Storytelling Engines: Aquaman
(or "Whither Aquaman?")
In many ways, Aquaman's storytelling engine began in a similar way as Green Arrow's; to wit, there wasn't much of one. He can breathe underwater, he can command fish, and he fights crime. As a backup character to Superboy, that was really all that was needed. (In fact, much like Green Arrow used exotic arrows, Aquaman used a variety of exotic sea specimens to help him in his battles.) In the beginning of Volume One of 'Showcase Presents Aquaman', that's really all you get.
But Aquaman got his own series in 1962, and along with that came the building of a storytelling engine. He'd already picked up a boy sidekick, Aqualad, and he soon picked up a mischievous ally, Qwisp, a girlfriend and later wife, Mera, a setting and duty in the form of his rulership of Atlantis, and by the time Volume Two had ended, he'd had a son, Arthur Jr, aka Aquababy. (Aquagirl, Aqualad's own girlfriend, would follow as well.) In short, over the course of about five to ten years, he developed everything a writer needs to help tell Aquaman stories.
Of course, anyone paying attention to events in Aquaman over the last couple of decades can tell you what's happened to all that. The problem is, Aquaman's never been very popular. As a fantasy character, operating as King of Atlantis, he's never appealed to more than a niche audience. As a superhero, he's hamstrung by his need to operate near water. So a variety of writers have attempted to generate "buzz" for the King of the Seven Seas, through a variety of tactics that have become standard practice for the comics industry, all in an attempt to make the character more popular and sell better. Let's go through them, and you can follow along and see how many of them applied to your favorite heroes in the 90s and beyond!
1) Killing off the supporting cast. Aquagirl, Aquababy, and much of the Atlantean supporting cast introduced in the 70s and 80s are now dead; Tempest, aka Aqualad, is alive but amnesiac and powerless. "Death sells" has been a mantra of comics for the last 25 years, and since there's only so much death you can inflict on your protagonist, bumping off supporting cast members allows you to put big shocking "Somebody dies!" headlines on the cover while not having to cancel the series.
2) Having supporting cast members turn evil. That's right, Peter David's joke about "Dark Qwisp" became a reality in the 1990s; much like death, betrayal is always the kind of shock tactic that can hook in a jaded reader.
3) Ditching the ball and chain. Mera and Aquaman broke up over the death of Aquababy, and although the red-head continues to show some feelings for her former husband, they've never managed to patch things up completely. Why? Because it's received wisdom in the comics industry that readers can't relate to a married super-hero. Love interests are great, but nobody should ever actually tie the knot for good. ("Gee," Marvel readers say, "this sounds familiar.")
4) The hero goes dark. Sometimes as a reaction to all of the above, sometimes coincidentally, but the hero becomes more anti-social, less friendly, more willing to bend his/her code of morality, and certainly more willing to use weapons. In Aquaman's case, he also got physically mutilated, losing his hand (the better to stick a razor-sharp harpoon on the end.) Physical mutilation isn't required, but it's not uncommon either.
5) The origin gets revised. (Frequently known as the "Everything you know is WRONG!" clause.) In Aquaman's case, he learned that he wasn't the son of a lighthouse keeper and an exiled Atlantean; in fact, he was the son of Atlantean royalty and immortal sorcerers, sired as part of a secret master plan.
6) Kill him and bring him back. During 'Our Worlds At War', Aquaman died in dramatic fashion when Imperiex boiled the oceans, killing him and all of Atlantis...but luckily, they were all actually teleported to another dimension and captured by an evil sorceress, instead. (Amazing how that sort of thing happens so often.)
7) Kill him and replace him. Aquaman seemingly died again during 'Infinite Crisis', sacrificing his own life to raise San Diego from the ocean depths (it's a long story.) Luckily, there was a new Aquaman waiting in the wings, a young man with remarkably similar powers and origins. He adventured alongside what turned out to be a not-so-dead-after-all original Aquaman, who then died one more time for real, leaving the all-new, all-different Aquaman in charge of the Seven Seas.
So, with all these changes, surely Aquaman is more popular then ever, right? Oh. No longer being published at all. And apparently, DC doesn't even know how they're going to go about launching a new Aquaman series, because the status quo of the character has become so confused and convoluted that they're not sure where to go from here. Huh.
And this is the lesson for today: You cannot, in the long-term, improve the status of a character by wrecking their storytelling engine. Because shock events can only happen a limited number of times before you run out of them--you can only kill so many supporting cast members before you run out, you can only play the "death card" so many times before it loses its novelty, you can only revise the origin of a character so many times before it becomes too confusing to follow. When you are done with all those shocks, you will need to fall back on the storytelling engine to sustain the series...and if it's not there anymore, audiences might not have the patience to wait while you repair it.