Wednesday, September 8, 2010
2009 The Canadian Defender Hero Tune-Up: Aquaman.
Stacy Dooks is a self-described "thirtysomething wage slave living in Calgary, Alberta and an aspiring writer." She's been blogging since 2008 as "an experiment in creating a public forum for my discussions about comics, pop culture, and writing and what they mean to me." One such avenue is her "Hero Tune-Up" feature, where she tries to address perceived inadequacies in characters that could stand correcting. After the cancellation of Aquaman: The Sword of Atlantis, Dooks turned her eye toward a posthumous evaluation of the Sea King. This is as opposed to his successor "Artie Joe," who wasn't even relevant enough to kill off before the recent resurrection of the once and future Arthur Curry. Where the hell is that guy, anyway?
Unfortunately, I find myself on the opposite side of Dooks' argument, which begins with the old saw, "He talks to fish." Dooks then praises Peter David's hook-handed incarnation, and generally dismissed the classic Aquaman most people know. I find this a pretty common argument of the children of the '90s, calling out as nostalgia the image of Aquaman riding giant seahorses, preferring the "badass," a.k.a. a weaker Namor the Sub-Mariner with a far worse barber. Curiously, much of her trouble comes from the extreme lengthy mythological backstory of Atlantis and Arthur, perhaps not realizing that Peter David was also responsible for the lion's share of that convolution. Keith Giffen started the ball rolling, but his Post-Crisis revision could be summed up with "Tarzan of the Dolphins," with the added color of royal lineage and child sacrifice upon Mercy Reef.
Dooks points out Aquaman's lack of visually cool powers or familiar super-hero tropes (banks to rob, being stuck in the ocean, etc.) "As much affection as we may have for him, Aquaman is a terrible superhero." Then Dooks flips the script by asserting, The reason Aquaman doesn't work as a superhero is because he isn't one... Orin, King of Atlantis, is a hero of epic fantasy. He's a warrior-ruler of the old school..." Dooks continued by exploring the possibilities of Aquaman as more of a King Kull type, having grand undersea adventures involving swords and sorcery. Dooks also recommended a reader touchstone character from the surface to comment on the goings on of Atlantis from a familiar perspective.
I can say with a reasonable certainty that none of these suggestions would work, because all of them were attempted in recent memory, and none passed muster. Peter David rode into Aquaman at the height of his popularity following his best-selling runs on Incredible Hulk and X-Factor. David also jumped right onto the "breaking the hero" bandwagon of the '90s, having Aquaman's hand gnawed off, rocking his world, changing his appearance, giving his nasty weapons, and the requisite anti-heroic Wolverine bad attitude. That gave David's Aquaman a decent first year or so, with slow, steady decline through the end of his run. In fact, I suspect David's four years on the title hurt his career, and certainly his track record. Readers who want violent sociopaths can find far better examples than a posturing Aquaman, and his actual fans will just be put off.
Meanwhile, Sword of Atlantis jettisoned most of the heavy mythology/continuity, offered a relatable new young hero in the Kyle Rayner mode, and sent him off into almost two years worth of fantasy stories by a respected ex-Conan writer. The sales were in the toilet and the book was killed. Regular folk surface sidekicks? Been tried, and it's not a bad idea, with the most successful example being the second Aquagirl.
I once offered my own general advice, which at least partially echoed Dooks' suggestions and the direction to date of the resurrected Aquaman in Brightest Day. Simplify the origin, keeping the best bits, and discarding the excess. Restore the best recognized appearance and abilities, but enhance them through better representation. Expand the supporting cast with stronger players than Vulko or Dolphin, bringing in characters from all walks of life to provide perspective and a variety of setting. Beef up the rogues gallery. Use fantasy when its useful, but remember that Aquaman is meant to be one of the greatest super-heroes around. Keep one fin in the sea, and another on land, making Aquaman the most capable hero possible in both worlds. Most importantly, never be ashamed of talking to fish and riding giant seahorses. My life would be way more awesome if I could do that, and good writing can sell me the thrill of experiencing it vicariously. There is no clear template for success with Aquaman, like their is most DC heroes, who've enjoyed at least one really popular run in their careers. However, too many people like him for there not to be something there, and it only takes the right mind to figure it out. Simonson did it with Thor, and Miller with Daredevil. Who's ready to be the Aquaman creator?
For more duking with Dooks, check out Hero Tune-Up: Martian Manhunter.