The Best Of Aquaman
We’ve all done it before – we’ve all bashed Aquaman. It’s easy. His costume isn’t all that cool and his only apparent power is that he can talk to fish. Recently, some hacky morning zoo radio show started making hacky morning zoo radio show type jokes about poor Arthur Curry when Zack Snyder, director of everything DC Comics these days, called into the program and gave them a lesson about how cool Aquaman actually is. Considering he is all set to appear in both Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (that title) and the eventual Justice League film, now’s probably a good time to take a look at how badass Aquaman is. This list is in no particular order.
1 — Adventure Comics 451-452 "The Secret of the Sinister Abyss," “Dark Destiny, Deadly Dreams” by David Michelinie and Jim Aparo (1977)
At this point in time, DC Comics was only just beginning to come out of the extremely campy stories they had been publishing since the mid-fifties. Julie Schwartz had just hired Denny O’Neil to write Batman and they took Bats back to his pulpy, dark roots. Other than that, DC Comics was still publishing very silly stuff. Then this happened. Editor Paul Levitz masterminded an Aquaman shake-up. In these two issues, we’re treated to Aquaman with Aqualad and Aquagirl (it was the 70s!) attempting to fight off a Starro invasion. It turns out this is just part of an elaborate trap set by Aquaman’s archenemy Black Manta who has kidnapped Aquababy and his pet Topo the Squid (it was the 70s!).
Manta locks Aquaman and Aqualad in a makeshift coliseum and tells them to fight to the death. If they don’t, Manta will kill Aquababy (we’ll call him Arthur, Jr. from now on). Aquaman’s fatherly instincts kick in and he attempts to kill his young ward to save his son. Manta kills the toddler anyway and gets away. Aqualad, disgusted and betrayed by his mentor, leaves him as well. The last image we’re given is of a broken Aquaman carrying the corpse of his dead toddler back to his wife, Mera.
While the setup to the story is a corny one, and the handling of Manta’s true identity was ridiculous, this is a landmark story not only for Aquaman, but also for comics in general. This was one of the first stories to “go dark,” and ended up affecting Aquaman stories for the next decade. It lead to stories like “Death of a Prince” and the dissolution of Aquaman and Mera’s marriage. It also led to a specifically darker toned-Aquaman series and later helped in the decision to kill Jason Todd in 1988.
2 — Aquaman volume 4, issue 13 “My Hero” by Shaun McLaughlin and Chris Schenck (1992)
This was the final issue in the fourth Aquaman volume. While McLaughlin’s run is worth checking out, this final issue is a particular standout. It’s a one shot that concerns two boys dying in hospice care. While their illnesses are never outright said (comic code authority didn’t allow it at the time), the first boy, Bobby, is clearly AIDS ridden, while the second boy, Tony, has cancer. They’re no older than nine. Like most boys do, they compare their favorite superheroes. Bobby loves Batman, Tony loves Aquaman. The latter gushes the way most kids do about this sort of thing, and he believes that Aquaman can cure them both of their diseases. Somehow, the sickly boy manages to get out of the hospice and hitches rides with a variety of unpleasant people. While this sounds like the beginning of a Law & Order: SVU episode, these adults — while clearly lousy — all listen to Tony prattle on about Aquaman and give their own opinions and experiences with the superhero.
Through coincidence Tony meets with a retired villain called The Scavenger who was one of Aquaman’s big enemies back in the day. They’re friends now; Aquaman helped out at Scavenger’s parole hearing and helped get the criminal back on his feet after being released. He helps locate Aquaman and Tony gets to meet his all-time favorite hero. The tragic part is, of course, that despite the man’s powers and the advanced technologies available from Atlantis, there is no cure for what’s killing Tony and his friend. There’s nothing that even he could do to stop it. Instead, he treats the kid to the best day of his life — he gets to be Aquaman’s partner. Sometimes that’s what a superhero is; sometimes it’s just a person there to put a hand on our shoulder and tell us to be brave, that it’ll be okay.
3 — Thicker Than Water by Neal Posner and Craig Hamilton (1986)
This is a psychedelic miniseries whose art would later become popular in Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series. “Thicker Than Water” focuses on two major aspects of what eventually became the modern Aquaman mythology: the relationship with his half-brother Orm, and the Arthurian/magical influences from Atlantis. The story concerns Atlantis invading the surface-land, though that is more of an incidental. Orm and Aquaman are enemies, but not in the same way that Batman and Joker are or Aquaman and Black Manta are. Their issues with each other are more personal — stemming from the rape that allowed Orm to be born, and the different ideologies that the two have. At the same time, what separates them isn’t necessarily hatred. They’re hesitant around each other and both wish the other would come over to their side.
On a side note, Aquaman is still dealing with the large fallout of Arthur, Jr.’s death. He’s full of self-hate and suffering from a certain lack of confidence. It doesn’t help that his friends abandoned him, or that his wife left him and eventually went insane with grief. This story makes all of these things come to a head and eventually clears the board, leading to Shaun McLaughlin’s run in Aquaman volume 4.
4 — Time and Tide by Peter David (1993)
Peter David wrote much of Aquaman volume 5 himself and it is altogether a fun read. “Time and Tide” is arguably the best of the litter. David had a penchant for going into a struggling book and reinventing a character and his cast. His entire run was a reboot — updating the origins of both Atlantis and Aquaman, focusing on character aspects that were truthful if not always kind. David’s Aquaman can be temperamental and narcissistic, and was very reluctant to become a superhero and a king. It made him more human even as his stories became more outlandish. While the dialogue is purple at best and corny at worst, this began an important era in Aquaman’s history, where he enjoyed a great deal of regard in the comic book community (sales were particularly great too) because David accentuated what worked and excised what didn’t.
5 — JLA: Year One by Mark Waid, Brian Augustyn and Barry Kitson
Okay, this one is a bit of a cheat. This isn’t technically an Aquaman story. It’s a Justice League origin story, and since Aquaman is a founding member and an appearing character, I’m going to add it to the list. The overarching threat isn’t much to go on here, and the group of Lotus — created specifically for this story — doesn’t add up to much until their later appearances, but this isn’t about the villains. The measure of Year One is its character interactions and development, which are all worth reading. Here, Aquaman is represented largely from Peter David’s “Time and Tide” but Waid and Augustyn add little bits of their own. Aquaman is new to the surface world, and somewhat naïve. He’s taken advantage of by some locals and doesn’t really like living up here. He’s very soft spoken because sound travels better under water so he comes off as mumbling in our world. Also, everyone keeps calling him Aquaman and he hates the name.
At the same time, he’s also invaluable, and it’s established how good of a beating he can take since his body can withstand the pressures of the greatest depths of the ocean. By the end of the story, he’s not sold on staying here, but he likes his fellow leaguers well enough and comes to realize he can best serve Atlantis and his people by representing them in the Justice League.
6 — Thrones of Atlantis by Geoff Johns, Paul Pelletier and Ivan Reis (2012)
This was a part of DC’s relaunch dubbed The New 52. To say that the New 52 is hit or miss would be generous but Johns’ run on Aquaman was definitely in the hit category.
Geoff Johns’ weakness as a writer is the obsession he has with the Silver Age, often bringing back characters from that era while their modern incarnations suffer (see Wally West). He also sometimes adopts a bombastic storytelling procedure seen in the Silver Age that doesn’t translate well to the modern audience. However, this is a much more streamlined approach, similar to the one he took during his landmark nine year run on Green Lantern. Everything is stripped down and modernized, made complicated later through organic conflict and interaction. Johns even goes a step further, breaking the fourth wall and establishing the world at large as having a dislike of Aquaman — they think he’s silly, they think he’s a punchline (and they find his wife very hot). In Johns’ first issue, a reporter poses the question to Aquaman: “How does it feel to be nobody’s favorite superhero?” Over the next twenty or so issues, Johns goes about not only answering the question, but reasserting the many facets that makes Aquaman fascinating, and “Thrones of Atlantis” is the culmination of his work.
The story is about an all-out war between Atlantis and the rest of the planet. Aquaman’s brother Orm is the king of Atlantis and Aquaman finds himself caught between loyalties. The brothers are certainly closer than they have been in other incarnations and their falling out is rendered with particular tragedy. Orm is no longer the evil brother, but a fully realized, three-dimensional character with conflicting thoughts and motives. More than anything he wants to give up being king and pass the crown to Aquaman.
While I won’t give away the larger twist towards the end, two major beats unfold for us here: Aquaman fights off Superman, Wonder Woman and Batman to keep Orm safe and the war plans used by Orm were originally conceived by Orm and Aquaman together. Aquaman had lived for several years in Atlantis following the death of his father, and in those years at the bottom of the ocean, Aquaman had become embittered with the shoddy treatment he and his father had been given. He figured war between the two worlds was likely and he and Orm devised a rather brutal and final course of action, should it ever be necessary. Now, all that conflict and divided loyalties are explored here and Aquaman comes out a reluctant hero though heartbroken over what happens to his brother.