Monday, July 13, 2009

The Trouble with Aquaman: 1959-1962

A while ago on the blog (I’m not thinking of a specific post, but just hit the “aquaman” tag and you’ll see what I mean) I spent some time thinking about Aquaman and what his problem might be. Why is he the subject of such universal ridicule? Is it deserved? What can be done to fix it?

I came up with answers to the first and last of those questions. Or working answers, anyway. I blame the ‘70s cartoon Super Friends for his widespread status of laughing stock. I’m not entirely sure that Super Friends wasn’t just mimicking what had already been going on in the Justice League of America comic for years, but I’m willing to bet that a lot more people watched the TV show than read the book. And in it, Aquaman usually had some lame role to play in catching the bad guy due to his very water-specific powers and the dumb weakness that he couldn’t be out of water for more than an hour. At least, that’s how I remember it. As a member of a globe-trotting, occasionally space-faring super-hero team, he sucked.

The answer to my third question above – what can be done to fix Aquaman – is found in the answer to the first. Take him out of the super-team and put him back in the water where he can have undersea adventures. It’s a great, underused setting for adventure and as an aquatic fantasy hero Aquaman may still have a lot of life in him.

My second question though – does Aquaman deserve his rep – could only be answered by going back and experiencing his adventures first-hand. I’m still a long way from finishing that project, but I’ve now read the first volume of Showcase Presents Aquaman, which features almost every Aquaman appearance from his re-introduction in the Silver Age (in 1959) until the end of 1962.

In that time he went from being a back-up feature in Adventure Comics (which typically headlined a Superboy story), to becoming a regular back-up feature in Batman’s Detective Comics, to eventually getting his own ongoing series at the beginning of 1962. Even with his own series though, he still had a regular gig as a back-up feature in the Superman-Batman team-up book World’s Finest.

Along the way he guest-starred in an issue of Superman’s Girlfriend Lois Lane (in which Aquaman saves Lois’ life by turning her into a mermaid) and Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen (in which Jimmy is given Aquaman’s powers temporarily so that Aquaman can run off with Superman to help “the natives of some distant watery world” – they sure didn’t over-think those plot devices in the ‘60s, did they?). Perhaps as a test to see if he could handle his own solo comic, Aquaman was also given a few issues of Showcase to feature in some longer stories.

All of which is a great introduction to the character as he was re-conceived for the ‘60s. I’d love to get my hands on some of his adventures in the ‘40s and ‘50s, but they’re not so easily available. According to Wikipedia though, the Golden Age Aquaman was pretty different from the one I read about. He was the son of an undersea explorer who discovered Atlantis, including its long-lost library. Studying the Atlanteans’ records, Aquaman’s father was able to teach his son how to breathe underwater and communicate with sealife. Most of that Aquaman’s career was spent fighting Nazis.

In the ‘60s, Aquaman was re-imagined as the half-breed son of a human lighthouse keeper and an Atlantean outcast. His ability to talk to fish became the power to command them telepathically. Although Atlantis in the ‘60s was a populated place, Aquaman didn’t spend much time there. Since his mom had been exiled for trying to sneak off and explore the surface world, Aquaman never tried to go there until Showcase #30 when Atlantis requested his help in rescuing them from some sea monsters.

Until that point, the only contact he had with Atlantis was when he rescued another outcast – a young boy who had to leave the underwater city because of a severe phobia of fish. Aquaman cured him of his fear, but rather than return to Atlantis the orphan chose to stay and live with Aquaman, becoming his sidekick Aqualad.

It’s kind of interesting that in the very next tale after Aqualad’s introduction the boy finds and furnishes a cave for him and Aquaman to live in. Up till then Aquaman hadn’t really had a home. He’d just crashed wherever. Now he had a ward and an Aquacave. Which I’m sure was designed to sound familiar.

The biggest revelation to me about these stories was that Aquaman began his career very much as a superhero, complete with sidekick and cave-hideout. The only difference between him and Batman was the aquatic theme. Even Aquaman’s cases are largely surface-based, whether he’s fighting modern-day pirates or evil-doers on islands or in coastal towns. It’s telling that his and Aqualad’s primary method of getting around isn’t even swimming; it’s riding around the ocean surface on the backs of porpoises.

Not much is made of his strength or ability to swim quickly or even to breathe underwater. Those aspects are there and they get mentioned occasionally, but the vast majority of the focus is on his ability to command sea-life. It’s his gimmick. In these stories he never uses his own abilities if he can order a sea creature to do it for him. It’s a device that the writers obviously had a lot of fun writing, if not thoroughly researching.

We have to remember that these were kids’ comics, so the abilities of Aquaman’s finned friends have little to do with reality. Swordfish can impale wood with their noses and sawfish can cut it. Signal fish are Aquaman’s chief form of communication with anyone and eels make the dandiest ropes. Octopi can catch torpedoes in their tentacles, whale schools make great emergency landing strips for airplanes, and needlefish are awesome little seamstresses.

Because he relies on them so much, for all practical purposes Aquaman is powerless without his sea creatures. For that reason – and for the arbitrary weakness he and Aqualad have that doesn’t allow them out of the water for more than an hour – the early Silver Age Aquaman is pretty lame. The stories are fun and inventive, but as a character he’s very limited. It’s no wonder that writers had a hard time with him in the Justice League. Even in the first issues of his own ongoing series, the writer struggled enough to find a new take that he (I’m assuming; the identity of the writer is unknown) introduced a water sprite character named Quisp as sort of a mischievous, but helpful guest-star. Sort of the Aqua-team’s version of Bat-Mite. But unlike Aquaman and Aqualad, Quisp actually has real powers that allow him to manipulate water. If Aquaman had had that, maybe he wouldn’t have been so limited in the JLA.

I’m not done with the Showcase Presents Aquaman books yet, but I’m going to take a break from them and read some early Justice League of America next to remind myself how Aquaman was put to use there. He was appearing there during the time period covered by this volume, so chronologically it works out about right.

1 comment:

Siskoid said...

Having read these same books, it's true that Aquaman is a lot less useful in JLA. The stories typically pair off different Leaguers to stop part of the threat, and so one of these threats is water based just so Aquaman can do something. It's the kind of artificial story structure that makes it seem like the writers are being patronizing to him. Net effect: Aquaman as the loser who needs a little help, and we're happy to give it to him, poor thing.

Of course, in his own adventures, he's like... well, a fish in water. It's the problem of creating a hero who really doesn't live in the same world the others do.


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