Saturday, 4 October 2014

Everybody Hates Aquaman

A transcript of a presentation I delivered at Techniquest Science Centre in Cardiff as part of their Adults Only Superhero Science Evening on 03/10/14.

A video of the talk can be found here....

When Techniquest asked me to do a talk for their superhero science night I originally thought I’d take a look at the innovations in the fields of weapons technology, space exploration, & genetics that are bringing us closer to the world of superhero fiction every day. But then I remembered, I don’t actually know anything about any of that so I’m just going to talk about Aquaman for twenty minutes instead. It’s not that I’m stupid, it’s just that I suffer from a rare affliction that means that my brain is unable to retain any information that might actually be of any value. This is why I still can’t drive but I can remember the theme tune to the 1980s Nigel Havers sitcom, Don’t Wait Up.

Aquaman is just one of those superheroes that people love to mock. He’s a perpetual pop culture punchline and it can be a bit disheartening if you happen to be a fan. Not that Family Guy and South Park are entirely to blame. I think Aquaman has brought some of the mockery on himself.

For example here he is riding some flying fish.

Here he is sitting on an octopus looking pretty pleased with himself.

Here he is operating on an octopus.

Here he is being a fat bastard.

Here he is getting kicked in the balls by the Joker.

Here he is having his head dunked in a fish tank by Batman.



But there’s a lot more to Aquaman than obesity and being bullied by other characters. I thought I’d share with you some of the reasons I find him such a fascinating character.

So let’s start with who is Aquaman? Aquaman (real name Arthur Curry) is a DC Comics superhero created by Paul Norris and Mort Weisinger. He has the ability to survive underwater, swim at high speeds, and communicate with & command all sea life. He is the King of the Sea and everything that dwells within in it. Luckily for him this includes the land of Atlantis, which is full of water breathing humans, so he doesn’t have to just talk to sturgeon all day.

How did he come to be? Well he’s had a few different origins over the years. Sometimes he’s the son of a human lighthouse keeper and an Atlantean Queen. Sometimes he’s the son of an Atlantean Queen and an immortal wizard. But my favourite origin is his original origin from the 40s. Here’s Aquaman explaining it from More Fun Comics #73 (1941):
"The story must start with my father, a famous undersea explorer — if I spoke his name, you would recognize it. His greatest discovery was an ancient city, in the depths where no other diver had ever penetrated. My father believed it was the lost kingdom of Atlantis. He made himself a water-tight home in one of the palaces and lived there, studying the records and devices of the race's marvellous wisdom. From the books and records, he learned ways of teaching me to live under the ocean, drawing oxygen from the water and using all the power of the sea to make me wonderfully strong and swift. By training and a hundred scientific secrets, I became what you see — a human being who lives and thrives under the water."
So 1940s Aquaman was trained to breathe underwater by his dad! That must be the ultimate example of pushy parenting.

"But dad, why can’t I go out and play with the other children?"

"Ungrateful whelp! You'll never be as good as Namor the Sub-Mariner at this rate! Now go stick your head in the fish tank and study!"

That’s seriously messed up.

So why should you like Aquaman? There’s a lot of defences of the character on the internet that basically amount to “he’s so badass! He’s really strong!” but I think the character’s even more interesting than that. Although I will say that, yes, Aquaman is a double hard bastard, and as many internet commentators have pointed out, if you’re a bad guy, Aquaman will throw a bear at you. Yup, not a web, not a batarang, but a big bastard polar bear.

“Haha it’s Aquaman, how you gonna stop us robbing this bank Aquaman? Talk to some fi..JESUS CHRIST!!!!”

It’s also worth remembering that Aquaman, like many other superheroes, has died and then returned from the grave (several times in fact). But it’s the way Aquaman returned from the grave that stands out for me. Superman got killed and then just sat in a giant egg in his Fortress of Solitude until his solar energy was recharged. Jean Grey from the X-Men was placed in a giant egg at the bottom the ocean by a cosmic entity. Egg related symbolism was too subtle for Aquaman however.

Aquaman punched death in the face.

That’s right as he was being taken across the River Styx by Charon, Aquaman punched Charon in the face, nicked his boat and then rode Cerebrus out of the kingdom of Hades. 

Double. Hard. Bastard,

But like I say, a defence of Aquaman should go deeper than “He’s a badass!” He’s a much more interesting character than that.

Unlike other heroes Aquaman is a world leader. If you piss him off he won’t just send you to jail. He’ll invade your country.

For example in Aquaman #26 (1996) Aquaman’s adopted dolphin mother is killed by a Japanese cyborg. (Don’t you hate it when that happens?) The cyborg seeks asylum in Japan so Aquaman gets all the fish to attack any Japanese boats that happen to be in the ocean. He then gets into the gigantic telepathic skull shaped meteorite spaceship that happens to be attached to the bottom of Atlantis and flies over Japan and threatens to blow up the country if they don’t hand the cyborg over. Even Japan, accustomed as they are to being attacked by oversized monsters, feel that this is a bit much and so they agree to his demands. 

You might be thinking “Hang on a minute Paul, Aquaman is the unelected, totalitarian ruler of an underwater nation who will occasionally use his considerable power to act aggressively against other countries. Isn’t he a bit of a fishy fascist?” Well, yes. But in Aquaman’s defence he doesn’t really have any choice but to rule over the people of Atlantis himself, because, and this sounds really bad, but the people of Atlantis are really, really stupid. Every time the people of Atlantis have an opportunity to choose their own leader, they usually choose some complete bastard who enslaves them. The second Aquaman’s back is turned they’ve usually placed some evil maniac in charge instead of him and he has to risk life and limb once again to save them from their cack handed attempts at democracy. Now that I think about it, Aquaman comics have a really terrifying attitude to politics. “People can’t be trusted with freedom.”

In Aquaman #28 (1966) Aquaman and his sidekick Aqualad befriend an old scientist named Dr Starbuck who’s given himself and his pet gorilla the power to survive underwater. (Seems legit) Soon after, Starbuck betrays his new pals and chucks them down a giant hole. Aquaman’s wife Mera goes off searching for her husband & leaves her son, Aquababy, in charge of Atlantis with Dr Starbuck as regent. That’s right. Mera leaves a baby and a creepy old man she’s just met in charge of a whole nation and the people of Atlantis aren’t just cool with this, they do whatever the old man says, to the point where they follow him in an attack he mounts on the US Navy. So yeah, Aquaman is technically a fascist dictator, which is bad, but his people did attack a nuclear submarine just because a strange old man and a baby told them to, so, y’know....

At this point I feel I must emphasise neither myself nor Techniquest endorse fascism.

But Aquaman comics don’t just have political intrigue going for them. There’s also more soap opera going on than in any other comic. Old “shagger “ Aquaman has had more girlfriends than Dr Karl Kennedy. In fact one comic even shows us how he lost his virginity; a roll in the snow with an Inuit girl. Unbeknownst to him this resulted in an illegitimate son named Koryak who years later returned to Atlantis and, of course, took over the throne from Aquaman. 

Aquaman is, as we mentioned, married to a lady named Mera but theirs has been a stormy relationship. They’ve split up and got back together several times, again, a bit like Dr Karl Kennedy. During one break up Aquaman got it on with a girl named Dolphin. I must emphasise she wasn’t an actual dolphin, although there is one story that has a young Aquaman hitting puberty and being advised to seek out his own kind by his adopted dolphin mother after putting the moves on his adopted dolphin cousin. Anyway, at one point Aquaman and Dolphin are getting it on in the royal bedchamber when who should come home but....

Cue Eastenders drum roll sound effect

You’ll be pleased to hear that it all sorted itself out and Dolphin ended up getting knocked up by Aqualad and marrying him in a shotgun wedding. Here she is giving birth in an underwater birthing pool. (Not sure how that works). 

As you may have gathered so far Aquaman is not the most fortunate of heroes. Despite being the monarch of over ¾ of the planet his consistent bad luck has meant he’s been able to retain the status of plucky underdog, which makes him a much more appealing character in my view. For example, in 1994 his hand was eaten by piranhas. Then, eventually it grew back. Then he got the other one chopped off. For a while he replaced his missing hand with a harpoon. He only stabbed himself with it once but to be fair Martian Manhunter’s mind was in his body at the time. After a while his harpoon was replaced by a magic shape changing water hand by the magical Lady of the Lake, but he was told he wasn’t allowed to use it for violence, which was difficult for Aquaman as he really likes punching people. There he is using it to punch Superman.

But Aquaman’s bad luck didn’t end with his missing hands. In the late 70s his son, Aquababy, got killed by Black Manta. (How could anyone kill off a character called Aquababy?!). His aforementioned illegitimate Inuit son died when Atlantis got stepped on by the Spirit of God’s Vengeance. There was also Aquaman’s adopted son, Aqualad, who got his heart ripped out (literally) by Aquaman himself(who had been turned into an evil zombie at the time). There’s also AJ, who might be Aquaman’s son, but might also be the son of Thanatos, Aquaman’s evil other-dimensional doppelganger. Given the survival rate of Aquaman’s sprogs I imagine AJ’s not in too much of a hurry to prove that he’s part of the Aqua-bloodline.

They say a superhero is only as good as his villains and Aquaman’s actually got some pretty cool baddies. There’s Black Manta, the underwater pirate who killed Aquababy, Ocean Master, Aquaman’s evil half brother, Kordax the Cursed, an evil bastard from Ancient Atlantis, and the Dead King another evil bastard from Ancient Atlantis. Unfortunately he’s also had a few stinkers. Piranha Man, a giant piranha in yellow leggings, the Fisherman, who fights Aquaman with a titanium fishing rod, and the Human Flying Fish who’s, well, a human flying fish.

In the upcoming sequel to Man of Steel, Batman vs Superman, Aquaman’s apparently going to be played by Jason Mamoa, seen here playing Kung Fu Panda. 

If the film makers can hit on the right combination of soap opera, dodgy politics, bad luck, and macho posturing then I reckon he could easily carry his own film franchise. But if I haven’t convinced you, well, look at this way. There’re a lot sillier superheroes out there. 

There’s Chunk, the morbidly obese human black hole.

Blockade Boy, with the power to turn into a wall.

Stone Boy, who can turn into a statue but is completely immobile while in statue form.

Black Condor, a man raised by a family of condors who taught him to fly.

The Red Bee, who fought crime with a trained bee called Michael.

I’m mentioning these superheroes to get a cheap laugh, but I would actually watch the crap out of a film featuring every one of these characters.

Hopefully I’ve given you some insight into why I think Aquaman is so great. If however you’re still tempted to slag off Aquaman remember, he will throw a bear at you.