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Outrageous: The Aquaman Primer

I know this is a week late, sorry about that. Again, life gets in the way. I swear I’ll explain in a couple of weeks.

If you followed San Diego Comic Con, or just movie news, you’ve probably seen the Aquaman trailer by now, and you know it looks awesome. However, if you’re like most people, you probably aren’t all that familiar with Aquaman other than the “he talks to fish” jokes permeating pop culture that stopped being funny twenty years ago, and have no real clue what he’s about. What’s this movie besides an origin story? What makes Aquaman a character worth getting his own movie? And which comics should I read to get caught up? Well you’re in luck, because I happen to be one of the six Aquaman fans on the planet, and thus it is my responsibility to bring the rest of you up to speed. So let’s...

*Puts on sunglasses

Dive in.

*CSI Miami theme plays.

Aquaman, Arthur Curry, King of Atlantis, Protector of the Seven Seas. Despite all the fancy titles, Aquaman exists in a strange place; he’s not an obscure character, most folks at least know who he is, but he’s never been super popular despite being one of the oldest superheroes around. As such he’s existed in a type of comic book limbo. Whereas most of the big characters at DC have traditionally been published continuously since they’re debuts, Aquaman has been published on and off throughout the years, his longest series lasting for seventy-five issues. At the time of this writing, his current series (part of the DC Rebirth line) has just published its thirty-eighth issue. Certainly he has his diehard fans (all six of us), but he’s never reached the popularity of characters like Batman, Superman or Wonder Woman.

Created during the “Golden Age of Comic books,” by Paul Norris and Mort Weisinger, Aquaman first appeared in More Fun Comics # 73, and like most superheroes of the era, he spent most of the time fighting Nazis. His origin has changed several times throughout the years, and going through all of them would be needlessly complicated. It looks like the movie is going with his Silver Age origin, which is both the simplest and the most commonly used when he appears in other media, or when DC reboots every five years. So that’s the one I’m going to cover here.

Tom Curry, a lighthouse keeper, finds a woman washed up on the shore and in bad shape. He nurses her back to health, and naturally they fall in love. The woman in question is Atlanna, the exiled Queen of Atlantis. Whether she’s banished, or left of her own accord, changes on the writer. I don’t know which version the movie is going with, although I’m guessing most of the elements the film will be using will come from the modern era, and Geoff Johns’ run in particular. But I digress. Atlanna and Tom have a son named Arthur, but their happiness is short lived. Eventually Atlanna has to return to Atlantis, leaving Tom and Arthur on the surface. Arthur is raised by his dad, and as he grows up, his powers start to appear, the most famous of which being his “ability to talk to fish.” It’s actually a type of marine telepathy that lets him influence sea life, but it has other uses people forget about. We’ll come back to that later. Being half-Atlantean, he’s adapted to survive at the bottom of the Ocean. Most folks don’t seem to realize how strong someone would have to be in order to not be crushed by the pressure. We aren’t talking about just physical strength, but the fact that their entire body isn’t crushed, including bones and internal organs. The required secondary powers alone are akin to winning the super power lottery, and Aquaman is stronger than the average Atlantean. Besides his strength and endurance, which make him bulletproof, he also has enhanced speed, agility, vision and hearing. The Atlanteans have evolved to see at the bottom of the Ocean, meaning pitch black environments. While not at Flash or Superman levels, Aquaman is extremely fast, and every single one of these abilities is amplified underwater. If you think that’s useless, then you don’t realize the possibilities of what he can do. If he was a real person, the BP oil spill would’ve been stopped in a day at most.

Finally we come back to the marine telepathy. For starters, it doesn’t only work on fish, that’s just what he uses the most. For example, there’s an issue of JLA where he gives a White Martian a seizure through the cerebellum part of the brain that evolved from sea life. In case anyone is counting, that’s everything. Everything evolved from the sea. He may need a bit more time for something that’s no longer aquatic, but the fact is that he can give someone who is equivalent to Martian Manhunter’s level of power a seizure. The main reason he doesn’t do that more often is that it’s considered incredibly unethical, but the fact is that he’s capable of it.

So what makes Aquaman interesting? Well there’s the general answer, and then there’s my answer, which is a bit more personal. Generally speaking, Aquaman is fairly unique in his both his power set and his setting. There are plenty of strong heroes that can fly, the flying brick according to TV Tropes, but there aren’t a lot of heroes who can survive at the bottom of the Ocean. I think Peter David said it best when he was asked this same question, and he said (I’m paraphrasing): “I think Aquaman is an interesting character because you can drop him in the middle of Gotham or Metropolis and he’ll survive, but Batman won’t survive the bottom of the Ocean, which brings us to the single biggest difference between Aquaman and other heroes: The Ocean. Aquaman doesn’t protect one single city, the whole Ocean is his domain, and that covers 70% of the planet. Even today, we know more about space than we do about the Oceans of the planet we live on, and Space is infinite. That’s crazy. Aquaman doesn’t usually deal with bank robbers or mad scientists; instead he throws down with ancient monsters, elder gods and all other types of horrors on the regular. He fights Cthulhu on an annual basis (don’t worry, I’ll explain later). If I was ever going to write Aquaman, I’d play up the Lovecraftian horror elements. Furthermore, I think the fact that he’s not as popular as Batman or Superman makes him something of an underdog, despite being one of the strongest people on the planet. I know I’ve always been drawn to less popular, more obscure or quirky characters. My second favorite DC character is The Question.

Additionally, for me, I’ve always liked Aquaman because of the water element. I’ve loved swimming and the Oceans since I was a kid, and even then I thought it would be awesome to be able to breathe underwater. In fact, for many years I wanted nothing more than to be a Marine Biologist when I grew up. At least until I got to high school and discovered that I sucked at biology, which put a bit of a monkey wrench in my plans.

Okay, we’re all in agreement that Aquaman is cool now right? Good, on to the supporting cast. No man is an island after all. Aquaman doesn’t have the biggest supporting cast, but the few people he keeps close are super important. I’m not going to go into super expansive detail because, there’s just too much convoluted continuity involved to go over everything.

Mera: Mera is the redhead in the green outfit you saw in the trailer, and she’s been Arthur’s primary love interest throughout the years, although I think that undersells her importance, because she’s much more than that. She’s not just a girlfriend, or a sidekick, she’s his partner in every sense of the word. Her backstory has changed over the years, which honestly is just kind of a feature of being a DC character, but primarily she’s a Princess from Atlantis’ prison colony of Xebel, located in the Bermuda triangle. Originally sent to kill Arthur, she fell in love with him instead. You know the typical boy-meets-girl romance. Power wise, she has a set that’s similar to Aquaman’s. She’s adapted to living underwater, so super strength, speed, agility, etc.… Physically she’s not as strong as him, but she’s still roughly on the same playing field. Bullets don’t hurt her, she can leap about six miles, and she can hurl a tank at you (no really). Mera doesn’t share Arthur’s marine telepathy, instead she’s hydrokinetic. She can shape water, not just hold it back or raise it, but also harden and form it into weapons. Once she even removed the water from a man who’d pushed her too far, almost causing his death. Mera is more hotheaded than Arthur, she doesn’t share his patience. It’s a bad idea to piss off Arthur, but God help you if you piss off Mera. Nothing, not even the U.S. army (no really, I swear that happened) will stop her. I kind of hate using the term “strong independent female character” because it’s almost become cliché’ at this point, and frankly, you shouldn’t need to point out how great a character is. If it’s true, it should self-evident. But, for as cliché’ as it is, it fits. Mera kicks ass, and she doesn’t take shit from anyone. She’s not a damsel in distress or a prize for the hero. She’s her own character and strong enough to stand on her own. She stays with Arthur because she loves him. She’s not just his partner; she’s his equal in every sense of the word.

Tempest: Garth, the original Aqualad. Originally Aquaman’s sidekick who first appeared in the sixties, he served a similar role that Robin played to Batman, which was honestly the case with a lot of DC sidekicks during the Silver Age. Born with purple eyes, believed to be a sign of the one who will end Atlantis, he’s left on a reef to die as a child. He survives, becomes Aquaman’s sidekick, as well as a founding member of the Teen Titans, and a close friend to Wally West and Dick Grayson. As he gets older he stops being a sidekick, loses the kid name, and becomes a hero in his own wright. Receiving magical training, Garth becomes a powerful sorcerer and renames himself Tempest, eventually marrying a woman named Dolphin and having a son with her. Power wise he has the typical Atlantean abilities that allow him to live underwater, but he’s also got strong magical abilities, which Arthur doesn’t have. Or he did, I don’t really know what his status is in the current comic books other than he still exists as a character.

Tula: The original Aquagirl. There’s unfortunately not much to say here other than she was a teen hero and Garth’s first love. She died during Crisis on Infinite Earths. Geoff Johns brought her back as an Atlantean guard loyal to Arthur and Mera for his run. Like Tempest, I don’t know what her current status is other than that she exists.

Aqualad/Kaladur’ahm: So this is a character where I have to admit my knowledge is a bit lacking. The second Aqualad originally debuted on the show Young Justice, shortly after he was introduced into the comics and ultimately revealed as the son of Black Manta, who was born in the dimension of Xebel (Mera’s original home). Like her, he can form weapons through hydrokinesis, but his control isn’t at her level yet. He’s given two “water bearers” (weapons that look like sword handles) that help him control his newfound abilities. Eventually he joins the Teen Titans. That’s where my knowledge ends, but I can tell you that he will be appearing in the new season of Young Justice when it premieres next year.

Villains: Okay, so this is the area where Aquaman is easily the weakest, he doesn’t have much of a rogues’ gallery, and the few that he does have are mostly lame with a couple of exceptions. It looks like the film is going to focus on Black Manta and Ocean Master, which makes sense since they’re his two biggest villains.

Ocean Master: Orm is Arthur’s half-brother, and most of the time he’s been portrayed as evil but incompetent. His main goal has always been taking the throne of Atlantis for himself out of jealousy. This changed with the Geoff Johns run, and it changed for the better. Johns made Orm a well-intentioned extremist who is doing his best to protect his people. While he shares some of the anti-surface dweller racism of most Atlanteans, this incarnation of Orm is not nearly as xenophobic as the rest of his people. Instead, he has a good relationship with Arthur, and they actually both love and care about each other. I don’t know which version the movie is going with, because while the trailer looks like its adapting the Throne of Atlantis storyline from the comics, which was a major arc in Geoff Johns’ run, it also appears that Orm is hostile to Arthur’s return. I personally hope they go with the well intentioned extremist interpretation, because that’s honestly the only one I’ve ever found interesting. That said, Patrick Wilson is playing him, and he’s a very good actor, so I’m not too worried.

Black Manta: For as weak as most of Aquaman’s villains are, the one character who offsets that is Black Manta, his arch-nemesis. A lot of people don’t give Black Manta much thought because he’s an Aquaman villain, and a lot of people think that makes him lame by default. These people are wrong, not just because Aquaman is awesome, but because Black Manta is one of the absolute nastiest villains in the DCU. Intelligent, vicious and utterly sadistic, his most heinous crime remains killing Aquaman and Mera’s child. Yeah, he killed a five year old kid. Even most of Batman’s rogues won’t go that far, and almost all of them are unrepentant psychopaths. Black Manta and Aquaman HATE each other, and for a long time this was the crux of that hatred. As for Black Manta’s motivations, those have changed throughout the years ranging from taking over the Ocean for black people (the Silver Age was a weird period alright?) to “Because fuck Aquaman.” Currently, Black Manta took actions that led to the death of Arthur’s father, and Arthur killed his father in retaliation. Arthur actually meant to kill Black Manta, but hey, shit happens. I’m guessing that the film is probably going with some variant of this since we see Arthur attacks two men on a submarine, one of whom has been confirmed as Black Manta.

Essential Reading: So what should you read to get ready for this movie? I think the Geoff Johns run would probably be the best start, since he co-wrote the story for the film, and I personally also really enjoyed Jeff Parker’s run that followed immediately after. I stopped collecting comics shortly after Parker’s run ended, and unfortunately can’t speak to the quality of what came after. I did read the first trade of the new series (DC Rebirth) written by Dan Abnett and really liked it, so that would probably be a good start as well. As for the older works, I don’t think most of it is in print. Aquaman has never really sold as much as Batman or Superman, and only his more recent series are in trade collections. If you can find the back issues though, I highly recommend Peter David’s run (1994 series, Issues 1-46). I’d also recommend Grant Morrison’s JLA and Brightest Day by Geoff Johns and Peter J. Tomasi, both of which are in print and easily available.

Aquaman’s Most Crazy Awesome Moments: At this point you really should be convinced of Aquaman’s badassery, but if somehow you’re not, here are some of my favorite moments from over the years.

10. As mentioned above, he gave a White Martian a seizure.

9. That time he dropped a whale on Namor. In 1996 there was a crossover between Marvel and DC Comics called DC Vs Marvel. It’s exactly what it sounds like. Twenty-two years ago (God I feel old), Marvel and DC didn’t hate each other, instead they had a good natured, friendly rivalry. In 1996 they had a crossover where the DC heroes had to fight the Marvel heroes for reasons I don’t remember that don’t actually matter. It was big, dumb, and a lot of fun. Most characters fought their opposite universe equivalents, or the closest thing to it, so naturally Aquaman and Namor had to fight each other. Namor was giving Aquaman some elitist spiel, as he does, and didn’t notice the Orca that had been summoned, which Aquaman proceeded to drop on him, which gave us the following quip. “That’s your weakness Namor; you’re too noble to cheat.” It was funny as hell, and a prime example of Aquaman’s combat pragmatism. Some call it playing dirty, I call it winning.

8. In the 90s, Arthur loses his left hand because it was the 90s and everything had to be dark and edgy. He replaced it with a harpoon. A harpoon he could fire at people. In all fairness, this was Peter David’s run and is actually a really good story, but the reason it sounds so 90s is because it’s exactly that.

7. In 2003 his harpoon was replaced with a magical water hand by the Lady of the Lake from Arthurian myth; I swear it makes sense in context. It’s capable of draining the life out of people. He doesn’t use it for that, but the point is that he could if he wanted or deemed it necessary.

6. The animated Justice League cartoon adapted part of the story where he lost his hand, while also borrowing elements from other periods of the comic book. In this version, Arthur is the King of Atlantis and he has a newborn baby with Mera. His half-brother Orm wants to start a war with the surface, so he traps Arthur above a volcanic trench, along with his baby, and cuts the rock they’re on so it will descend into the lava. Arthur manages to get one hand free from the chains he’s bound in, but he can’t get the other out. With time running out, he CUTS OFF HIS OWN HAND to save his son. He proceeds to return to Atlantis, and beat the utter crap out of Orm.

5. In the alternate timeline of Flashpoint, Mera is killed by the Monarch of New Themyscira, formerly known as the United Kingdom, Wonder Woman. Aquaman retaliates by sinking Western Europe, killing sixty million people. This is admittedly more awful then awesome, but I put it here to illustrate just how dangerous Aquaman would be if he was a villain.

4. He temporarily paralyzed a guy with microscopic plankton. Imagine being underwater and all of a sudden being unable to move and completely at the mercy of the man you’ve been trying to kill. Sounds like fun right?

3. He once summoned zombie sharks to take out a group of modern pirates. It was just as awesome as it sounds.

2. He fights Cthulhu. Every. Year. In The Brave and the Bold #32 we learn that every year a Cthulhu-esque elder god attempts to invade the Earth, always in a different location. Aquaman has a pact with Etrigan, and every year they find this creature and prevent it from invading our realm and destroying the Earth. Let me repeat that, Aquaman saves the world, EVERY YEAR, by beating the ever-loving-crap out of CTHULHU. He never brags about it, or talks about it with anyone else. He and Etrigan are the only things standing between us and complete annihilation, and no one knows, so he goes unthanked. So remember that the next time you take a swim, you can only take such a swim because of Aquaman, you really ought to thank him.

1. That one time he threw a polar bear at a group of poachers. They’re dead now.

Mera’s Crazy Awesome Moments: As she’s easily the most important character in Arthur’s life, and awesome, I think it’s only fair to share a couple of Mera’s best moments

- She became a Red Lantern during Blackest Night. During the DC crossover Blackest Night (Google it) a handful of heroes were temporarily initiated into the various Lantern Corps. Mera, being hot headed by nature, became a Red Lantern powered by sheer rage. It’s even implied Atrocitus (Red Lantern leader) developed something of a crush on her. For those of you unfamiliar with the Green Lantern mythology, the short version is that she gained the ability to make red spectrum constructs, fly, and vomit acid blood. Okay, so that last one isn’t as sexy as the first two, but it does make a pretty sweet visual.

- Early in the New 52 series, Arthur and Mera adopt a dog, Mera goes out to buy food at the local pet store, but quickly realizes she doesn’t really know anything about the surface world. At the store, the scumbag manager is sexually harassing a female employee. He begins to do the same to Mera, making crude comments and touching her hair without permission. Mera breaks his arm. Just snaps it in half. It leads to her arrest, and she goes along with it at the start, because she honestly doesn’t want to cause trouble. The Police get a message about a guy with a hostage, and they take off with Mera still in the back of the car. The Police can’t calm the man, who has a knife to his daughter’s throat, and the situation begins to escalate. Unwilling to watch a young girl be harmed, Mera snaps off the handcuffs, exits the car and confronts the crazy guy. He knows who she is, and begins to make the typical “Aquaman is lame, aren’t you weak without water?” jokes, which is a mistake. Because while these jokes annoy Arthur, he’s patient enough to just shrug them off, Mera however, does not share that patience. She knocks the knife out of his hands and then uses her hydrokinesis to pull the water out of this guy’s body, and starts slowly killing him from thirst as she clearly states “Lack of water isn’t our weakness. It’s yours.” The ONLY reason she doesn’t kill this man is because his daughter intervenes, begging her not too. Long story short, don’t piss Mera off, it won’t end well for you.

- Fighting the entire U.S. Army. In her defense, Arthur had been arrested for B.S. reasons, and she was a bit upset about it.

Well there you go, those are the basics you should know before seeing Aquaman in theaters. If you aren’t an Aquaman or you’re on the fence, hopefully I’ve convinced you that Aquaman is one of the absolute coolest superheroes DC has. He rides sharks, he fights Cthulhu, he spends his free time with adventuring with hot red-head that is perfectly capable of beating the crap out of you, and his nights making sweet, sweet love to that same redhead. Batman runs around with underage boys dressed in leather. I’m just saying...

Be here next week when I get to explain why you should be hyped for Robert Rodriguez’s new movie Alita: Battle Angel. Adios.

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