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...