Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Least Likely to Change: Aquaman

I blame many things. I blame Atlantis. I blame King Arthur. I blame the people at DC, all of whom should know better. I blame Aqualad.

But I sure don't blame Aquaman himself.

Oh, how Aquaman has changed. The Golden Age Aquaman was powerful and confident. Golden Age heroes always seemed to have the confidence of experience, right from the get-go. Perhaps that's because, though they were new as heroes, they were still men. Unlike the Earth-8ers, the little twenty-somethings DC keeps giving their titles to, Peter Parker's Revenge Squad against DC. The current Aquaman (whom DC had the nerve to name Arthur Curry, just like the real one) is yet another Young Person Struggling to Find Himself and His Place in a World He Never Made. Golden Age heroes weren't struggling to find themselves; they were struggling to help others. Golden Age heroes didn't live in a world they never made; they made the world, or, at least, re-made it.

Can the current Aquaman punch through a battleship? Does he command the creatures of the sea? Is he as at ease out of the water as he is in it? No, none of the above.

The original Aquaman had only a tangential connection to Atlantis, and owed his abilities to the efforts of his father and his own hard work; to him, Atlantis was "lost", and he made his home in one of their old abandoned temples. Although I'm no fan of the current Aquaman, I'll give his creator much credit for wanting to return those elements to Aquaman. Atlantis, I think, is where everything started to go wrong.

Aquaman "discovered" Atlantis in the Silver Age, and it became both his Krypton and his Metropolis. In short order, Aquaman went from being the King of the Sea, who protected humans from crime and difficult on the ocean, to being King of Atlantis, protecting Atlanteans from humans. It was a fatal error, and one that has slowly poisoned reader's ability to identify with him ever since.

Here's where I share an ugly secret. I have gone on and on the blog about the success and importance of the Dynastic Centerpiece model, woven theories about how it should be applied to characters who don't have it, and criticized writers for not understanding it.

Well, you know what? The Dynastic Centerpiece model killed Aquaman, just as surely as video killed the radio star. His Contextualizing City took over the plots, his Sidekick infected the tone with negativism and powerlessness, and his Female Counterpart (even his infant son!) was arguably portrayed as more powerful than he was. So, long before it had gone so far, that editors and writers decided to scrap the character entirely, he was a pale version of his Golden Age self.

The Bronze and Iron ages weren't any help either. Constant comparison with other heroes on Superfriends damaged his rep, his storyline became a soap opera rather than an adventure, his origin was savagely slaved to magic and porpoises, his involvements in international politics and war became increasingly Namorian rather than Aquamanly, his hand got chewed off, his powers became magical (as did those of his Sidekick), until finally it was such a mess that DC thought it best to let Kurt Busiek try to return Aquaman to some of his original schtick (plus several enormous helpings of Conan's).

For the record, Devon disagrees with me, but only because he's not really counting the current Aquaman as Aquaman, saying that "the real Aquaman will be back", the one who took care of Sub Diego. I'd like to have that kind of faith, but I'll believe it when I see it. DC's blown, even blocked, several opportunities and attempts to bring back the real Aquaman. Oh, he's been sighted (most recently in Alex Ross's Justice), but he until he's the current version of Aquaman and Artie Junior is either his Youthful Counterpart or dead, you won't find me voting for Aquaman as the Least Changed from his Golden Age version...


Anonymous said...

So, this only leaves two candidates for "Least Changed" from the Golden Age, and I'm betting it ain't Black Canary...

Ragtime said...

No, no! Devon is right! He's there! I saw him. Or, maybe just an upper quadrant of him from a rear view.

Or something.

At the end of Justice League #12, I think. Or something from around then. He was in heaven, or maybe watching TV, or else is the Superman Prime/Alex Luthor Wall of Viewscreens Dimension.

Or something.

Derek said...

Okay, now I have a confession to make.

I have really, really enjoyed Busiek's run on Aquaman.

I think the sword and sorcery genre works well with the undersea realm, and his supporting cast (the uneasy ally and the mysterious sorcerer) works much better for the character than saddling him with a sidekick.

Maybe it's because I have no love for the original Aquaman. I don't dislike him either, but I've really never "met" him, so to speak. I started reading comics with the One Year Later jump.

So yeah. Maybe AJ wasn't the real Aquaman, but he was never trying to be (from the character's perspective. I can't speak for what the writer/editors wanted). And yes, he was far from the noble Aquaman the DCU needs, but his stories were fantastic.

Yeesh. Ranty. What I really wanted to ask you was if you thought the Conan-bent can (or should) continue with the real Aquaman, and what you would think of keeping both Aquamen, like the current Wildcat situation.

Anonymous said...

I had to stand and give you an ovation when I read you condemning the role of Atlantis in Aquaman's stories.

But I still want to throw in my two clams on the topic.

As to the Aquafamily, I'll grant they changed the nature of the Golden Age Aquaman series, but I think they changed it for the better. Silver Age Aquaman was still a self-assured hero even if his wife and baby outpowered him. He was still the alpha hero.

After the death of Aquababy, Aquaman became the embodiment of rage and prickish political leadership. That facet of Aquaman has been a tremendous drag on the character.

Anonymous said...

I'm in full agreement.

I looooooove Namor. My blog is almost completely dedicated to him now.

But on my Entertainment Center next to the Namor first appearnce statue is the big 13" Aquaman figure DC recently put out. The one with the goofy gloves and shiny shirt. I love Aquaman because he's the EXACT opposite of Namor. He's not an angry anti hero, he's a nice guy who helps people.

I could sit down and talk with Aquaman.

Tegan O'Neil said...

Is it just possible that the least-changed character from the Golden Age, the one who has proven most resistant to any kind of change in his status quo or personality profile, has been none other than Namor himself? Considering how careless Marvel has traditionally been with their Golden Age heroes, that's quite an interesting thought.

Harvey Jerkwater said...

A confession: though I was a confirmed comic book fanatic since a wee tadger, I didn't realize Aquaman had super-strength until the mid-nineties. In an issue of Deathstroke the Terminator, the King of the Sea shows up to stomp Deathy's head in. My initial thought was: "Hey, there's no fish around...what's he gonna do?"

The superhumanly strong and reputedly badass Deathy freaked out. Freaked, because he knew King Artie was Mighty! Deathy got away through trickery, and, I believe, collapsing a building on top of Aquaman.

Dumb but true, I think Aquaman would appeal more to fans of superhero comics if that Mighty! side were played up a bit. Have him punch through a few battleships and demonstrate that one does not mess with the King of Atlantis, finny friends or no. I think it'd increase his visceral appeal and get folks to dig him a bit more.

And yeah, Atlantis sucks.

Derek said...

Maybe if he were played more of the warrior king for Atlantis.

The executive stuff would be handled by the Queen, the administrative duties by that scholar who's a ghost now (can't think of the name), and Arthur's main duty would be to be seen.

The prophesied king, traveling the kingdom; settling disputes, quelling uprisings in the Pacific, liaising with Justice League, that sort of thing.

That way, you could keep Atlantis but not focus on it so damn much.

collectededitions said...

derek, I completely agree. The first Busiek Aquaman trade won my Trade Paperback Slugfest for weeks, I was so enamored by it. Yes, AJ's not the "real" Aquaman, but as you say, Busiek didn't make the mistake of making AJ try to take the role. Moreover, Busiek's AJ is such a fun character--like Charlie Brown, can't ever catch a break, but always reluctantly doing the right thing; kind of reminds me of the beginnings of Jack Knight, really. If only Busiek could channel all of that into the "real" Aquaman, we might have something.