Sunday, April 11, 2010

Hero of the Week 2010 #14: Aquaman

AQUAMAN (DC) (2009)
Real Name: Orin/Arthur Curry
First Appearance: More Fun Comics #73 (November, 1941)
Group Affiliation: Atlantis, Justice League, Black Lantern Corps (former)
Gaming Credentials: Justice League Task Force (1995); Aquaman: Battle for Atlantis (2002)Justice League Heroes (2006); Batman: The Brave and the Bold (TBR/2010)DC Universe Online (TBR/2010)
Infinite Wars Cumulative Ranking: #55

I spend a lot of my time here on 1UP championing the value of a good story and the desire to see video games meet a standardized level of quality in that domain. This often involves holding up the conventions of modern comic books as an example video games could learn a lot from. You'd be hard pressed to get me to change my mind about that, but as DC comics close their year-long epic, Blackest Night, and gear toward a Brightest Day with newly resurrected heroes like Martian Manhunter, Hawkman, Hawkgirl, and Aquaman, an important counter-perspective begins to emerge.

Over the course of seventy years of serialized publishing, it stands to reason that characters are going to evolve to a certain point, but not so much that they become unrecognisable to their most popularized versions. This is the conundrum of comic books, where variations in a basic formula have created conflicting nostalgia in generations of readership who have graduated into controlling positions within the industry. It could be argued that few mediums have had the aging and industrial design to initiate so many die-hard fans as American comic books, and that's evident in the line-up of contemporary superstars who are writing the adventures of Batman, Superman, and their contemporaries. This is especially evident in Brightest Day and the writing of Geoff Johns and the current regime overseeing the course of DC comics.

Aquaman grapples with perceived weaknesses in a 1988 re-telling of the Justice League origin in Secret Origins #32.

Time has not been kind to Aquaman.
Where once a fascination with the unknown frontiers of deepsea adventures captivated fans of science-fiction, the notion of mystery and excitement has been lost in these modern times of science and assumed wisdom. They say the popularity of underwater fiction has sunk in most mediums due to this, but the persistent popularity of his tempestuous predecessor, Sub-Mariner, reminds us that it's much more than his aquatic origins that let the character down. A maturation in the expectations of comic book hyper-reality and characterization are a far greater handicap to the vintage DC hero, whose fantastic tales perhaps lagged behind others in gaining contemporary review. Unrevived by his equivalent to the Batman's seventies Denny O'Neil, or eighties Frank Miller, Aquaman was left to parody, mocked for the realistic impracticalities of his water-centric powers, and unrescued from the same Silver Age post-Comics Code silliness that populated DC's stories in the fifties and sixties.

Silver Age nostalgia is blatantly evident in the current era of DC comics and front-and-centre in their line-up of resurrections featured in Brightest Day. These nods to the past haven't come exclusively at the cost of the present, allowing classic versions to incorporate or coexist with modern inventions, whilst reviving the verve and imagination of Silver Age indulgences. It is, afterall, not a matter of simple and mindless absurdity, but the indulgence in fantasy that makes comic books an inherently exciting and imaginative medium. Writers like Grant Morrison have long shown the potential of merging old ideas with modern scope, leading to some of the most celebrated, quirky, and intelligent stories in comics, knowingly accepting of the madness and justified by appropriate balance.

Morrison's interpretation of Aquaman in the pages of JLA and Justice League spin-offs [pictured right] remains one of the most recent versions worthy of acknowledgment. His penchant for indulging the fiction allowed Aquaman to surpass his tongue-in-cheek appearances with the League of the eighties, to exist on the terms of super-heroic strengths. He possesses a retroactively included strength based upon the perils and pressures of the deep, while also showing considerable aptitude for languages befitting of a character whose domain encompasses half the globe, one he rules with the authority of a King.

It's a timely occasion to talk about Aquaman, however, thanks to the recent announcement of a Wii adaptation of the 2008 cartoon series, Batman: The Brave and the Bold.

Where Brightest Day actively works to reintroduce Aquaman as a respected piece of the DC Universe; Brave and the Bold makes the decision to accept and capitalize upon the comedic overtones of the character, taking ownership of them with a loving parody of the tropes of classically popular superheroes. Brave and the Bold borrows extensively from all eras significant to Batman and DC comics, capitalizing on design and aesthetic commanded by the Silver Age of comics and TV animation, while borrowing stories, ideas, and characterization details from comics and movies spanning from the forties to today.

Aquaman's traditional family-man heroics clash with an ironically distanced stupidity and bravado that I couldn't say has ever truly been identified with the character. This might come from Aquaman's Golden Age relevance, or from broader ideals of heroes like Superman and Captain America, whose square-jawed fearlessness define the public archetype of successful superheroes. It's a joyous and valid interpretation of the character, and one I would expect will come into conflict with the current Brightest Day vision that is steadily influenced by the already mentioned indulgence in the more super-heroic qualities of the character. Which brings me to the opening point about a video game perspective...

I believe it's undeniable that decades of serialized storytelling has made comic books an invaluable perspective for video games to learn from. The maintenance and refining of properties over the course of seventy-odd years provides a learning process of mistakes and triumphs that any creative medium could learn from. That said -- video games, operating in publishing and budgetary structures more akin to film, have the advantage of at least avoiding the marginal difficulties of reasoning the balance between decades of serialized adventures, and aging. In their inaugral simplicity, video games have escaped the intellectual and conceptual demands that have forced comics to grind through constant justifications of a shifting timeline. Mario, for better or worse, exists timelessly as a concept without the beauty or intrigue of depth and character, but also without the struggles of reasoning through  Which is a strength to be admired.

Brightest Day #0 is already on sale and can be found at most good comics retailers.
Collected editions of Blackest Night will be available soon, but if you want to enjoy the Brightest Day action in real-time, it begins it's weekly release schedule May 5, with tangentially related instalments in Flash, Green Lantern, and other series. You can get more information by visiting! Batman: The Brave and the Bold debuts for Wii and DS later in the year.

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