This is a short introduction to Aquaman, a great but underrated character, complete with a few recommendations for some of his better stories and some tips about other fun things to check out. Below you’ll find some general information, a summary of his powers and abilities, a list of the recommended comics (with some reading advice for comic newcomers), as well as a short publication history.
Yes, that is Aquaman throwing a polar bear at some bad guys. You’re welcome.
The concept behind Aquaman is an awesome one. He embodies one of man’s oldest and most enduring fantasies, to be totally at home under water. We can swim around in the ocean a little way, maybe cross it in a boat here and there, where we are totally at the mercy of the weather and utterly helpless against its fury, but we are, in the end, out of our element. Here, on our own planet, we are pretty much locked out of 75% of what we call “our” world. Yes, we can peak into it with a SCUBA tank, or go a little deeper wrapped up in a metal shell, but these endeavors are always dangerous. Yet, Aquaman is free from all of these constraints. Not only can he breathe under water, which is, in and of itself pretty darn cool, but he is the ultimate master of his realm in a way that surpasses even our mastery of the surface world. He can travel to any depth, explore every oceanic mystery, and tread in places man has never even dreamed of. All of this, and he can also command everything that lives and breathes beneath the sea. If you can’t imagine that being cool, then obviously you’ve let the world beat too much of the imagination out of you!
One of the biggest “PR” problems Aquaman faces is the perception that he’s useless out of the water and has silly powers, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. Of course Aquaman is particularly well suited to operating underwater, but he’s just as capable above the waves as he is below them. He also sports an impressive slate of powers. He’s much more than just a guy who “talks to fish”! His powers include:
Super Strength: Have you ever tried to throw a punch under water? It’s nearly impossible to put any force behind it because the water resistance is so strong. Now, imagine how strong you’d have to be to do something like punch a hole in a steel submarine hull, all while fighting that same resistance! Believe it or not, Aquaman did just that in his very first appearance, and while his strength has been portrayed unevenly over the years, there’s little doubt that Aquaman is extremely strong, so strong that he could throw your car over your house!
Super Speed: Aquaman is also incredibly fast, especially in the water. He can swim 20,000 fps. That’s FEET per second, just so we’re clear, here. That’s around the speed of a jet fighter, and while he doesn’t normally zip around on land like the Flash, he is capable of moving very quickly, so fast that he can dodge machinegun fire and catch rockets out of the air.
Toughness: The deepest, darkest depths of the ocean boasts a pressure of 15,000 psi, or over 1000 times that of the regular atmosphere. That’s enough to crush the hull of any submarine and turn a man into jelly, but Aquaman is quite at home in such conditions, making him incredibly durable. In fact, he’s almost bullet proof, and he is tough enough to trade punches with Superman.
Marine Telepathy: Aquaman must have one of the most powerful minds in the DC Universe. He can control everything that lives in the sea, and his thoughts can travel the length and breadth of oceans. That’s an important distinction too, he doesn’t “talk” to fish, he commands them, completely and utterly. From the largest whale to the tiniest microorganism, Aquaman rules them all. While he is a bit more accommodating to the higher mammals, he’s still the boss. In fact, most folks don’t know this, but Aquaman is also able to affect humans by targeting the parts of their brains inherited from their amphibious ancestors.
So, the natural question becomes, where does all the Aqua-hate come from? Why has this stuck so long? Two words: Super Friends. Super Friends was a cartoon show from the 1970s that featured much of the DC Universe, and many of us grew up watching it. That’s how I got introduced to all of these characters, and as a kid, I loved it. These days, on the other hand, watching it is akin to repeated cranial trauma. This show crippled Aquaman. They didn’t know what to do with him because they didn’t understand the character, and DC never stepped in and said, “hey wait, this guy can do a lot more than talk to fish!” So, many episodes had our fair-haired hero standing around rather uselessly or getting captured to further the plot. See, that’s Aquaman’s real problem, not a lack of power, or even a lack of talent on his book (for the most part), but bad management.
DC has spent the last 35 years pretty much trying to drive what was once one of their most successful properties into the ground. It isn’t clear exactly why it started, but it likely had to do with the focus on the Big Three (Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman) during the lean years of the 80’s. Eventually though, the kids who grew up watching Aquaman’s awful portrayal on Super Friends found themselves running the company.
Instead of realizing that DC had made a mistake back then and damaged one of their characters in the process, they compounded the error. They have, until recently, regarded him as a lame duck, despite various successes achieved with Aquaman over this same time period. Fortunately, the tide seems to be turning (I couldn’t help myself!). The last few years have seen a much better team and a much better take on Aquaman’s book, as well as powerful and positive portrayals in other media. The great popularity of Aquaman in Batman: The Brave and Bold is already creating a new generation of kids for whom the King of the Sea is awesome.
Listed below is a broad sampling of a few of Aquaman’s better stories from across the years. I’ve incorporated stories from each of the major periods of comic history, and from most of the Sea King’s major interpretations, though there is certainly some personal bias present in the choices! You can read the various selections in any order, though within each era there are story arcs that should be read together. Beware that the various eras are not to everyone’s tastes, so don’t hold a story’s contexts against it. These are just a few of the many wonderful stories written about this character, so if you enjoy them, seek out the rest and give them a chance!
The Silver Age: The Silver Age in comics was the second great period of superhero characters, stretching from the late 1950s through the early-to-mid 70s, depending on who you ask. This era was defined by its constraints, as the resurgence in popularity that the genre enjoyed came at a cost. Increased censorship meant that the more mature stories of the golden age, popular among adults and kids alike, were replaced by more kid friendly elements, and grim avengers became cheerful champions of justice, duly deputized and friendly with the authorities. The result was imaginative but shallow and often silly stories on the one hand, but on the other hand, this period also created a non-leathal heroic ethos that has continued to shape American ideals to the current day. The character and concepts from this period, despite their often juvenile nature, are still often the most recognized and influential versions.
Recommended: Aquaman’s Silver Age origin and the introduction of his young sidekick in the long running backup strip in Adventure Comics and three fun, not-too-silly adventures from his solo title- (Adventure Comics 260 & 269; Aquaman vol. 1 20, 26, & 36)
The Bronze Age: The Bronze Age of comics was the next stage in the evolution of the genre, running somewhere between 1970 and the mid-80s. It is helpful to think of this as the college years of comics. They’re beginning to grow up, but they can still be a bit childish at times. In this era, creators started telling more complex and mature stories. There were attempts at social relevance and the handling (though often ham-handed) of real-world issues like drug use and poverty. In general, this is my favorite era, producing the best stories for my money, and yet maintaining a certain purity of heroic ideal that is lost in later years. At this point, heroes are still heroes, and they live moral lives, holding to high ideals. This period saw a short but influential and wildly popular run of Aquaman comics featuring the creative team of Steve Skeates, writer, Jim Aparo, artist, and Dick Giordano, editor (SAG).
Recommended: The most famous arc from the SAG (see above) run on the Aquaman title, a story that is uneven at points, but illustrates both the age and the character well- (Aquaman vol. 1 40-48)
The Iron Age: The current era of comics, what I call the Iron Age in keeping with the metaphor, has no agreed upon name. This period, running from the mid-80s to today is marked by darker, more “mature” stories, where maturity is eventually replaced by sex and violence and the obsession with ‘grim and gritty’ stories largely succeeds in stamping out the joy and adventure that has characterized the genre over most of its history. In Aquaman’s own stories, this is illustrated by the murder of his son by his greatest villain, losing his hand, his wife going insane, and many more laugh-a-minute tales. These stories happened early on in this era, and they marked the character, crippling him because writers didn’t know what to do with a hero with a murdered son, et cetra. Eventually, this lead to the modern version of the character becoming an angry, hot-headed jerk instead of the heroic adventurer who had come before. Despite that, there have been some good stories come out of this era. In fact, the biggest tragedy of this shift in creative values is that there are wonderful ideas still in play, but they are often dragged down by the oppressive weight of the period’s love of ‘grim and gritty.’
Recently Aquaman has gotten another reinvention that has taken him back to his classic roots in many ways. As part of the New 52, the company wide reboot of the DC Universe, very popular writer Geoff Johns relaunched the Sea King. Fortunately, Aquaman’s share in this experiment has been one of the high points. Johns’ run on the character, though not without its flaws, began what is almost certainly one of the best eras of my favorite aquatic adventurer. These stories have presented Aquaman in an impressive, heroic light, and the art is also simply amazing in its own right. While DC has recently struck yet again, replacing the immensely popular team on the book and taking Aquaman in ANOTHER ‘bold new direction’ that no-one wanted, it seems that the damage will be short lived, and this iteration of the Sea King is still likely to prove one of the best yet.
Recommended: There are a few stories from a very promising but uneven run from the 00s where San Diego was sunk beneath the oceans by a massive earthquake and many of its inhabitants became water-breathers through mysterious means. One involves a nice overview of the character, while a few others are more straightforward adventures. I’m also throwing in the beginning of Geoff Johns run, which is good, while the art is amazing. These stories are only the beginning, and the ongoing Aquaman title is quite excellent these days- (Aquaman vol. 4 14, 22, 32, &39; Aquaman vol. 5 1-5; 26 & 27; and 35-40)
Justice League (Unlimited): This is one of the greatest superhero shows of all time, and, as with the other shows by its creator, Bruce Timm, it took in the cannon of the comics and made something that is more than the sum of its parts. You should watch the entire thing just because it’s amazing. In general, the show is routinely even better than its source material, but their version of Aquaman is an exception. He is great in action, powerful, dynamic, and exciting, but his characterization is drawn from the worst version of Aquaman. He’s a hot-headed, ill-tempered jerk. Still, there are several episodes that are impressive, and they certainly show Aquaman as extraordinary and interesting.
“The Enemy Below”: Intrigue in Atlantis brings Aquaman into conflict with the League. The episode is good, but the best part is the hero’s dedication to his family, a staple of the character.
“The Terror Beyond”: This is an epic mystical story, a genre that fits Aquaman rather well. He is very impressive in this episode, taking on tanks, monsters, and everything in between.
“Ultimatum”: This is a great all around episode, especially if, like me, you grew up watching the terrible Super Friends There are a number of references to it throughout.
I hope that this look at Aquaman has proven interesting. Despite years of bad luck and a publisher that seems to hate him, the character endures. In fact, these days he seems to be thriving, with a major movie deal and a very successful comic run. You can’t keep a good character down, and there is something about the half-atlantian, half-human hero that resonates with readers. There’s something archetypal about the hero torn between two worlds, and it seems that he’s not going anywhere. Enjoy the recommended stories and try to see the King of the Seven Seas with new eyes!