Monday, 20 August 2012

Aquaman - 6 Ways He's Not Crap

I’d like to have a quick conversation about my favourite superhero. I know what you’re thinking. ‘What, the fish guy? The blonde surf-douche with the fruity sequined top? No way!’

Aquaman with fish background
 Stop laughing! Look at the whales!

But hear me out. Don’t focus on his time with the super-friends. Even Batman was a little bit crap once upon a time – remember the days when he wore light grey and sky blue? Played by Adam West? The same is true of Aquaman. You just need to appreciate the potential. You don’t even know his real name, do you? You know Bruce Wayne, Clark Kent and maybe even the various names of Robin. Aquaman has two real names. His Atlantean name is Orin. His human name is Arthur Curry, adopted son of a lighthouse keeper. It's all quite confusing.

Read my 100% convincing 6-point argument that proves Aquaman is awesome, right after the click!

  1. The Water

The waters of Earth occupy two thirds of the surface. Of Earth. Batman has one crappy city while Aquaman’s jurisdiction is the majesty of the ocean itself. From the warm, rich coral reefs of Australia to the fatally icy waters of the arctic seas; from the brilliant diamond-blue Caribbean to the eternal night of deepest trenches.

There’s the long-standing joke about how you need to get into the water before Aquaman can do anything to you. This isn’t true since he can walk around on land perfectly fine and just needs to stay hydrated. Batman has no powers on land either besides his gadgets and intellect. He can still punch criminals. Black Canary just has her voice and her punching. Wildcat is literally just about the punching.

But if you really, really piss Aquaman off?

Aquaman causes tsunami
 Holy shit!

You’d think that the oceans of all the Earth might be a big beat to cover, and they are. But Aquaman can swim very, very quickly – in some versions of his story he has a sort of telekinetic power over water, able to control it and form it into weapons or propulsion. Sometimes he uses very fast submarines to get around. Other times he hitches a lift with whales, swordfish or other speedy fish. Which, yes, brings us to…

  1. The Fish

He can telepathically communicate with fish. Usually he can’t actually control them, just communicate with them. Aquaman has described it himself as ‘cajoling’ the fish. And I know you’re laughing now. That’s because you’re ignorant. If you think ‘fish’ and picture this:

tuna steak with garnish

…then you have never seen what a tuna fish looks like.

large tuna being caught in a net
 Giant fish!

They’re quite often bigger than cows. They’re not even the biggest fish in the water. That would be the ocean sunfish or mola mola:

sunfish mola mola in aquarium
 EVEN GIANTER FISH!! Weird shape though

Shall we talk about the oarfish?

large oarfish in vintage photo
 That long ribbon they're holding is one whole fish

The giant manta rays?

manta ray with diver
 I've not trusted rays since they took Steve Irwin from us

Much like humanity’s exploration of the oceans themselves, we have only just begun to scratch the surface of giant underwater creatures. I could talk for ages about freakishly huge fish. Alright, these are all basically just huge dumb beasts. I doubt their conversation is peppered with wit and insight. I guess most fish aren’t worth talking to; jellyfish, sea cucumbers, sea anemones, sponges, etc. But they’re also pretty much everywhere. None of them have any eyelids (apart from sharks). The ocean is a world of eternally staring eyes. 

Every single unblinking eye is spying for Aquaman.

Dolphins, narwhals, whales etc. are technically mammals but Aquaman can talk to them too. Sometimes it’s not telepathy, he just learns their language. His telepathy covers cephalopods too, which are also not fish; octopus, squid, nautilus, cuttlefish… the giant octopus… the colossal squid…

giant squid caught by fishing boat
 This isn’t the even biggest one

These are the Lovecraftian nightmares that Aquaman can summon to defeat you*. They share Aquaman’s home. But hey, I’m sure tiny, squeaking bats are also cool.

*Which reminds me, Aquaman defeats the Old Ones quite often

  1. Atlantis/Poseidonis – Aquaman’s Home

Poseidonis is the capital city of the sunken continent of Atlantis. As eventuful as it is living in Gotham or Metropolis, it’s worse in Poseidonis. Amongst everything else? There was a bit when Aquaman was deposed by a coup of aquatic, semi-prehistoric sorcerers who created armies of mutant fish creatures.

Waterbearer book Atlantis and the sorcerors
 Atlantis is an alien city lurking beneath the waves

There’s an entry on TV Tropes named ‘Atlantis is Boring’. The idea is that Atlantis, the mythic and fantastical city, is also quite unfortunately alien. Stories set underwater lack the human element, much like the Star Wars prequels. It doesn’t matter how many pirates summon how many elder gods – most writers and readers can’t wrap their imaginations around moving in three dimensions:

Aquaman vs Superboy
 Being underwater is confusing. Which way is up? Does it matter?

Also there’s not much crime underwater. Apparently the point of 80% of fantasy/science fiction/drama/adventure stories is that they fight crime. Isn’t it quite disappointing that it comes down to that? There are so many kinds of adventure, they don't all have to be about crime!

  1. The Hand

I’ve written a lot before about how far prosthetic technology has come. Why is this relevant, you ask? Well, during the 90s they… well, look:

Aquaman with wave and harpoon prosthetic
 There’s something missing…
The trouble with only being able to ‘cajole’ the fish is that no matter how much they respect you, they’re mostly too dumb to fight their natures. You can only argue with a shark for so long before you’ll have to punch it on the nose or be eaten. And then there are the piranhas.

Aquaman Dolphin Charybdis being eaten by pirahnas
 The white-haired woman has only just arrived. The guy in the water has only just departed

Now, piranhas aren’t the flesh-stripping monsters that everyone thinks. I mean, sure, piranha teeth can be used as weapons. And they do sometimes bite humans, especially in low water. They’re capable of taking off a finger with a single bite. But they usually don’t swarm, apart from when they do. They usually don’t strip flesh to the bone in seconds either, apart from when they do. Aquaman’s hand was plunged into some piranha water and they did their piranha thing.

Aquaman mangled hand eaten to the bone
 Anyone have any disinfectant? Or a sticky plaster? Or some ibuprofen? Or OH GOD OW

He’s had a handful of different prosthetics over the years (sorry, I couldn’t resist). He started out with the point of a harpoon bandaged to his stump. This was later upgraded to a cybernetic harpoon thing with a grappling hook reel. It was awesome.

Aquaman throws harpoon prosthetic into the lake
Don’t throw it away! It’s so shiny!

He was given a hand made from magical water by the legendary Lady of the Lake (A king named Arthur? Totally her type). The hand had magical healing abilities. He even shaved off his awesome beard. He probably gets manicures even, but at least they’re half price.

Aquaman has the Lady of the Lake living in his magic hand
 Also do NOT masturbate with your magical hand in which I live

This new hand was literally the opposite to that pointy piece of strengthened metal, but I guess it’s the same decision that 99% of amputees would make.

  1. The Villains

The main trouble with Aquaman is that his villains are terrible. Superman’s most iconic villains are Lex Luthor, General Zod and Brainiac. Batman has Scarecrow, Poison Ivy, Two-Face, Riddler, and the list goes on! Who’s that other one? I feel like I’m missing one. Begins with a J…. nope, can’t remember! These villains have all been turned serious; but why so serious? It's because they make Batman look extra good when he defeats them. Aquaman has Black Manta, the Ocean Master and (briefly but importantly) Charybdis. Just look at Charybdis:

Charybdis shows Aquaman where all the submarines are hidden
Superman’s best/worst enemies are all smarter than him because strength is his… strength and not his smarts. Batman’s best/worst villains are all variations on the theme of psychology. Aquaman’s enemies lurk in the water whereas, logically, they should be fleeing inland as far as possible. But then there’s that old problem – either let them go or flood the mainland. Again.

It should be completely possible to legitimize his villains! They did it for god damn Jim Carey in his flashing leotard, and for Penguin who just looks like a damn penguin. The villainous sea-bird now gets more respect than the king of the oceans! HE SHOULD HAVE BEEN AQUAMAN’S VILLAIN ANYWAY!

A pointy piece of strengthened metal does sometimes come in useful. Admittedly in the very early days he’s pretty clumsy with it:

Aquaman accidentally stabs Dolphin with harpoon prosthetic
 Not the kind of penetration he was hoping for

Aquaman had that pointy bit of metal for quite a long time. What do you imagine he’d do with a stabbing weapon permanently mounted on his arm? That’s right, stab people.

Batman has a huge problem with killing people (these days) but Aquaman is sometimes more comfortable with it. He flips people into piranha tanks, abandons them to sharks, lets them drown, and he inserts that harpoon-hand into quite a few people and monsters.

Aquaman stabs monster with harpoon hand
 It looks longer when it's not deep inside something

Call me a sociopath but this isn’t Gotham or Metropolis. This is the ocean. The only law out here is either Atlantean or Darwinian.

Aquaman and friend being digested inside a larger fish
 Death by digestion - this could be either Darwinian or Atlantean

  1. The Man

Superman and Batman can always go and hide in their alternate lives. Aquaman doesn’t really have an alternate life; during exile he has a very limited identity to fall back on. Orin and Arthur Curry are merely known aliases, not identities that he supports to maintain a deception. This shows that Aquaman is pretty damn busy and a bit more honest, but sadly underdeveloped as a character. This might be because Aquaman is just too much like the oceans – both cold and warm, stern and playful, shallow and deep, etc.

The 90s were a pretty dark/stupid time for comic books and especially for Aquaman – he’d lost a hand to fish, he was struggling with the burden of ruling his people justly, and then he struggled with inevitably letting them down. In the books he went a bit emo-mutant (No! Don’t look at my hideous face! I will lurk forever in the darkness!) then he died quite a violent death. But I’m pretty sure that’s only until the next reboot, retcon or universe-altering reality-shift. This happens all the time in comics – nobody ever stays dead unless they’re someone’s parents. Even then it’s still not especially permanent.

But he’s alive in the cartoons. So very, very alive! In one of my favourites called Batman: The Brave and The Bold. What’s great about this cartoon is that it doesn’t get bogged down in the continuity like the comics have. They don’t even try to make sense that much. They focus on the fun rather than the baggage. They’ve also had a wide variety of celebrity voice-cameos including Neil Patrick Harris for one villain.

Aquaman is a bit of a breakout character – his popularity has surprised almost everyone. In this version he’s still the King of Atlantis and he’s never lost his hand. He’s strong, brave, hearty, kind and honest with a zest for adventure and a passion for heroics that is unparalleled. He’s a huge golden idol with a rich, thick beard. He is, in a word, regal. This is the first Aquaman I fell in love with. Watch these two quick clips:

The Atom later shrinks himself and Aquaman to fight tiny robots in Batman’s bloodstream.

Good lord he’s so manly and… regal! Alright he’s not too bright but in his defence he’s also more magic-based than scientific.

Anyway, using the ocean as your spy-network, living in the water, being able to fence with your prosthetic? All fine and dandy…

Aquaman prepares to fence with harpoon prosthetic
 Um, you first dude

…but what really makes Aquaman my favourite superhero is just his sheer heroicness. He’s been a campy hero, an anti-hero and an emo-hero. But sometimes he’s just a straight-up hero - a king even I can admire, and I hate the idea of a monarchy.

The Conclusion

I’m not saying he’s equal to Batman or Superman. I’m saying he has the potential to be better. Sure he doesn’t have Superman’s strength or Batman’s brains. But he has every other quality we look for in our heroes and each other: courage, occasional wisdom, compassion, self-sacrifice, determination and a sense of humour.

If you don’t yet believe then go back in time to the 60s and explain to anyone what Nolan’s Batman films would be like. Batman is just a lycra-wearing genius psychopath whose only real super-power is psychology. Storytellers started making that cool! Now look at him!

Dark Knight poster
 Still a little bit silly if I’m honest

Imagine if a writer fulfilled Aquaman’s potential. Imagine if he wasn’t human but he still somehow exemplified humanity. Imagine if his humanity drew us into the alien world of Atlantis and we got to explore those inhuman depths - what might we learn about ourselves? Imagine if we all knew that every fish-eye was his spy; spooky right? Imagine if he was the avatar of Atlantean/Darwinian justice but also struggled to bring kindness to his rule - how's that for conflicted character? Imagine if he had a bigger job to do than either Superman or Batman combined – protecting the oceans and ruling Atlantis with one hand missing. Imagine if he was a swashbuckler, riding narwhals into battle. Imagine if he had an eyepatch - or is that too much awesome? Imagine if he’d been around to help with oil ‘spills’ - he's always been an environmentalist anyway. Don’t imagine the super-hero he’s always been. Imagine the super-hero he could be. Imagine if my wildest dreams come true.

But for now, I’m just saying he doesn’t deserve this constant scorn.

Aquaman leaps towards Superboy


Mary Frances said...

Great post! The Aquaman Shrine has been doing this for 6 years and counting -- #1 Sea King fan community there is :)

Mark said...

Jason Momoa was BORN to play harpoon-arm Aquaman! Good luck!

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