Let’s address the elephant in the ocean, shall we? His name is Arthur Curry but you might know him better as Aquaman.
There are a lot of B-List super-heroes. Not everybody can stroll down the metaphorical Red Carpet of Heroism. Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Spider-Man, Captain America – they’re all A-List. (Batman was played by George Clooney, fer chrissakes! It don’t get much more A-List than that!) Aquaman, despite his name starting with the letter ‘A’, is not on the A-List. Or the B-List. Keeping going through the alphabet until you get to the bottom. Yeah, that’s where Aquaman lives. He sucks, right? Everybody knows that. Well, yes and no.
It’s true, the perception of Aquaman-as-sucking is strong. And the up-and-down characterization of him over the decades certainly sucks. The inconsistencies and the ret-cons and the TRYING OH-SO HARD TO MAKE HIM COOL are what sucks about Aquaman the most. He’s actually a fairly interesting character, if you ignore most of what’s been done with him over the decades.
Created in 1941 (!) by Paul Norris and the legendary Mort Weisinger, he was basically a rip-off of Timely’s Namor the Sub-Mariner, only blond and fully clothed. Originally, Aquaman’s father was a world-famous scientist who discovered Atlantis and taught his young son “scientific principles” for living underwater for extended periods of time. This was later adapted to his father having a romance with an Atlantean princess, who bore him a half-breed son. (Which is almost exactly Namor’s origin, except it’s heavily implied that Namor’s mother was raped by a “surface-dweller” and that’s why he hates humanity. But I digress.) His origin was later tweaked to make him the last in a long line of Atlantean royalty, making his name ‘Arthur’ auspicious and his title ‘King of the Seven Seas’ all the more thematically heavy.
Aquaman is one of the few super-heroes who survived into the 1950s. Supes, Bats and Wondy are on that very short list. (The reason is most likely that Mort Weisinger became a powerful editor at DC and protected his own creation. But we’ll never really know why Aquaman, along with Green Arrow, were ‘popular’ in the ‘50s. It’s merely conjecture on my part. But Weisinger was all-powerful for a while and that’s why Aquaman exists to this day.)
In 1956, he gained a side-kick, Topo the Octopus. This needs to be properly explained and put in context. You see, Superman had Krypto the Super-Dog. Batman had Ace the Bat-Hound. Green Lantern had Itty, a blue blob that could transform into things. Aquaman had an octopus butler. (Eventually, he adopted an Atlantean orphan named Garth who became Aqua-Lad, ie the underwater Robin and later a charter member of the Teen Titans.) Topo worked as a Deus Ex Machina for the Sea King, getting him out of jams and helping out, comic-relief-style.
Let’s review Aquaman’s power-set, shall we? As a half-Atlantean (or someone who was “highly trained to survive underwater”, whatever), Aquaman is able to survive underwater. At crushing pressures. His bones must be unusually dense and his musculature the same. He can swim really fast (faster than a speeding torpedo) and, as we all know, he can control underwater creatures telepathically.
(If you believe the cartoon of the late 1960s, he can throw balls of water with enough force to stun a shark or act like an underwater grenade. He also rode a giant sea-horse like an actual horse. )
He also has a weakness (every super-hero has one – Superman has Kryptonite, Green Lantern has the colour yellow, the Martian Manhunter has fire. Batman’s weakness is a well-aimed bullet.) and Aquaman’s weakness is he has to be wet all the time. If he’s away from water for an hour, he dies.
Now, most people know about Aquaman from the Super-Friends cartoon show (or the lame routines of every hack comedian extant). He’s been the butt of a thousand jokes on Family Guy and Robot Chicken. He always caught the bad guys by getting sperm whales to ram their boat. (Stop snickering.)
All of this put together means Aquaman sucks. But, operating on the assumption that there are no bad ideas, nor bad characters, Aquaman doesn’t ACTUALLY suck. It’s just the execution that was wrong.
First of all, telepathy is a cool power. And he can talk to fish, whales, mammals. It’s specific, directed telepathy, too – he issues “commands” and the fish obey. So do the mammals (whales and dolphins are mammals, don’tcha know). Which means he has telepathic powers over humans as well (humans are mammals and we all came from the sea). So his low-level telepathy can be used not to influence people but to strike hard at the reptile part of their brain, the evolutionary remainder of our previous life under the sea. He can give you a seizure just by squinting at you.
Secondly, he’s strong. He can move effortlessly through water in the same way Superman flies through the air. Water is more dense than air. He can survive the crushing pressures of the bottom of the ocean, which is largely unexplored territory to us “surface-dwellers”. He never gets the bends, never gets tired. Has to get wet but never gets tired.
Thirdly, he commands the fish because he is a KING. An oft-noted fact in any Aquaman story is that the Earth is 70% water and Aquaman owns ALL OF IT. Plus, his name is ARTHUR. Get it? He’s the Underwater King Arthur, waiting in the depths until we need him.
The real problem with Aquaman is nobody’s ever known what to do with him. His wife (yes, he has a wife) Mera, an alien princess who can “control” water and he had a baby – Aquababy, Arthur Jr. Aquababy was killed by Black Manta, his arch-enemy. (Which makes Black Manta the worst villain in the DC Universe because he KILLED A BABY.) Then they added all that “he’s King Arthur underwater” crap. Then they made him an outcast of Atlantean society because (GET THIS!) he had blond hair. They redesigned his costume (it didn’t last), they cut off his hand, they gave him a beard and long hair (that didn’t last either), they TRIED and TRIED to make him “cool” and “bad-ass” so many times, it just reeks of failure, even underwater.
A little-known, little-recognized fact about Aquaman is that he’s got a huge following in the gay community. He doesn’t wear a mask, he’s handsome and blond and he rolls around in the surf. He’s selfless and tragic and seen as uncool. He’s an outsider but he’s incredibly powerful and always underestimated. In the parlance of the day, he’s FIERCE.
So I said a few nice things about Aquaman and now you know more about Aquaman and that’s great and all.
But Aquaman still sucks. You have my word as a Batmanologist. Trust me on that. His butler is an octopus named Topo.