When I tell people I’m a fan of Aquaman they laugh and say, “Nobody’s a fan of Aquaman.” Who’s been buying his comic books all these years then? I want to ask but then I remember in the ‘80’s there was a comic book buying bubble when every comic would double or triple in price within a week of hitting the rack and some people were buying everything. Anyway I have an older friend who started collecting comics when he was a kid in the ‘50’s and I said to him that I’d like to see an Aquaman movie. “Aquaman’s just not a strong enough character,” he said, and that’s when it hit me that I’ve always been a fan of the idea of Aquaman even though I’ve never read an Aquaman comic. I don’t know what villains he fights, although plastic, oil tankers, and whaling ships are probably high on the list. I didn’t read comics at all when I was a kid, really. My parents didn’t object to comics—as far as I know they weren’t fans of Estes Kefauver—but I didn’t know where to find comic books. I grew up in the suburbs and if there was a corner drugstore with a comic book rack then it was not only far out of even my wide-ranging explorations but it was a drugstore we never went to. Even my neighborhood friends who had comic book collections had inherited them from older relatives. My main exposure to comic book heroes was through cartoons, and even there Aquaman was mostly absent. He was part of the Super Friends but it seemed like he showed up so rarely he was more of a Super Acquaintance or even a Super Remind Me Where We Know That Guy From.
When my friends were old enough to drive we’d travel across town to one of the comic book shops, which were a new discovery for me, but the comics I collected were mostly new indie titles and I didn’t think to pick up Aquaman comics because I didn’t want to dive into an established comic. It wasn’t because, as my friend said, he’s not a strong enough character—even with those green tights and bright orange pullover. I didn’t know anything about his character and it’s not as though any superhero’s identity has to be fixed. And it’s not because of the running joke that Aquaman’s powers are that he can breathe underwater and talk to fish. Those are actually some pretty impressive powers and anyone who doesn’t think so is missing that the Earth’s surface is mostly water.
The oceans are where life originated and even after the first multicellular life appeared, some time between 1.2 billion and 900 million years ago, it was only 500 million years ago that the first organisms came out of the water. The oceans are the source of all life on Earth and life on Earth still depends on it. And yet for most of human history we’ve literally been skimming the surface of the oceans. What we knew of deep sea life came from what fishermen brought up or the occasional specimen that floated up because it was dead or dying. There was a common belief in the Middle Ages that there was a whole undersea society of fish people, that everyone on land had an aquatic counterpart, which was easy to believe because there was no evidence to the contrary and it was also fun to point at a knight eating a large piece of swordfish and yell “Cannibal!” but that’s another story.
The first real submersibles date from the late 1700’s, but when Jules Verne first published 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea in 1870 the idea of a submarine like the Nautilus was still science fiction. In 1930 the first bathysphere was designed and built by the engineer Otis Barton, assisted by the naturalist William Beebe. It was a hollow metal ball on a string–not exactly high tech, although it was specially built for going deep. Before taking a ride themselves they sent it down on an unmanned trial run and got a grim reminder of how dangerous ocean pressure is: the craft sprung a small leak and when they opened the hatch a strong jet of water shot out over the deck. After patching everything they made their first nervous descent to 803 feet. They may not have been the first people to descend to that depth but they were the first to make it back alive. Beebe described creatures of the deep, never before seen in their natural habitat, that were so weird other naturalists thought he was making them up and they were disappointed there were no fish people even though it meant they could eat salmon with a clear conscience.
Aquaman’s first appearance in comics was in November 1941, almost a year before Jacques Cousteau would secretly test the first open-circuit scuba gear which opened up a little more ocean exploration and promised more but even now, even with specialized equipment, human divers are limited to a few hundred feet. It wasn’t until 1960 that the bathyscaphe Trieste, piloted by Jacques Piccard and Don Walsh, made the first dive to the bottom of the Challenger Deep, so far down that if you cut off Mount Everest at its base and dropped it down there its peak would be a mile under water. It’s so deep, so far from sunlight, that it was assumed nothing could live there, and yet there is life–even seasonal life affected by what drifts down from above. Decades later we’ve explored more of the ocean but it’s still difficult to get down there. More people have walked on the surface of the Moon than have been to the Challenger Deep, and the only way that depth record can be broken is if somebody goes down there and digs a hole.
Aquaman can go anywhere, to any depth, at great speed, and come back up without having to stop and decompress. And he can talk to fish while he’s down there because he doesn’t need any bulky equipment blocking up his face. Still think he’s too lame to be a superhero?
Yeah, I think Aquaman is cool because I love the ocean and love to swim and wanted to be a marine biologist when I was a kid, but there’s something else. We’ve finally started to get greater cultural and gender diversity in superheroes but Aquaman adds ecological diversity in a way that’s subtler and smarter than that unbelievably stupid Captain Planet cartoon of the early 1990’s that is currently resting where it belongs, in a hole at the bottom of the Challenger Deep. And Marvel Comics has its equivalent of Aquaman–his fish person–in Namor Of Atlantis, who’s an interesting character, a brooding anti-hero who wreaks havoc on landlubbers because of our mistreatment of the oceans, but then Namor isn’t human. He’s immortal and laughing in the face of death loses its punch if you’re not in any danger of dying. Aquaman, at least originally, was the child of a scientist and his mastery of the oceans is a throwback to the water that first gave us life, and that we still depend on. Aquaman reminds us that what happens in the sea affects the land and vice versa. When we harm the oceans we are the villains of our own story.
And, by the way, there’s an Aquaman movie coming.