Kings of the Seven Seas

Aquaman, Namor the Sub-Mariner, Man from Atlantis, the Little Mermaid, Neptune Perkins, the Sea Devils, Manta, Marrina, the Fin, Dolphin, Undersea Agent, Sealab 2020, Captain Nemo... The undersea hero is one of comics' enduring, yet most difficult, archetypes. Why do writers and artists return to this idea again and again, what makes it different from all other heroic archetypes, and why do they have so much trouble keeping their books afloat?

In a very real sense, what makes the aquatic hero different is also what threatens to alienate him from his audience: He has a whole, alien world to protect. On the one hand, the undersea kingdom, whether played as scientific fact or fantasy landscape, is a visually rich environment that's any great artist's dream - unusual and ample flora and fauna, the way the currents interact with hair and cloth, even the "surface world" of swaying waves, dangerous icebergs and tropical islands. On the other hand, readers are far more used to their superheroes fighting the good fight in urban areas, and can relate to the Big City even if they live in the country. Buildings, cars, fire hydrants, the threat of a mugging, these are familiar things the reader can latch onto, useful aids in the suspension of disbelief. I can believe a man can fly because I can believe these other elements of the world. The world of Atlantis, however, has none of those recognizable touchstones. We can't even take something like the difference between night and day for granted in the undersea world, not at the depths often shown. And surely they have a different culture down there. So while we can oooh and ahhh at the wonderful world created by the artist (and you can see how quickly even that feeling can leave us under a lesser pencil), we can often feel removed from it, disconnected and disaffected. This isn't that different from the hero who patrols outer space (like Green Lantern) or an alien world (like Adam Strange) or a mystical dimension (like Dr. Strange), but when those characters have left Earth behind for good, they tend to flounder as well.

And yet, though we may leave for safer shores, we will return to the mysteries to the sea again. And when a brilliant writer is teamed with a brilliant artist, both willing to embrace the aquatic hero for what makes him unique, Siren-like, it lures us back. World-building takes considerable talent, and that's often what's required. The temptation to dedicate the hero entirely to environmental and conservation concerns is a potential trap that can make the book preachy and readers may resent the hero. Obviously, pollution and over-fishing are concerns in today's oceans, and the hero should be confronted with them, but it shouldn't be his or her single focus, no more than an urban hero would obsess over a single type of crime. Because landbound heroes aren't doing a whole lof of environmental activism even though there's a lot of pollution on the surface world, treating the aquatic hero differently only creates another layer of distance between the reader and his or her expectations. And since the surface world is your main polluter of undersea environments, it will be make the hero clash with the reader's own world. The Silver Age Aquaman stories, perhaps the golden age of aquatic heroes, had him policing the seas FOR the surface world, a friend in a harsh, extreme environment. There's a lesson in that, surely.

What attracts YOU to aquatic heroes?


Buryak said...

When I was a kid, my brother and I were Marvel boosters. We dubbed DC at one point, quite cleverly I might add, "Dumb Comics". But like everything, we both had to pick who was our favorite DC character regardless. My brother picked Green Lantern and I picked Aquaman. He was the least annoying on the Superfriends, at least I thought. I liked Batman's costume the best, but hated his voice on the show. When the Superpowers toyline came out, I wanted Aquaman. I got the Flash, because of availability, but really wanted Aquaman. As I grew older, I've always had a soft spot for Aquaman. I never bought his comics, especially when they tried to make him more Namor with his beard and hook hand (yech), but I always rooted for him. When I gave up my prejudices on DC and started buying their comics, I would get excited when Aquaman made a cameo, like in Justice and other stuff. I have always wondered why I liked Aquaman. He was never, as far as character motivations, defined temerment and such, clearly defined. A la Wonder Woman, but even more so. He was always looked at, in the comic's community and in the general public's view, a joke. Nobody likes Aquaman. I think that appealed to me also, like Aquaman was mine and mine alone. I like him because he's sort of an undersea Superman, but with less power and more of a Captain Marvel outlook. And how his environment defines who he is. The sea is mysterious. There's so much of it and so much of it to explore. There could be anything down there. Lost civilizations. Crashed alien spaceships. Weird evolved creatures. I think the reason that most undersea characters don't make it is because nobody can capture that sense of exploration and mystery. A totally alien world that most people think is boring, because, as you've said, its hard to relate to. That and everything is so "Neptune"-ish in its presentation that it comes off as one note. I think the Sea Devils went about it the right way, but was shackled with the Silver Age restrictions. If they could make it tripped out like a Kirby comic, and add layers to the locale, and make Aquaman into a pulpy explorer/defender type, maybe, just maybe it could be interesting enough to live long enough to dispell the joke the sea has become.

Buryak said...

*temperment. Baaaah!

Siskoid said...

I hope you're a regular follower of The Aquaman Shrine! Because you sound just like a FOAM member (like I am).

My first SuperPowers action figure actually WAS Aquaman.

Buryak said...


I have the Aquaman Shrine on my "favorites". I can't find anything to submit to become a FOAM member... yet.

Siskoid said...

And obviously, it's getting harder and harder.

Anonymous said...

I was like six when "The Superfriends" first came out, and I liked Aquaman best, because his powers were most likely to be interesting. Superman was too infinitely powerful, Wonder Woman would invent powers at will, Batman and Robin had their cars and belts. But Aquaman showed himself to have some degree of super-strength once or twice, without being anywhere near Wonder Woman level. And controlling sea animals means a whole bag of tricks.

But yeah, it's hard to bring that range of abilities to bear above the water. If Aquaman could be seen doing this ...

... he'd be everyone's favorite. Give Topo a pirate hat and boots, I say.

Bob Buethe said...

I like to note the similarities between Aquaman and Tarzan. Both live in an unexplored wilderness, protect it from the civilized world, communicate with wild animals, and occasionally stumble across a lost civilization. As such, I don't think Aquaman fits the "superhero" mold very well. He (and Tarzan) are technically superheroes, but they don't work well with organizations like the Justice League.
I've never been a very big Aquaman fan myself, but I've always enjoyed the art -- especially Nick Cardy, Don Newton, and Jim Aparo. I don't think it's the alien background, as I often enjoy stories set on other worlds. But the idea of a hero who controls other living creatures to fight for him never felt right to me, no matter how it's rationalized.

Matthew Turnage said...

Another FOAMer checking in late. I'm not sure if I can pinpoint why I like Aquaman (never was big on Namor), but I suppose if I look at my other interests, I have a tendency to lean towards things that are underdogs or less well regarded by the general populace (my favorite baseball team is the Chicago Cubs, who haven't won a World Series since 1908, and my favorite band is Deep Purple, who haven't had a hit in the US in decades) so I suppose that's part of the appeal.

I also like world-building aspect, and I'm interested in both the king and king-in-exile treatment of the character. Plus, I think the classic costume just looks cool.


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