I used to be one multitude of the comic fans that thought Aquaman was a joke. My first exposure was the classic Super Friends cartoon, which I religiously watched on Saturday mornings back when Saturday mornings were littered with wonderful cartoons. Batman had always been my go to DC hero and although I liked the Super Friends cartoon other than Batman I was a Marvel kid and didn’t really immerse myself into the DC universe as I did Marvel. I saw Aquaman as a Sub Mariner rip off (I was a kid with little grasp of the history of comics at the time) and thought he was ridiculous. Maybe it was the outfit, with the bright orange shirt and green shark finned pants. Maybe it was the Aquacave or the fact he often appeared riding the back of a giant seahorse. I took no time to look into Aquaman’s history and never had any intention of taking him seriously.
Eventually my mind was changed, but it wasn’t a quick process. In the early ‘80s I began reading Justice League of America religiously. It was the George Perez art that drew me in but I loved Gerry Conway’s stories and I began to appreciate the DC heroes a little bit more. Over the years Aquaman became more integral to the team and eventually he assumed leadership of the League in the much maligned, but in my opinion excellent Justice League of America Detroit years. As Crisis on Infinite Earths neared the bigger DC heroes became less available to the title as the line wide reboot would restructure the DC universe and retcon a lot of established history. Aquaman was one of DC’s historic characters without his own book at the time so he became the impetuous for the new incarnation of the Justice League that introduced new heroes and housed the team in a bunker located in Detroit. For many it was seen as a down period for the League but I enjoyed it and I started to respect Aquaman, his leadership role, and even his power set. Then came Crisis and I jumped in feet first. Aquaman didn’t play a huge role in Crisis on Infinite Earths, he was there in the thick of the action and his supporting cast took some hits but he was not critical to the story. It was in the wake of Crisis that I became a real fan of Aquaman and began my deep dive into his history and what a glorious history it was.
In 1986 writer Neal Pozner and artist Craig Hamilton produced a four-issue mini-series that established the new status quo for Aquaman. I still remember going to the super market with my Mom and seeing the first issue on the spinner rack. The cover grabbed me instantly as the orange shirt and green pants were gone. Instead Aquaman was clothed in a blue and white ocean camouflage scheme that I instantly fell in love with. It was stylistically cool and made a lot more sense then his classic orange and green look. The mini-series augmented the Silver Age origin of Aquaman, his father being a lighthouse keeper while his mother was the Queen of Atlantis who had fled her home. The two fell in love and produced Arthur Curry, who went on to become Aquaman and later the King of Atlantis. What the series did was added magic to the origin and also redefined one of Aquaman’s greatest villains, his brother Orm the Ocean Master, into a sorcerer and making him even more dangerous. Anyone looking to get into Aquaman today should search for this mini-series in the back issue bins, having recently reread the tale it still holds up and Craig Hamilton’s art was perfect for an underwater tale. I wish there had been more. Sadly this creative team never returned to Aquaman even though a sequel was planned and started. Without a follow up sadly Aquaman and this great costume disappeared, until a similar style suit showed up on Aqualad (Tempest) under Phil Jimenez in the ‘90s.
Luck was with me after I finished the ’86 mini-series. I had access to a comic shop and Aquaman back issues were cheap (many of them in the quarter bins) so I dove into some of the material from the ‘70s and quickly absorbed the Steve Skeats and Jim Aparo issues that now comprise the Search for Mera storyline (Aquaman #40-47). It’s in these issues I discovered how fully evolved Aquaman was as a character. He was not only the King of Atlantis but also a husband and father. He most definitely was not a lame superhero who rode around on a ridiculous Sea Horse, even though he did do that from tie to time. Jim Aparo’s artwork was so good on these tales. Although Aparo may be best known for his long tenure with Batman, I think his Aquaman is the definitive Silver Age take on the character and some of the best artwork in Aquaman’s long history. Aparo’s art was detailed and vivid and had an underwater feel to it. He crafted beautiful underwater landscapes and made the oceans feel like a separate planet from the surface world. It took me a long time to obtain the majority of the Aparo issues of Aquaman but I still treasure them today and glad that DC is finally reprinting this classic storyline in a new collection, I just hope they get more of the Jim Aparo Aquaman stories out there soon. It was also during this era of my back issue searching that I discovered the sad character arc of Arthur Curry Jr, AKA Aquababy. As a young reader I was shocked to find out that Aquaman’s young son had been slain by Black Manta. It stayed with me for a long time and not only did it separate Aquaman from his wife Mera due to the loss of the child but it also created a deep hatred for Black Manta, who in my opinion is a completely unredeemable character. I quested for more from this era and delved into Aquaman’s appearances in the Brave & the Bold, Adventure Comics, and his own Aquaman series. I had trouble putting together long runs but I read a lot of single-issue stories, which thankfully were the norm of this period and found myself really enjoying this era of the King of Atlantis.
After my back issue binge I lost interest in Aquaman again, there just wasn’t a lot of new material and what did come out was brief and honestly confusing. It seemed that post Crisis DC Universe could not figure out what and more importantly who they wanted Aquaman to be. This was a problem with many DC characters but it was very apparent that no one was sure whom and what they wanted Aquaman to be. There was a mini-series with art by the great Curt Swan that told one origin then a brief series (13 issues) that established another then tried to weave all the conflicting origins together into a cohesive story. Yet it was all cut short for the coming of legendary writer Peter David. David had already been involved with the Aquaman mythos with the surprise hit the Atlantis Chronicles, a telling of the history of Atlantis from its days above water through the cataclysm that sank the city up to the birth of Aquaman. It’s a detailed and impressive seven issue series that blew me away when I first read it. I wanted more and eventually we did as Peter David came aboard with a brand new volume of Aquaman and he would define the character for years to come.
Aquaman may be the epitome of the ‘90s transformation of heroes into a gritty anti-hero. David did a number on Aquaman, first turning him into a grunge styled super hero with a shaggy beard and long hair. Gone was the orange shirt and in came some armor (on just one arm for some reason). Maybe the most drastic change of all was when early in the run Aquaman lost his left hand to a school of Piranha and replaced the hand with a harpoon. It had an immediate reaction as David’s Aquaman became a hot book and jumped up the charts. Yet it wasn’t just a superficial change as the book had depth and substance. David took Aquaman in a darker direction, shook up the status quo and redefined the King of Atlantis priorities. There were rediscovered sister cities to Atlantis, Aqualad morphed into the sorcerer Tempest (with his own great mini-series by the amazing Phil Jimenez and is a must read gem), and Aquaman’s love life got more complicated with Dolphin, an obscure Silver Age hero, reappearing and catching the heart of the king, but Mera soon returned to complicate matters. David’s Atlantis Chronicles played a bigger role in the mythos of Atlantis and Aquaman and each issue built upon the previous one. Anyone who knows Peter David is aware that he is a master at long-term storylines that last years, and his four years on the title were some of the most enjoyable Aquaman stories I have read. Sadly they didn’t last as long as they could have as David butted heads with DC editorial and decided to leave the book at issue #45. Erik Larsen and Dan Jurgens finished the volume, which drew to an end with #75 and Aquaman slipped into the background once again, most notably in the JLA title. Thankfully Grant Morrison treated Aquaman with a lot of respect during his long tenure on the JLA and even helped define the modern relationship between Aquaman and Wonder Woman, two members of royal families who understand the duty and sacrifice that entails. It’s not a romantic relationship but a true friendship of admiration and support that is still prevalent today, like in the recent Drowned Earth storyline.
For a time Aquaman died (which is ironic as this is what David wanted to do and left the book over) in the wake of the Our World’s At War event as Atlantis was shuttled back in time. The League went back in time to rescue him in JLA: the Obsidian Age which then establishes the next volume of Aquaman, which I actually enjoyed, more so then others, as it went through several reboots within the series. Rick Veitch was the first writer and he quickly did away with the harpoon and replaced it with water that Aquaman could mentally control to act as a hand. It was weird but it was time for the harpoon to go, as did the beard, long hair, and armor. Aquaman was expelled from Atlantis after the events mentioned before and he became engulfed in magic and prophecy. Veicth left and John Arcudi took over but neither found their footing and the book was changed drastically with the Sub-Diego storyline. The classic costume returned as Will Pfeifer and Patrick Gleason took over the title and with half of San Diego falling into the ocean and its inhabitants suddenly gaining the ability to breath underwater it fell to Aquaman to not only protect them but also to teach them how to survive. I really enjoyed this time of Aquaman. After many years of royal intrigue and inner turmoil Aquaman once again felt like a superhero. Patrick Gleason’s art was a big help as his underwater landscapes were incredible as was his aquatic action sequences. We got a new Aquagirl, a return of old villains like Black Manta and a return of the classic supporting cast. It was a great storyline and one that should have gone on longer, but DC had different plans that would unfortunately take Aquaman in a different direction.
I enjoyed the returned hero, in look and actions. Then it was gone as DC went through their new Crisis phase with Identity Crisis, Infinite Crisis, One Year Later, Final Crisis, Blackest Night and Brightest Day. None of them, other than Brightest Day, was kind to Aquaman and his supporting cast and better forgotten when it comes to Aquaman at this point. At its core Aquaman disappeared, a new Aquaman replaced him while the original Aquaman was transformed into an undersea monster and then eventually died. Aquaman’s corpse rose during Blackest Night then was revived with Brightest Day and the Geoff Johns restoration of Aquaman began and would continue into New 52. Johns fully restored Aquaman to his pre Peter David status with the New 52 and the newest volume as the classic look continued, the hand was back, the Silver Age origin was restored, and the super heroics became the norm of the book again as Aquaman returned to being the protector of the oceans with Mera at his side. Aquaman was one of the few New 52 titles that I could stomach and I enjoyed where Johns took the character, especially the War for the Throne crossover with the Justice League. Jeff Parker would finish out the title as Geoff Johns abandoned writing comics for a time, as he became the creative director for the DC movies and television. Parker has a classic style to his writing but I had a hard time staying with Aquaman and found myself dropping the title before the entire New 52 experiment imploded. It really wasn’t even the fault of Parker or Aquaman as I plan on going back and reading these issues, I just was disillusioned with DC along with the New 52 and by the end of the experiment I was only reading Batman.
Then something wonderful happened. DC realized that the New 52 was a bad idea, a failed experiment, and reversed course by embracing their past with Rebirth. DC handed Aquaman to Dan Abnett, who in my opinion is a criminally underrated writer and has been telling a wonderful Aquaman story over the past two years. Abnett has crafted a story with super heroics, underwater adventure, creepy horror, and lots of political intrigue. It’s one of my favorite books and I look forward to reading it every month. It has read great with each arc but also as one inter connected long form story that culminated with the recent Justice League/Aquaman: Drowned Earth, which was Abnett’s swan song with the title. I think Aquaman has been an under appreciated title over the past few years but hopefully with the new spotlight people will check out what Dan Abnett did prior to the coming of Kelly Sue DeConnik, who will hopefully have a long and satisfying run with the former King of Atlantis.
As I sit back and think about it I’ve had a long and strange ride with Aquaman. For a hero and comic I originally thought of as a joke it has consistently been part of my pull list since the early ‘90s and the King of Atlantis has provided me with hours of enjoyment. I’m also surprised that this week I will be seeing Aquaman on the big screen in his own movie. I know we’ve seen Jason Momoa as Aquaman in Justice League but to think that there is a stand-alone Aquaman movie makes me incredibly happy. Momoa is a perfect combination of the Peter David angst and Geoff Johns super hero. Now I can’t wait to see some of the royal intrigue introduced to the story. Hopefully the movie is great, with DC properties it’s hard to have high expectations but I’m ever hopeful that they get it right. Either way it won’t deter my love of Aquaman or my appreciation of the long strange journey it’s been to this point for the Once and Future King of Atlantis.