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411 Comics Showcase: Aquaman

July 12, 2016 | Posted by Aaron Hubbard

411 Comics Showcase took a couple of weeks off so I could write my thoughts on Star Wars: The Force Awakens, but I think it’s time it made its return. The purpose of this column is to spotlight a particular comic book character, storyline or movie and examine the ideas and themes it presents. Comic books are art, and like any other form of art, they can have a profound effect on the lives of those who read them.

Last time, I talked at length about The Flash, one of DC Comics’ most enduring and popular superheroes. Today, I want to focus on one of my personal favorite characters from DC Comics, but one who tends to fly under the radar whenever someone discusses the greatest heroes in comic book history: Aquaman.

Aquaman was created by Paul Norris and Mort Weisinger. He made his debut in 1941 in the pages of More Fun Comics #73 (along with Green Arrow) and has been in publication with sporadic interruptions. Notably, Aquaman was one of the few superheroes to remain popular in post-World War II America, while other heroes like Green Lantern (Alan Scott) and The Flash (Jay Garrick) fell out of favor. While those franchises were eventually relaunched with new characters in the Silver Age, Aquaman remained more or less the same from the Golden Age up until the late 1980’s or so. This puts him in rare company for DC heroes, as only Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman were also able to stay in publication between the two eras.

Aquaman was one of the seven original members of the Justice League of America and has been featured in almost every interpretation. In addition to his infamous appearances on the delightfully campy Superfriends show, he was also the star of his own series. This version of Aquaman had endured in pop culture as a memetic example of uselessness, an image that Arthur Curry has had difficulty shaking. Fortunately, that seems to be changing a bit due to increased awareness thanks to cartoons like Justice League: Throne of Atlantis and Batman: The Brave and the Bold, as well as being one of the toughest fighters in Injustice: Gods Among Us. By the time Arthur stars in his first feature film (starring Jason Momoa and presumably Willem DeFoe) in 2018, I have a feeling that the general public is going to accept that Aquaman is not the person you should pick a fight with.

My love for Aquaman started young; it was born out of my love for marine biology and thinking that being able to explore the oceans was awesome. Being a child of the 1990’s, my introduction to the character was a mix of Super Friends re-runs the comics where he was being reimagined as an edgier character who was missing a hand. The 1990’s aren’t exactly my favorite era of comic books, but I do think the re-imagining of Aquaman was pretty cool, and it clearly influenced the Justice League version of the character (one of the best) as well as the one who debuted in Batman v. Superman.

You could say I was “hooked”.

When I got back into comics during DC’s New 52 relaunch, Aquaman was one of the titles I made sure to get into, and quickly became one of my favorites. The primary reason was that Aquaman stories are usually a mix of epic, high fantasy (think The Lord of the Rings), Lovecraftian horror and old science fiction B-Movies like Them. Sometimes genre can make all the difference; there’s a lot of superheroes, but not many are noble warrior kings and not many fight against the type of monsters that Aquaman fights on a routine basis. Aquaman comics are fun, and that’s really all I need to enjoy them.

But Arthur Curry is also a character that I connect with. While I enjoy superheroes like Batman, Green Lantern and Iron Man, I don’t really see them as kindred spirits. They are just the cool kids at the table. Superman, Wonder Woman and Captain America are all favorites of mine, as they embody personal morals and beliefs that I value and try to live up to, but don’t always accomplish.

But Aquaman is someone who I see myself in. He’s noble, but makes mistakes. He’s capable, but overshadowed by his peers and overlooked by others. He’s got two jobs and a family that he has to take care of. Though he is a child of two worlds, he can never fully belong to either, and sometimes has to make tough decisions when those sides are at odds with each other. With all that responsibility, he also has to struggle with what he wants to do and what he has to do.

All of this makes Aquaman a very human character, perhaps more human than any of his other Justice League members. Its easy to understand Arthur’s difficulty juggling his responsibilities; does he focus on being King of Atlantis and helping his people, or working with the Justice League to help everyone? Does it even matter when nobody will truly embrace him for his work? And how can he do both without taking time away from his family? These are things that most of us have to consider at some time or another, but usually with lower stakes. Aquaman’s ability to weigh problems and make hard choices is something I admire, and I always appreciate that his choices have far-reaching consequences. It makes those choices feel important.

I’ve alluded to it a few times already, but another thing that I love about Aquaman is that he has a family. His wife Mera is a constant presence in the comics, though occasionally in an antagonistic fashion, and he’s had more than one son at different points in his publishing history. This is actually one of the more unique things about Aquaman; very few superheroes ever get married, and even fewer stay married. Arthur and Mera were wed in 1964’s Aquaman #18 and have almost always been together. What’s even cooler is that Mera is a superhero in her own right, possessing Aquaman’s strength and durability as magical hydrokinesis (control over water). Watching these two work together was something that I loved about Geoff Johns run on the character.

Of course, sometimes having family can be a burden. Mera and Arthur haven’t always had the happiest of relationships, and some of their fights are as memorable as their team-ups. Arthur’s half brother Orm has often challenged for his throne or otherwise caused trouble as the villainous Ocean Master. Most tragically, Arthur’s infant son Arthur Jr. was once murdered by Black Manta. Again, these all play into the persistent theme of Aquman’s character; the weight of two worlds is on his shoulders and his actions (or inaction) have consequences.

As a brief aside, Black Manta is a fantastic villain and one of DC’s best. The deeply personal grudge between Manta and Aquaman is another reason I love the character and his world so much.

All of this is just to say; if you haven’t given Aquaman a fair shot yet, please do. Chances are you’ll be pleasantly surprised by what you find. After all, a character doesn’t usually stick around for seventy-five years without being pretty awesome.