In the comics, Aquaman is, more or less, King of the Seven Seas. In Hollywood, the veteran superhero is treated like a three-day-old tuna fish sandwich.
Despite his long tenure in the pages of DC Entertainment’s comics, the sea-soaked adventurer has, over the decades, seemed all wet. While Aquaman is recognized as king of the undersea country of Atlantis, writers have had problems dealing with him when he’s asked to take part in land-based adventures with the publisher’s vaunted Justice League of America, of which he’s a charter member. And despite a multitude of page-turning exploits – he’s had part of his arm amputated and, in a family tragedy rarely seen in the four-color pages of the comics, lost a baby son to villainy – Aquaman is still viewed as decidedly second-tier.
Is it his odd orange-and-green wardrobe? A writer’s fear of the water? Telepathic fish-commanding powers that are difficult to depict on the printed page? It’s hard to know. But while other DC heroes like Superman, Batman, and Green Arrow have enjoyed heady success at the movies and on TV, Aquaman has not: In recent years, his attempts at stardom include a failed pilot at The CW (network insiders say it was awful) and status as a long-running gag on HBO’s “Entourage” (where the central character played Aquaman in a fictional blockbuster).
Already, the company has announced plans for an animated Aquaman tale to be issued soon via DVD. Sales on Johns’ “Aquaman” series have remained steady, according to data from Diamond Comic Distributors, and the title routinely places in the top 50 comics sold each month to comic book specialty shops. In October, “Aquaman #25” sold about 42,248 copies, according to Comichron, a web site that tracks comic-book sales. That’s a few thousand more comics sold than Marvel’s cult-favorite archer “Hawkeye” and even more than former Batman sidekick “Nightwing,” but fewer than those notched by Batman, The Avengers or The X-Men.
Johns is about to wrap up about three years of work on reviving the character – strengthening his supporting cast and building an ongoing monthly series. His last issue of “Aquaman,” the series’ 25th, debuts Wednesday. Starting next month, the Sea King’s adventures will be penned by Jeff Parker, a comics scribe best known, perhaps, for his work on “Agents of Atlas,” a Marvel seres that built a group of unaffiliated characters from the 1940s and 1950s into a team. Will he be able to lend the character new depths?
“Aquaman’s root problem is that he’s boring,” said Peter Coogan, author of the 2006 book “Superhero: The Secret Origin of a Genre.” Plotlines that might drum up new interest, he said, come with limitations. Playing up the character’s royal heritage might set him at odds with surface governments, potentially turning him into a villain. Setting him up as an advocate for the oceans could also draw him into conflict. “In many ways, he suffers from the problems that plague King Arthur as a main character,” said Coogan, including being too fraught with responsibility, “which is why most Arthurian stories are not about Arthur but about his knights.”
Aquaman’s voyage is of more importance to DC than one might think. The Time Warner-owned unit is eager to take more of its comic-book celebrities and make them stars of TV, movies and other entertainment properties. In recent months, characters like The Flash and Commissioner Gordon, for example, have been assigned TV projects, while speculation has intensified over the future of DC’s film projects since actor Ben Affleck was named to take over the role of Batman.
If nothing else, Aquaman is durable. Aside from Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and Green Arrow, only Aquaman, who debuted in 1941, has appeared continuously throughout DC’s history, and in the same costume and likeness (characters like The Flash, Green Lantern and the Atom were reworked entirely from their original incarnations as part of a movement in the 1960s). And Johns has quietly worked to shore up cracks in Aquaman’s famous orange tunic.
When penning an earlier DC miniseries, “Blackest Night,” in 2009 and 2010, Johns turned a large spotlight on Mera, Aquaman’s wife, giving her more presence and personality than she’s had in decades. “What I wanted to do was establish Mera alongside Green Lantern and The Flash in a very big way,” Johns explained, noting that he derived inspiration from the Queen Gorgo character in the 2007 Zack Snyder movie, “300.” Rather than playing up Aquaman’s Atlantis connections, Johns said he deliberately focused on developing his personality, supporting cast and enemies like Black Manta and the Ocean Master.
“There is no doubt in my mind that this is one of the most well-known characters among super-heroes, and in popular culture,” said Johns. The ocean setting, he suggested, should work to a writer’s advantage. “We are finding new areas in the ocean every day. It’s as alien as going to outer space,” he said.
For many, Aquaman remains a figure from Saturday-morning cartoons, like ABC’s 1970s and 1980’s “Super Friends” or CBS’ “Superman/Aquaman Hour of Adventure,” which ran in 1967 and 1968.
Those memories may hurt the character in his current incarnation, said Brad Ricca, author of 2013’s “Super Boys: The Amazing Adventures of Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster, The Creators of Superman.” In the 1970s cartoons, he said, “Aquaman smiled and looked perfect while riding a giant seahorse and mentally bossing around happy whales. He was, quite plainly, just not as cool as Batman.”
DC’s Johns believes a better structure is now in place. “He became a little bit of a joke,” the comics executive said. “Suddenly, he was nobody’s favorite super hero.” Now, DC has set up major storylines in coming months that will cross his comic with its “Justice League” and has given the character prominent placement in videogames. And his comics contain jokey references to the hero’s past portrayals. “He’s a character that we talk quite a bit about.”