “Aquaman Joins the Navy” (Adventure Comics vol 1 #232), “A World Without Water” (Adventure Comics vol 1 #251)
1960s: “The Search for Mera”
Aquaman's Silver Age era is considered to have begun in 1959 with the publication of a revised origin that presents the more familiar story of a lonely lighthouse keeper and a lost ruler of Atlantis falling in love and having a child. Soon Aquaman gained a friend in the form of Aqualad and, after gaining his first ongoing solo series in 1962, a family in the form of Mera and Aquababy.
The early half of the decade saw seminal work on the title by Bob Haney and Nick Cardy, who finally introduced recurring super-villains such as Black Manta and Ocean Master, while the latter half saw the book taken over by fan-favorite creative team Steve Skeates and Jim Aparo. “The Search for Mera” is perhaps their most famous story, in which Aquaman seeks out his kidnapped wife while Aqualad and Aquagirl try to stop a coup in Aquaman's absence.
Best of the rest: “The Kid from Atlantis” (Adventure Comics vol 1 #269), “The Mystery of the Undersea Safari” (Detective Comics vol 1 #300), “The Fish in the Iron Mask” (World's Finest Comics vol 1 #132), “Menace of the Alien Island” (Aquaman vol 1 #4), “The Invasion of the Fire Trolls” (Aquaman vol 1 #1), “The Wife of Aquaman!” (Aquaman vol 1 #18), “The Doom from Dimension Aqua” (Aquaman vol 1 #11), “Between Two Dooms!” (Aquaman vol 1 #35)
1970s: “Death of a Prince”
The regular Aquaman series lasted for 56 issues until it was placed on hiatus and the feature returned to Adventure Comics. Following the beginning of this story and how popular it was, the ongoing Aquaman series was started back up, but only lasted six issues before being canceled in the “DC implosion,” in which a wide swath of DC titles were canceled without warning.
Despite being the last ongoing Aquaman story for over a decade, “Death of a Prince” is undoubtedly one of the best known and best loved Aquaman tales. In this story Black Manta establishes himself as Aquaman's deadliest foe, by killing Aquaman and Mera's son in an act that would have been absolutely shocking to readers in the early '70s.
Best of the rest: “The Creature That Devoured Detroit” (Aquaman vol 1 #56), “And Death Before Dishonor” (Adventure Comics vol 1 #444), “The Secret of the Sinister Abyss” (Adventure Comics vol 1 #451), “Is California Sinking?” (Aquaman vol 1 #53), “Dark Strangler of the Seas” (Superboy vol 1 #171)
1980s: “Thicker Than Water”
Following the demise of his own feature, Aquaman appeared mostly as a member of the Justice League, of which he eventually became the leader, which would usher in the, uh, not particularly loved Detroit era of the team. After Crisis on Infinite Earths, as with many other characters, Aquaman's origin was retooled for a more modern age, and he appeared in a number of mini-series and specials that expanded the Aquaman mythos.
The first of these was this mini-series that introduced Aquaman's famous “camouflage” costume and focused on Aquaman's relationship with his half-brother, the Ocean Master, who is reinvented here as a sorcerer. The costume change and some of the new story elements did not last, but nevertheless this mini-series is a major favorite of Aquaman fans.
Best of the rest: “The Legend of Aquaman” (Aquaman Special #1), “The End of the Justice League!” (Justice League of America Annual #2), “Tide of Battle” (Aquaman vol 3 #1-5), “Scavenger Hunt” (Adventure Comics vol 1 #475)
The most definitive Aquaman writer of the 1990s, and perhaps of all time, is Peter David, who, after two mini-series detailing the history of Atlantis and Aquaman's early years, shepherded the beginning of Aquaman's fifth (!) volume, which would prove to be its longest run (so far). This era is notable for giving Aquaman a surlier attitude, reflected physically in his hand being replaced by a harpoon. Despite this superficially darker turn, David's run on the title is notable for being full of high-spirited, rollicking adventure.
“The Triton Saga” is the culmination of all of David's years on the title, and sees Aquaman battling against a literal god, after Triton, son of Poseidon, dethrones his father in order to name himself King of the Seas.
The early 2000s saw Aquaman reinvented yet again, as the king of the seas is taken in a more magical direction when the Lady of the Lake of Arthurian legend grants Aquaman a mystical hand made of water to replace his hook hand. Before long, the series would be retooled again as the original Aquaman would become the mysterious Dweller in the Depths and would be replaced by a younger Aquaman named Arthur Joseph Curry, as the series would be renamed Sword of Atlantis.
Before that, however, was the era known as “Sub Diego,” in which Aquaman hurries to help the people of San Diego, which has sunk below the sea following a massive earthquake. The real mystery here, though, is the fact that the citizens of Sub Diego, ostensibly regular humans, are somehow able to breathe under water.
And that's it for the decades we've experienced so far! The 2010s are halfway over; we'll have to see who comes out on top in five years! Will anything beat Maelstrom? We'll see!
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