Colin from Too Busy Thinking About My Comics has a great series of posts about finding the "real" Aquaman amongst the various interpretations that DC has presented over the years [Part One, Part Two, Part Three, and Part Four]. Since I've spent some time here thinking about this myself, I was very interested in learning what he came up with.
While he does an excellent job of exploring various aspects of the character and suggesting how traditional "weaknesses" could actually be storytelling strengths in the right hands, I'm most indebted to his realization that there is no one, true Aquaman.
If I'm being honest with myself, I don't suppose that I can even say that I prefer the Aquaman of one era to that of another. The early stories are charming but often bland, the later ones become progressively more coloured by angst and re-vamps, until Aquaman isn't even Aquaman anymore. I really am partial to Aquaman, but there's never been an "Aquaman" for me.Why Colin's right and why it has to be that way, after the break.
It could rightly be said, therefore, that I don't actually like Aquaman at all. After all, I couldn't be a fan of Sherlock Holmes if I was lukewarm about the overwhelming majority of his appearances, if I had never believed that his character was consistently well-defined or involving enough. But I don't believe that's how we all grow to love certain comic books and certain comic book characters. I think there's a more natural and creative way that we engage with them. We take the images and the words that appeal to us and we - consciously and unconsciously - join up the dots to create, for example, an "Aquaman" that never existed, and never will, outside of our heads, the Aquaman against which the "real" Aquaman will always be measured, a personal Platonic ideal Aquaman.
As Colin observes in his articles, it's a very post-modern approach, but it's all we have when we're talking about corporate-owned characters that change based on the interests and whims of whichever editors and creative teams are managing them this month. There are no real, definitive versions. There's only what's real and definitive right now.
As Colin also notes, that's not an issue for characters like Sherlock Holmes who are closely associated with a single creative vision. Though a lot of writers have taken their shots at Holmes over the decades, Holmes fans will ultimately judge the success or failure of those stories on their ability to emulate Arthur Conan Doyle's work. There's no re-imagining of Holmes that will ever take the place of Doyle's version. Same goes with Conan, James Bond, and possibly some other characters we could name.
That's not true for corporate-owned superheroes though. No one judges the success of a Batman story on how well it compares to Bill Finger and Bob Kane's work. We expect that the character will morph over time and we're not just talking about character development. Colin correctly points out that the transition from the '60s "Holy Oleo" Batman to the serious detective of the '70s (to the brutal night-terror of the '80s, I'd add) was neither natural nor planned. Those changes happened because particular editors and creators thought they'd be cool and that people would like them. The same goes for Superman, Green Lantern, the Hulk, and Spider-Man. We either like the changes or not, but we typically don't measure them against the work of the original creators.
There are exceptions to that of course. Lee and Kirby's Fantastic Four comes to mind, as does John Byrne's Alpha Flight. But mostly we're just picking and choosing what we like: Frank Miller's Daredevil, Walt Simonson's Thor, the Giffen-Dematteis-MaGuire Justice League; Wolfman and Perez's Teen Titans. The nature of the business prevents a single, defined version by which to measure any corporate-owned character. We can select our favorite versions, but since they're not always the original ones, we have to admit a level of subjectivity beyond what's required for creator-owned characters. In effect, as Colin says, we create our own ideal versions.
Which makes DC's job all the more difficult as they try to come up with their new definitive Aquaman. Will they pick the same elements as Colin? Or the ones that I'd pick? Will they go back to the Golden Age stories for inspiration? To the Silver Age? To the '60s cartoon? To Super Friends? To Batman: The Brave and the Bold? Or will he be a combination of several of those? While it'll be interesting to see what they do, in the end it doesn't really matter, because it'll just be this editorship and creators' version. Whether it'll endure as a popular favorite will depend on its ability to capture today's audience, not on any similarity to what's come before.
[Thanks to The Aquaman Shrine for turning me on to Colin's articles.]