Saturday, November 29, 2008

The Aquaman Problem

All the covers below were totally stolen from Once Upon a Geek, who just finished up a very nice Aquaman Week. There are more cool covers in that link, so go look. I just picked a few to illustrate the point of this post.

There's been a lot of talk amongst Aquaman bloggers (all three of them) this week about an interview Dan DiDio gave to the LA Times. When DiDio mentioned the top five, key DC franchises, interviewer Geoff Boucher noticed the absence of Aquaman from the list. DiDio replied that he thinks of Aquaman as a second-tier character and then followed up with why he believes that is. He calls it The Aquaman Problem.

According to DiDio:
You have to remember, a lot of our fan base has been reading comics 20 or 30 years now. They've see a lot of stories and a lot of things. We're always trying to find a way to give them something new but also give them exactly what they want. There's a lot of challenges with some of our characters. Like Aquaman. Most of people's memories of Aquaman are actually from cartoons in the 1960s and 1970s than they are from the comics. We do have a small loyal fan base, they are people who enjoy that comic, [but] Aquaman has never been an upper-tier success. The challenge is how to make him that.

Later in the interview, Boucher mentions the plethora of reboots and reimaginings and changes of direction that Aquaman's undergone. DiDio agrees that it's a huge part of the problem:
There have been so many twists and turns. It's left the character confused; we try to build a strong foundation for the characters and Aquaman does not have that right now. We have to get him back to a core conceit so we can build him back up again. We need to build on what is recognizable and draw people back in. And everybody wants to try to take on the character. I have a running joke: In all my dinners with the talent at conventions, I get three or four writers who will lean into me and say, 'I know how to fix Aquaman.' Everybody says that. It's become a cause célèbre. It's a running joke but, really, it's not a joke because I know people do love the character. We're going to be very cautious from this point forward because I want to make sure it's perfect. I don't want to add to the confusion when we take another pass at him.

When asked which version he prefers, DiDio responds:
That's the problem. That's the Aquaman problem right there. You go to people and the audience is split. It's split by generation gap. A lot of guys want the long hair and the harpoon hand, a lot of guys want the green gloves and the orange vest. It's hard to reconcile the two. And a lot of times if you try to blend, you compromise both.

Over at i09, Graeme McMillan offers his take on solving the problem. I don't agree with all of his solutions (getting rid of the name "Aquaman" because it's radioactive sounds like a baby-bathwater scenario to me), but he's certainly right about one thing:
Aquaman should be awesome.

No, really; no matter what version of Aquaman you want to look at - and, to be honest, my personal preference is that Atlantean Royalty one with the hook - there's all kinds of potential there. You could go all-out mystical with the "lost civilizations under the sea" angle, you could go scientific exploration considering how little we know what's going on in 70% of the planet. You could point out that, in order to be able to swim in the depths of the oceans, Aquaman has to be pretty strong, and that his sight must also be pretty keen to be able to make out things in all that murk. Add that to his telepathy, and he's a one-man X-Men... one that could, if you so choose, be at the very least a Prince of Atlantis. There's so much potential in the Aquaman concept, whichever one you choose, that it should be impossible to fail.
So why isn't that potential reached (at least from a popular perspective)? It doesn't have anything to do with the name. It's all about something Graeme mentions earlier in his post:
Admittedly, that whole "He talks to fish and can swim really fast" thing doesn't help his case; we all dig Michael Phelps - who, interestingly enough, can also talk to fish, although he likes to keep that quiet - but no-one really wants to see him in tights fighting crime, you know?
And I'd argue that no one really wants to see Aquaman fighting crime either. At least, not full time. There's so much potential for Aquaman, but I don't think much of it has anything to do with being a superhero. Aquaman belongs to a different genre: fantasy or scifi; maybe both. And that's probably why superhero fans haven't taken to him in a big, popular way. Maybe they never will.

That's not going to stop DC from trying though. DiDio mentions in his interview that he's written an Aquaman story for an upcoming Christmas special and Once Upon a Geek has a whole post on the future of Aquaman, including his appearance in DC's next big event comic Blackest Night. Once Upon a Geek also speculates that Geoff Johns & Ethan Van Sciver have eventual plans for an Aquaman: Rebirth mini-series.

Me, I've got no idea. And in spite of my comments about his not really being a superhero, I've got no ideas about how to fix him either. I mean, I know what kind of take on him I'd love to read, but I'm not convinced that it would make him a popular character. And frankly, my knowledge about what's been tried so far is so poor that I'm not even sure I wouldn't just be repeating something that's already been done.

But it ain't my job to fix Aquaman (something - in the spirit of the holiday - that I'm very thankful for). I don't envy those whose job it is, but I'll be impatiently waiting for them to figure it out.


snell said...

Whenever I think of the "Aquaman problem," I can't help but wonder if it's also tied to a "Sub-Mariner problem."

Namor's also gone through many re-launches and re-thinks...not so many and none so drastic as Aquaman, but still, he never seems able to stick, either.

Which leads me to wonder--maybe there's some general difficulty in portraying the adventures of any underwater hero in comics form, something that makes it difficult for the comic public at large to grab onto these characters.

Maybe the environment is too alien to succeed--I've always been able to picture myself walking on walls or flying, but I just can never seem to put myself beneath the ocean in my imaginings.

No real thoughts or solutions...just spitballing. But it's worth pondering that the "Aquaman problem" just might be an "underwater problem."

Christian Zamora said...

Aquaman is my favorite joke. Really. I love having fun at him, I've even made a few entries in my blog about him, of course, using him as the butt of the joke. Why? Well, because Aquaman is the running joke of the super-hero universe and I highly think that's where he belongs. I know there are some core fans that would throw rotten tomatoes at me for saying something like this, but just mention Aquaman to anyone and there will be a smile in their faces. Aquaman is a joke and not necessarily a bad one.

Just imagine, a character who's actually serious but everything around him seems just so darn twisted and funny. Some little respect to the character could grant him at least more interest than fans have paid him in ages.

Michael May said...

Whenever I think of the "Aquaman problem," I can't help but wonder if it's also tied to a "Sub-Mariner problem."

I think you're exactly right. I've been thinking about Namor's costume latey and how goofy it looks because they're trying to make it into a superhero suit. He looks so much cooler when he's looks like the king of a fantastic realm.

I sense another post coming.

snell said...

I think it might also be, in part, how difficult it is to portray underwater action in still shots on the printed page.

Think about and TV/movie underwater action--say, for example, Thunderball--the good ones actually manage to convey to you, through the moving pictures and the sound and the soundtrack, that we're some ultra cool "unearthly" realm.

But in comics? Examples are few and far between of stories that convinced me they were underwater, let alone the "unearthly realm."

Maybe it's an inherent weakness in the medium, or maybe it's just that we need writers/artists who are more creative...who don't think you can just stick a fish, some air bubbles, and wavy hair into a panel and convince us we're deep beneath the briny depths...


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