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Friday Under The Sea

This is one of those comics-related frustrations that has me wanting to grab the culprit by the shirt front and scream obscenities at him… if I only could figure out who to blame. What frustration might that be, you ask? I’ll tell you.

I see from Laura “Tegan” Gjovaag, the Pacific Northwest’s premier authority on all things Aquaman, that the current “Sword of Atlantis” incarnation of the Sea King is on the chopping block and might very well be canceled as of #57.

Aquaman’s not nearly the favorite for me that he is for Laura, but I admit this really annoyed me. I’d literally just finished reading the new trade collecting the first Kurt Busiek arc; I took a chance on it, despite having been burned by DC with Aquaman many times in the past (we’ll get to that) and to my delighted surprise, I really liked it. In fact, I don’t think I’ve enjoyed an Aquaman story that much since the late 80′s.

Fresh. New. Not like what came before. So of course fans hate it.

I thought it was one of the freshest takes in years and had loads of potential. I was looking forward to more and had already planned on getting the next trade collection when it came out. Now, hearing that it’s in danger of being canceled, I really have to wonder… what the hell is DC’s problem? Do they just hate Aquaman? Is there some passive-aggressive thing going on there I am not aware of? Are they still smarting over the seanbaby SuperFriends page? What?

Seriously. If there’s ever a character that DC has repeatedly thrown under a bus, it’s Aquaman. Over and over, for the last thirty-some years, talented people have started to get something good going and then– the book’s canceled, or the format’s changed, or there’s an “Exciting New Direction!” (that sucks) or the entire supporting cast gets replaced, or a beloved character gets killed off or goes insane or… or something.

A new creative team comes in on Aquaman and almost always, the first order of business is damage control. And if by some miracle it’s successful and the book is suddenly interesting and fun again, then the creative team leaves or the book gets canceled. It’s like there’s some rule at DC that Aquaman must be edited by people with Attention Deficit Disorder. I think the only character in comics who’s had to put up with worse long-term abuse is Marvel’s Henry Pym. And even Pym never had to carry a book on his own under such handicaps.

…yes, I am being somewhat facetious. Yes, I know it’s probably a sales issue. And I’ll come back to that in a bit, because I think it’s symptomatic of a larger problem. But first I want to talk a little bit about Aquaman just in general.

I have had a soft spot for Aquaman since he was first on television; specifically, the 1968 Filmation cartoon shorts that were part of The Superman/Aquaman Hour.

Before you start, just remember, I don't make fun of YOUR first superhero cartoon.

My memory of the actual cartoons is pretty dim; but I do remember enjoying them. The important thing about them, though, is that they were a gateway to DC Comics for me. That show was the first encounter I had with not only Aquaman, but also the Flash, Green Lantern, Hawkman, the Atom, the Justice League, and the Teen Titans. And of them all, Aquaman was the first character whose adventures I paid to read more of.

I was shocked to see this on eBay for a reasonable price.

Not comics — Scourge of the Sea was a Big Little Book, one of an odd little series of miniature hardcover licensed novels that came out from Whitman Publishing from 1932 through at least the late 60′s (I gather that there have been periodic attempts to revive the format, but I mean the actual Whitman line.) One of many licensed books pounded out for Whitman by Paul S. Newman, as far as my little seven-year-old self was concerned it was without question the coolest thing I’d ever read. Water-breathing reptile aliens land in their flying saucer and demand huge amounts of diamonds from Earth governments, or they’ll wipe us out, and it’s up to Aquaman, Aqualad, and Mera to stop them. It was an exciting adventure with lots of close calls for our heroes, a fun surprise ending as I recall, and served as a nice introduction to the Sea King and his supporting cast (including Mera and her “hard-water powers,” which I didn’t remember from the cartoon.) Chances are that if I were to encounter the book again today it wouldn’t seem nearly as cool, but boy, I read that thing to tatters then. It made me an Aquaman fan.

Interested enough to go looking for the comic, I happened across Aquaman #56.

My first issue of Aquaman was, sadly, the last of its run.

It was definitely different than the cartoon — this was a weird story from Steve Skeates and Jim Aparo about a would-be Justice Leaguer named the Crusader. The League had rejected Crusader for — wait for it — being an unstable guy who beat criminals too brutally. (If the book had come out in 1993 instead of 1968, the Crusader probably would have become a star.)

This guy was rejected for the JLA because -- check it out -- he BROKE BAD GUYS' BONES.

Crusader’s got a terrible secret — his eyesight’s going bad, so in order to keep fighting crime he rigs a satellite to make it daytime all the time. But the prolonged sunshine causes the algae in the water to grow uncontrollably and… well, it just all goes to hell, and Aquaman’s got to put a stop to it. Things end tragically for the Crusader, and Aquaman discovers to his horror that the somewhat-deranged but well-meaning Crusader is in fact– his old friend Don Powers!!!

…oh, shut up. I was eight. When you’re eight years old and coming off a Filmation cartoon, that shit reads like hardcore Frank Miller noir comics. The only disappointment was that the algae monster on the cover never actually showed up in the book. (It did show up later, sort of, in Sub-Mariner #72, also scripted by Steve Skeates, a man whose motto clearly was “Never throw anything away.”)

Unfortunately, my first issue of the actual Aquaman comic book was also the last one of that particular run, setting a precedent for a pattern that has played out repeatedly for me over the last thirty-five years — I get interested in an Aquaman comic and the version I like goes away.

Although, in fairness, I didn’t get interested in Aquaman again for a while afterwards. It seemed like every time I sampled the book — and I usually checked out the various revivals at least once, I wanted to like Aquaman’s book– but invariably something was going horribly wrong. During the mid-70′s it felt like everybody in the strip was depressed and pissed off.

That was my first encounter with DC’s ongoing effort throughout the 70′s to somehow do the same superhero soap-opera melodrama Marvel was doing. Certainly you can forgive them for trying to get a piece of that whole Comics Aren’t For Kids Anymore! action, but so often, they were just BAD at it. Sure, you had occasional gems like the O’Neil/Adams “Snowbirds Don’t Fly!” or the Goodwin/Simonson Manhunter, but mostly you had dozens of other crappy attempts at “adult” storytelling… like this.

The beginning of emo Aquaman.

Aquaman, particularly, was absolutely just the wrong book for that kind of approach. It had started as an entertaining strip about a guy who was married to a mermaid and lived in a magical undersea kingdom, having exciting adventures. You want to update that idea for a modern audience? Okay, but don’t do it by slaughtering the hero’s family and making his wife crazy. Nobody wants to read about emo Aquaman. Give us something… I don’t know. Something magical. Something like Neil Gaiman did with Stardust; sophisticated, yeah, but still with that fairy-tale, castles-and-mermaids feeling…

I loved this version. Why didn't the rest of you, you bastards?

…something like this, in fact.

I had pretty much given up on Aquaman at that point. But that cover had been running as a house ad in all the DC books, the art looked great and the tagline was intriguing… and DC had been having a helluva good year (this was 1986.) So I gave the Sea King one more try.

Never was I so glad I’d given in to an impulse buy. Easily my favorite modern Aquaman ever, this was a terrific, terrific mini-series from Neal Pozner and Craig Hamilton. Not only was it fun to read, but it fixed a number of ongoing problems that had been developing with Aquaman’s character over the years, the biggest one being: Geez, why is Aquaman such a jerk? He used to be a decent guy. It was a wonderful story with really breathtaking art from Hamilton. I gather it sold pretty well and there was a sequel miniseries planned that would have fixed up the supporting cast the same way (i.e., now that Arthur’s over being an asshole, the next plan was to make Mera stop being a bitch and get Aqualad to stop his damn whining.) Bob Rozakis’ Answer Man column had this tantalizing summary of what might have been:

Neal Pozner had envisioned his second Aquaman mini-series as one that would spotlight the rest of the Aqua-family. Described in detail in AMAZING HEROES PREVIEW SPECIAL #3 (1986), the story aimed at expanding the roles of Mera (described by Pozner as “more powerful than Aquaman… in her own way”) and Aqualad. Filling the void left by the recent death of Aquagirl in CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTHS #9 and #10, a new character named Tawna was to have become Aqualad’s new girl friend. Other players were to have included Ronal (Lori Lemaris’ husband) and Makaira. Makaira was Vulko’s wife but the first mini-series failed to explicitly point this out and, unaware of her role, future writers ignored the character.

Eschewing the angry, Sub-Mariner-esque approach of recent years, Aquaman would have maintained the more even-tempered disposition he’d acquired in the first mini-series. He would, however, have abandoned his striking new blue costume and returned to the original in the second issue of the sequel. Antagonists in the story were to have been the Sunderland Corporation and Atlantean religious extremists.

For whatever reason, it never happened and now it never can. Sadly, Neal Pozner is no longer with us. And of course since it was an Aquaman version I liked a lot it’s been wiped from existing continuity. The next appearance was a one-shot Dan Mishkin and Gary Cohn book that seemed to exist mostly to un-do everything that was good about the Pozner-Hamilton miniseries.

God forbid we get Arthur out of that stupid Super Friends outfit!

In fairness to Mishkin and Cohn — whose work on Blue Devil I have great affection for — I think a large part of their efforts at hitting the re-set button was mandated from on high. This is the real problem that has plagued Aquaman ever since the mid-60′s; editorial panic. As Mishkin himself put it in an interview with Aquaman Shrine:

“This is of course a running story with Aquaman, Green Arrow, and some other longtime DC characters: they hold some interest for readers and are even much loved by some of those readers, but they can’t seem to make it as lead characters; and since no one really knows why that is exactly, editors and writers are always trying to find a way to portray the characters that exploits whatever it is we love about them while sharply defining them in a new and hopefully appealing way.

“I suspect there’s a lesson to be learned from the fact that it keeps happening and keeps not working. For myself, I’d be happy if somebody would bring back the Aquaman of the Steve Skeates/Jim Aparo days.”

Funny he should say that. Because the following year gave us this one-shot origin recap/reboot/relaunch:

Pretty good. Not as good as Pozner and Hamilton, but okay.

I checked it out — as fellow CSBG scribe Pol Rua pointed out a while ago, we fans are great ones for pulling that slot machine lever one more time, hoping that this time, this time, it’s going to be good news.

But not this time. Not that it was bad. It was… well, it was okay. The main reason to get this book is for the art. It’s always a treat to see Curt Swan work on something that’s not Superman, and Swan inked by Eric Shanower is really a wonder to behold. The story is mildly interesting in that it adds a couple of new wrinkles to Aquaman’s origins, but nothing really exciting. Essentially, it was back-to-basics Aquaman. Most of the story was set-up and exposition.

This was followed by another miniseries that was… okay. Not great. Better than the previous one-shot specials, yeah, but still, it all feels like by-the-numbers superhero-ing.

Meh. Mildly interesting.

The mini-series ignores all the painstaking character work that had been done by Neal Pozner and suddenly we are back to mid-seventies malaise, pissed-off Aquaman and company. The story itself was not particularly exciting, plot-wise. Aquaman has to rally the Atlanteans against a group of alien super-jellyfish: a threat that feels, frankly, silly. Most annoying of all, to me anyway, Mera’s still an angry basket case — having apparently forgotten about all that forgiveness stuff we’d seen in previous appearances — and she ends up huffing off to her home dimension by the end. (Originally Giffen and Fleming were going to kill her off but thought better of it; their new solution still manages to completely miss the point, though. Some of us like Mera, and anyway angry divorced Aquaman is no improvement over angry widowed Aquaman.) It did have that nice Curt Swan art, but ultimately it was an unsatisfying read. I was about ready to give up again.

Just when I thought the whole idea of Atlantis’ magic and wonder was over for good and the Pozner-Hamilton miniseries had just been a hiccup, though, we got this.

A very cool story with gorgeous art. HOWEVER, it really screwed up Aquaman.

Atlantis Chronicles is another high point in the history of Aquaman. Well, sort of, anyway, considering he’s hardly in it. But it’s nevertheless brilliant, a terrific job of extrapolation by Peter David that jumps off a couple of throwaway references in previous Aquaman stories and constructs an entire mythology around them, as well as delivering a gripping story in itself, and all of it gorgeously illustrated by Esteban Maroto. There is really no excuse for this not to be reprinted in trade paperback. Especially since, as far as I know, it still stands as the baseline history for the current version of Aquaman’s Atlantis.

You’d think, after something like that, the natural thing for DC to do would be to go to Peter David and Esteban Maroto and say, “Damn, that was good. How would you guys feel about doing the same kind of thing on Aquaman as an ongoing?”

Yeah, well… you’d think that, wouldn’t you?

Again with the okay. Not great but okay.

Instead, a year or so later, we got this. By now I was getting used to it. It’s a cycle — magical mythical Aquaman, full of potential, suddenly replaced by pissy Super Friends Justice Leaguer Aquaman who has no memory of anything he’s learned in his previous appearances, especially if the knowledge regards emotional maturity.

Okay, that was a little snarky. This new Aquaman did have some good points. Writer Shaun McLaughlin seemed determined to write a good Aquaman book, and if it wasn’t the one I’d hoped for, on the whole it wasn’t bad. My major gripe with it was the same one I’d had with the Giffen-Fleming version a couple of years earlier — why was DC so hell-bent on dragging Aquaman back to his unpleasant 70′s incarnation every time someone hinted at something better? For all that Shaun McLaughlin was writing pretty good stories, they were still stories about grumpy angsty divorced Aquaman. (And in fairness to Mr. McLaughlin, he had plans, we weren’t going to WALLOW in misery forever.)

However, it never happened. DC pulled the plug after a little over a year. Turns out it was going to be Peter David doing an Aquaman ongoing after all.

Again with the reboot? AGAIN?

First we got the obligatory origin-revamp miniseries. This was… well, it was fun, but those of us that were hoping for a return to the magical grandeur of Atlantis Chronicles were a little disappointed. There were references to it, certainly, and clearly this Aquaman was going to be drawing on that history… but the tone of the book was off. Too much DCU. Too much continuity stuff. Still, as a self-contained four-parter it was okay.

Oddly enough, I own more of this version than any other, though I don't really like it; it suffers a great deal from Namor-envy.

The regular series soon followed and David made it clear early on, with Aquaman getting his hand chewed off by piranha in #2, that this was not the Super Friends Aquaman.

I have really mixed feelings about this particular incarnation of Aquaman. I guess it did well — certainly it was the longest-lived Aquaman solo title ever. Peter David hung in there for four years’ worth of stories and the book was always entertaining. But it often felt like it could have been more, somehow. There was annoying obligatory DCU continuity stuff. My feeling about Aquaman is that he works best when he’s isolated. Bring in other guest stars from around the DC universe, and suddenly he’s just the fish guy. The only writers that ever had Aquaman involved with the DCU at large and made it work were Grant Morrison and Mark Waid, and they didn’t do it in Aquaman — they did it in JLA. And part of the reason it worked is because they were riffing on that very expectation that Aquaman was “just the fish guy.” Do that in Aquaman’s own book and it doesn’t work nearly as well.

Another problem I had was with Peter David’s scripting, which felt sometimes like it was suffering from mood swings. I never was sure if we were getting the thoughtful, passionate writer of things like Atlantis Chronicles and Fallen Angel, or the antic, pun-loving writer who did Young Justice. There are those that would say that you want a book’s tone to be varied, and I actually agree with that, but sometimes it felt like in an effort to change things up David was trying too hard, to the point that the book felt like it suffered from bipolar disorder. Also, Peter David is a writer who believes that things should never be static, which meant that he revamped himself a couple of times. This was kind of irksome, considering he was doing fine with the previous New Direction that was only a year or two old; and even so, he never really got away from grumpy angsty divorced-guy Aquaman, a version I’m frankly sick of.

But when he left, with #46, I resolved to give the new guys a chance. Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning did a couple of nice issues, but then came the train wreck.

Blechh! I mean, come on! LAGOON Boy?

This is when the book went well and truly off the rails for me. I have absolutely no idea what DC was thinking when they okayed this. Lagoon Boy? For Christ’s sake.

Dan Jurgens came in 13 issues later to do damage control, but I missed it. According to Laura, that run’s not bad, but I was gun-shy by then. Clearly, Aquaman was a cursed title. No one, not even writers who’d done really good stuff with the character, seemed to have an idea on how to set up a stable premise for the series that would consistently generate good stories. Our friend John Seavey might say that Aquaman needed a solidly dependable storytelling engine.

I skipped “The Waterbearer” and the Sub Diego stuff. The first looked awful — I don’t know who I would have picked for an Aquaman relaunch, but it wouldn’t be the guy who did Bratpack and The Maximortal.

Please... not ANOTHER new direction...!

And the Sub Diego run… well, I talked about the tug-of-war between magical Atlantean Aquaman and mainstream JLA Aquaman. Observing from a distance, it looked like that pendulum swung back again. Sub Diego sure sounded an awful lot like New Venice revisited.

Fifteen issues in and HEY! It's a NEW DIRECTION!

So, back to the orange-shirt, clean-shaven status quo. Sigh.

Then we get the Infinite Crisis/One Year Later thing across the entire DC line, the perfect excuse to kick sagging books in the butt and re-energize them.

If I’d gotten an assignment like that for Aquaman, I’ll tell you the first thing I’d do is decree that we are DONE with the angst. I really am fed up with hearing about Aquaman’s broken marriage and dead son. Forget it. That’s what retcon punches and stupid Crisis events are FOR, so you can dump silly shit like that without having a swarm of angry fanboys forming a lynch mob. The only reason it’s even an issue is because writers keep dredging it up, the actual story took place thirty YEARS ago, for God’s sake.

So. No angst. What else?

Well, what’s Aquaman about? What makes him interesting? Why do people buy Aquaman comics?

One word: Atlantis.

King of the Sea is a good hook, but by itself it’s not enough. Hell, Jacques Cousteau has underwater adventures. We’re not doing Sea Devils. We’re doing Aquaman. When you want to turn up the excitement for an underwater adventure, whether it’s Captain Nemo or Dirk Pitt or hell, the Little Mermaid, all you have to do is invoke the sunken city of Atlantis.

“Well, of course you get Atlantis with Aquaman. Duh. Why is Hatcher going on about that like it’s a big deal?”

Because DC never has really made up its mind how to do that, that’s why.

Think about it. How many variations of it have we seen over the years? Should Aquaman be its king? Or should he just be its protector? Should he even live there? Should it be a super-advanced science-y place with a dome, with everybody in jumpsuits and fins, or a magical, medieval place with wizards and court intrigues? How many underwater cities are there? And so on.

These are all questions an Aquaman writer should have answers to before he types the first word of a script. The trouble is that no two writers have the same set of answers, as far as I can tell.

If you’ve got this far, you know I’m firmly in the magical/medieval Atlantean camp. I’d even go so far as to say I’d isolate Atlantis, and Aquaman, from the DCU entirely. As much as editorial would let me get away with. Beyond that… I’m not sure, except that I think I’d rather not have Aquaman be the King. I like my Aquaman to be more of a global activist. King of the Seven Seas. Originally from Atlantis, maybe, but not necessarily running things there.

As an interesting side note, some of you may be aware of the aborted Aquaman TV pilot starring Justin Hartley.

You know, this was pretty good. I liked it better than Smallville, anyway.

It’s really interesting to look at it and see how the writers chose to answer those questions. The smartest choice they made was to start with Arthur Curry, water-breathing human, and set up an arc where we would have slowly worked backwards to the revelation of Atlantis. It’s a flawed first outing, but promising — and they went with magical mysterious Atlantis, not the science-fiction one, which was a good call in my book. Pity it didn’t get off the launching pad.

Anyway. Given everything I’ve said so far, you’d think that I would have been first in line for a book called Aquaman: Sword of Atlantis. The title alone implies that it’s my kind of Neal Pozner/Atlantis Chronicles take. Throw in the cover art and it should have been a sure thing.

What, again?

Normally I probably would have, especially given that it was from Kurt Busiek, who really thinks through how he sets up a premise for an ongoing. Whatever you may think of his work overall, his craftsmanship is always impeccable. I don’t think you could ever say “he didn’t think it through” about a Kurt Busiek story. (And that is, indeed, why I finally took a chance on the trade collection: on the strength of Kurt Busiek’s name.)

But why did I wait a year?

Because it was Aquaman. And my automatic response was “oh, hell, here we go again.”

That’s the frustration part. This is what has been nagging at me all week. It has to do with the industry, and the way DC sells comics, and the automatic reactions of jaded old fans like me.

I figured, considering it was Kurt Busiek, it would be collected in paperback, as indeed it was. But because I waited to get the damn paperback, to read the story as most modern comics stories are structured to be read these days, the version of Aquaman that I really had hoped to see, the magical undersea fantasy, is now on life support.

You know what’s really maddening? If this book was being marketed to anyone other than regular superhero comics fans, it would be a huge runaway hit. Why the hell isn’t DC putting this paperback front and center under the noses of the people who would REALLY love it? Tamora Pierce fans? Narnia fans? Edgar Rice Burroughs fans?

I’m telling you, my teenage girl students would swoon over this book. Busiek has set up an underwater quest story with a young orphaned hero in the best tradition of Harry Potter, Luke Skywalker, and dozens of others — plus he’s blond, hot, and spends a lot of time with his shirt off. If THIS had been the Justin Hartley TV show the guy would be a rock star by now.

All this and yet still recognizably Aquaman, still set firmly in the DC Universe… but an exotic corner of it we haven’t seen before. That’s damn hard to do.

I haven’t said much about the art — I’m mostly a story guy — but I hope the examples I’ve put up here get it across that the book looks great, too. Guice, and now McManus, are doing very nice work.

This book should have been be a huge hit. But because DC only knows how to offer it to guys like me, who carry around all this accumulated suspicion and bad feeling about “yet another Aquaman reboot,” nobody’s picking it up. Hell, I will own up: I assmued when Kurt Busiek left and Tad Williams came on that it was just yet another case of the wheels coming off the Aqua-wagon. But after actually READING it, I am delighted to admit I was wrong.

But I almost didn’t read it. I was too jaded.

Here is the core of the frustration. The trouble is that guys like me are the bulk of the readership, any more. Half the time we are so sure we know what’s in the books we don’t bother to look at them. The other half of the time we are spending money on books we don’t like because of the certainty that it’s temporary, pulling that slot machine lever one more time.

Am I the only one that thinks that’s a lunatic way to run a publishing business? How can we expect publishers to measure a book’s worth with sales when those sales don’t have anything to do with its quality, half the time — and the most attractive, salable format for most consumers doesn’t happen at all unless the unattractive, annoying format sells a lot of copies first? What kind of ridiculous handicap is that for a book? The real miracle is that any comic book makes any money at all, considering all the insane obstacles in the way of getting it to an audience who might be interested in reading it.

How did we get to such an idiotic system? Who’s to blame for this?

I don’t know.

But if we ever find out, we should kick his ass.

See you next week.

30 Comments

Williams’ run got off to a shaky start, but it’s been growing on me.

Of course, it has cartoony art and a comic tone, so most of fandom HATES it and probably can’t wait for it to end.

I’ll probably go for the next incarnation to see if they ever get it working.

(I once bought AQUAMAN #56 at a flea market, knowing nothing of its apparent significance. Lost it, sadly.)

Okay, someone help me out here. Is the young Aquaman guy in the new series the same Aquaman that’s been running round for years, or is he now some crazy old lunatic in a cave? Because numerous references to bits of the new Aquaman run in random DC Comics (that never actually elaborate on what the hell is going on) have made me a sad panda.

No wait, I mean a confused panda.

I’m not actually sure if that’s been revealed yet, Paperghost, but I’m still getting caught up. My impression is that older Aquaman’s the mentor but there’s more to young Aquaman’s heritage than has been told to him. I could be wrong though.

FunkyGreenJerusalem

June 23, 2007 at 2:43 am

Companies like to complain about the internet and all the hate for books that goes on, but I nearly always check this blog and the CBR boards before getting involved with a new superhero comic/new run.
Even if everyone loves it, I’m still wary, because I’ve read so much crap from these companies.

That said, the companies don’t seem to want my money, the books I like are always the small marginalised books like She-Hulk or Blue Beetle. Books that are fun.
I hate over use of continuity, but She Hulk does it with a great sense of fun and gentle mocking.

Problem is, the only way the companies know how to try and get bigger sales on these books is to make them more like, or tie them into other books.
I have no interest in seeing She Hulk’s take on civil war, and Blue Beetle’s new guy feel works a hell of a lot better if he doesn’t actually meet other heroes or team-up with them.

That’s the problem with ‘The Big Two’.
They won’t take chances to let books find their way, or publish books with a small cult audience (Starman wouldn’t have survived these days), they just want it to be bland and mediocre so they can tie it into all the other bland and mediocre books, in some OCD/Roy Thomas need to make everything fit.

I almost can’t wait for the next crash that will come when people get sick of the non-stop crossing over going on at the moment – last time it happened, DC gave us some very exciting and different books, even if they didn’t last that long.

Another great column, Greg.

I find myself wishing that Aquaman had never been a part of the JLA; because he is (a founding member, no less), he’s thought of as a superhero, and that’s the mistake DC makes. As a fantasy character, Aquaman rocks, but as a superhero he’s at best second-rate.

Ideally, with all this talk of the multiverse coming back, Aquaman would be seperated from the mainstream DC Universe entirely, but we all know that’s not going to happen. Failing that, any crossovers should be limited to DC characters that are of a more fantasy/magical vein, as opposed to yet more superheroes (I could see something like an Aquaman/Amethyst crossover story working well, for example.

I bought this one pretty quick out of the gate, as ‘Kurt Busiek’ in the writer’s box pretty much guarantees a sell for me. I thought it was great, enough so that I’d take a chance on a different writer using the premise, so it’s sad that it’s probably going to be gone before a second trade comes out. (Lesson to DC: Put out your trades quicker. There is an entire second audience out there that doesn’t buy monthlies.)

And yes, it’s also a shame that the series–and all of DC and Marvel’s comics–aren’t marketed better. It’s sad when ‘Spider-Man 3′ sells something like 20 million tickets on opening weekend, will undoubtedly have DVD sales in the tens of millions, and yet the comic book barely manages to sell 100,000 copies a month. Comics are now only marketed to people who are in comics stores or are reading publications about comics–essentially, the comic book marketing plan is, “Wait until people walk into our stores with full wallets, then offer to sell them something.” And they’re surprised the industry is dying.

Oh, and according to Peter David, the reason he wasn’t immediately put on Aquaman following Atlantis Chronicles was that the editor assigned to the new Aquaman series thought that Arthur’s conception in AC was supposed to be an immaculate conception and that this was all a big religious metaphor. PAD says he talked with the guy and straightened things out by saying, essentially, that no, it wasn’t a Christ reference, Arthur’s mom just had sex with an immortal Atlantean sorcerer. Which was fine. :)

Great article. One thing you mentioned strikes me as a great setup for an ongoing Aquaman, where he wins the throne of Atlantis and turns it down, saying he is “King of the Seven Seas” and has larger things to tend to than just Atlantis.

For what it’s worth, I think most of the problems that DC has with Aquaman and the same ones that they have with Wonder Woman, except that DC keeps publishing Wonder Woman out of a sense of obligation or fear of the pillorying they’ll get from non-comics readers if they stop. The Marston estate rights thing is supposedly over now, so it’s not like they HAVE to publish WW to keep the rights, but the sales of the book have almost never warranted its continuation, and damn near everybody who jumps on has a totally different idea of where WW should be.

Greg, when you see something like this, that you think girls and young women who love adventure will go for, I hope you’ll flag me. I regularly recommend things on my webpage and lj, and (I’m truly not bragging here; I just got reminded when my publisher asked me to look at another writer’s book and, if I liked it, mention it on my page) fans, librarians, and booksellers check it regularly to see what I recommend.

I’ll go hunt these down now!

And is it me, or does that one cover of Aquaman with the shark guy behind him look like it could double for a John Carter/Tars Tarkas cover?!

I had a friend that was shocked that I was not pre-ordering Aquaman: Sword. We’re both Busiek fans, and he was getting it for that reason alone. I told him “I’ve about 57 Aquaman issue #1′s, but I don’t have any #5′s”.

Greg, your history of frustration with Aquaman is very similar to mine. I really loved the “blue suit” story, and wanted to see more of that.

I wasn’t as big a fan of the Atlantis Chronicles… just not my thing, I guess.

The Aquaman Showcase book has been a lot of fun to read. I think kids might even get a big kick out of it. And Ramona Fradon’s art is beautiful!

As you know, Greg, I’ve been saying much the same thing about Aquaman (and Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel and the Metal Men) for years.

So many elements of Aquaman–notably those introduced in the Miller/Haney/Cardy run–are perfect for a younger audience, especially girls: the ruling family (heroic dad, beautiful mom, teen son, infant son, teen son’s girlfriend) of a hidden undersea kingdom riding around on giant seahorses saving the world. And the element most appealing to kids–talking with animals, a fantasy shared by bazillions of rugrats–is the one most frequently jeered at. That’s a potentially *awesome* power! What bad guy could stand up to an army of sharks or of giant squid or even of disease-carrying diatoms?

It’s a shame that the people in charge at DC either don’t or won’t get that not every character in their stable is best served by aiming their stories at the same old fanboys whose shared universe fetish trumps all.

Sigh. It’s barely 8AM and now I’m depressed.

So many elements of Aquaman–notably those introduced in the Miller/Haney/Cardy run–are perfect for a younger audience, especially girls: the ruling family (heroic dad, beautiful mom, teen son, infant son, teen son’s girlfriend) of a hidden undersea kingdom riding around on giant seahorses saving the world.

‘Zactly what I think about Aquaman, too.

Although I’d add that the setting is the most important and unique element of the book, t’me. Toss in elements of the Little Mermaid and Narnia style kid’s exploratory fantasy and you got yourself an Aquaman story.

Although it is nice to know that G.H. found relatively recent Aquaman stories that he’s liked. I’ve always assumed that the character pretty much died when Cardy left the book in the sixties.

And let’s not forget Mermaidman and Barnacle Boy…

I have liked Aquaman…he’s always been different. I prefer him as King of Atlantis, though. To me, it’s kind of a power balancer. “Sure, Superman, you can fly, and do all these things, while I can…um, swim well and talk to fish. But, I rule over the seas, which is most of the earth. Now bug off.” BUT they have to play the politics lightly, or it just gets boring.

JonnyQuest037

June 23, 2007 at 2:27 pm

Greg, this essay was so spot on that I want to have your baby. And I’m a heterosexual dude.

I’ve been waiting 20+ YEARS for DC to come up with an Aquaman story as good as ’86 mini-series. I’m still waiting.

THE ATLANTIS CHRONICLES gave Aquaman a richness and a wonderful history to exploit… which has hardly been used since by anyone, including Peter David, the guy who wrote THE ATLANTIS CHRONICLES in the first place!

I really wish I could retcon that whole dead Aquababy story away. It’s been the main cause of awful Aquaman stories for the last 30 years.

As for who could do the Sea King justice, Alan Davis is a HUGE Aquaman fan (was originally supposed to draw the ’86 series, in fact). DC should snap him up to do the book the second his Marvel contract expires. Phil Jimminez would be a great choice, as well. He was Neal Pozner’s partner could give us something in a similiar vein to the ’86 mini.

Vincent Paul Bartilucci

June 23, 2007 at 6:27 pm

Different (breast) strokes, Mr. Hatcher …

I am a huge Aqua-fan and my favorite Aquaman stories are that run from Adventure #441 thru 452 and Aquaman #56 thru 63 that you call “crappy”. In those stories, Arthur was a super-hero. Old villains like The Scavenger and The Fisherman were rescued from obscurity, Ocean Master was a true threat, and Black Manta showed us what evil really is. Arthur encountered the Shark, Starro (both naturals), Kobra, and Weather Wizard. I’m not sure how old you were when Adventure #452 was published but “Sorry minnow, but that’s my son up there,” blew my 10 year old mind.

Call me a dinosaur who just wants more of the same but I’d love Aquaman’s creative team to embrace the concept of Aquaman as super-hero – something that hasn’t been done in years. Yes, we’ve had enough of the gritty Aquaman. But don’t throw the baby out with the sea water. Return the fun elements of his background. Show him working with Naval and Coasr Guard forces. Don’t isolate him from the DCU! Instead, pit him against existing super-villains with nefarious globe spanning plans. Let him be the super-hero he is in Alex Ross’s Justice (another fan of that 70′s run of stories).

Oh, and NEVER use the name Orin again. Ever.

I agree on some points, but… it’s Aquaman.

I don’t know, I think he’s the kind of character that I doubt I could ever get interested in. Of course, I said that about Captain America, and Brubaker’s made me his bitch on that title.

I think my most ideal approach to Aquaman would be a mix of the fantasy vibe shown in this recent series with the full-on majesty you get when Alex Ross works with the character. I love it when Ross does stuff with Aquaman because he with orange shirt, sea-horse, trident, Mera, son, and hand intact he makes an Aquaman that works!

Both as a superhero, a king, and a guy with a family.

As far as this title I honestly feel the artwork hurt the sales more than anything else. There are some pages where you can’t even tell who it is and the coloring isn’t helping.

I basically share all the same tastes about what’s worked and what hasn’t (though I liked more of PAD’s run than you did). Magical Atlantis: check. Enough with the angst: check. Happier to see him married to Mera: check. King of the Seven Seas without being tied to the throne in Atlantis: check. Yay Atlantis Chronicles: check.

But I don’t think he’s as problematic in the League as you do. Not only Morrison (JLA) and Waid (JLAY1) but also Ross & co (Justice) and Davis (the Nail books) have made terrific use of Aquaman-as-Leaguer. (Though how telling is it that Ross’ use of him got its emotional center from *not having the kid die*?)

One of my most striking memories of an Aquaman story is his dissolution of the Satellite Era League. Sure, it didn’t work out too well– he recruited the Detroit squad, moved to frickin’ Detroit, and left the team to go mope after not too long. But for that moment Aquaman kicked ass. He was the responsible grown-up (comes of having been king!) reading *Superman* and *Batman* and *Wonder Woman* and *Green Lantern* the riot act.

They try to establish a bond between Arthur and Diana on grounds of being royalty from mythical-Greek civilizations, and that makes sense. But Diana’s a princess; she was a child and then, not long after becoming an adult, she left. Arthur/Orin has been a *king* with real governing responsibility for a large part of his adult life. I think that, more than ‘fish guy’, can give Aquaman his distinctive place in the League. Sometimes, as in Morrison’s hands, it means that he approaches the League as a relief– the moment when he *doesn’t* have everything resting on his shoulders alone. And sometimes, in moments of crisis, it means he’s a leader even among heroes. (Morrison nodded at this, too– the governing council that dissolved the League at the end of “Rock of Ages” was Superman, Batman, and Aquaman.)

There’s one broader problem at work here that you don’t mention. I’m as nostalgic for the Bronze Age as anyone. But I don’t get why character development has so often gotten frozen in the mid-70s.

Every character has some almost-permanent stuff: last son of a dying planet, great metropolitan newspaper, cowardly superstitious lot, wonderful toys, etc. For the major DC characters that stuff got established before the heroes were given distinct personalities.

Then some of them got distinct personalities during the Bronze Age. Hawkman was a law-and-order conservative and Green Arrow was a socially conscious lefty who was nonetheless kind of a chauvanist. Speedy was a junkie. Aquaman was pissed off. OK; character development.

For some reason *that* round of character development has often gotten attached to the permanent character description. So then we get these cycles: a modern writer will build on the characater and move forward, and then someone else will go ‘back to basics’ in a way that means ‘back to the mid-70s.’ WTF?

Hawkman under Ostrander and Green Arrow under Grell had *really* interesting development of their political and moral worldviews. And both have been restored to 70s-era simplistic slogans, because that’s what they were like during the Satellite Era. One way or another I think Hal Jordan is *constantly* getting rebooted back to where he was at the end of Hard-Travelling Heroes. Hell, J’onn wasn’t even around during the Bronze Age, and *he* keeps getting great character work (e.g. the Ostrander series) undone.

I love my thirty-year old comics. But I’ve kept reading comics for the years in between, and I’m fond of a lot of them, too, so I’m not sure why DC thinks the way to please readers like me is to ignore them.

I was very excited to read this, Greg. Sorry I just got around to it now, but I’m pretty sure I am *the* audience for this particular column. Haha! Yes.

Aquaman is one of my favorite comics characters, for probably no reason whatsoever. Regardless, though, I think he’s awesome and terribly underrated. Haven’t read every era of him or whatnot, but I’ve surveyed enough.

The McLaughlin run is probably my favorite Aqua-run– certainly the best that I’ve seen. It was putting the pieces together properly and making Aquaman interesting and legitimate, so of course it was doomed. I’m missing a few issues, but I’ve read most of it, and it was great.

Peter David’s Aquaman was not Aquaman. It was Namor with a harpoon for a hand. Meh.

I tried Pfeifer’s, and was unimpressed. I tried Busiek’s, and didn’t like it… but then, I rarely enjoy Busiek’s writing and I hate sword ‘n sorcery. Tad Williams’ run is good. It’s not great, but it’s good. Unfortunately, he’s hampered by the presence of the “new Aquaman,” who is not very interesting.

As I said before, back on the Blogspot incarnation of Comics Should Be Good, I’d write Aquaman for free. That offer still stands. Ha. Maybe I should repost it in some fashion.

I love the orange shirt. I love the talking to fish. I love Atlantis, and the undersea world that could house all sorts of monsters and races and mysteries. My Aquaman would be a strong leader (not necessarily the king, though) and a confident hero. He understands that a certain group of people think he’s lame, but he knows he isn’t, and that’s all that matters.

Aquaman should be a modern Arthurian fantasy with some sci-fi elements. It should be big and mad and cool. I mean, it’s not *that* hard to come up with good Aquaman ideas! The thing writes itself! C’mon, DC…

Aquaman’s one of those characters where I’m not even sure his fans (or at least those willing to read his book) could come to a consensus on how to approach the character. So it’s really not that much a surprise that DC can’t decide what to do with him either.

I gave Sword of Atlantis 3 issues before dropping it, I thought the pace was dull and the color work was overly muddy (a pet peeve). That, and I’m not all that fond of the Aquaman as King Arthur or Conan take, partly because those are more Namor’s archtype but mostly because it’s all wrong. Aquaman is an underwater Tarzan, not Conan, at least not without some serious reworking (which is pretty much what was done to hammer the square peg into the round hole).

My favorite Aquaman material is pretty much the trippy Cardy/Aparo stuff from the sixties where the underwater world he inhabited seemed almost otherworldly. I actually liked bits of Larsen’s run, such as the return of the lavamen, the Namor analog, and the super-intelligent whale inventor with the robotic body; those were fun (though most of the rest wasn’t). Pfiefer’s short run was a bit of a mixed bag, mostly because it featured these really nice Alan Davis covers that perfectly captured what I’d like to see with the character yet none of that was actually inside the comics.

Overall I think I’d lean towards the direction Bill has often described when he’s written about the character, and in my dream world I’d get Alan Davis to draw it (covers and interiors).

Though someone should really consider adding those black boots from the Filmation cartoon to his look, those were snazzy.

Peter David’s Aquaman was not Aquaman. It was Namor with a harpoon for a hand. Meh.

I hear this a lot and I really have to disagree. I think Peter David’s Aquaman was trying to be an extrapolation of character from the history we’d seen up to that point (divorced, ex-king, lots of dead family and friends, generally pissed-off guy) AND incorporate Atlantis Chronicles stuff, AND deal with DCU continuity issues while proving Arthur was a badass to take seriously. Most of that strikes me as wrongheaded… but it’s not Namor, who I’ve never really liked and who is — pardon the expression — a lot shallower than Aquaman, for the most part.

I read the new Sword of Atlantis in trade, as I said before, and I suspect it reads better that way; though I think Busiek’s enough of a craftsman to make single issues feel like you got some kind of complete reading experience. But I didn’t notice anything terribly off-putting about the color.

Aquaman is a frustrating case for me as a comic book fan because I like a lot about the character (his look, his supporting cast, Atlantis, some of the stories), but so many wrong-headed decisions have been made about him. I’m glad you pointed out what a big mistake it was to kill his infant son, perhaps a brave creative choice, but one that has produced too much angst for his character. And Aquaman and Mera, once a great couple, have had one of the most protracted cycles of break-ups and near-reconciliations in the history of comics (even longer than their counterparts, Crystal and Quicksilver of Marvel).

If I was in charge of the character, I’d have the current Aquaman turn out to be Aquaman I and Mera’s son. Not the dead one, but the one Mera had who was aged to adulthood and has sort of been forgotten, to the best of my knowledge. Aquaman I would return to his true form, reconcile with Mera and help his son become a great hero while ruling Atlantis.

Louis Bright-Raven

June 24, 2007 at 5:40 pm

mattcomics: [quote]For some reason *that* round of character development has often gotten attached to the permanent character description. So then we get these cycles: a modern writer will build on the character and move forward, and then someone else will go ‘back to basics’ in a way that means ‘back to the mid-70s.’ WTF?[/quote]

The late 1960s and early 1970s are when the first reboots of characters came, and many historically significant stories were published between 1970-1978. So between the comics writers of that era, the comics historian writers and the nostalgic kids who remember that era and want to bring *that* sort of feeling back to comics… you get a lot of well-intentioned but ill-fated attempts.

Derek B. Haas

June 25, 2007 at 4:04 am

“If I was in charge of the character, I’d have the current Aquaman turn out to be Aquaman I and Mera’s son. Not the dead one, but the one Mera had who was aged to adulthood and has sort of been forgotten, to the best of my knowledge.”

Come to think of it, there’s a fair chance that’s what Busiek was doing.

That 4 issue mini you mentioned was really quite excellent and I wished that DC had kept going with it instead of changing directions yet again.

I too bought the latest Aquaman singles because I thought Busiek would do something interesting with the character. And it was. And I have to say that the change to Williams was not bad as I am still enjoying the book.

On a side note: I liked the way Aparo drew Aquaman.

I have enjoyed precisely two iterations of Aquaman solo series: the Pozner mini and the Busiek-written Sword. Unfortunately, the series lost Busiek (and Guice) and Tad Williams’ issues have been almost cartoonishly bad. It’s a shame, because Busiek’s turn was one of the only really good One Year Later jumps, but since he didn’t stick with the series I won’t be at all sad to see it go.

When Williams brought in the crawfish-headed girl is the point at which he lost me completely, if you’re taking notes.

Readwaterbearer

July 22, 2007 at 1:21 am

I have to say my second favorite period in AQ history, second to the 50-60-70′s run, is the water bearer series. The series which Greg skipped, I loved issues 1-39. After the Thirst makes his run the series became really good. I was even able to talk some non-Aquaman fans into buying it. The water hand gave us a new angle and was enough.

The fun quickly ends when the book gets canceled and Busiek makes a bid to play Frankenstein and “revive it as a fantasy story”. I love Aquaman and found his run to be the hokiest ever. Busiek was awful at it. It took him two issues to show the introduction of the King Shark and was terribly limited on content. So Didio pulls him for another project, not even considering that Busiek could have been pulled off Superman and any old writer could make that title sell.

Bring out the ugly stick named Shawn McManus and beat poor Tad Williams hard with him it. Tad would have done great had he come in back on issue 37 or 38 when the series was still viable and salvageable. I feel sorry for Tad. I think he really had the cards stacked against him on this one. Neither Busiek nor Tad could breathe life into the New Arthur Joe. Shawn’s “teen titan tv hour” art work left the book more wide open to criticism than ever. Eventually the fan base locked in their heals hard for the return of the real Aquaman, rightfully so in my opinion. The writers before Buseik laid down a ton of interesting seeds, which ended up completely getting dropped. Mera was last seen as an air breather for example. I read past the artwork, the bad lead action hero, and the holes to find the Tad could write one of the faster/better reads in the DCU. I think he should finish out the arch and leave us with the real Aquaman intact, maybe go on to another book.

I think the gimmick of allowing Busiek to unleash his debacle is the real problem here. Greg skipped the waterbearer series 1-39, and didn’t get to see all the great things they set up, so I understand the blind acceptance of anything Busiek. I don’t think Tad is being punished here, I think the sales went straight back to where they were on issues 1-39. The world is big enough anymore for underwater heroes. The problem is we are left with the dysfunctional Artie Joe in sit in with the Outsiders, JlA, and any guest appearances.

Jeff Allenbrand

August 16, 2007 at 8:24 am

When the latest series started off I skipped it because I cannot stand Vietch. I gave it a try when Pfeifer took over and I loved the Sub Diego storyline (at first). The second half of it meandered with the chronically lame Aquaman villains that routinely plague the Aquaman books.

I too get frustrated with DC constantly giving third tier characters their own books and having them canceled due to the usual reasons.

1. Great series but poor sales — Deadman (not the vertigo one)

2. Good series but offensive to die-hard fans — Doom Patrol

3. Good series but die-hard fans refuse to give it a break because it does not conform — Firestorm

4. Excellent series but loses readership undeservedly when original writer leaves — Hawkman

5. Poorly thought out series you wonder why they even bothered — Warlord, Shadowpact

The jaded attitude is understandable because anybody who has been reading comics for awhile knows the minute that a third tier character gets his/her own book that cancellation looms within 12 to 24 issues, if that long, unless Geoff Johns is writing it. Even then, if he leaves the book is going to go down eventually. I am worried that Teen Titans will eventually tank once Johns has been gone for awhile. The only thing with Titans, though, is that there is always a Titans book being published but as longtime readers know the long period between Wolfman and Johns was pretty embarrassing.

I think that a couple of things need to happen. One is that DC needs to have an official policy where they budget a certain amount of money for third tier series and then promise 2 to 4 years for a writer or writers to work on the book, allowing them free rein (within reason) to do what they want with the character(s). I really think that DC needs to take sales out of the equation on the the third tier books. DC is never going to make much money on third tier characters so the emphasis should be on the fans and on the creators that have a vision (right or wrong) for the characters. Another thing that needs to happen is for readers to cut creators a little slack. If you refuse to read a book or stay with a book because the writers won’t conform to your limitations on a series, you end up dooming the book from the get go. I make it a point to follow characters. If I like a particular character then I buy the book. I try to keep an open mind because I figure if I do not buy it then there is a chance the character will not get another shot at his own book. Now I admit, if a series really stinks then I won’t keep buying it (Richard Dragon and the Iron Fist before last come to mind), but by and large I like to stick with a character if I can.

Now as to what DC should do with Aquaman beyond what I have discussed above, I think that giving Aquaman a try over on the Vertigo line might be a good idea. Vertigo readers seem to have more patience with the Mystical/Fantasy stuff and DC usually tolerates lower sales figures when a book is featured there. I also think there needs to be better planning and solicitation of input from the fans (reader surveys, forums at conventions, etc.) and DC should require that a writer/artist team commit for at least 12 issues.

A combination of what I have illustrated above would have a better chance of success. One last idea would be to bring back some of the cheaper printing materials for use when trying a new third tier book. This way DC could lower the price to 1.50 or so in order to attract more readers. DC may not know it but for many readers, price is a factor when deciding to add another title to their list.

It seems no one can ever say anything about comics without lambasting the comic-book format. What a shame. We’ve become so embarrassed of ourselves, of what we read, and of how it’s meant to be read, that we will seize upon the most flimsy of pretexts in the most unrelated of forums to trumpet how progressive and forward-thinking we are, how certain we are that all we have to do is make the comic-book completely unrecognizable as a comic-book, and then, finally, we will “succeed,” we will be “mainstream,” we won’t have to be ashamed anymore.

Screw that. I read comic books. Keep your graphic novels.

Wow. Congratulations, Greg. Your article starts out like a documented, well-argumented, thoughtful piece…

… and then you manage to ruin the whole thing when you get to the Larsen/Battle run. Not that you would even grace the creative team with a mention, would you? No, “Lagoon Boy? For Christ’s sake.” is enough, I guess. Makes you sound like one of the morons always throwing “Fish-talking guy” jokes at Aquaman.

Not that this run was particularly memorable, but it’s not the abominable piece of crap it’s made out to be. Check out the parallel timelines story in #52, with art by Jim Aparo, for example. And for what it’s worth, Larsen is as much entitled to the “on high mandate” excuse as some of the other creators you mentioned.

Makes me wonder if any of your other comments are worthy of consideration, or if it’s just you going all nostalgic over your Aquaman big book or rubber ducky or whatever.

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