Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Charm of Aquaman: Limitations?

Art by Evan Shaner. Click the image to visit his blog and see the whole thing.

As you may have noticed, Aquaman's reputation is something that I spend time thinking about. He's a character who should be one of the coolest DC has, but the widespread conventional wisdom is that he's lame. I mostly blame Super Friends, but DC hasn't exactly known what to do with him either. There's evidence that they're trying to correct that through Brightest Day, but not everyone agrees about the success of that either.

On Brian Bendis' message board, one user complains about making Aquaman too powerful and self-sufficient. Power and the ability to take care of himself are traits that I'd think Aquaman should have in order to be a respected hero, but this person disagrees:
It seems to me that if you make him too powerful, he doesn't need the fish. And if he doesn't need the fish, or if he's full of too much gravitas to speak to them openly, then aren't you losing a lot of the charm of Aquaman?
I'm not going to make too much of one person's opinion, but it's a great illustration of how you can't please everyone. A major trait that people cite for Aquaman's lameness is that his only power is talking to fish. I agree with Peter David that that's not exactly a sucky power, but it's certainly limiting if that's all he's got going for him. Yet, here's a fan who enjoys that limitation and craves more of it to the point that he thinks the character is broken if it's not that way.

Which raises the question: how limited do superheroes need to be? In the Silver Age, everyone had a fatal weakness. Superman had kryptonite, Martian Manhunter had fire, Green Lantern had the color yellow, and Aquaman couldn't be out of the water for more than an hour or he'd die. As Snell once pointed out to me, even one hour and one second was supposed to be fatal. That strikes me as ridiculous, but that's the Silver Age for you.

It was full of ridiculous stuff, which may be what this Bendis board user misses. In the face of so much decadence in today's superhero comics, a lot of readers are longing for more innocent times. Or at least superhero comics that are more fun. I'm one of them; I just don't agree that strictly adhering to Silver Age versions of the characters is the answer.

But what about you guys? I don't believe there's a right or wrong answer here, but I'm curious to know if others feel the same way as the person on the Bendis board. Should Aquaman only be able to talk to fish? Should he die after an hour out of the water? Was it a mistake for Green Lantern to lose his weakness to yellow?


Wings1295 said...

No, I believe in the more powerful Aquaman. He needs to be a "big gun" since he is such an iconic, legacy character. How he uses those powers (strength, telepathy, swimming speed) are what make him interesting. I love seeing Aquaman punch a hole through a sub, or calming a horde of sea creatures with a thought.

Siskoid said...

It's interesting that you mention Silver Age Superman since one of the biggest problems with him is that he is all-powerful. It became a struggle for writers to do anything but kryptonite stories after a while (and thus the depowered Byrne version).

As for Aquaman, I want him on the same level as the other classic JLAers, which is more about prowess than it is about power (see Batman). Each of those guys should have their own niche in any given situation.

I like the idea that's been put forward lately that Aquaman's niche is leadership. He is a King, after all! And in a team book, he would need to exploit not only that niche, but his singular powers as well (communicating with sea life).

His only real limitation should be that he can't reach his full potential when not in a marine or coastal environment, no need for a 60-minute countdown. It's a built-in limitation to the concept that I'm comfortable with and which doesn't make Aquaman low-powered.

Michael May said...

I've been reading some Silver Age JLA lately and those stories were so predictable. Superman was usually left out because he was too powerful for the threat, Martian Manhunter would always encounter fire, and one of the villain's weapons would always just happen to be yellow to give Green Lantern a hard time.

Though it seems to be less prevalent once Aquaman got his own series, in his early solo adventures the out-of-water weakness came into play about every other story if not more often.

The reason of course is that comics in the '60s were purely children's literature. Not "all-ages," but "kids only." Kids don't need originality.

Though they often go too far, I appreciate that superhero comics have matured and can be appreciated by grown-ups. I agree that Aquaman's almost literal fish-out-of-water syndrome makes him limited and interesting enough.

Anonymous said...

I think I'd like to see Aquaman talking to fish more. Wouldn't one suppose that on a planet that's mostly water, a super-dude like Aquaman would be a top dogfish?
Suppose he related less readily to human beings (who seem to dump on him all the time. pretty much literally.) than to denizens of the deep, something similar to the way Tarzan or Rima relates to the creatures of the forest.
After all, many of them are considered to be quite intelligent - octopi, the various whales and dolphins. And who's to say what other creatures may live in the farthest deeps? Perhaps there are very intelligent non-human creatures down there, different from the usual mer-people types that DC was fond of portraying. I'm thinking of some rarely-seen, hinted-at being of the depths, perhaps an aeonian holdover from the distant past. Someone or something with whom Aquaman has a student/guru relationship.

Michael May said...

I don't know if you've read Mark Waid's JLA: Year One, but it portrays Aquaman very much like you're talking about: someone who doesn't relate all that well to humans. It's one of my favorite things about that mini-series and an element that I'd like to see Aquaman struggle with more.

I also agree that there are limitless possibilities beneath the ocean's surface. The potential to explore some of them is one of the coolest things about the Aquaman concept.

Hellbilly said...

During the silver and bronze age, Aquaman didn't fit neatly into the generic hero stories, and suffered from poor writing. I didn't really come to like him until the Timm/Dini treatment in the Justice League animated series. I've heard the complaint that his character on that show was too Conan-like, but I loved it.


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