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.

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.

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.

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.

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.)

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.

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...

...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.

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:

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.

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.

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?

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Event Leviathan finale feature
DC Finally Reveals the Sinister Leviathan Is [SPOILER]

More in Comics