Having recently finished “Aquaman Showcase Vol. 1” and witnessing a whole new take on the King of Atlantis’ personality on “The Brave and the Bold” cartoon series, I’ve been thinking a lot about Aquaman lately.
The long-running gag about Aquaman is that his only power is being able to talk to fish (and hence he is a lame superhero). Writer Peter David gave him more grit, bitterness and even sawed off his hand to show just how tough he could be. Years after that, writer Kurt Busiek gave him a Sword & Sorcery spin. Most recently, “The Brave and the Bold” suggested a whole new personality for Arthur Curry: That of a braggart and jolly king who’s always ready for a new adventure.
Reading those early tales of Aquaman in the phonebook-thick Showcase collection, you experience a truly boiled down Aquaman. Nearly every adventure is the same: Pirates, aliens or evil scientists unleash a scheme to capture boats, uncover sunken treasure or sieze control of a strategic location. From there, Aquaman uses his fishy friends to overwhelm the evil doers.
As I read many of these stories, I began to brainstorm: How could this same scenario be played for a modern audience?
What eventually dawned on me is that this early span of books really represents the Aquaman version of the fabled “Batman: Year One.” It was just his first steps into superheroing. He wasn’t a complete hero yet.
With that in mind, I began to map out just what I’d do with such a book. When “The Brave and the Bold” version of Aquaman appeared, the story came more clear:
After years among human-kind as the lighthouse-keeper’s boy, Arthur Curry finally discovers his true origins and returns to Atlantis where he’s treated, quite literally, as a king. In the underwater kingdom, he’s lavished with riches, awash with power and adored by all. The “secondary cast” of Aquaman’s book is all established: Aquagirl, Mera, Dolphin, his advisors and what not. They are all willing to cater to his every need.
But that’s just not enough for him. He still hurts. In his teen and pre-teen years, he was always the odd man out. Always the fish out of water. He was treated (as so many of us were) meanly by his peers. He was rejected by women. He was always an outcast. And for some reason, he never got past that treatment.
With this resentment still burning inside him, he develops an alter ego to impress the world with. He would become Aquaman.
Aquaman, he decides, will be the world’s greatest hero, no matter what the cost.
After some careful consideration, Aquaman selects his “home turf” a wide swath of ocean that spans from the Caribbean, through both coasts of Florida, into the Gulf of Mexico and down the western coastline from Texas to the tip of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula.
Through this region, Aquaman patrols the gleaming cities, the sunny beaches, the stinky swamps, the ocean’s surface and the deepest underwater trenches. He helps with rescues during hurricanes, he fixes leaking oil rigs, fights pirates, engages in treasure hunts, recovers shipwrecks and fights any manner of villainy.
But ultimately, that all comes second. His first goal is to impress those who doubted him. His goal is be the best there is. He will “show up” everyone who ever put him down. He will bag every babe on every sun-drenched beach. He will blow through his fortunes, just to impress them. He will amass the best stuff so no one else can have it. He will squash any competition. He will humiliate anyone who might consider going against him.
In short, he’s a superbully.
Even worse, he is far from the “protector of ocean life” that he’s often portrayed as. No, he abuses his charges. His ends always justify the means.
This last part, in truth, is his typical M.O. of his earliest appearances.
In these issues, he would send whales smashing their heads into ships. Octopi would function as handcuffs. Electric eels were always good ropes.
In “Aquaman: Year One,” Arthur Curry is one of the world’s biggest abusers of animal life. If he sends a whale smashing into a battleship, the boat sinks, the whale suffers massive cerebral hemmoraging and dies. If he orders an octopus to “grab that guy and don’t let go,” the octopus stays there until it dies. Electric eels are torn apart. Dolphins used as deadly homing missiles. Sea turtles succumb to machine gun barrages. Hammerhead sharks bludgeon themselves to death.
In short, Aquaman leaves a trail of undersea carnage wherever he goes.
Sure enough, environmental organizations get on his case. Atlantis turns against him. The surface people turn against him, but he’s sure its just a phase. Finally, he confronts Black Manta, another would-be aqua hero who isn’t above grandstanding of his own, and like before, the only way to beat Manta is with brute force. Lots of it, but Aquaman doesn’t care. This is a turf war. This is about being top dog.
He sends out a massive telepathic summons across the whole region. Creatures of all kind come in wave upon wave of horrendous destruction.
The bodies pile up, but Aquaman slowly gets the upper hand. He’ll prove to everyone who’s the best.
But Aquaman’s telepathic message was actually too strong. It was so powerful, it drained the will of many Atlanteans. They answered his call too. They lie dead in the heaps. And that’s when Aquaman realizes that his solutions are no better than the problems he’s fighting. He’s a killer just like the rest of them.
Unfortunately, his realization in too late for Black Manta. The stress of the attack was too much. Manta’s life is destroyed. His Manta sub is destroyed with Manta’s wife and young son aboard. Manta is blamed for the massacre. His reputation wrecked and he’s somehow fused to his diving suit. And in the end, despite all the destruction, Aquaman is labeled the hero. It’s too much, and Manta vows to his dying day that Aquaman will pay.
From there, Aquaman realizes he must atone for the horrors he’s committed. He now realizes that every life matters, and he’ll do anything to preserve life, but all to often his anger rages. He makes mistakes. Sure, he also helps many people, but whatever he does, it never seems to counteract the horrors that he himself has committed. Worst of all, Aquaman never admits to his past mistakes. Instead, they just burn on inside him. He is his own worst enemy.
And that is my plan for Aquaman. At least for a year or two until he finally proves to himself that he’s worthy of his power, abilities and his station.