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Monday, August 29, 2016

Aquaman: The Ever-Changing, Unchangeable Superhero

It's that same old chestnut we always hear. Comics fans hate change. And really, short of perhaps Superman, it's difficult for me to find another character where that is more evident than the King of Atlantis himself, Aquaman.

I've read a lot of Aquaman comics in my life, more than almost any other set of characters short of Daredevil and The Legion of Super-Heroes, and there's a fair point to be made about how often he returns to the mean (short hair, orange shirt, beardless, Mera, boring ass Vulko, dead son) in the Post-Crisis era. The sticking point: that's what his fans, who are a notoriously conservative bunch (where this character is concerned), buying comics off a notoriously conservative company, want out of their Aquaman adventures.

But that's not to say that a number of very creative people haven't tried:

Take for instance, the mid-80's relaunch by Neal Pozner...the infamous "blue camouflage era". It was critically a pretty big hit, refocusing Atlantis as a place of magic and turning Ocean Master into a sorcerer. This was basically the Man of Steel/Dark Knight/Perez Wonder Woman revamp for Arthur. It was good, it did not stick. And along come Keith Giffen and then Shawn McLaughlin to provide the "Return of the King", and Aquaman is back to normal. Hell, they even stuck a villain in that derided costume.

No surprise, but Peter David is the closest thing we got to a creator imbuing Arthur with his longest lasting changes. To the point where he was popping up in the Bruce Timm cartoons in his second and subsequent appearance in the hook hand, long hair and beard guise. 
But again, it wasn't long after the Larsen run ended that DC, in their infinite wisdom, put Arthur back in the orange and green. 

I think the 2003 series is interesting because depending on the creator involved, the take on Aquaman becomes radically different:

- The first set of issues written by Rick Veitch go very heavy on the magic-bent, with Arthur basically becoming a stand-in for King Arthur and all the Lady of the Lake imagery that implies, including the introduction of his water hand. It even had a rune-based logo. They weren't great, but had lots of cool ideas that could be picked off, and went hand in hand with the all-too-forgotten Pozner take.

- Then out of nowhere, comes Will Pfeifer and right after, John Arcudi, with the popular Sub Diego run. Suddenly, Aquaman is back in the old costume, and the only remnant of the previous issues is the water hand, which barely makes a dent narratively again after playing such an important role during Veitch's initial bow. This is the run that was adored enough for a time that it even got a shout-out in Seven Soldiers, "Aquaman walked off with best comeback! All he did was shave!". 

It's worth nothing that this is also the run that DC is currently reprinting, with Pfeifer's issues as Volume 1, with nary a mention of the Veitch bit that came before it. It's a good jumping on point, and I get why they did it that way, but I'm sure there's some new fan who is wondering just what the heck happened to Issues 1 through 14. Or maybe not.

- Lastly came the Sword of Atlantis run, which saw Kurt Busiek toss aside Arthur/Orin altogether to introduce a brand-new Aquaman who is also somehow named Arthur Joseph Curry. It was Aquaman by way of Conan, and it was pretty darn great. It didn't give DC the sales they were probably looking for - taking a look at the sales charts indicates that Issue 40, where Busiek starts off, only cleared about 36k. That doubles what it made the month previous in Arcudi's last issue, but for a high profile relaunch in DC's One Year Later umbrella, that's not enough. Final series writer Tad Williams never really stood a chance, though he made a valiant effort to tie everything together before the book was cancelled.

And then there's of course, the Geoff Johns run, which is fine, and sold better than any Aquaman comic in recent memory. But again, we end up back with Aquaman returning to his status quo. Back to fighting Black Manta and Ocean Master. The book didn't really threaten to get interesting again until Cullen Bunn hopped on board, and played up a pretty neatly structured two-pronged tale portraying him as an Atlantean outcast and the story of how he got there. In a way, it was a return to some aesthetics of Sword of Atlantis, with that same sort of Barbarian-take. Between David, Busiek, and Bunn, it's almost as if this is the default alternate-take on the character.

Bunn left the book due to what he termed as "brutal" negative fan reaction.

Now we have Dan Abnett basically doing a pale imitation of the Geoff Johns version. But this is what fans seem to want. Safe, predictable old Aquaman. Even the mixed reaction to Jason Momoa-as-Aquaman promo shots play to type, with cries of "That's Not Aquaman" filling comment sections across the blogosphere.

Again, it's not that a number of creators haven't tried to make the character work in new settings, with a new cast, just that nobody buys it when it happens. And those changes are met with either indifference, or outright hostility. There's a pretty good chance, once the movie hits - if the movie hits - this at times unwinnable battle between creator, publisher and fans will again rear its head. But perhaps the power of new fans coming in will allow the character just a little more growth, or maybe it'll just create a whole new set of problems. Time (and tide) will tell.
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