Something that’s been on my mind for quite some time is the concept of the devolution of classic characters. I mean devolution in the biological sense of degeneration. What happens is this: A character at some point gains popular appeal, but then, for whatever reason (bad marketing or a change in trends) he/she/it appears to not do so well. I say appears because you cannot trust in marketers to tell you what’s cool and what’s not cool. Nevertheless, with so much constant fodder thrown at our psyches—it is easy to forget or dismiss many popular icons as soon as they are not readily available. Of course, if you’re a real fan of the character, person, or concept—you’ll seek them out. But the general populace will let un-marketed product drift toward the wasteland of long-term memory, while erased from the short term, and finally gutted out all together when the information isn’t accessed for an increased time period.

Today this fadeout happens quicker than ever before. People are popular one month and on the fade the next. How much have you heard about Avril Lavigne lately? Certainly a talented woman, and for a while, her face seemed to be everywhere, as she herself said: “Everyday I feel like I’m getting famouser and famouser.” And that seemed true, Avril, but there’s a very quick cap to getting famouser these days. You’ve got to constantly be selling yourself or your product, and if people give you the “been there done that” look—you’ve got to reinvent yourself immediately.


The worse offender of the reinvention concept is the narcissist Madonna. She can’t bare the thought of people not talking about her, so she puts on a new mask every new marketing cycle. The amazing thing is that the mask is really covering a lack of talent, but it works. The reinvention works because it catches people’s attention long enough to make the sale before buyers get bored again.

What about fictional characters that are well established but fade from popularity? Should they be randomly reinvented—just because they’re not selling as well as the latest pop song? I see the comic book character Aquaman as the greatest example of reinvention gone wrong, and here’s why:

There was nothing wrong with him to begin with.

Despite the absolute classic quality of Aquaman’s character, he is constantly referred to as a second banana type of lesser hero to the big guns, such as Superman, Batman, or Wonder Woman. Even the Flash and Green Lantern get much more ongoing respect. Therefore, the general thought is: Change him or get rid of him.


The first breakdown in logic.

Think about it. Imagine yourself going into the field of literary writing. You’re writing some really terrific stories until a publisher tells you that you just aren’t as good as Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, or Toni Morrison. Wouldn’t that, in itself, be a great compliment? It’s all in how you look at it. On the one hand, you’re being told you’re not as good as some of the greatest prize-winning novelists. On the other hand, you’re being compared to them, rather than writers lower on the totem pole of fame and success. If you consider that Aquaman is actually among a very small elite of superhero characters that the general populace knows or has at least heard of, then you begin to understand that Aquaman has come a long way, baby, a long way for any character.

There are two core problems with Aquaman that has given him a dysfunctional quality. 1) He is a Pepsi and not a Coke. 2) He’s a bastard child with no foster parent to champion his future.


Stick with me. I’ll explain. You’ve come this far and there’s still some lost treasure of Atlantis to find under the sea of all this rhetoric.

The Coke/Pepsi concept is this:

John Pemberton’s Coca-Cola came on the scene in 1886 and Pepsi-Cola came on the scene in 1898, although its formula was in the mix as early as 1893. Caleb Bradham invented a drink called “Brad’s drink” consisting of carbonated water, sugar, vanilla, rare oils, pepsin, and cola nuts. He then renamed the drink Pepsi-Cola, drawing on the pepsin and cola ingredients for a name, but even though Pepsi wouldn’t admit it today, there is certainly no doubt that Pepsi is based on the creation of Coca-Cola. However, the two very similar products have been around so long—who cares which popped up first? For decades people have argued whether there is really any difference between the two beverages at all. Yet they both sell well. They both sell in the billions of bottles and cans worldwide.


So, what does Coke and Pepsi have to do with Aquaman? Well, Aquaman was invented as an editorial decision to come up with an underwater character like the Sub-Mariner from Timely Comics.

Many people use the term rip-off when talking about a character or product inspired by something very similar, but that’s not entirely a fair description. If so, almost everything we buy and consume is a “rip-off.” In the original days of soda making there were only a handful of different ways, and ingredients, to make a carbonated drink. In the early days of superheroes there quickly arose some basic power types that garnished immediate imitation back and forth from comic book publishers. The two companies that influenced each other the most, were and still are the two most successful companies: National Publications (now DC Comics) and Timely Comics (now Marvel Comics). It’s certainly no secret that Jack Kirby’s great Captain America was his take on the Superman concept, his version of the red, white, and blue super American. Yet, Captain America was cool enough and different enough that he remains a stable character at Marvel and is a classic character in his own right.

Aquaman, although inspired by the Sub-Mariner, was also a great character in his own right, but suffered from a lack of creator guidance. This is where the “bastard child” problem arises. For years no one seemed to remember who invented Aquaman, and that’s a serious problem. He didn’t have the raw creative spirit behind him of a Joe Simon and Jim Schuster, who fought to get their vision created, known, and improved.

Aquaman didn’t have a Bob Kane and Bill Finger team who could continuously add to and improve his world.

I once asked comic legend Murphy Anderson (creator of the golden age Hawkman) who invented Aquaman? He said, “Uh, I’m not sure, but I think it was Mort Weisinger. Morty was the editor at the time and we think he created Green Arrow and Aquaman, but I’m not sure.” It’s generally accepted now that “Morty” did create Aquaman, or at least had the idea to do a character like Namor, the Sub-Mariner. Then Paul Norris stepped in to create the look for what is believed to be about the first ten appearances in More Fun Comics, but then Aquaman was pretty much sent adrift …

Originally he had a very different origin from the Sub-Mariner. Arthur Curry’s father scientifically altered his son, creating an “Aquaman,” using science discovered in the ruins of underwater Atlantis. Then, the powers at be, in their ever-increasing wisdom changed Aquaman’s origin to fit closer with Namor’s. I guess they wanted the Pepsi to taste more like Coke. Both underwater characters now came from a union of one human and one Atlantean.

Another difference was that Aquaman had a more traditional superhero type of costume, while Namor ran around in green swim trunks. Aquaman was also a classic American type of hero in the Flash Gordon vein, the good-looking muscular blonde hero with a broad smile. He essentially looked human while the Sub-Mariner sported Spock ears—a good twenty-five years before Leonard Nimoy would follow suit. Aquaman’s costume was very aesthetically pleasing, orange shirt, black trunks, and aquatic green leggings. His gloves originally appeared yellow, but someone wisely changed them to green to match the legs. Sadly, that one change, the yellow gloves for the green, in my opinion, remained the only wise change that occurred with this classic character.

Aquaman’s powers were similar to Sub-Mariner’s. They both hailed from Atlantis, could breath underwater, and had an influence over fish. That influence, however, turned out to be the greatest difference Aquaman had going for him. He commanded the fish! He telepathically commanded the fish. How cool is that?


Very cool, I thought. As a kid in the 1970s, Aquaman became my favorite character in the comics—and his comic book had already been cancelled! I read the back issues and followed his terrific series in Adventure Comics, written by David Micheline, which included the incredibly dramatic death of Arthur, Jr., otherwise known as Aquababy. But most importantly, Aquaman was a founding member of the Justice League of America, the best comic book team ever!


In fact (here’s some geektoid trivia for ya) Aquaman is the first hero you see in the first appearance of the Justice League of America in Brave & the Bold No. 28, 1960. The comic begins with a panel of Aquaman swimming underwater …

Over at Marvel, that swinger Spider-Man existed as my favorite mainstream hero. He definitely had more appeal than Superman or Batman at the time, but at DC Aquaman reigned King, and yes, he too, had more appeal than Superman and Batman. Superman and Batman felt overexposed in the 1970s. Aquaman was well known but not overdone. That gave him more mystique. You could wonder what might happen under all those leagues of ocean water.


Perhaps the highest achievement of Aquaman, and certainly what made him a household name, was his involvement within animation. Filmation Studios created a truly faithful version of Aquaman for the Superman-Aquaman Adventure Hour in 1967. That’s right, not the Superman-Batman Adventure Hour, Aquaman! The Adventure Hour was my first experience with Aquaman and remains without a doubt the definitive version of the character for me. Later, Aquaman teamed up with the exclusive cast of headliners to form the Super Friends—his place forever cemented in pop culture history.

So, what happened?

Well, Aquaman became a staple of the Justice League of America comics, and the various incarnations of the Super Friends cartoons, but he consistently had trouble in re- launching his comic book career, and that’s a very serious problem for a comic book character.

Aquaman’s not alone in that regard. The lack of a solid home plate is the problem with most comic book characters these days. Marvel has spent years marketing the outstanding cast created by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko and others, but dropped the ball on the actual comics along the way. Now they’re in a perpetual motion of trying to restart and reinvent the characters—without effectively moving them into the future. If you keep restarting, you’re doomed to always be in the infancy of a character’s development, and worse than that—you confuse the readers. At DC Comics the Batman franchise is probably the worst offender, with Superman a close second. There are so many different versions of Batman in comic, animated, and film form—how is a kid supposed to know who, what, where, when? Bottom line: That’s just bad storytelling.

Aquaman has suffered the worst from the reinvention trend and, actually, has taken on the most damage that still has not been repaired. At least with Batman, no matter how badly they screw up the comics or the films, we have an outstanding animated series by Bruce Timm to enjoy—in spite of the fact that Warner Brothers has already released a new, lesser, Batman animated series. See what I mean? The bad rewrites are endless.

After the Super Friends era Aquaman swam through a couple of mini-series, a nice one-shot issue with a beautiful cover drawn by Curt Swan, a failed new ongoing series that lasted 13 issues, another goofy mini-series called the Atlantis Chronicles—that began a whole new process of destroying Aquaman’s character, and another mini-series with Peter David at the helm that ushered in the third ongoing series that lasted 75 issues, his longest run in own title so far, but truly where the worst problems occurred.

Aquaman series three is full of tripe. The Peter David series attempted to Frankenstein Aquaman, and in doing so, killed the best aspects of the character, rather than granting him new life. My definition of Frankenstein writing is the following:

Frankenstein (v). To take an established character and reinvent him by tearing apart his continuity and putting him back together with a darker aspect in an attempt to write like Frank Miller.

Problem? Peter David is no Frank Miller. Furthermore, the Frank Miller formula was a plague in comic books that only saw the light of day again once Bruce Timm, Paul Dini, and company brought Batman back to where he needed to be, in a place where children AND adults could enjoy the character. Come on, folks, these are comic book characters we’re talking about! To cut the kids out the picture is the height of pretension and stupidity in terms of killing a tremendously important part of American culture. Yes, I absolutely agree there is room for Frank Miller-type scripts, and in fact I love them, too, but they should be set-aside for the adult audiences. Graphic series like Frank Miller’s Sin City is clearly for adults and works perfectly in that venue. I wouldn’t want a kid’s version of Sin City, but at the same time, I don’t want the only version of a classic superhero to remain at the adult level. Mike Grell’s Green Arrow series is a good example of that sort of pretension. The “mature reader” format eliminated kids and ultimately didn’t offer that much for the adult audience. The more realistic Green Arrow became—the more boring he got. If you make the “dark” aspect of your character the main aspect of your continuity—you’ve just shot yourself in the foot—when it comes to most comic characters. Again, why? Because you’re not honoring the original character concept. They become parodies of themselves and actually, in the attempt of seriousness, downright silly.


Batman was already a dark character that had gone through many incarnations. The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller was a wonderful look into that dark side of Batman, but Denny O’Neil was wise to create the “elseworld” phrase for that series, and all the other stories that exist outside of the main continuity. The Dark Knight was an alternate look at Batman. Okay, great, but the series became so popular every writer in the business suddenly injected new found spit and grit into the characters they worked on—no matter if the character or series warranted the disturbing change. The dark age had come …

How did this dark age affect Aquaman?

Well, Peter David’s version of a new, more serious, tougher Aquaman consisted of a longhaired, bearded dork, with a harpoon for a hand. I don’t even want to remember who was drawing Aquaman at the time (or since), absolutely unaesthetic fish-wrapper. We now had an Aquaman who looked like he came straight out of a Dungeons & Dragons fan-boy meeting. Arthur Curry was dead. Where was the brightly colored hero who once commanded the fish? Ah, and that brings us to the worst (and most easily corrected) problem of the Peter David fiasco. He took away the King’s ability to command the fish.



What the @#$%*?

You set out to make a more serious, darker, Frank Miller Aquaman. You Frankenstein Aquaman in an attempt to the put the pieces back together and end up with a stronger character—but you took away his best ability …


But the vivisection did not end there.

No, why would it?

Hell, you’ve got an icon in your torture chamber. Why not dismember him as well?

So they took his hand to give him the cliché of a pirate look, because after all, he is a “water” character. I don’t remember if they actually gave him a hook. Maybe. The Total Justice action figure has a hook hand, but he certainly didn’t end up with the pirate aspect in the comics. That would have been dumb enough, but not as bad as where they took the “new look.” They gave him a #$%$@ harpoon instead. He swam around with a harpoon attached to his wrist.


The orange shirt disappeared for ugly straps that crossed his body so everyone now could see Aquaman’s aqua-nipples, only to be outdone by Val Kilmer’s Batman bat-nipples.

During this horrible, terrible run of Aquaman, Arthur (I’m not going to call him Orin or any other @#$&* false name they came up with) screwed around with the girl superhero Dolphin and various other water creatures while letting his relationship go to $%&*@ with his wife Mera.

Again, what’s the point? Did you guys purposefully want to dismantle our ability to sympathize with our protagonist? The sense of kingship and honor were all but gone at this point. If you keep deleting from the bank account—you end up broke.

Bruce Timm launched his beautiful version of Superman during this time period and I heard that Aquaman was going to make an appearance. I prepared myself for the worst, but Timm, true to his good taste, gave us a classic version of Aquaman—only to betray us the next time we saw “the King.”

By the time Timm finally agreed to do a Justice League cartoon—Aquaman did not make the starting lineup. And, all comic gods be @#$*!, the %#&@! harpoon was back—along with the ridiculous beard and long hair. To add injury to insult they even threw on some Sub-Mariner pointy ears, as if that was all Aquaman ever lacked.

At least in the latest version of the Justice League comic book, which did include the latest version of Aquaman, they had the mercy to kill him off.

Okay, well, so long and thanks for all the fish, I thought. Down to Davy Jones’s locker you go, matey. I mean, once you’ve gutted the fish, what do you do? Throw his bones overboard.

Yet, in today’s comic book world, death is merely a rite of passage. You see, once you’ve affectively ruined a character (See: Superman, Green Arrow, Hawkman) you don’t fix the problem. You trash him and reboot.

So came the fourth series of Aquaman—to be written by no less than Rick Veitch, the man who drew Swamp Thing and then picked up the writing part of that job and tried his best to do Alan Moore proud. In other words, here was one of those “serious” and “artsy” guys coming in to make Aquaman respectable.

Was I excited?


You can take a creature like Swamp Thing in any kooky direction you want to go. He’s a monster. He doesn’t have to adhere to the same rules as the superhero. Aquaman, on the other side of the ocean, is a classic hero, born of bright, purposeful and aesthetic colors, with a treasure trove of awesome aquatic animals to create visual splendor that could only be held back by a lack of imagination. Aquaman needed a dynamic storyteller and a skilled artist. That’s all he’s ever needed.

To Veitch’s credit (or whomever made the call) they gave Aquaman the much-needed haircut and shave, but they still dropped the ball on the uniform. Last I saw, Aquaman still needed a shirt and he was wearing a headband as if he had just come home from a Pat Benatar concert. There’s an old saying: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. That’s a good saying. Aquaman’s uniform wasn’t broke in the first place. The orange, green, and black costume wasn’t in need of fixing, but that seemed to be the first thing everyone who touched him wanted to mess with. The decline of Aquaman really began when his trunks turned from black to green. Namor’s trunks were green. Were we supposed to still want to make the character more like the Sub-Mariner—or was it just the latest trend to get rid of the underwear on the outside of the pants look? The change of the trunks was the sign of things to come. Take the Super Powers Aquaman with the black trunks and stand him next to the Toy Biz Aquaman with the green trunks. Which one looks better? If you over think it—you might make the wrong decision, doesn’t matter if his trunks don’t serve a practical purpose. They look good and that’s good enough. The green trunks took some of his definition away, as if he had one foot floundering in the Twilight Zone. He’s from Atlantis. Who are we to say how Atlanteans dress. He’s got a great built-in rationalization to look and act differently. Many other heroes don’t have the built-in convenience. What’s the Atom’s excuse for wearing red trunks against his blue uniform? There isn’t a practical excuse; it just makes the uniform look superheroish and sometimes that’s okay. Of course the poor Atom has gone through many fashion malfunctions himself. Don’t even get me started on him. Or how about the Barry Allen Flash? Remember when they changed his blonde hair to black—as if that was all he needed to be popular again? Didn’t work, and guess what?

They killed him.

Back to Aquaman … Well, as for the fifth and latest series of Aquaman—I read the first story arc and in my opinion the King of the Seven Seas was still not who, what, where he should be. Although, I hear he’s got the orange shirt back. So maybe there is hope …

I felt it necessary to write this article because the problem with Aquaman is really reflective of a larger problem in our culture. We are constantly leaping forward without first looking back. If you run out the door too quickly you may forget to put your underwear on, or you might even accidentally put them on the outside of your trousers, pants, or jeans, and wouldn’t that be silly. The point is that America has a dynamically rich culture for such a young nation. We have been blessed with some of the most creative and inventive minds in history. Let’s not forget to consider what they have offered, before we slap the latest trend across their work. Just because we are presently creating something, with perhaps more advanced tools, more money, or more people involved—doesn’t mean we’ll automatically do a better job. If we ignore our roots we might forget why we create in the first place, mostly because we were inspired once upon a time by something magical.

I was once asked what I would do if I wrote Aquaman. The answer was simple. He would be King, I said, and never not King. I would make him love his wife with all the passion of the seven seas. I would make him shave with a sharp clamshell and cut his hair with a scuba knife, and I would send him on adventures seasoned with the imagination and mystery of the ocean, but most importantly I would make him command the @#$% fish.

-Bradley Mason Hamlin

EDITOR'S NOTE: The Aquaman de-evolution continues, as recent issues now feature Aquaman with a hand made out of magic water.  Still beats the hook, though.  Aquaman has made a recent appearance on an epsiode of Smallville, with rumors persisting that he'll get his own series.  Hopefully this is a step in the right direction.  And you've got to smile when a cover like this hits the stands.  Not since the '60s has such a brilliant loving and sexy Aquaman cover graced the stands. -Robert Berry



Thanks to The Unofficial Aquaman Site for existing!  For a complete gallery of nearly every Aquaman cover appearance in the history of making, CLICK HERE!



All Aquaman artwork, used here for review purposes and critical analysis, is the copyright of DC Comics.

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