If you’re a non-superhero reader, the first thing that would come to your head after hearing Aquaman would probably be: “Oh, the guy who talks to fish,” “The Superfriend who needs to be in the water,” or even “The lamest superhero ever”.
And you know what? Based on the references that you see in TV, movies, and the internet, who could blame you?
It is not easy being Aquaman: he’s a pretty hard character to get right, much less making him cool. That doesn’t mean that people haven’t tried. Since he has been treated by several great creators including David Michelinie, Steve Skeats, Jim Aparo, Neal Pozner, Craig Hamilton, Curt Swan, Keith Giffen, Peter David, Esteban Maroto, Rick Veitch, Will Pfeiffer, Kurt Busiek, among others. As you can see there’s no shortage of talent in his history nor people uninterested in his potential.
Aquaman was created by Paul Norris and Mort Weisinger in 1941 at the birth of the Golden Age. In this early incarnation he was born as Arthur Curry. His father, an undersea explorer, discovered the lost city of Atlantis and a way to allow his son to breathe underwater and be able to communicate with sea life. This was surprisingly a much more ridiculous origin than the ones we will see later.
Hard to believe now but in fact he was one of the few superheroes popular enough to survive until the Silver Age. It was this era where most of the classic mythos and supporting cast were introduced, including his wife Mera, his sidekick Aqualad, Aqualad’s girlfriend Tula, his advisor Vulko, and his pet sidekick called Topo (every superhero had one then). This was the period where most of his classic rogue’s gallery was created, too, which consisted of characters like Ocean Master, Black Manta, The Fisherman, and The Scavenger being the most notable.
The big change however, came in the 1970s with the classic story ‘Death of a Prince’ where Aquaman’s son, Arthur Curry Jr., is murdered by Black Manta. It’s necessary to add that before this event, death of characters was something still pretty rare and especially no one could have expected that a child would die in a superhero comic. This was considered by many as one of the defining points that ended the Silver Age and marked the beginning of the Bronze Age, where stories would become more serious and relevant to the real world.
I also have to mention this was the story that pretty much cemented Black Manta as Aquaman’s most deadly and cruel enemy. Before ‘Death of a Prince,’ that title was practically held by Ocean Master, Arthur’s half brother. The death of Arthur Curry Jr., however, created a whole cycle of hate between Aquaman and Black Manta that has managed to transcend the times.
However, the event “Crisis on Infinite Earths” altered Aquaman’s history. Much like every other DC hero, it retold his origin, creating a new, mystically-oriented direction. This began in the four-issue miniseries “Aquaman” written by Neal Pozner with art by Craig Hamilton in 1986. This story explored the relationship between Arthur and his half-brother Orm (Ocean Master) and made it much more complex than ever before. It also gave Aquaman a new blue costume as well as updating some of his mythos.
This title was fantastically written and beautifully drawn, a pitch-perfect reboot for the character. Unfortunately it was never followed by any ongoing series, so the concept and reimagination were lost. Still, I must say that this created an interesting idea that may probably play an important role in the future: the tribe of Tuatha De Dannan from Thierna Na Oge.
Then, the powers at DC decided to once again retell Aquaman’s beginnings. This time they hired none other than Keith Giffen and legendary Superman artist Curt Swan to handle the new reboot, starting with “The Legend of Aquaman” special. This time the origin found Aquaman born in Atlantis. He had to deal with the discovery of his legacy and how he was abandoned by his mother. One of the most interesting aspects that this special introduced was that Aquaman’s classic costume was in fact a prison uniform.
This was followed by a five-issue miniseries from the same creative team. It was basically the follow-up to ‘Death of a Prince,’ where Arthur tries to save Mera from her madness after the death of their son. This miniseries was pretty solid and would became the groundwork where a lot of writers would start.Continued below
1990 marked the arrival of one of the most influential writers that has worked on the character. Peter David’s work began with a series named “The Atlantis Chronicles,” drawn by Esteban Marolo. It expanded the mythology of Atlantis and its history, exploring the time of its sinking until the birth of Aquaman.
I’m not kidding when I say that this is one of the best Aquaman stories from the last 20 years, despite not starring Aquaman himself. Excellently written and wonderfully drawn, it develops an engaging tale of tragedy, betrayal, and revenge, creating an unique and complex roster of characters. It also gave Aquaman the birth name of Orin and explained he’s the son of Atlanna, queen of Atlantis and Atlan, a wizard from the same civilization. I highly recommend you to read it if you’re interested in the mythology of the character or even if you just like fantasy stories.
This reinvention was followed by a 13-issue series written by Shaun McLaughlin in 1991. This series contained some of the most basic superhero stories ever and didn’t explore more of Aquaman’s personality nor his universe. In fact, the only notable elements it introduced were giving Black Manta a tragic backstory to explain his hate for Orin (which actually contradicts his previous portrayals), reintroducing Thanatos, Orin’s doppelganger, and reforming The Scavenger. Again, none of these ideas were particularly great nor executed adequately.
DC decided to cancel that volume to once again update the protagonist’s history. Here we have the four-issue miniseries, “Aquaman: Time and Tide” written by Peter David in 1993. This story was directly connected to David’s “Atlantis Chronicles” and explores Orin discovering the history of Atlantis and his connection with Ocean Master. It also revealed Aquaman’s first steps as a superhero.
This series was immediately followed by a proper ongoing in the capable hands of Peter David in 1994. I suppose that if you know anything about Aquaman then you know this series introduced his infamous beard and grappling hook. It was a desperate move from DC to follow ’90s trends and get people’s attention. Ultimately, it paid off since the title launched with pretty healthy sales and maintained them for a good while.
This volume tried to portray Aquaman as a more angry and violent hero (again, ’90s trends) but fortunately David’s story was pretty competent. He focused on Orin’s quest to find more about his origins while trying to reunite the five lost cities of Atlantis. David also tried to integrate several of DC’s ocean focused characters like Dolphin (who became Aquaman’s love interest for most of the volume), Tsunami, the Sea Devils, and Power Girl. There were several other sub-plots David tried to include, including one where Aquaman became the avatar of The Clear, a supernatural connection similar to The Red in Animal Man and The Green in Swamp Thing. Sadly, this premise has never been followed by any author yet.
Now, I’m going to be honest here, despite liking David’s run, I don’t think it has aged well at all. You have to understand David was a really smart writer but also a funny one. He tries to inject humour in every project he works on but sometimes his jokes tend to go to extremes where they become silly. Not to forget he keeps using catchphrases from the era that are pretty dated today. In “The Atlantis Chronicles,” he managed to include jokes but did it in a much more subtle and natural way. Here he went just overboard. Sometimes, I wonder why people were complaining about Johns making fish jokes at the beginning of the New 52 when David did it even worse here. They were everywhere.
Another complaint that I have is how most of his stories never managed to have a satisfactory conclusion. Once Aquaman interacts with the five lost cities they’re pretty much forgotten. David ended his run with a whimper instead of a bang. Besides, the antagonists were underwhelming, not as much as the ones written by Mark Waid, but still were quite one-dimensional. Plus, Orin’s ’90s attitude was always a problem. It seemed like he was compensating for something every time he overreacted.
I have to be thankful about doing this kind of articles, if it wasn’t for this I wouldn’t have discovered what came after David’s run. While I kinda regret reading Erik Larsen’s work, I’m pretty thankful about finding Dan Jurgens’s run.
Jurgens has never been one of my favorite writers. He’s a fantastic artist but I always considered him an okay writer, rarely great. However, in this run, aided by the magnificent art of Steve Epting, Jurgens created something great. The story, told from the perspective of an old Tempest, was of how Orin used his position as a king to try to stop a war provoked by surface nation.
For the first time since the beginning of this volume, Aquaman was actually living to his potential as a ruler and leader. He actually managed to act as an ambassador to create a better relationship between the two nations. Jurgens didn’t have any of the silly jokes that consumed David’s work but he did portray Orin as genuinely sure of himself and a really admirable man. I frankly would say that Jurgens’s run will probably stand the test of time better than David’s.
Of course, the lack of big names on the cover affected negatively the sales of the title and therefore it was cancelled with issue 75. DC decided to do what they always do when a franchise is struggling: Reboot! Although this was just a soft reboot, Aquaman had a major appearance in DC’s big crossover event “Our Worlds at War” written by Jeph Loeb in 2001 where he apparently died along with Atlantis and a beacon with his figure was created in his honor.
However, it turns out he didn’t actually die but he was able to transport Atlantis to the glory days of its civilization as told by “The Atlantis Chronicles.” Except it turns out the Chronicles were all lies and it was actually a terrible era. “The Obsidian Age” written by Joe Kelly, this story was told in the pages of “JLA”#69-75 and returned Aquaman and his city back to present time. It wasn’t a good conclusion for Orin since his people ended exiling him for his mistake, which would create the next development for his character. I really suggest to read this story arc since it was pretty good despite that it contained what possibly is the worst portrayal of Green Arrow ever.
The following volume of Aquaman was given to Rick Veitch who wanted to make Aquaman go into a more mystical route by replacing his grappling hook with a magical water hand . This was an . . . interesting period for the character, Veitch introduced several supernatural aspects to the series but unfortunately failed at producing an engaging story and creating good challenges for the protagonist. Plus, he also created another origin for Black Manta where he was born autistic and his hate for Orin was produced due to his own illness, how is that every time that an author tries to make Manta more complex they just make him a worse character?
Anyway, the sales were slipping so they decided to replace Veitch with Will Pfeiffer, John Ostrander and John Arcudi. They made more classic superhero story, including a fan-favorite one called ‘American Tidal,’ where part of San Diego sank and its population learned to breathe underwater. This storyline also introduced Lorena Marquez, the new Aquagirl.
But sales weren’t increasing so this time they hired award-winning writer Kurt Busiek. Surely things will work better this time right?!
Busiek’s run consisted on telling a story based on DC’s event “One Year Later.” Retitling the book as “Aquaman: Sword of Atlantis” and creating a new character named Arthur Joseph Curry as the protagonist, a human who due to experiments was able to breathe underwater (giving him parallels to the Golden Age Aquaman), it turns out that Orin had made another magic deal to save his people, became the mutated Dweller in the Depths and finally died toward the end of the volume.
Busiek tried to go back to the mystical direction from the beginning but he not only failed at telling a compelling story but also at making Arthur Joseph Curry an interesting character. In fact he didn’t even tell his origin, the one who handled it was Tad Williams in “Aquaman” #57, the last one of the volume. The sales were worse than ever and one of the possible reasons for it was that they discarded the original character without giving him a proper send-off, thereby alienating most of the fanbase.Continued below
All of these events take us to modern times where Geoff Johns insisted in working on Aquaman by resurrecting him at the end of his event “Blackest Night.” Johns gave the character a bigger importance during the storyline “Brightest Day” before finally rebooting everything at the beginning of the New 52.
The New 52 brought mixed reactions to the whole DC community but the general consensus is that Johns’s Aquaman was one of the biggest success from that era by giving the hero of Atlantis the kind of respect he deserved. He expanded this world to the point where other writers like Dan Abnett are strongly basing their work on the premise that Johns cemented.
Aquaman offers a rich history of several events, revelations, tragedies and reboots but by understanding the character at its core, one realizes that his whole concept has always been about telling entertaining adventures that eventually was expanded into a mythological setting that could be implemented into a premise pretty similar to Games of Thrones. There are so many possibilities for the King of Atlantis and as long as any writer gets the basics, they will always have good stories to tell.