Among comic book characters, Aquaman has the dubious distinction of being both one of a handful of comic book characters the average non-comics reader can name without a Google search as well as being, throughout his history, a character whose name power hasn’t translated into publishing success. While other Golden Age characters like Batman and Superman have comics in continuous publication for nearly a thousand issues, no single volume of Aquaman has even broke 80 issues. Even worse, his name, though well-known, is more infamous than famous; his legacy is that of an irreducibly silly character with a useless power set.
Although talking to fish is a difficult power set to sell, especially when contrasted with a character as immensely powerful as Superman, it is not the power set in itself that is the problem. As a comparison, look at Marvel’s Daredevil, a character with perhaps an arguably even lamer power set: he is a blind man with the power to see. Yet, hardly anyone thinks of Daredevil in this way and that is for one simple reason: Daredevil is the most consistently well-written character in Marvel’s history. Since Frank Miller, Daredevil has enjoyed a murderer’s row of writers, from Ed Brubaker to Brian Michael Bendis to Mark Waid. Frank Miller found a niche for Daredevil that set him apart from being just a Spider-Man clone: Daredevil became a gritty, noir character in a world of ninjas and organized crime. Frank Miller’s hook made it possible for later writers to turn a power set that could have been a liability into an opportunity for great storytelling.
Yet there was no such opportunity for Aquaman. DC canceled Aquaman’s solo title and, during the eighties, the period that other characters made the leap into their more modern incarnations, published a mere 9 issues of Aquaman. During the nineties, writer Peter David crafted a successful run with Aquaman as a hook-handed, scraggly tough guy, but it never managed to supplant the goofy Super Friends character in the minds of the general public. David’s run would be perceived by some as DC over-correcting in order to make an acceptably dark and gritty character to fit the 90s aesthetic. Aquaman’s series would once again be canceled and, after one more attempt at viability, ultimately be killed off in story. It wouldn’t be until Geoff Johns’s 2009 crossover event Blackest Night that Aquaman would once again get a chance at life.
By that time, Geoff Johns had become one of the industry’s premier writers. He was already responsible for the rebirth of Green Lantern and was in the midst of retooling The Flash. As a writer, Johns has the ability to perceive what makes a character great, what a character lacks, and supply the character with what he or she needs to accentuate the core of the character. With Blackest Night, its follow-up Brightest Day, and culminating with the 2011 New 52 reboot of Aquaman’s solo title, Geoff Johns turned his creative energy towards doing for Aquaman what he had done for Green Lantern and The Flash.
Johns reassembled Aquaman essentially from the ground up. In Amnesty Bay, he received a base of operations comparable to Star City or Gotham. He returned to his Golden and Silver age alias of Arthur Curry, eschewing the modern, more fantastical “Orin.” As Arthur Curry, Aquaman struggles to truly live as an amphibian, living the life of an underwater royal and as a land-dwelling superhero. Geoff Johns left the book with issue 25 and the following writers would try, with varying degrees of success, to maintain his resurgence.
Two of the most successful of these stories, Jeff Parker’s Aquaman 28 and this past month’s Aquaman 49, written by Dan Abnett, both focus on the things unique to Geoff Johns’s revitalized character. This Aquaman is a public superhero: everyone in his hometown of Amnesty Bay knows Arthur Curry is Aquaman. And Amnesty Bay itself is a small town in Massechussets, so most of its inhabitants have some sense of familiarity with Arthur Curry. Issue 28 focuses on Arthur Curry’s high school reunion and issue 49 follows Arthur and his girlfriend Mera at the town’s annual Sea Festival.
So what Johns, Parker, and Abnett have found interesting is that Arthur Curry is a man who wishes to live an integrated life. Unlike virtually every other member of the Justice League, Arthur Curry is the same person at all times. He has no secret identity. Bruce Wayne dons a bat costume and becomes the vengeance and the night. Clark Kent pretends to be a mild-mannered reporter until he reveals his godlike power as Superman. Aquaman is simply Arthur Curry wearing Atlantean chain mail and carrying a trident. Arthur Curry’s struggle is not to balance a dual life as Aquaman and his life as a regular person by keeping them separated. Arthur’s struggle is to live an integrated life. This, finally, is the narrative hook needed to make Aquaman a compelling character.
The struggle of Aquaman is one that we can recognize in our own lives: the need to have integrity. Aquaman is a man with two homes, Atlantis and Amnesty Bay. With each of these homes come different sets of responsibilities. On land he is a super hero, under water he is a king. Yet, unlike many of his colleagues in the Justice League, he does not respond to being pulled in two different ways by creating different identities for each aspect of his life. Many of us have a self that we are with our friends, the self we are at work, and the self we are with our families. The result is a divided life. Integrity means being the same person at all times. The struggle of Aquaman is to reconcile all these competing parts of his life without living a divided life.
While this makes Aquaman’s life maybe a little messier than that of Batman or Superman, perhaps it also leads to a healthier person. Aquaman is, after all, one of the few comic book super heroes to be in a relationship with the same woman for the majority of his existence. Mera is herself a superhero as well as his queen. She shares his responsibilities with him, both under sea and on land. He hides nothing from her and shares all with her. Possibly it is because he alone lives a whole life instead of several fragmented lives that he can maintain a long-term relationship. His fellow members of the Justice League (with the exception of Wonder Woman) all hide secrets from someone, if not nearly everyone. Aquaman does not, so his relationship with his queen can be founded upon trust. This makes him the most aspirational of heroes.
As DC comics approaches yet another rebirth, we’ll see if the next writer will continue to focus on this core. If the rumors are true and the new writer is none other than Geoff Johns himself returning to the book, then I believe we can be confident that he will continue to build on the foundation he has laid. His Aquaman has shown us that the undivided life is the only life we should aspire to.