You know, pretty much as long as I’ve been reading comics, it seems like people have been telling me that Aquaman is a lame character.
And I just don’t see it.

The core concept behind Aquaman makes perfect sense to me. He’s a dude who hangs around under water and occasionally comes up on land to beat the crap out of people. That’s certainly no stupider a concept than “motorcyclist with his head on fire” or “libertarian teenager with an insect allergy.”

It seems to me that the problems that have developed with Aquaman have come along when people decide that the core concept isn’t interesting enough. “Aquaman is too cheerful. Let’s cut off his hand and give him a homeless guy beard and haircut and angst him up a bit” or “Aquaman is too much a traditional super-hero. Let’s give him a magic hand and connect him clumsily to the Arthurian mythos” or “Let’s turn Aquaman into a half-squid wizard and put his soul into a teenage zombie. That’ll simplify his continuity for a new audience.”

Possibly a good approach to a new Aquaman series would be one similar to that taken on the new Batman: The Brave and The Bold cartoon, where Aquaman is quite deliberately an over-the-top “comic-booky” hero. Good natured, everybody’s pal, not the brightest bulb in the bunch, and, oh yeah, he hits people a lot.

So, explain it to me: what is it about Aquaman that’s so allegedly lame?

33 Responses to “A Truth That Eludes Me”
  1. Jamie says:

    B&TB Aquaman is underwater Brian Blessed, and it’s a brilliant take on the character.

  2. Aqualad says:

    Nothing lame about Aquaman. I always liked Homeless Beard Hook Hand Aquaman best, but Aquaman Classic and Brave and the Bold Aquaman are all cool as hell.

    I think it’s just one of those conventional wisdom things that sprung up from message boards and stand-up comics.

  3. Roger Green says:

    I don’t think he’s lame. But I came across the Sub-Mariner first (when Everett was drawing!) and I suppose Aquaman suffered, both in terms of costume (orange and green? really?) and name: you have your super man and your bat man , but it just seemed like lazy naming.

  4. Jon says:

    I’m gonna blame it on The Super Friends, where he didn’t come off very well.

  5. Lynxara says:

    “Aquaman sucks” is a meme that is 100% the product of Superfriends, where he was frequently unable to contribute to a given episode’s action unless there was a convenient canal nearby. What’s fascinating is seeing how that meme got so ingrained it really lead to making the actual comics suffer.

    Batman: Brave and the Bold’s Aquaman is awesome because the creators wanted to redesign him from the ground up. I recall reading a quote by the creators to the effect of “This Aquaman doesn’t know that anybody thinks he sucks and has nothing to prove.” That’s a fun guy to watch.

  6. rob! says:

    Exhibits A to Z why Aquaman isn’t lame:

  7. Sallyp says:

    Well pooh. I love Aquaman. Classic Aquaman is the best of course, but still, he’s actually a pretty neat character. I really liked him in the JLA: Year One series, by Mark Waid, where he kept mumbling because sound carries differently underwater, but he was friends with Martian Manhunter, and actually very handy to have around.

    Besides, riding a giant sea horse is fabulous.

  8. Dave White says:

    While I’ve often been guilty of boiling down my antipathy to the character to “Aquaman is lame” I suppose my real objection is that Aquaman is an idea whose time has come and gone. He’s been around for over 70 years, headlined dozens of periodicals and his own his own TV show, and yet has never managed to connect with a general audience in any significant way. It’s just time to put him out to pasture and try something new.

  9. K26dp says:

    Actually, there was a reason why Aquaman was featured so promenantly by Filmation in first the Superman/Aquaman Hour and later in Superfriends; his comic book was enormously popular. If I recall, he was DC’s third most popular hero, after only Superman and Batman.

    Aquaman is a concept that can easily be revived in a number of different ways. Just remember that a) he hold domain over 3/4 of the surface of the Earth; b) he has powers other than “talks to fish”, and c) he’s not Namor, the Sub-Mariner.

  10. Edward Liu says:

    I would qualify the “it’s all Superfriends’ fault” argument to say that he was the lamest regular character that didn’t get a cooler depiction someplace else. Nobody looked good on Superfriends, but at least Superman, Batman & Robin, and Wonder Woman got popular and less-lame depictions elsewhere. Aquaman only had the assorted H-B and Filmation cartoons, all of which kind of sucked. All the other characters have had cool depictions elsewhere, and most of the changes to Aquaman seem to have been attempts to emulate what made the other characters cool in those other depictions rather than what makes him inherently cool. The exception would be “Let’s get Lynda Carter to look awesome in the costume,” which was probably 90% or more of why people remember the WW TV show fondly — if you really watch those things, they can be even dumber than Superfriends.

    The two comments that stick with me from James Tucker and Michael Jelenic about Brave & the Bold Aquaman were that he doesn’t know that people think he’s lame, and that he’s the superhero who will give Batman a hug, and those two things really defined the character for them. Considering what I just said, I think it’s also the first attempt to make Aquaman cool that doesn’t try to emulate what makes other superheroes cool, but deals with him purely on his own terms. Given that, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Brave & the Bold Aquaman is the one that’s been the most successful with a broad number of people and could largely erase the stigma that’s been attached to him since Superfriends.

  11. googum says:

    Seanbaby, harshing on the Superfriends version of Aquaman, said: “If you don’t think Aquaman is useless, try rowing everywhere you need to go next week.” Which isn’t entirely accurate: maybe Aquaman shouldn’t be your first choice for a mission to Montana or somewhere, but he is still a lot stronger than a normal guy, too.

    I think the death of his son–I can’t even remember his name, except as Aquababy–really did a number on the character. That differentiated Aquaman from other DC heroes–can you imagine Superman or Batman losing a child?–but not in a good way. “Addition by subtraction.” Lost his wife, one of his kid sidekicks (Aquagirl/Tula), lost and regained his kingdom like 90 damn times. (That last one’s a pretty common problem for any royalty-superhero, to be honest.)

    There’s still hope: in his element, Aquaman is the goods. Like that episode of the Tick, with the Sewer Urchin? Normally useless, in the sewers, the Sewer Urchin was the friggin’ man; and it didn’t hurt that even the Tick was not doing great there. Compare that to Justice League stories where everyone just puts on a fishbowl helmet, and they’re Aquaman without the stigma of talking to fish.

    Sorry to go on, but Aquaman’s popularity is a surprisingly complex issue. We haven’t even gotten into how to make what definitely should be an (at least occasionally) environmentally conscious comic without it being duller than Al Gore…

  12. Justin says:

    Superfriends set Aquaman up for jokes, but I suspect at least part of the reason the reptutation persists is because he acts as a scapegoat for insecure fans*.

    It suggests some level of critical objectivity and discriminating taste to counter accusations that superheroes are “kids stuff” or merely desperate nostalgia: “Yes, I’ve read Spider-Man comics since I was six years old and still get every issue today, but at least I know Aquaman is lame.”

    *–By which I mean a subset of fans that are insecure, and not to imply that all fans are insecure.

  13. philip says:

    Aquaman as a character isn’t lame (says the guy with an Aquaman glass right next to him at his desk), but I think he’s often handled poorly. He’s the potential ruler of 70% of the planet and too often he’s characterized as a self-involved crybaby. My favorite use of him is as the wary outsider who acknowledges the other superheroes but does his best to keep every body the hell out of his domain. The animated “Brave & Bold” version is kind of fun, though he might be a little too obtuse. And it’s way better than the “this is so hard and nobody understands me” Aquaman who crops up a lot. I was sorry when Busiek’s run on the book ended. I would have liked to see where that was going (or maybe what we got was it?).

  14. Chad says:

    I don’t have anything to add that other people haven’t already said, except to say that I did have a bit of a fictional character crush on him when he had the beard and went around shirtless all the time.

  15. el_benito says:

    I think an important part of justifying Aquaman means reshaping a stupid argument: that Aquaman’s protector of 3/4s of the Earth. This is a bad argument any way it shapes up. First off, do we seriously think that for every fjord and inlet, Aquaman’s there? Is he popping up in the Thames and then Lake Superior? No! The ocean’s huge! Secondly, the information age has made this a rapidly shrinking world… except for the oceans! It’s still this giant friggin unconnected expanse!

    Why is Aquaman cool? When he’s treated like the cowboy, the Conan, of this huge wilderness.

  16. I have never had a strong opinion of Aquaman. I have never been entirely sure what all of his powers are, but the fact that most of the Earth is water gives him a pretty good domain.

    Dorian, you mentioned a loose connection to the Arthurian mythos? How does that work? I thought his this was Atlantis (but as I have said, I don’t know much about him).

  17. ScienceGiant says:

    Why Aquaman is lame: because he is lame.

    And notice that – “lame,” not “dumb.” The IDEA of Aquaman is great, but the handling can be poor. Take Sub Diego. The idea is brilliant. A major city sunk, its population mutated, a hero is needed.

    But how do you work the story? Aquaman can’t be a Batman. The idea of busting up underwater street crime is laughable. Think “Fish Police” and you’ll see why Aquaman is a fish out of water. Lame. The stories of the sea are grand adventure, sailors pitted against the Nature, and against those who violate the law of the seas. The JLA: Obsidian Age was NOT like watching “Pirates of the Caribbean.” The Obsidan Ages was an story of the JUSTICE LEAGUE, but not Aquaman (and not just because he was trapped in a pool for the duration of it).

    So, Aquaman was lamed by having too few comic book writers have any actual experience on sailing. And by artists who didn’t grasp that the ocean is a place of deep mysteries. I can’t think of a single time that it was properly illustrated that the lower you descend, the darker it becomes. An Aquaman comic should be a palette of shades of blues and greens, down, down into black. “Green Lantern” is eye-popping right now with Green fighting Red fighting Yellow yelling at Blue. And aliens of every shape, size and color. This should be Aquaman — pages of weird marine life. It was that level of weirdness that elevated the lamest of characters, Swamp Thing, into the horror classic it became with Moore.

  18. Dumma says:

    Aquaman is considered lame mostly by the same type of people who like Wolverine or Carnage, which is to say an overwhelming majority.

    As for why, we’ll never know because those people don’t read blogs much less comic book blogs: Forum populi, vox dei (on the internet anyhow, in the real world Aquaman’s lame ’cause Superfriends and Batman goes Biff Bam Zoom)

  19. I love Aquaman. He’s my 3rd favorite super hero and always has been. That status probably started as some early gay-crush on blondie (and I love the orange and green costume – it is fabuous!) but turned into an appreciation of a character who actually has an interesting story – his marriage and relationship with Mera (who I loved also) and the death of his son – all made him more fleshed out and interesting than most DC heroes. I also happen to really like the mythology PAD established in the Atlantis Chronicles and how Arthur ties into all of it. Busiek I thought was going to do something fun with this (given his Conan run which was great) but failed to connect with me on that one. I did think that PAD’s run on Aquaman was pretty good – although I HATED (and still do) the Hook Hand (now that’s lame), the storylines were pretty interesting once we got past being all bitter and grim n gritty.

  20. Rocco says:

    Namor > Aquaman

    To be fair, I don’t think Aquaman is as non-comic readers seem too.. I think the handling of the character, as you mentioned, has been poor enough to turn me off. I found the version on the animated Justice League and in Morrisons JLA run to be my favorites.

  21. Superfriends Superfriends Superfriends.

    And it’s a shame that the best storytelling around Aquaman– PAD’s, and by extension Morrison’s JLA– corresponded with an aesthetic that’s so embarrassingly 90s that it makes the orange and green look cool.

    I do also think that the decision to make Aquaman DC’s Bronze Age poster child for Marvel-style angst and death and loss did major long-term damage to the character’s usability.

  22. Cole Moore Odell says:

    Aquaman is no lamer than any other b-list superhero best suited to backup status. The problem is that his shtick doesn’t resonate with the mass consciousness anymore. People don’t dream of, travel across or fear the sea like they did in the days before air travel. “Sailor” isn’t a common calling anymore, but instead of exotic it’s merely obscure. Great navies have been supplanted by air forces, missle batteries and robot drones. Even as a romantic notion its nostalgia for an earlier era’s ideaof romance.

    In Comic Book Nation, Bradford Wright suggests that Superman served as a Paul Bunyan/Natty Bumpo figure for the modern urban frontier, a way for people to navigate the possibilities and tensions of a scary, unexplored wilderness. Maybe in 1941 Aquaman could catch the tail end of our close, complex relationship with the sea, but as the ocean diminished in the popular imagination, so did seafaring characters. So his supposed lameness may just be a recognition that Aquaman in his aquatic trappings just doesn’t have anything relevant to say to most modern readers. The character fails for the same reason we don’t see stage magician heroes anymore.

  23. baal says:

    Aquaman is one of five characters that continually saw print between Golden and Silver Ages, along with Batman, Green Arrow, Superman, and Wonder Woman. At least the company wasn’t contractually obligated to print his and GA’s strips or lose the copyright. The problem with Arthur is when everyone started mucking with him. Dead son, crazy wife, shoe horned and ill fitting Arion connections, et al. Core concept Aquaman by a creative team that thinks he’s cool (and that’s always picked up on by the readership) and he’d be in like Flynn…

  24. Kelberon says:

    You know, people talk about how Superfriends made Aquaman seem stupid, but there was an earlier experience that laid the groundwork for that. Specifically, the original Justice League books.

    Go read the first issues of Justice League. All Aquaman seems to do is either be trapped in a way that focuses on the fact that he would DIE without being in water once an hour, or how he summons fish (and aquatic mammals) to solve his problems. Were the writers on JLA specifically trying to make Aquaman seem useless? No, but it made him stand out in a bad way-in comparison to the other characters, his power seemed goofy and far too specific. Of course, it seems equally silly in hindsight that in every issue, something yellow would appear to foil Green Lantern, while something made of kryptonite or using magic would fell Superman. So in those books, Aquaman doesn’t come off too badly. But when you combine that with the Superfriends…well, Aquaman does not look very good.

  25. I think Aquaman is great! Didn’t really like the Brave And Bold version because the dinner in the first episode featuring him, was full of air not water. Other than that, the character is great. He’s the only one who’s not simply returned to a status-quo and forgotten everything. Unlike Superman, Batman (soon to return to normal as we all know), Wonder Woman… He’s also a more compelling character, I feel, than most others in DC’s catalogue. And more interesting than Namor…

  26. Lawrence says:

    People think Aquaman is lame because his primary “power” is to talk to fish. When you tell people, “I talk to fish” it’s not a power people say, “I wish I could talk to fish.” Even the Brave and the Bold people realized that talking to fish is a relatively lame power because they’ve given their Aquaman the ability to form a water sword.

  27. Bill D. says:

    B:BatB’s Aquaman may seem a little more like Marvel’s Hercules than what I traditionally think of as Aquaman, but it’s a brilliant spin on the character that I’ve really been enjoying, and maybe it’s just what the character needs. It’s fairly safe to say that most people’s knowledge of Aquaman comes from Superfriends, where “talking to fish” and riding shotgun in Wonder Woman’s plane was pretty much all he ever did. And worse still, his characterization on the show was fairly bland, even by Superfriends standards, so all that’s a lot for a public image to recover from.

  28. Mister Bile says:

    Most people are familiar with Aquaman when he’s part of a team. The trouble is that his powers are fairly specific… being able to kick ass in the water doesn’t mean much when the rest of the team is focusing on space monsters or inner city crime. Sure, the writer could try to work in Aquaman’s unique abilities… but that’s hard to do without seeming silly. (“Good thing the criminals use this lake as their hideout… Again!”) So instead, you get a guy whose abilities are the generic “Hard to hurt, hits like a truck,” except when he’s doing his own thing, in his own book.

    Also, we tend to judge superheroes by their villains… and the only one most people remember is Black Manta, who has a great character design, and not much else.

  29. Jed says:

    the royalty thing.

    Balls on toast.

    derivative of namor.

    I’d look at Ultimate Thor for a definitive “this is cool” take on a character saddled with a lot of mythological/royal baggage.

    Also, since most of our garbage winds up in the sea, Arthur would know where the bodies were buried.

  30. Dorian says:

    No, Barbara Walters makes me twitch.

  31. Cole Moore Odell says:

    I think Superfriends, the angry king personality patch et al are symptoms, not causes. For most of his first 20 years, Aquaman was a total cipher–nothing more than six pages a month of a costume, a setting, a punch to the jaw. After that, National tried their one-size-fits-all Superman Family graft, then he meandered through the same Silver Age unraveling that many of DC characters got in the 1970s, went missing for much of the 80s and emerged under David as a different character altogether–something that was possible because he never had much of a definable character to begin with. The problem is that no matter how well David constructed *his* Aquaman, it wasn’t *the* Aquaman…and there really never was one. Just a handful of good artists allowing the strip to get over on style, from Fradon to Cardy to Aparo. There’s nothing wrong with being an “artist’s” comic, or being a kids’ comic. But when the distinctive artist isn’t there, and the kid audience has walked, there’s nothing left.

    The Brave and the Bold Aquaman is another in the long line of random personality grafts, but at least they’ve re-embraced the character’s appeal to kids, the goofy charm that made the Fradon-era strip a worthy diversion.

  32. tad williams says:

    I actually tried my darnedest to bring back the old orange-and-green Aquaman and turn the new version into a supporting character, but it was not allowed by DC management.

    I think there’s all kinds of different ways to tell Aquaman stories, but people tend to keep putting him in fish-out-of-water tales because that’s easy. The problem is trying to keep him constantly in the DC universe of characters, because that requires oscillating between Aquaman-on-land and surprise-supervillain-in-water.

    What he probably should be is Superman of the Sea, with his own core of characters and challenges, all ocean-based, and then occasional interaction with the rest of the dry world. He’s got lots of friends and he could certainly contact Flash or Lantern when he needs specialty help, just as Superman does, but most of the time he should be solving problems on his own — and they should be BIG problems, because he’s not Batman or the Atom, he’s Aquaman, a guy who flies (at least in his own element) and has super-strength and near-invulnerability.

    Anyway, that was where I hoped to go but it didn’t work out. Long story. Frustrating one, too, at least for me.

  33. Evilbeard says:

    I would not say I am a big Aquaman fan but of the old Superman/Batman/Aquaman cartoon, I always liked the Aquaman stories the best. Maybe I am just a sucker for underdogs though.

    Perhaps he’s a joke to so many because he’s an easy target; the low hanging fruit if you will.

    Personally, I would love to see the character explored by placing him in a new and unfamiliar setting; maybe transport him to an alien water world and leave him there for awhile. Forgive me if this has already been done. I’ve been mostly out of the comics world for a long time now.

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