Desperately Seeking Sea King: Happy Aquaversary, Aquaman
When Aquaman debuted on this day in 1941 in More Fun Comics #73, in a story by Mort Weisinger and Paul Norris, he was not the first aquatic superhero—Marvel's Namor the Sub-Mariner had him beat by about two years—but thanks to nearly seventy-five years of more or less continual publication, a choice spot as a founder of the Justice League, and starring roles on Super Friends and The Superman/Aquaman Hour of Adventure, he is surely the best-known underwater adventurer in comics. This fame, however, has proven to be a double-edged sword (trident? harpoon?) for the king of the seven seas.
Aquaman ran as a feature first in More Fun Comics, then Adventure Comics and World's Finest Comics before finally landing his own title in 1962. Not many superheroes survived the post-Wertham interregnum between the Golden and Silver Ages—Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman being notable exceptions—but Aquaman (and his long-time co-feature Green Arrow) survived the superhero drought unscathed, perhaps because he was a pet creation of editor Mort Weisinger, or perhaps because he kept his head down as a modest supporting feature in a string of anthology titles who didn't even appear on a cover until nineteen years after his first appearance (not even in his own title, but in the first appearance of the Justice League in Brave and the Bold).
While Aquaman's Golden Age adventures largely focused on fighting U-boats and modern day pirates without much focus on characterization or world-building, this would change by the Silver Age, which saw the introduction of Aqualad, Mera, Tula, Aquababy, and Aquaman's most famous finny friend, Topo. This era also first saw a revamped origin that for the first time tied Aquaman to Atlantis (he had previously been the son of a famous but unnamed underwater explorer), as well as the introduction of his most famous foes, most notably Black Manta and the Ocean Master. This era also served as a showcase for a number of extremely talented artists, such as Nick Cardy, Jim Aparo, and especially the inimitable and vastly underrated Ramona Fradon. It's worth becoming an Aquaman fan just to have the experience of looking at her art.
The 1960s saw Aquaman suddenly become a star: not only did he gain his own title for the first time, he also had a headlining spot on comics' premier super-team, the Justice League, and soon a starring role on not just one, but by the early '70s, two animated television shows. It is, however, perhaps because of his appearances on Super Friends that Aquaman has been judged by fans and non-comics readers alike as an ineffectual hero with useless powers, as if any of the heroes looked like paragons of badassitude on that show. Before long, the idea that Aquaman was worthless compared to his compatriots was, in the words of critic and writer Glen Weldon, “officially the hoariest, hackiest arrow in the quiver of pop-culture commentary.”
While many an apologia of Aquaman focuses on his powers, in an effort to directly rebut the calumnies of his critics—I myself have been guilty of this on occasion—the fact is that powers are unimportant, really, in the long run. It doesn't matter if Aquaman has bulletproof skin or night vision or can command an army of sharks; he could have no powers at all—something that has worked out just fine for certain characters—as long as he stands for something, as long as he means something.
And the fact is, whether Aquaman is the underwater explorer of the '40s, the smiling sea sleuth of the '50s, the world-weary monarch of the '90s, or the braggadocious buccaneer of the Brave and the Bold cartoon, one thing has remained constant: as a man of two worlds, Arthur stands as both the envoy and the bulwark between them. He is the last line of defense between our world and the ocean depths, the last truly unsolved mystery of our world. And whether grim or bombastic, he maintains the nobility and regal bearing befitting a monarch in control of over 70% of the world, and most importantly—following the lead of his namesake, that other King Arthur—the unflinching conviction that right makes might, and not the other way around.
Happy birthday, Aquaman. Here's to many more.
Aquaman is Cool. Don't Believe Us? This Video Proves It. Probably