Sunday, January 29, 2006

Abalone Ranger

I have, with all due respect to the craft of Kurt Busiek, strongly disapproved of the new "sword of sorcery" direction for the Aquaman title (not "for Aquaman", since Aquaman himself's not going to be in it). But why?

Naturally, some of it is just personal taste, but I think there are some objective reasons as well. But, first, some background on my personal "comic book theories".

There are, pretty much, only five of what I call "Goldens"-- DC heroes who, having survived the Wertham-driven putsch of comics, continued more or less untouched
through the Golden, Silver, and Bronze ages.

Those five are
Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Green Arrow (*snort*), and Aquaman. The first three survived on the strength of their popularity and malleability of tone, and the last two survived as back-up features sneaking under the radar (or, in Aquaman's case, sonar). Any other characters were discontinued, dramatically reimagined by Schwartz, or both. Their resultant high Q Rating is why these characters were chosen to be "The Superfriends". Except, of course, for Green Arrow. I mean, really. One can only handle so many Plastic Cat Arrows without getting scratched, you know.

One of the secrets to their success is versatility. The Trinity of Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman have an advantage that we're so familiar with that most of us no longer even notice it: each one has a diverse set of abilities. Batman can do anything humanly possible; Superman can do everything else. Wonder Woman was saved from being just a strongwoman by some clever additions, such as the plane, the lasso, and her persuasive abilities. Conceptually, their powers aren't just physical but are perceptional as well (Batman's deduction, Superman's senses, Wonder Woman's lasso of truth). Practically, they have short-range abilities (ZOWIE!) and long-range abilities (the batarang, heat vision, the lasso).

This broadness helps make them adaptable to a variety of situations, storylines, and tones. As any Heroclix player can tell you, it's much better to have a strong all-around figure on the board than a Johnny One-Note. Non-DC characters with similar diversity of power have also shown staying power. Spider-Man is a brilliant example, with his hyperstrength and agility, wallcrawling, high intelligence, webshooters, and "spider-sense"; a nearly perfect ensemble of powers. It almost doesn't matter what they do with Spider-Man, so cool is the very idea of being able to do what he can do. ... Almost.

A narrower range of powers often means less success, in comic book battles, on the Heroclix board, or in the court of public opinion. Green Arrow and Green Lantern are basically ranged fighters (one of the reason the writers have Hal Jordan get hit on head so much; he's vulnerable only at close range). To make Black Canary and Flash more viable, they got the sonic scream and the "tornado-making trick", which give them the ability to fight from a distance.

One-noters like the
Atom don't fair so well. While Aquaman has a good mix of physical/mental and short/long range abilities, he has a limited sphere for using them (as a million not- so-funny comedians like to remind us). An additional problem for guys like Atom and Aquaman is that, pound for pound, there's not that much crime at the molecular or submarine level.

Result? Such characters are harder to carry off as traditional
"yes, Commissioner, I'll go after the Checkered Gang at once!" kind of superheroes. Sometimes this drives writers to try to change the conditions the hero operates under; Will Pfeiffer's Sub Diego and, before it, the now-forgotten New Venice were attempts to give Aquaman a more familiarly urban context for crimefighting, allowing for a more conventional approach to the character.

Sometimes it drives them to change the hero's genre all together. Julie Schwartz recast Golden Age adventurer Hawkman and crimefighter Green Lantern as space characters. Or, if a character's not working as a traditional superhero and already has some elements of the fantastic, try the "sword & sorcery" genre: hence, Sword of the Atom and Sword of Atlantis.

While such moves may breathe in some temporary life, they aren't sustainable solutions, I think. Just ask Jonah Hex. And before some of you object about the success of the Silver Age Hawkman and Green Lantern, I'll point out that the current popularity of these characters is based solidly in bringing them back down to earth with a more superhero/crimefighter feeling to them.

Personally, I
like Aquaman as an underwater Batman/Superman, because, well, I like Batman and Superman. But I do understand the impulse to take a difference approach with him. I think "sword & sorcery" is the wrong direction, however, because it takes Aquaman farther away from the realm of ordinary human existence, making him feel (to me) less relevant. Part of Aquaman's problem is that he's too far removed from our regular land-based existence; taking him farther away is literally moving in the wrong direction.

If Aquaman's genre is to be changed it should be changed back to (what my friend Glen has pointed out to me was) its real, original genre: Western.

"Scipio's finally flipped!" you're thinking. Hold on! By "Western" I don't mean guns and tumbleweeds in the American plains; those are just the externals of the genre. I mean, the storytelling essentials: small isolated town with a problem, bands of bandits, corrupt politicians, impoverished working families, the mysterious avenging stranger who rides in to save the day appearing out of nowhere.

Read early Aquaman; it's a Western. Aquaman has no real base of operations, he mostly wanders the sea, suddenly coming across situations that require his talents. He rallies the local townfolk / sealife to repell the threat. He sails off into the sunset.

This is part of the reason Aquaman's has virtually no Rogue's Gallery; that's really an urban crimefighter schtick. Aquaman's more of a Jonah Hex. Without the guns. And the scar. Okay, maybe he's more of a Lone Ranger, but you get the idea.

Aquaman, back in proper "Western" mode, is a perfect vehicle for interesting one-issue stories, which can be set anywhere the sea is. Aquaman has a power almost everyone (other than sharp-eyed Grant Morrison!) has forgotten; thanks to his telepathy, he can speak the language of anyone he's talking to. He's the perfect worldwide sea-going busybody.

If you need a model for how this is done, just watch old episodes of "Shazam!" or "The Incredible Hulk", which for practical reasons abandoned the standard superhero model in favor of a Western-style, Lone Ranger motif... .


Anonymous said...

Ladies and Gentlemen, this is what we refer to as 'hitting the nail on the head'. Why is the ocean so uninteresting to people that we can't have a solid issue of Aquaman IN Atlantis? Why does he have to be in exile, on land, in space, etc?

*sigh* Oh, Aquaman. How cool you should be.

Matthew Perpetua said...

I think you've got some good ideas on this, but I think that the only way to make a commercially viable Aquaman comic is to play to the fact that 99% of all people think of him as being a big joke. I think they'd be better off pushing the comic in an absurdist comedy direction, something similar in tone to Sealab 2021 and Spaceghost Coast to Coast. You've gotta give the people what they want!

Anonymous said...

While I think your "bold new direction" for Aquaman is certainly a good idea, I'm not so quick to to dismiss a more fantastic (fantasy-esque) Aquaman.

I mean, so much of what makes Aquaman Aquaman, and not Namor, is the fantasy stuff. Talking to animals. His wizard father. Even his origin as abandoned baby coming back to reclaim his throne is Arthurian, not to mention his name. A push in one direction and it's The Little Mermaid. A push in another and it's Bone. A push in another, and yes, you might get Conan.

Now, I certainly wouldn't say every character works this way. (Plastic Man, Sword of Rubber?) But Aquaman is closer than most.

On another note, Green Arrow may have gotten to the Silver Age untouched, but the difference in characterization between Silver Age Batman clone/parody and Bronze Age moral crusader is a lot bigger than the difference in characterization between Jay Garrick and Barry Allen.

Benari said...

I completely agree. If they really wanted to take Aquaman in a "new" direction, the wandering hero of the seven seas seems a natural fit. The sprawling expanse, the wide open undersea western makes perfect sense. Even a sort of oceanic "Kung-Fu" - with our hero wandering across the vast (and unexplored) underwater landscape, finding trouble where'er he goes. Tying him down in Atlantis seems a little limiting, actually...

I think that's what is so frustrating about this new revamp: they're ignoring the untapped potential of what they already have!

All that being said, Busiek is a great writer. Editorial mandates aside, if anyone can make this concept work and manage to incorporate the iconic Aquaman (eventually) back into the series, it would be Kurt Busiek.

Anonymous said...

If DC really wants a sword and sorcery comic, I've got six words for them: "Brother Power: Sword of the Geek."

It can't fail.

Bill Reed said...

Why can't it be a sword 'n sorcery western? Modern high fantasy.

Mark Cook said...

"I mean, the storytelling essentials: small isolated town with a problem, bands of bandits, corrupt politicians, impoverished working families, the mysterious avenging stranger who rides in to save the day appearing out of nowhere."

Thing is, this same paradigm can be applied to, say, Conan, or any similar serial sword and sorcery book. Busiek's "swords, wizards, exotic locales, wars, monsters, ancient gods and more" are, like the tumbleweeds and six-shooters, little more than window dressing on what are typically the same kinds of plots. So, instead of
"Things are bad between the North and the South, indian tribes are coming out of the woodwork, Mexicans and bandits are on the move, the local wildlife has been disturbed, six shooters abound, and lots more."
we're getting (in Busiek's words)
"Things are bad between the people of Orin's Atlantis and the people of Lori Lemaris's Atlantis, barbarian tribes are coming out of the woodwork, the smaller kingdoms of the seafloor are on the march, ancient forces have been disturbed, sorcery abounds, and lots more."

Anonymous said...

Please allow me to gently suggest you add the Flash to the list of Goldens. I'm certain you'll think on this and post an amendment to your current list with all due alacrity.
Why does everyone forget about the Dianna's tiara and bracelets? Functional as well as stylish. Wonder Woman, the character concept, has so much going for it. I'll be curious to see what Joss Whedon does with it. I secretly hope that Gina Torres, the woman who played Zoe on Firefly, will be chosen to play Dianna. She's a very good actress who can play tragedy, comedy, pathos, camp, and ass-kicking believably. I think she would be perfect. But heck, I love a long-shot.
I don't think Flash's fighting style is at all long range. In fact, it's mostly close assault, at least for Wally West and Jay Garrick it had been. Barry had more gimmicks, but that was the nature of that generation of writing. If you're fast you can beat about anybody (maybe not Slade). Imagine the results if Wally had been a serious student of tai chi or aikido or some other discipline. And yes, I know early in the modern run he went to some temple to superfast learn the martial arts, but let's face it, that never took. Batman has got to look at the Flash and occasionally think, "What a waste."
My favorite character though? Ray Palmer, The Atom. I hope the whole Identity Crisis leads to a truly great series for him.

Marc Burkhardt said...

Aquaman has suffered from the same syndrome that has plagued all the standards: creators who substitute what's considered "hip" and "cool" for imagination. That's why Spidey now faces mystical menaces who devour eyeballs instead of beating down street criminals with web-shooters and a handy quip. It's why Batman has become a paranoid lout and Superman a whiny, impotent simp.

I have enjoyed Pfeiffer's and Arcudi's Aquaman stories because they portrayed Arthur as a true-blue hero without sacrificing the best elements established by other creators over the years.

In other words, Aquaman seems like Aquaman rather than an imposter wearing the Sea King's clothes.

Recent DC announcements give me some optimism for the renewed greatness of the Big Three, and "Sword of Aquaman" could be equally good under Busiek's direction.

Like many out there, I am sad to see another character using the name but am willing to see how the actual stories play out before reaching final judgement.

Scipio said...

" Please allow me to gently suggest you add the Flash to the list of Goldens."

The Silver Age Flash was not a continuation of the Golden Age Flash, but a replacement, and so would not qualify under the criteria we listed.

Anonymous said...

Bingo, Scip. What really irritates me is the sheer literalness of this type of genre switch: yes, there are Arthurian elements within the Aquaman mythos, but that doesn't mean that Aquaman as a character or a comic book should get swallowed by high fantasy. There are strong Aladdin elements within the Green Lantern mythos; how many people think it would be a good idea to recast Hal Jordan as a nomadic magician-prince in medieval Arabia? There are both immigrant elements and Christ elements in the Superman mythos; do we really want to see Clark Kent as a hard-working immigrant barber working in the slums of Metropolis's Little Krypton, or read a Superman who gets nailed to a cross in first-century Judea by Lexus Luthorius for preaching the divine message of Jor-el? The reason these characters became iconic is because they alluded to these earlier stories without becoming an appendage of them. The characters took on their own identities precisely because they were more than their roots and influences.

Beyond that, I've no idea why DC thinks a "sword and sorcery" revamp will make the book sell more than before (at least beyond the temporary sales bump from the creative team switch and the attendant hype). Is there really that much of a market for high fantasy comic books? If so, how much of that market crosses over with the market for straight superhero stuff like Aquaman? I'm not usually one to adopt the "if it was a good idea, we would have seen it before" argument, but to my knowledge we have seen this before, and it wasn't.

Anonymous said...

It's been pointed out that no matter what strange realms Robert E. Howard's adventurers adventured in, he was really writing about Texas. As such, Scipio, if you want something that at base is structured like a western, you may like SWORD OF ATLANTIS after all.

And yes, Conan's not a force for law and order -- but neither is Josey Wales. Doesn't mean all sword & sorcery heroes are out for themselves, any more than all Western heroes are.

Interestingly, where I looked at Aquaman and saw a fantasy setting, and Scipio sees Western roots, Joey Cavalieri: Editor of Atlantis noted that the early Silver Age Aquaman stuff is essentially the same formulas as DC's space-hero stuff, just set underwater. What all three have in common is the idea of the frontier, of lawless lands (or at least lands where the protection of law is thin and undependable), and a bold hero who stands against the threats such a world kicks up.

It'll be interresting to see how people react, in any case.


Anonymous said...

Meanwhile I'm struck by the idea of lots and lots of people on islands and coastlines knowing Aquaman -- actually knowing him personally from having met him face-to-face in his endless wandering around the oceans. Maybe Aquaman is even the superhero who has met the most people of any superhero, even Superman...maybe he's visited most, if not all, of the whole coastline of the Earth.

That would be cool!

So when we don't see him for a while, it's obviously just because of his constant undocumented saving of people in incredibly isolated areas. In Gotham or Metropolis, he's nobody; but on Bora Bora he's Hero Number One.

Scipio, you're on a roll.

Anonymous said...

Okay, first of all I'm thinking that no matter how good Kurt Busiek's Aquaman might be, eventually the old Aquaman will be back. At this point, he's got too much traction to become something too different - too many people know him from his extra-comics appearances (heck, as the "useless" member of the Superfriends he's pretty much a cult icon).

Second, I take issue with the idea that Aquaman was picked for the Superfriends because he managed to slip through the downturn of superheroes unscathed. It seems pretty clear that they were casting around for someone to go with the "big three" and, it being the 70s, they went for the guy who had lots of "environmentally friendly" stories that he could be used in. Look at the episodes they use him in - almost always there's some oil tanker with a leak, or some mutant lobster caused by dumping toxic waste, or some "villain" who thinks he's Captain Nemo out to blackmail the world into stopping their polluting ways. Aquaman was a stand-in for someone's pro-environmental viewpoints (though all of the Superfriends got to hold that stick at some point during the show).

Finally, though, you're dead-on about the "Western" motif, although Kurt has a good point too - most of the "space-themed" Silver Age stuff was "Western" in genre (if not in setting). Look at where pop culture was at the end of the 50s - Westerns were "it". Consciously or not, the Western genre was a clear influence on the Silver Age superheroes (Green Lantern and Hawkman are only the most obvious).

All that said, I'm kind of excited about the new Aquaman book if only because I don't think that they're enough fantasy stuff in the marketplace and Conan only helps a little bit...

Scipio said...

Thanks, Kurt! If nothing else, I am very much looking forward to having a two-handed Aquaman again....

And if your series returns the Golden Age Aquaman to us, or at least somebody more like him, that could be a very good thing.

Anonymous said...


I'd try a "Sword of "Atlantis" book with no hesitation. But deceptively slapping the AQUAMAN title on it just turns me off.

I wish people would stop refering to this title as Aquaman. This trick is no different than putting out a book called "Thor: Sword of Asgard" and making Fandral the main character. (Not that I wouldn't enjoy a Fandral series...)

Anonymous said...

>> I wish people would stop refering to this title as Aquaman. This trick is no different than putting out a book called "Thor: Sword of Asgard" and making Fandral the main character. >>

Is it? I wouldn't say so, but then, I know what's coming.

I've seen people decide that it's just what was done with Kyle Rayner, or the Flash, or the Blue Beetle or any number of other characters, but they won't know for a few weeks.

Still, if we're to object to a character taking on a previously-used name as falase advertisement, we should start by boycotting FANTASTIC FOUR in 1961, and boycott the Ditko BLUE BEETLE too, and roll on from there.

Were Marvel to start a book called THOR: SWORD OF ATLANTIS and it starred Fandral, and nobody ever called him Thor, then I can see where the objections might come from. If there was a reason for Fandral to dress like Thor and take on the name, maybe not so much. Still, you'd have trouble with the fact that Thor's a name, not a code-name (Asgardians don't seem to go in for that much), while "Aquaman" has always been a codename, even with the GA Aquaman, whose real name we never knew.

But Aquaman I was given the codename by his father after he gave his son aqua-powers years after his birth. Aquaman II's real name was Arthur Curry, and he adopted the name Aquaman at some point early in his heroic career. Aquaman III's real name is Orin, though he didn't know it for some time, and was called "Swimmer" and "Arthur Curry" before adopting the name Aquaman as a reference to Atlantis's prison system.

All of them adopted or were given the codename. No reason it can't happen with a fourth.


Scipio said...

"Is it? I wouldn't say so, but then, I know what's coming."

Hmm.... very interesting....!

Anonymous said...

And THE FUGITIVE, about a wanted man travelling from town to town, helping people but having to move on, the law always on his trail, isn't terribly un-Western. Even though it's based on zat mos' Frainch of novels, LES MISERABLES.

When you're talking abut story structure, though, you can find commonalities underlying many things.


Anonymous said...

"The Silver Age Flash was not a continuation of the Golden Age Flash, but a replacement, and so would not qualify under the criteria we listed."

Jay was a scientist who received the power of speed. Barry was a scientist who received the gift of speed. Wally...
Yeah, okay, you got me. I hadn't considered that.
The Flash changes from generation to generation, and I like that.

Anonymous said...

Scipio, one this I can always be assured from getting from your blog is passion about comic books. Let me say that I appreciate that.

I also agree with almost all of your assessments.

But I still think you're jumping the gun in burying Busiek's approach before you give it a few issues. I know he's certainly built up enough cred with me to make me think he will treat the franchise with dignity.

Chris Arndt said...

The real problem is that Kurt Busiek is apparently smarter than us!

Something must be done about this!

Anonymous said...

>> Something must be done about this! >>

You could send me beer. Lots of beer.


Anonymous said...

"Still, if we're to object to a character taking on a previously-used name as falase advertisement, we should start by boycotting FANTASTIC FOUR in 1961, and boycott the Ditko BLUE BEETLE too, and roll on from there."

??? Apples and oranges--by the crate! There's no comparison between A:SoA and the FF.

It's a shame that Aquaman has been warped over to the category of Hawkman: Characters with totally screwed up pasts. Aquaman was never a "mantle-passing" franchise. But thanks to a series of terrible editorial decisions over the years, Aquaman is being retroactively envisioned as something he was never intended to be (and totally robs him of his uniqueness).

This gets worse by the minute...

Scipio said...

" Aquaman was never a "mantle-passing" franchise."

Indeed. That's one of the points I tried to make in my post, but I don't think I got it across very well.

Aquaman is -- or has been -- one of the five DCU GA characters who remained himself through the Ages (changes to his backstory don't really constitute different versions, in my thinking).

I think it's a shame to lose that, because it automatically takes Aquaman off the top shelf he might be on, and permanently relegates him to the "who's playing the role of Green Lantern/ Flash/ Hawkman/ Aquaman this month?"

Anonymous said...

>> ??? Apples and oranges--by the crate! There's no comparison between A:SoA and the FF.>>

Really? Your point had been that calling someone new Aquaman was false advertising. Surely calling someone new The Human Torch was equally false.

>> It's a shame that Aquaman has been warped over to the category of Hawkman: Characters with totally screwed up pasts.>>

I'm not sure how screwed up his past is -- there've just been three versions of him over time, which is also true of Superman.

>> Aquaman was never a "mantle-passing" franchise. >>

Nor was The Flash, until 1956. He -- and many other characters -- could be described as having been retroactively envisioned as something he was never intended to be, as well, but I'm not sure that's inherently a bad thing.

As for robbing any Aquaman of his uniqueness, I'm not so sure it will, but we'll see.

>> This gets worse by the minute... >>

It's actually no different than it was before I posted, so I'm not sure how it's getting worse by the minute, either.

In any case, I hope either that you're pleasantly surprised, or that we win you over in time.


Anonymous said...

>> Aquaman is -- or has been -- one of the five DCU GA characters who remained himself through the Ages (changes to his backstory don't really constitute different versions, in my thinking).>>

When those changes in backstory are done to support sweeping changes in frontstory as well, I think it does. To the Golden Age Aquaman, Atlantis was an undersea ruin; to the Silver Age one, it was a living city and he its rightful king. So much has depended on his royalty since that it's hardly just a backstory change, but a change in who the character is. The change from Silver Age to post-Crisis was less sweeping, but even there backstory changes had significant effects on the present-day adventures.

While changes to Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and even Green Arrow's backstories didn't do much more than supply a new explanation for how they got to pretty much the same place, the change to Aquaman's backstory in the early Silver Age amounted to a near-complete reconceptualization of the character. Had he gotten a new costume to go along with the new origin, parentage and destiny, it'd have been a change as grerat as the Schwartz reworkings of Green Lantern and Flash, which kept the hero names and powers but gave them a new backstory, new real names and new contexts as well. Even the Silver Age Aquaman's rogues' gallery and supporting cast are all entirely new (much like the Flash/GL revamps) without the kind of holdovers Superman and Batman had.

Aside from the codename, most of the costume and the powers (which underwent modifications over time in the Golden Age anyway), what survived that makes Arthur Curry the same guy as the unnamed Golden Age version?


Barghest said...

I'm speaking to you from the FUTURE, when Scipio was proven right, and Aquaman: Sword of Atlantis is looked back upon as a creative dead end that is rightly forgotten, much like Electric Superman. OooooOOOOooooOOOOOO...does that sound like a theremin?