Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Hero Tune-Up: Aquaman.

He talks to fish.

That's the first thing that comes to mind when you consider one Arthur Curry, also known by his heroic moniker of Aquaman. He can swim, and he can talk to sea animals. How in the name of holy hell do you build an impressive superhero out of that?

This isn't to say it can't be done. Writer Peter David is most famous for his seminal run with the character, taking what was essentially a D-lister mainly around to fill out the ranks of the Justice League and making essentially a flying (or rather, swimming) Conan archetype; bearded, long-haired, scowling and with a mean-looking hook for a hand he was about as against the traditional archetype best known from the Super Friends cartoon as you can get. It was so good, David was removed from the book and replaced with Erik Larsen, who then proceeded to drive Aquaman's book into a downward spiral from which the character has never recovered. The character is best known as the archetypal, smiling blond-haired hero in the orange shirt, green gloves and pants with that 'A' on his belt who'd be seen riding giant seahorses with his trusty sidekick Aqualad. It's a fond enough memory, but that very nostalgia has proven to be poison to the character. They've even tried to reboot the franchise with a 'new' Aquaman in the form of Arthur Joseph Curry, a clone of Aquaman's son whose adventures were chronicled by Kurt Busiek. While an admirable attempt, the book sufferred from one of the fatal illnesses of all superhero books; the more complex the origin, the greater the difficulty in winning over new readers.

Okay, I started off a bit strong on the continuity and people who don't make a habit of memorizing the DC Encyclopedia or back issues of Who's Who are likely looking at the screen in utter befuddlement. Let me spin the backstory of Aquaman for you quick. Take it away Wikipedia:

'The Modern Age Aquaman is born as Orin to Queen Atlanna and the mysterious wizard Atlan in the Atlantean city of Poseidonis, was abandoned on Mercy Reef (which is above sea level at low tide, causing exposure to air which would be fatal to Atlanteans) as a baby because of his blond hair, which was seen by the superstitious Atlanteans as a sign of a curse they called "the Mark of Kordax." The only individual who spoke up on Orin's behalf was Vulko, a scientist who had no patience for myth or superstition. While his pleas were to no avail, Vulko would later become a close friend and advisor to the young Orin.

As a feral child who raised himself in the wilds of the ocean with only sea creatures to keep him company, Orin was found and taken in by a lighthouse keeper named Arthur Curry who named Orin "Arthur Curry" after himself. One day Orin returned home and found that his adoptive father had disappeared, so he set off on his own. In his early teens, Orin ventured to the far north, where he met and fell in love with an Inupiat girl named Kako. He also first earned the hatred of Orm, the future Ocean Master who was later revealed to be Arthur's half-brother by Atlan and an Inupiat woman. Orin was driven away before he could learn that Kako had become pregnant with his son, Koryak.

Orin then returned to the seas mostly staying out of humanity's sight, until he discovered Poseidonis. He was captured by the city's then-dictatorial government and placed in a prison camp, where he met Vulko, also a prisoner of the state, who taught Orin the language and ways of the Atlanteans. While Orin was there he realized that his mother was also being held captive, but after her death he broke out and fled. Eventually, he made his way to the surface world, where under the name of "Aquaman" he became one of several superheroes emerging into the public view at the time.'

I'll be honest with you and say that I've been dragging my heels on this article, mainly because the above impression of the character had colored my thinking. Let's face it: Aquaman is a terrible idea for a superhero, at least looking from the outside in. Two-thirds of his adventures place him in an environment that makes it difficult for writers to create traditional superhero adventures. The last I checked, Atlantis/Poseidonis didn't have a First National Bank or Art Museum to serve as the stage for the Penguin's latest caper. And standing shoulder to shoulder with the Justice League? I'm sorry, but to someone completely new to comics it has to look ridiculous. I mean, Aquaman makes the Atom look cool. At least you can see him get smaller. Aquaman's strong, sure, he's durable, but he doesn't fly or shoot energy bolts or really do anything visually striking that'd make him stand out in the League if they're fighting anywhere that water isn't. As much affection as we may have for him, Aquaman is a terrible superhero.

I went through a couple cans of Red Bull mulling this over, trying my best to find some way I could make the character work in the contemporary DCU. And despite all my considerable fanboy powers and abilities, I found myself completely and utterly stymied. I was about ready to throw in the towel, pacing around my room, when my eyes lighted on my bookshelf and I caught sight of a familiar title. The Once and Future King by T.H. White. And like a bolt from Zeus, it hit me.

The reason Aquaman doesn't work as a superhero is because he isn't one.

Orin, King of Atlantis, is a hero of epic fantasy. He's a warrior-ruler of the old school, who possesses amazing strength, the ability to withstand the crushing depths of the ocean, and to swim its depths in a manner that resembles flight. He rules a people who have lived at the bottom of the ocean since time immemorial, and he rules with a benign and just hand. With his contemporary origin he's a mix of Tarzan and Conan, with just a bit of Arthurian lore for seasoning. He's Gilgamesh with actual gills! A warrior king who can fly(okay, swim, but the visual is apt), has super-strength, and can command the creatures of his realm to carry out his will. That's a pretty impressive resume.

With this in mind, the stories practically write themselves. Need an enemy to fight? Eldritch evil from the depths, water breathing serpent men from Lemuria, discovered and led by his evil half-brother Orm, aka the Ocean Master. The traditional sea-serpent is also good, plus mad sorcerors seeking to return Poseidonis to the old days of the Wizard Lords. You can throw in the odd appearance by villains like Black Manta to appease the fights in tights crowd, but with Aquaman you have the chance to tell some a different kind of heroic narrative, one more in keeping with Sword and Sorcery than the traditional Mutants and Masterminds.

Of course, the problem with a completely alien society like Poseidonis is that we don't really have anyone that acts as our touchstone, someone from the world of the more or less plausible that helps ground the hero and make his adventures somewhat more approachable. I touched on a similar problem back in my Martian Manhunter piece; you need a companion who has a viewpoint similar to ours. Perhaps S.T.A.R. Labs has successfully petitioned to have an undersea installation installed, and Arthur acts (begrudgingly) as a liason between his people and the surface dwellers? Or, taking something they tried from another run of Aquaman, say the latest crisis du jour has created a batch of former surface humans who can only survive underwater, the population of an average size coastal city. With nowhere else to go Superman suggests to Arthur that he take them in, at least until such time as the League can find a cure. Seemingly an easy enough situation, but rife with storytelling potential. How do these contemporary Americans feel about suddenly going from a democracy to a monarchy, from living within a high-tech society to a neo-medieval one? To say nothing of the normal perils of the ocean, where live a wide variety of creatures you want to watch out for and respect. And this is to say nothing of the citizens of Poseidonis, who view the 'newcomers' with everything from genuine curiosity to superior disdain to just flat-out hatred, imploring their king to exile the 'barbarians', or at the very least segregate them. So with a new viewpoint character (say a journalist who'd written a particularly scathing piece on how useless Aquaman was) in tow, Aquaman brings these people to a world they've never seen before, showing them both the majesty of the ocean depths and its fragile beauty, threatened by human and inhuman deviltry alike.

With just a few tweaks to the premise, a book that's always struggled to define itself against what it isn't could celebrate and embrace what it is; a sprawling epic adventure of flashing blades, 'flying' heroes, and ancient evil. It'd be Robert E. Howard meets Jacques Cousteau, and it would firmly establish Aquaman as anything but a smiling milquetoast. Riding a giant seahorse? Lame. Riding a giant seahorse while wielding a flashing sword, decapitating sharkmen cultists with a fierce she-devil swimmer fighting at your side? Badass.

Which is no less than the Sea King deserves.


snell said...

You know, Namor pretty much has the same story--long-timer underwater character who just seems like he's never going to be popular enough to maintain his own book.

One thing I think you miss is that it's often an artists' problem, too, not just writers. I find that too few artists over the years are able to make a convincing, compelling portrayal of what should be an awesome, mysterious realm. They just draw some seaweed and fish in the background and make everybody's hair "wavy," and otherwise they might as well be in mid-air as a mile under the water.

Stacy said...

No doubt. One thing that should be impressed upon any reader of Aquaman is how goddamned frightening the undersea world is. It's not always an inherently hostile environment, and it has it's own unique and unearthly beauty, but it's deadly to people who just think the ocean floor is like the Earth's surface only. . .y'know. . .underwater.

I'm not sure who I'd tap for such a challenge, though Tom Mandrake might be able to do it. His Spectre run had a nice mix of the unearthly and the creepy. Sadly Jim Aparo is no longer with us, or I'd choose him in an instant. I remember reading reprints of his Aquaman and finding the art to be great at conveying the sense of being beneath the waves.