Friday, February 01, 2008

We're doomed, Gulliver.

Do you remember Glum?

Probably not, unless you are of "a certain age".

During the Golden Age
of Hanna-Barbera (1968 - 1970), there was a show called the Adventures of Gulliver, an animated version of Gulliver's adventures with the tiny Lilliputians. It was one of the cartoon features on the live-action "Banana Splits" kids show.

Now, the show had some interesting Lilliputians (such as Bunco, Eager, and the unfortunately named Flirtacia), but everyone who's seen the show remembers one of them much more than the others: Glum.

Voiced by the great Herb Vigan, Glum was the most pessimistic cartoon character of all time. Glum made Bad Luck Schleprock look like Richie Rich. Glum made Eeyore look like laughing Little Audrey. Once you've
heard it, you never forget the pitiless, hopeless sound of Glum announcing flatly,"

"We doomed. We'll never get out of here alive."

Ironically, the voice of the can-do Gulliver was none other than Jerry Dexter -- the voice of Aqualad from the Filmation cartoons. I say ironic because Aqualad is the "Glum" of the DCU.

I have, most of you recall, mentioned this little failing of Aqualad's before. But I'm not sure everyone believes me... .

Now, we could blame Aqualad's doom-saying on the writers and the exigencies of story-telling. Aqualad's pessimism is part of his function in any Aquaman story, because Aqualad is mostly there to make Aquaman look good.

Whenever something happens, Aqualad has no answer for it or understanding of it. Aquaman figures it out. Whenever they are threatened, Aqualad announces that the problem is unsolvable. Then Aquaman solves it. Aqualad is used merely as a literary device to cue the readers on what their attitudes and viewpoints about the hero should be. "Neither you nor young Aqualad can see a way out of this; but Aquaman can. Isn't he cool?"

Poor Supergirl served a similar function for a long time for Superman. Read the Silver Age Supergirl stories; the basic schtick was that Supergirl's existence had to be kept secret because she didn't know how to use her powers while still keeping her civilian identity secret. She had all of Superman's powers and abilities, but wasn't able to use them with adult wisdom and restraint. Thus, the Man kept her down, shackled by her brown artificial pigtails to her broken metal bed at the orphanage.

Aqualad (as I've mentioned before) is the not really the underwater Robin; he's the underwater Supergirl. Just like Supergirl, he has all the powers of his mentor. Yes, including telepathic command of fish. What he lacks isn't power, but wisdom, ingenuity, and a can-do attitude.

And, if scanning time and post space allowed, I could show you about a 1000 panels of Aqualad saying, "What's happening?" or "What are you doing, Aquaman?" Poor Aqualad never seems to have the slightest idea what's going on (unless it's impending doom; he recognizes that right away).

Robin and Speedy got treated much better than this. Often, they were the ones who pointed out what was going on, and their mentor would come up with the solution. Or, as soon as their mentor suggested a course of action or began one, they would pipe in immediately with, "I get it! By aiming out framarang arrows at the dynamo, we can create a field fluctuation that will draw their bullets off target!", or some such.

But Aqualad was always defeated, surprised, duped, and afraid. It wasn't his powers that made him a fifth wheel in the Titans, I think; it was his unshakable characterization as a terrified incompetent goofus that did it.

Is this a necessity? Is it, by now, intrinsic to Aqualad's character? Do the transdimensional vibrations from the Earths of the DCU simply not permit Aqualad to be portrayed as competent? Or is it because, having created a unique niche among sidekicks (former and current), it's the only hole into which the Aqualad peg fits squarely?

Sleepy-eyed cutie Phil Jimenez tried to bad-assifying Aqualad with his "Tempest" transformation. Regardless of the relative merits of that attempt, that characterization hasn't seem to catch fire. Maybe it's just me, but my principal memories of Tempest are:
  • Tempest gets pwned by Vandal Savage and stuffed into a kamikaze Rocket Red suit;
  • Tempest accidently turns himself and Aquaman into fish.
  • Tempest's revelation that Aquaman was physically abusive (!!!!)
  • Tempest being "whipped" by his wife, Dolphin, who was his mentor's ex-girlfriend ("Next, on Jerry Springer...!)
  • Tempest losing his powers and his ability to breathe unaided underwater.

Not the best track record. Perhaps there are other "Tempest rocks" stories that I'm overlooking, but, even so, it's fair to say Tempest hasn't been and isn't afforded the same kind of respect that Nightwing, Red Arrow, Wally West, and Donna Troy get. Or, for that matter, Jason Todd.

Should this be Aqualad's fate? Is Aqualad (I can never call him "Garth" without laughing) best as the uniquely Unsuccessful Hard-Luck Ex-Sidekick? Should Aqualad be redeemed as part of the (inevitable) return of the original Aquaman?

What do you think should be done with Aqualad?


BrianC said...

I actually think leaving Aqualad/Tempest as the Eyore of the DCU works. It seperates him from everyone maybe some ancillary character like Woozy Winks. What other superheroes are this "chicken". In the end, he is still going to follow his mentor, or the Titans, or whoever into battle. He is just going to nervously point out why they shouldn't first. In fact, reading this post already makes me like Aqualad 10x better - he may be "glum", but he's different.

Of course, he will never get a solo title based on this characterization...but, please. Aquaman barely has enough readers for an occasional series. Garth isn't getting one anytime soon.

Randy Jackson said...

I personally dug what they did with Aqualad on the Teen Titans cartoon--making his primary power the ability to control water. It definitely made him a much more formidable opponent.

SallyP said...

Aw, leave old Garth alone. EVERY Universe needs a snivelling coward, and I'd say that he fills the position quite nicely.

Aqualad...jellyfish of the Sea.

Huck Foley said...

Unlike Bruce Wayne or Dick Grayson, he wasn't born smart and brave, knowning half of everything and fearing nothing, no no, he had to learn and become. Difference between him and Robin is that he underwent his personal tribulations ON-PANEL, where we could watch and jeer at his setbacks. He's a personal-growth story; he started life as a piscaphobic weenie, unimaginative, not-too-bright, and a bit of a melon-headed purple-eyed freak at that, BUT through good mentoring and hundreds of object-lessons and trials and turmoil and stuff, overcoming obstacles and what-all, has advanced and progressed to be a competent and courageous super-hero. He was forced to be brave so many times that it became an internalized habit; he was forced to think things through so many times that he got smart. He didn't start smart, he got smart. That's his hook.

Anonymous said...

The only positive style portrayl I've seen was in Kingdom Come where he finally graduated to Aquaman.

Although I don't think he actually got to speak.

Parham said...

i was looking for the pessimistic Glum and got this post :-) Herb's voice was just perfect for this character! thanks for the post.

Archibald said...

So, I do not really suppose this is likely to work.
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