Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Grading Aquaman: Justice League of America #11-15

When people talk about how lame Aquaman is, they usually compare him to other superheroes and highlight his helplessness in the Justice League of America and the Super Friends. I thought it would be interesting to look at Aquaman’s membership in the JLA and document exactly how he contributed (or didn’t) to the cases they took in their early years. Is his perceived ineptness actually just perception? Or is it fact? (Part One, Part Two, Part Three, and Part Four.)

Justice League of America #11: “One Hour to Doomsday”

The Case: The Justice League continues mopping up the Lord of Time’s armies from the previous issue. In the process, they find themselves 100 years into the future from their own time; right when Faust’s demons (also from last issue) have gained complete freedom and are taking over the world.

Aquaman, Attack!: The demons’ spells are able to make quick work of the League at first, but it’s Aquaman who comes up with the plan to defeat them. Since the demons’ power over the League is based on their knowing the heroes’ names, Aquaman figures out that the spells will have no effect if the demons use the wrong names in the invocations.

Green Lantern uses his ring to disguise the heroes as each other, so that Superman appears to be Aquaman, for example, and vice versa. The story’s gimmick then is that the heroes have to fight the demons, but use their own powers to mimic those of the person they're disguised as. That way the demons won’t know what’s going on until they're already defeated.

Superman pretends to be Aquaman by swimming to the bottom of the ocean and fashioning a fake sea monster out of the debris he finds there. Pretending to ride it, he manipulates it to make it look like it’s moving. This keeps his demon distracted enough to let Green Arrow and Batman (respectively disguised as Flash and Wonder Woman) capture him.

Meanwhile, Aquaman (disguised as Superman) and Martian Manhunter (pretending to be Green Lantern) fight another demon who’s conveniently operating on a floating platform at sea. Aquaman pretends to use Superman’s strength to rip the craft apart, but he really has whales and octopi do it from below the surface. Manhunter actually makes the capture, but only because Aquaman gets the demon off the platform.

Aquaman’s Participation Grade: B+

After the break: more aliens, the debut of Dr. Light, and the return of an old enemy.

Mystery in Space #75: “The Planet that Came to a Standstill”

The Case: Kanjar Ro, the alien despot the Justice League defeated in Justice League of America #3, escapes from his prison and devises a way to beat the League. Reverse-engineering the way Superman developed his powers, Ro figures that if he bathes himself in a certain type of radiation on the planet Rann, he’ll become more powerful than the Man of Steel and more than a match for the rest of the JLA.

Rann, of course, is the adopted planet of Adam Strange, who learns of Ro’s plan. Though Strange is unable to prevent Ro from gaining superpowers, he comes up with a counter-scheme to capture him. Part of Strange’s plan involves traveling to Earth where he meets the JLA for the first time and they learn what’s going on.

Aquaman, Attack!: Aquaman does absolutely nothing in this adventure but become de-evolutionized by one of Kanjar Ro’s new powers. Then again, the rest of the JLA is equally ineffective. This is Adam Strange’s comic and he gets to save the day. The JLA’s just there to show how powerful Ro has become. Still, some of the other heroes at least get to throw a punch and Aquaman doesn’t even have that.

Aquaman’s Participation Grade: F

Justice League of America #12: “The Last Case of the Justice League”

The Case: Doctor Light makes his criminal debut by using various lights and rays to take out the Justice League before he takes over the world.

Aquaman, Attack!: Since Aquaman has no secret identity, Doctor Light determines that he’ll be the easiest to find and starts with him. (How he knows that the other heroes have secret identities isn’t revealed.) In an off-panel struggle, Light overcomes Aquaman and activates his JLA emergency signal to draw in the other heroes. He then sends each of them to another world where their powers won’t work. Aquaman of course is exiled to a desert planet.

Superman and Batman thwart Light’s attempt to exile them and are able to rescue the rest of the team. They then deduce randomly guess the villain’s light-themed targets and split into teams to stop him. Aquaman teams up with Green Arrow and Green Lantern to prevent the theft of the Colossus of Rhodes, which was more or less an ancient lighthouse. (Apparently, the statue that was destroyed by earthquake in 224 BC was a fake. Aquaman knows that the real one was hidden at the bottom of the sea to prevent theft by invaders.)

The team arrives just as Light is raising the Colossus, but he’s able to hold them off with yellow lightning for Green Lantern, “hard” light that encircles the Arrowplane, and a heat ray for Aquaman. Aquaman’s able to defeat Light though by distracting him with a dophin that Aquaman’s taught to imitate his voice. (You see, according to Aquaman, “scientists are teaching dolphins to talk” all the time, so this is entirely believable.)

Unfortunately, it’s not the real Doctor Light whom Aquaman’s captured, but a hologram. The other teams figure this out too when they bring in Doctor Lights of their own. Green Lantern realized this though during the fight over the Colossus and trailed the hologram’s projection back to its source where he found and defeated the real Light.

Aquaman’s Participation Grade: C+

Justice League of America #13: “The Riddle of the Robot Justice League!”

The Case: Aliens from another dimension will destroy our universe if the Justice League can’t defeat them in an arena battle on the aliens’ homeworld. This isn’t the first time the aliens have pulled this trick and no other universe has ever produced a champion that can defeat them. The aliens’ tactic is to create robots that not only duplicate the powers and abilities of their challengers, but are also slightly better.

Aquaman, Attack!: When the Justice League arrives at the alien arena, Aquaman is told that he can’t participate in the fight because “there’s no water on Skarn.” Instead, Green Lantern uses his ring to create a pool that hovers over the arena floor. That will let Aquaman survive and give him – as Green Lantern says – “the best ‘seat’ in the house.” As if that’s some sort of consolation for being left out of the fight. It’s like running out of cake at a birthday party and telling some poor kid, “You can’t have any, but here, have this sucker. You’re the only one who gets to have a sucker instead of cake. Isn’t that special?” Adding to the insult, Martian Manhunter and Superman tell Aquaman that he can be their “coach” and “one-man rooting section.” Yay. Aquaman gets to be cheerleader for the entire issue.

Writer Gardner Fox tries to make Aquaman’s humiliating role sound exciting by having the heroes take his advice and put it to successful use against their robot doubles, but even then a lot of Aquaman’s guidance is unintentional. Like when he shouts to Batman that “You can’t let a metal man beat a human” and Batman suddenly figures out how to use the robot’s metal body against it (in a highly unrealistic manner, by the way). Or when Green Arrow’s down to his last arrow and Aquaman tells him that he could win if only he got a break. Green Arrow then breaks his arrow in two and uses both pieces to confuse and defeat his opponent. Even the times when Aquaman’s suggestions are directly helpful, it’s unclear whether he intended them to be or if he was just shouting platitudes.

Aquaman’s Participation Grade: F

Justice League of America #14: “The Menace of the ‘Atom’ Bomb!”

The Case: When the JLA counts its votes for their newest member, they’re all surprised that they’ve voted for a man they know nothing about, the Atom. Fortunately, Green Lantern’s ring recalls enough details about the Atom for the team to offer him membership. Martian Manhunter is elected to go inform the “tiny titan” and let him know about the memory weirdness. Meanwhile, the other members begin experiencing severe memory loss again, but this time about themselves. While they’re disoriented, their various enemies capture them and take them to a central location. Ultimately, even Atom and Martian Manhunter are affected.

Aquaman, Attack!: This is really the Atom’s adventure. In spite of having no memory of who he is, he’s able to follow Martian Manhunter and captor to the location where the JLA is being held. He frees them and then it’s fairly easy work for the JLA to figure out who’s behind it all (Professor Fortune from JLA #6; now calling himself Mister Memory) and defeat him. Aquaman does nothing but stand around and get rescued.

Aquaman’s Participation Grade: F

Justice League of America #15: “The Challenge of the Untouchable Aliens”

The Case: When the entire world decides to test its most powerful weapons on the same day, an invisible force turns them against major cities. The JLA learns that it’s the work of aliens, but unfortunately the heroes are useless in battle against them. The aliens can touch the heroes, but the heroes can’t touch them.

Aquaman, Attack!: Aquaman joins Martian Manhunter and Green Arrow to defend Tokyo against a nuclear missile. Manhunter stalls the weapon, but is captured by the alien who’s using it. Green Arrow uses trick arrows to cause the missile to fall harmlessly into the Sumida River where Aquaman discovers a second alien with a rocket launcher who’s getting ready to fire another missile.

Aquaman and some fish stop the second missile and Aquaman uses his own strength to hurl another missile at the rocket launcher with enough force to make both explode. That’s pretty impressive. Unfortunately, Aquaman’s just as useless against the alien itself as the other heroes are and the alien escapes.

Green Lantern is able to trick the aliens into taking his ring with them when they return to their home. The ring then pulls the JLA to the aliens' world, which the heroes learn is their own Earth, but “separated by a single minute in time” (whatever that means). The aliens explain that they were also testing weapons at the same time as the humans and the simultaneous explosions caused a “time-shift” that was narrowing the gap between the two worlds. If it shortened to nothing, then both worlds – trying to occupy the same space at the same time – would be destroyed. Green Lantern is able to use his ring to return the time gap to its correct size and save both worlds.

I have a couple of thoughts about this story that I need to get out, only one of which is tangentially related to Aquaman. Aquaman doesn’t get a lot to do in this story, but neither do most of the other characters. It’s all about Green Lantern, who’s on something of a streak lately and gets to save the day a lot. Superman doesn’t get used in these early JLA stories much, presumably to prevent him from single-handedly winning all the time, but that’s what’s happening with Green Lantern. And Martian Manhunter to a lesser extent. As overly weak as Aquaman is often portrayed, Green Lantern is overly powerful and imbalances the team. If the stories continue in this fashion, the team will become Green Lantern and his Super Friends. I’m curious to see if that happens or if Gardner Fox corrects for it in some way.

The other thought about this story has nothing to do with Aquaman, but is just something that really bugs me. There’s much ado made at the end about how the aliens and the JLA were both working toward the same goal of trying to save both their worlds and the JLA beats themselves up quite a bit for not realizing it right away. They spend the last two panels preaching about “learning the whole story” and understanding each other “no matter what their race, color, or creed.” Which is a nice lesson, but totally ignores the fact that the aliens’ solution to the dilemma was to freaking destroy three major cities full of people. Not on their Earth, but on ours. I'm not sure how much "understanding" is called for there.

Aquaman’s Participation Grade: C

I’m not nearly done with this project, but I thought it would be interesting at this point to determine Aquaman’s Participation Grade Point Average so far. According to my math, he’s got a strong C average. Which frankly is higher than I expected, but not so great as to effectively combat the general perception that Aquaman’s lame.

My observation is that he usually contributes to missions in meaningful, but mostly supportive ways, sometimes being sidelined, but also occasionally saving the day for everyone. Looking at the math, I don’t see how it’s any fairer to call him lame than some of the other team members. Not that I’ve been grading them too, but it looks to me like Flash and Wonder Woman are about as useful as Aquaman while Batman is considerably less useful to the JLA.

For now though, the stories are still following the format of breaking into smaller teams to battle multiple threats. That gives Aquaman more of an opportunity to contribute as well as pick a team that’s going to operate near a lot of water. When that format eventually goes away, it should be really interesting to see how the writers handle it and how Aquaman’s GPA adjusts.


Ken O said...

I think most people who make fun of Aquaman only know about him from the old Superfriends cartoon. It's a bunch of tired old jokes in the same vein of "haha look at Shaggy, what a stoner," or "If the Professor was so smart why couldn't he build a boat?".

I'm don't have a lot of Aqua-knowledge either. Other then being slightly hypontized by his "undersea camo" costume.
I thought Waid used Aquaman great in JLA Year One.

Michael May said...

You're so right about the JLA: Year One version. That mini-series did a lot to deepen my fondness for the character.

And really excellent observation comparing Aquaman to Shaggy and the Professor. The "Aquaman-is-lame" meme is lazy joke-making. I think it's worth engaging from a critical standpoint, but it's good to be reminded not to give it more credit than it deserves.


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