THE AQUAMAN ARGUMENT
BY BRADLEY MASON HAMLIN
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.
AQUAMAN HAD THE HOTTEST BABE OF THEM
ALL, MERA, AT HIS SIDE...AND LATER MARRIED HER IN A SPECIAL ISSUE
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
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
AQUAMAN'S COMIC BOOK RUN IN THE '60s HAD
SOME OF THE BEST COVERS EVER MADE
The first breakdown in
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
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
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.
AQUAMAN MADE HIS DEBUT AS A BACKUP
FEATURE IN MORE FUN COMICS #73 (1941)
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
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
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
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
A STATUE RECREATING THE COVER OF BRAVE &
BOLD #28, THE 1ST APPEARANCE OF THE JUSTICE LEAGUE
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!
AQUAMAN IN THE FIRST PANEL OF THE VERY
FIRST APPEARANCE OF THE JUSTICE LEAGUE
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.
ANIMATION CELL FROM FILMATION STUDIOS'
1967 AQUAMAN CARTOON
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.
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
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.
IN SIMPLER TIMES, AQUAMAN INCLUDED TWINKIES
IN HIS ARSENAL OF CRIME-FIGHTING TOOLS
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
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 @#$%*?
You set out to make a more
serious, darker, Frank Miller Aquaman. You Frankenstein Aquaman in an
attempt to the put the pieces back together and end up with a stronger
character—but you took away his best ability …
But the vivisection did not
No, why would it?
Hell, you’ve got an icon in
your torture chamber. Why not dismember him as well?
So they took his hand to
give him the cliché of a pirate look, because after all, he is a “water”
character. I don’t remember if they actually gave him a hook. Maybe. The
Total Justice action figure has a hook hand, but he certainly didn’t end
up with the pirate aspect in the comics. That would have been dumb enough,
but not as bad as where they took the “new look.” They gave him a #$%$@
harpoon instead. He swam around with a harpoon attached to his wrist.
The orange shirt
disappeared for ugly straps that crossed his body so everyone now could
see Aquaman’s aqua-nipples, only to be outdone by Val Kilmer’s Batman
During this horrible,
terrible run of Aquaman, Arthur (I’m not going to call him Orin or any
other @#$&* 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
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
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.
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
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
THE AQUAMAN CLASSIC
COMIC BOOK COVER GALLERY
The Unofficial Aquaman Site
for existing! For a complete gallery of nearly every Aquaman cover
appearance in the history of making,
GREEN LANTERN vs.
AQUAMAN the epic retroCRUSH BATTLE!
MERMAID MAN and BARNACLE BOY, FROM
artwork, used here for review purposes and critical analysis, is the
copyright of DC Comics.