Friday, September 10, 2010

Not-So-Secret Origins of the JLA - Aquaman

Here we have it, the final entry in our Aquaman week. But the last is far from least!

Aquaman, like Wonder Woman already had an origin story from back in 1941. However, to bring him up to speed, the good folks at DC felt he needed a little "tweak". The following origin story was drawn by the absolutely incredible Ramona Fradon. Unfortunately, the writer's name is lost to time and uncertainty. From Adventure Comics #260, May 1959 here's "How Aquaman Got His Powers"

But wait! Apparently the Sea King was so awesome he warranted another telling of his origin a scant two years later. This time, the Atlantean angle is expanded upon and we learn more of Arthur's mother, Atlanna. From Showcase #30, January- Februay 1961 here's an excerpt from "The Creatures From Atlantis" by Jack Miller, with more art by the dazzling Ramona Fradon.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Because You Demanded It! Aquaman

Two Aqua-Origins!

Not all heroes start with an origin story, but the good folks at DC felt that a guy who could breathe underwater and command sea creatures probably needed SOME explanation. Here, in an excerpt from the Dec, 1941 issue of More Fun Comics #73 we see Aquaman briefly explain his origin to a mystified sea captain:

It is interesting to note that Aquaman is not the first water-breathing superhero. That honor goes to Namor, The Sub-Mariner, who debuted in Marvel Comics #1 October, 1939. Aquaman's original origin is significantly different from the Sub-Mariner's, as the Sub-Mariner is the son of a human sailor and an Atlantean princess. However, in 1959, following the makeovers received by Green Lantern, Wonder Woman, Flash, Hawkman and The Atom, Aquaman was refitted with a Silver Age revision to his origin which has a few familiar concepts:

I particularly like how he seems to have always worn an orange shirt and green pants.

One of the great things about Aquaman is his utter lack of a Secret Identity. He doesn't even have a name other than Aquaman until 1959. And even when he's revealed to be Arthur Curry, it's not like he's masquerading as , for instance, the bumbling second mate on a Coast Guard cutter or something equally inconvenient. He's just Aquaman. He lives in the sea. Being Aquaman is apparently a full-time job.

By the late 1960's, Aquaman was moved from just being a very helpful guy to being the king of Atlantis. I've always felt that Aquaman , forgive the expression, "jumped the shark" at that point.

Heavy hangs the head that wears the crown, as they say, and by the 70's Aquaman became a very heavy cat. Always worried about pollution and the good of Altlantis. He was no longer the happy-go-lucky superhero stopping pirates and delivering letters to remote islands. He had a wife and a baby son and tons of responsibility. And his villains started getting more and more aggressive.

Honestly, when I read the Silver Age Aquaman, I become nostalgic for a simpler time (in comics, anyway) where superheroes were pure adventure and no writer would have EVER thought of killing off a superhero's infant child just to boost readership.

R.I.P Aqua-Baby.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010


In the Silver Age, it became a popular theme to experiment with creating a female version of a popular male hero. Some of those characters are still around today, in one form or another; Batwoman, Batgirl, Supergirl...

But how many of you remember the original Aquagirl?

Aquaman rescues a girl from drowning, only to discover that she can't drown. Which is news to her, too.

After a series of field tests to determine the limits of young Lisa's aquatic powers and a hasty interview with the young lady's folks, Aquaman is completely baffled as to how Lisa can perform the same sort of aquatic feats as The Sea King.

Stopping by the next day to see how Lisa is doing. Aquaman gets an unwanted surprise

Geez, Arthur, try not to be such a dick! No wonder you live alone in a cave at the bottom of the sea. But hey, Aquaman is right. Superheroing is no business for amateurs. I mean, just look at the kinds of serious situations a seafaring superbeing runs into on a daily basis:

Thank God Aquaman was there! If he hadn't stopped by with Topo, poor Oswald may have had to wait for a passing shipload of T.G.I.Friday's servers!

Later, on patrol, Aquagirl suddenly siezes up and is no longer able to breathe underwater. Aquaman rushes her to the surface, where he explains to her about her mysterious new powers:

Whew! That was a close one! Aquaman almost got saddled with having to share his realm with a beautiful young woman. Now he can go home with his octopus and cry himself to sleep. After all, the ocean is made up of the tears of lonely Aquamen.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Something is Fishy in local Law Enforcement. "Aquaman and his Sea Police" Adventure Comics #264

This may be one of my all-time favorite Aquaman stories.

It seems the recently flooded (and totally made up) city of New Venice is having some trouble with keeping law and order in its streets, er, canals. So, they call for good ol' Aquaman to come and keep the peace. I guess it was cheaper than buying a couple of boats for the New Venice PD.

Aquaman knows just what to do. He brings in a posse of his finny fins from the briny deep and in no time, they're using their aquatic antics to stop speeders, litter bugs, pickpockets and even a bunch of yahoos fishing out of season.

This has GOT to be a violation of these men's constitutional rights!

What grabs me most about this story, is the wonderful setting. New Venice seems like an ideal locale for Aquaman. He can interact easily with people and still get back to water every hour. He can fight crime in the city and still patrol the seas. There was a brief (read as: ONE issue) attempt in the 70's to take him back to New Venice, but it was never picked up. If I were writing a monthly Aquaman comic (and God willing, someday I will) I would totally set it in New Venice. But then, like most fanboys, I have a whole agenda of things I would do "IF".

As always, the brilliant artwork by Ramona Fradon is some of the best of it's age.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Black Manta- a brief, off-topic rant

Gee, I dunno. Maybe because Manta rays are black? Oh! And you're a pirate. Pirates like being called "Black" something. Like "Black Bart" Roberts. Also, I can't help but notice that your costume and manta-shaped submarine are black. I'm sensing a design motif here. Aquaman fought a high-tech pirate named Harry Black in the 60's... he was a white dude. Heck, I always thought maybe HE was Black Manta.

I can't believe that in a market flooded with blaxploitation heroes and villains who had black in their names for no obvious reason -I'm looking at you Black Lightning and Black Goliath- someone decided Black Manta should be a black guy. I mean, I couldn't care less what BM's ethnicity is, but "Or have you never wondered why I'm called Black Manta?" . No, I never have. I just assumed it was because of the aforementioned penchant you have for your whole noir ensemble. I didn't realize that someone out there felt there weren't enough black criminals in popular fiction.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Why Aquaman is actually pretty cool

Yes, yes, we've all heard the jokes about how Aquaman is a useless character whose only ability is that he talks to fish. Comedians from The State to Dave Chapelle have made that observation. Even "Family Guy" spent about three minutes on Aquaman asking a fish to get him a beer. Sure, I laughed too, but where did all this Aquaman abuse stem from?

In the 1940's and 1950's, Aquaman was a solid backup feature in comics like More Fun and Adventure and World's Finest. Every issue, there was Aquaman, using his unique superpowers to rescue ships at sea and battle modern pirates and alien invaders. He was to the Coast Guard what Batman was to the Police Department. Aquaman's powers are limited to his ability to "talk to fish". They include:

1. The ability to breathe underwater. When Aquaman was created, reliable scuba gear was still in the future. The very idea of being able to breathe and move about underwater without cumbersome equipment was the stuff of dreams.

2. The ability to command every living creature in the seas. Far from just talking to fish, Aquaman can telepathically tell them to do anything, and they obey without question. That's not small potatoes. When was the last time Superman commanded a pod of whales to carry a sinking ship to port?? (Okay, not that he'd have to. He could just fly the ship there himself, but you get the idea).

3. Superhuman strength. Aquaman is far stronger than a normal man. His muscles are able to withstand the crushing pressures of the ocean depths and his legs can propel him through the water at a superhuman pace. Not even Michael Phelps could out swim a dolphin.

So how did Aquaman become the butt of so many jokes? It all starts with the Justice League of America. In 1959, DC decided to revive the cross-title super team concept they had invented in the 1940's with their Justice Society of America. The idea of a "Society" seemed stuffy and old-fashioned by the late 50's, so the new team was called the Justice League, which sounded vaguely athletic. The roster of the new team included DC's big guns, Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman (Wonder Woman had been part of the old JSA, too- she served as the team's secretary :P )but also featured some of DC's newcomers, the new Flash and Green Lantern and stalwart backup stars Martian Manhunter and Aquaman.

Although the newly formed JLA made Aquaman even more recognizable, it began to hurt his standing. Here's how: You have a super-hero team featuring seven superheroes. The writer has to write an adventure in which each of these heroes plays a role. One of your team's members can only live out of water for an hour. No writer could come up with a plot every single month that called for some reason why someone would need to take care of a menace in the ocean. Basically, because he's more of a specialist superhero, Aquaman was left standing around with very little to do in a lot of JLA stories.

Still, Aquaman was a pretty cool character and readers recognized that. He got his own solo comic at last and in 1967, he got his own animated TV show.

Well, technically he shared a TV show with reruns of last year's Superman cartoons, but his name was in the title. Aquaman was becoming a household name. Then, The Super-Friends happened.

On the Super-Friends, Aquaman was back to standing around doing very little. Sure,the ocean was a hot topic in the environmentally-conscious 1970's, and the A-man got some screen time in the earliest episodes (which were usually about pollution and/or misguided scientists trying to fix the world by force) but as the show went on, Aquaman was usually on monitor duty or babysitting Wendy and Marvin or the Wonder Twins.

Maybe even more bizarre, was the Super-friends' writers' tendency to pair Aquaman up with Wonder Woman. "What's that? He can't breathe out of water for more than an hour? Well, he should be perfectly fine riding shotgun in the Invisible Jet." In at least one episode, the Super-Friends get a Troubalert that there is an alien menace under the sea. So, of course, they send Batman and Robin in the Bat-sub while Aquaman stands around twiddling his thumbs. *sigh*

I guess my point, if I must have one is that there is nothing fundamentally uncool about Aquaman conceptually. It just takes a talented writer to see his full potential.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Aquaman- King of the Sea and a heck of a nice guy. Adventure Comics #262

Back before Aquaman met Aqualad, or Mera (the future Mrs. Aquaman), or became the ruler of Atlantis, he had a LOT more time to dedicate to his sea creature friends. Topo the octopus, in particular, seems to have been a sort of de facto sidekick. It's only natural, then, that Aquaman should want to see to the well-being of his finny friends. He spends four out of his alloted 6 pages tending to sick and injured sea creatures.

It's pretty obvious that the Sea King has no prior veterinary experience, as he uses a live lobster to pull a shark's bum tooth and uses a live swordfish to jimmy a turtles stuck head out of it's shell. He even shuts a feverish whale in a glass room full of icewater (the ice was chipped from an iceberg) seemingly forgetting that the whale will need to breathe at some point.

Still, his good deeds are rewarded, as his fish friends come to his rescue when he is wounded fghting some pirates on page four. The sea creatures perform emergency surgery on Aquaman. Electric eels give him electro-shock and swordfish probe for and remove bullets while lantern fish form a light fixture. Miraculously, he recovers.

This story, although absurd, is positively charming and unforgettable. Although the story itself remains uncredited, it is a masterpiece of the short-form comics story, cramming loads of action into five and a half pages. The surrealness of the splash panel is only foreshadowing of the child-like marvels to come. All of this is beautifully enabled by the brilliant artwork of Ramona Fradon, one of the truly great artists of the 1950's.