I’m having a tough time figuring out exactly how to take a comic book like Aquaman #1, which may be the first comic book in the Aquaman canon (I’m sure one exists) to assume that nobody–nobody–finds anything redeemable about the character when he’s not in or near one of the seven seas. Most first issues attempt to establish the hero as a man of valor, even in the face of poverty or enormous circumstance. The X-Men, for example, protect a world that hates and fears them. Superman is the protector of his adopted world. Their hardships are nothing compared to Aquaman, who walks away from the throne of Atlantis to protect those who make fun of him simply for trying.
It’s like Aquaman has been birthed into a world where everybody but him is aware of Challenge of the Superfriends, and his every selfless deed is met with scorn and derision. I imagine that this phase will pass as soon as he dispatches with some deep-sea baddies seen here swimming up from the bottom of the ocean, but stopping an armed robbery and carrying around a freaking trident aren’t enough to make people forget about his orange shirt or his fluency in dolphin. His Friend of the Fish persona is put to rest quickly, as Aquaman decides to dine at a local seafood restaurant after stopping the robbery.
No doubt, Aquaman is a tough property to revamp. His problems are perhaps a microcosm of that which has vexed DC Comics in their seemingly eternal struggle to eat into some of Marvel’s market share. The 1960s and 70s did an excellent job of delegitimizing every DC character not named Clark Kent and, after the Allan Moore/Frank Miller serious superheroics renaissance birthed the ultraviolent boom/bust of the 1990s, DCs roster walled itself off from the mainstream, killing and replacing iconic characters, bringing them back, hiding behind nerdier and murkier storylines that were longer, more complex, and more intimidating than a semester-long study of Ulysses. Aquaman’s actually had a few good runs, including one where a portion of the city of San Diego was sunken into the ocean, its inhabitants suddenly able to breathe underwater. Like so many other things in DC continuity, that piece of business was swept under the rug, and Aquaman continued to be the dude who rode a seahorse in Superfriends, whose main villain had a head like a hamburger.
It’s cool that they’re trying to turn Aquaman around, and Geoff Johns, who has rebooted nearly every DC property under the sun, is the wise choice. The problem is in Aquaman’s petulant response to the bespectacled hipster and his later explanation that fish are, in fact, too stupid to converse with. Comic book fans, like wrestling fans or Star Trek fans, are locked in an eternal battle with respectability, and heroes like Aquaman don’t get it because they talk to fish. Green Lantern, to an outsider, is ridiculous because his weakness is the color yellow. Green Lantern probably wouldn’t stop to explain to a random stranger that his weakness isn’t really yellow in a strict sense, that it takes something deeper and more cosmic than a color wheel to ruin his day, but Aquaman is not above that. He’s a nerd. It’s one thing to be a hero nobody appreciates. Being a nerd? Correcting people? You save my ass from bank robbers, give me enough gold doubloons to put my children through college but if I ask “Hey, aren’t you the guy who talks to fish?” and your answer is “No, stupid. Fish have mudbrains too primitive for me to communicate with,” I am going to resent the hell out of you.
Ultimately, I’m hung up on a very small piece of Aquaman #1, and I think it’ll be interesting to see Aquaman do his thing despite the mockery he endures on a day-to-day basis. I suspect that Johns, whose work I’ve never been keen on, is reveling a bit in the lameness of Aquaman, or at least Aquaman’s perceived lameness, but there’s a chance that he’s wounded by the charges against his latest project, that Aquaman brandishes his trident at the snooty blogger and makes out with his hot wife on the ocean because he pictures him an aquatic badass, sees the work of his series not as establishing Aquaman in the larger universe of the DC reboot, but as lecturing readers about how wrong they were to mock the Atlantean king. If that’s the case, I give me the Aquaman of Superfriends. I’ll take seahorses over wounded egos every time.