Monday, March 10, 2008

Storytelling Engines: Aquaman

(or "Whither Aquaman?")

In many ways, Aquaman's storytelling engine began in a similar way as Green Arrow's; to wit, there wasn't much of one. He can breathe underwater, he can command fish, and he fights crime. As a backup character to Superboy, that was really all that was needed. (In fact, much like Green Arrow used exotic arrows, Aquaman used a variety of exotic sea specimens to help him in his battles.) In the beginning of Volume One of 'Showcase Presents Aquaman', that's really all you get.

But Aquaman got his own series in 1962, and along with that came the building of a storytelling engine. He'd already picked up a boy sidekick, Aqualad, and he soon picked up a mischievous ally, Qwisp, a girlfriend and later wife, Mera, a setting and duty in the form of his rulership of Atlantis, and by the time Volume Two had ended, he'd had a son, Arthur Jr, aka Aquababy. (Aquagirl, Aqualad's own girlfriend, would follow as well.) In short, over the course of about five to ten years, he developed everything a writer needs to help tell Aquaman stories.

Of course, anyone paying attention to events in Aquaman over the last couple of decades can tell you what's happened to all that. The problem is, Aquaman's never been very popular. As a fantasy character, operating as King of Atlantis, he's never appealed to more than a niche audience. As a superhero, he's hamstrung by his need to operate near water. So a variety of writers have attempted to generate "buzz" for the King of the Seven Seas, through a variety of tactics that have become standard practice for the comics industry, all in an attempt to make the character more popular and sell better. Let's go through them, and you can follow along and see how many of them applied to your favorite heroes in the 90s and beyond!

1) Killing off the supporting cast. Aquagirl, Aquababy, and much of the Atlantean supporting cast introduced in the 70s and 80s are now dead; Tempest, aka Aqualad, is alive but amnesiac and powerless. "Death sells" has been a mantra of comics for the last 25 years, and since there's only so much death you can inflict on your protagonist, bumping off supporting cast members allows you to put big shocking "Somebody dies!" headlines on the cover while not having to cancel the series.

2) Having supporting cast members turn evil. That's right, Peter David's joke about "Dark Qwisp" became a reality in the 1990s; much like death, betrayal is always the kind of shock tactic that can hook in a jaded reader.

3) Ditching the ball and chain. Mera and Aquaman broke up over the death of Aquababy, and although the red-head continues to show some feelings for her former husband, they've never managed to patch things up completely. Why? Because it's received wisdom in the comics industry that readers can't relate to a married super-hero. Love interests are great, but nobody should ever actually tie the knot for good. ("Gee," Marvel readers say, "this sounds familiar.")

4) The hero goes dark. Sometimes as a reaction to all of the above, sometimes coincidentally, but the hero becomes more anti-social, less friendly, more willing to bend his/her code of morality, and certainly more willing to use weapons. In Aquaman's case, he also got physically mutilated, losing his hand (the better to stick a razor-sharp harpoon on the end.) Physical mutilation isn't required, but it's not uncommon either.

5) The origin gets revised. (Frequently known as the "Everything you know is WRONG!" clause.) In Aquaman's case, he learned that he wasn't the son of a lighthouse keeper and an exiled Atlantean; in fact, he was the son of Atlantean royalty and immortal sorcerers, sired as part of a secret master plan.

6) Kill him and bring him back. During 'Our Worlds At War', Aquaman died in dramatic fashion when Imperiex boiled the oceans, killing him and all of Atlantis...but luckily, they were all actually teleported to another dimension and captured by an evil sorceress, instead. (Amazing how that sort of thing happens so often.)

7) Kill him and replace him. Aquaman seemingly died again during 'Infinite Crisis', sacrificing his own life to raise San Diego from the ocean depths (it's a long story.) Luckily, there was a new Aquaman waiting in the wings, a young man with remarkably similar powers and origins. He adventured alongside what turned out to be a not-so-dead-after-all original Aquaman, who then died one more time for real, leaving the all-new, all-different Aquaman in charge of the Seven Seas.

So, with all these changes, surely Aquaman is more popular then ever, right? Oh. No longer being published at all. And apparently, DC doesn't even know how they're going to go about launching a new Aquaman series, because the status quo of the character has become so confused and convoluted that they're not sure where to go from here. Huh.

And this is the lesson for today: You cannot, in the long-term, improve the status of a character by wrecking their storytelling engine. Because shock events can only happen a limited number of times before you run out of them--you can only kill so many supporting cast members before you run out, you can only play the "death card" so many times before it loses its novelty, you can only revise the origin of a character so many times before it becomes too confusing to follow. When you are done with all those shocks, you will need to fall back on the storytelling engine to sustain the series...and if it's not there anymore, audiences might not have the patience to wait while you repair it.


RichardAK said...

Exactly. Thank you. I think this essay, along with your Elongated Man essay, should be required reading for every writer and editor at DC and Marvel. When are they going to realize that their characters are, in a sense, their capital stock, and when they kill a character off or otherwise demolish that character as part of a "big event" to boost sales, they are spending their capital? And what kind of way is that to run a business?

Anonymous said...

Great essay. I'm a long-time Aqua-fan who left after the Year-One began; great art but just not "my" Aquaman. (As I always point out, I can still read "my" Aquaman in back issues.)

One compelling statement stood out: "As a super-hero, he's hamstrung by his need to operate near water."

I don’t understand why this point seems to trip up so many writers. I’m sure when given a character like Tarzan they’d never consider him “hamstrung” because he has to operate in the jungle. Or, consider Batman, Daredevil, Captain America, etc. “hamstrung” because their adventures need to be in an oxygen rich atmosphere.

You’d think a writer could just write a solid story and the fact its taking place under water is an “oh by the way” moment that could only compliment the story.
I think some of the writers think water element first, characterization and plot second, which is why some get hung up.

Not to mention that ¾ of this mud-ball is covered in water. If you can tell it on land you can tell it under or near water.

Of, course I’m not a writer so these things escape me sometimes…

John Coates

Cuitlamiztli Carter said...

I consider myself a strong if not rabid Aquaman fan, and I think DC struggles with the idea that one of their most recognizable heroes is not one of their most immediately marketable heroes.

I think both fans and writers/editors get frustrated knowing that many readers seem to love Arthur/Orin, yet his series doesn't maintain long-term sales. Frankly, I think that's because Aquaman works best in relation to the League, and as a background character, much like (I cringe to compare) Namor. Wanting a long-term Namor series seems fruitless (I for one don't want it - not a huge fan), but Namor provides many storytelling opportunities for solo titles, crossover events, and mini-series. He's constantly lurking in the background of the world of the Avengers & the Fantastic Four. Likewise, I think Aquaman works as a regular ally of the League & as a regular guest star for other titles. I mean, most of the world is covered with water (as every Aqua-fan notes at some point in their defense of Aquaman), so it's not unreasonable to see heroes one a year in their titles dip into his territory. I'm not saying that Aquaman needs to show up constantly, but despite how odd he is, he works with DC's core characters:

1. Superman. Arthur is a man with a confusing heritage, like the Last Son of Krypton. Arthur feels a burden for the Earth, especially its largest ecosystem, that allows him to relate to Big Blue's concern for the rest. Deep beneath the waves seems like a great place for Superman to get away from it all without having to lose contact with the Earth by going into space.

2. Batman. Arthur is very single-minded about Atlantis & the oceans, so I imagine he can relate to Bruce's hang-ups about Gotham. If Atlantis would get under control and stay that way, Arthur the Constitutional Monarch could be a great political sounding board for Bruce, and the image of Arthur as brooding king surely means he and Bruce can have many manly heart-to-heart talks.

3. Wonder Woman. Arthur lives in a world of myth. I wish the writers would steer a course of Lovecraftian mythos tinging a blend of Greco-Roman, Indian, and Phoenician myths, putting Arthur as an inheritor to the tradition of Aeneas, Theseus, etc. He already lives in a magickal, mythical world of mystic royalty and mystery that has always seemed to endear him to the Amazon Princess.

4. The League in general. Arthur's friendship with J'onn, having weathered some hard times, always works well for me. I mean, Arthur is an "alien" in the eyes of the surface dwellers, so he and J'onn bonded over that. Aquaman was there in the early days, so he immediately relates to whoever is wearing the Guardians' green ring or the Flash's tights, because they are part of his friends' legacy.

I think DC needs to cool off any plans for a long-term series, bring back Arthur in a cool Justice League mini-series that will interest those who aren't big Aquaman boosters, and then make him a backbone of the DCU proper, showing up in their political intrigue books (as a sovereign nation's ruler), their team books, what have you - even their space books. I mean, the Legion and other space books have featured plenty of oddly-powered, fish-out-of-water aliens jetting across hyperspace and Hypertime. If life did originate in the oceans, wouldn't many intergalactic forces for good & evil think that the ruling humanoids underwater may be the first ones to talk to?

But if DC has the vision that an Aqua-book will sell, they'll keep frustrating themselves and alienating fans. A crossover with Aquaman should be a highly-anticipated moment in a series.

Also: Aquaman's powers can make for good jokes, but the ability to control and communicate with sea life is very impressive, as well as what 80's and 90's writers highlighted: to survive underwater means he has great strength, hearing, speed, etc. above land as well).

Loren said...

Since this week's Engine was about DC's superhero monarch, have you considered making next week's about Marvel's superhero monarch: the Black Panther?

John Seavey said...

I'm afraid I can't do it, as I don't have the 'Black Panther' comics to research the topic. If they put out an 'Essential Black Panther', I'm all over the idea. Until then, he'll go on my wish list next to Namor and Captain Marvel (and many more.)

And yes, 3/4ths of the Earth's surface is covered in water...unfortunately, it's the 3/4ths we don't live in. :) Aquaman's "home turf" is outside of the experience of most of the readers, which isn't necessarily a fatal flaw, but can be a bit of a tough sell. Batman and Superman operate in "a big city"; we're all pretty familiar with those, even if we live in a rural area. Tarzan or Jonah Hex operate in exotic environments, but they're ones made familiar to us by cultural conditioning; we've seen so many "jungle adventures" and "Western tales" that the millieu seems familiar to us.

But guys like Aquaman and Thor live in strange, unique environments. Which is good, from a "creativity" standpoint, but it can put new readers off a bit. Which is why Thor drops by New York City so often, and why Aquaman gets canceled so frequently. :)

Cuitlamiztli Carter said...

You ought to set up a public wishlist a la the Explosively Talented Christopher Bird (MightyGodKing).

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I think some of the writers think water element first, characterization and plot second, which is why some get hung up.

mildredsims36 said...

Good essay, some writers i dont understand their points.Thank you Aquaman for this essay.

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I'm agreed with the second option, kill him and replace him, this is the worst character in all DC universe, I mean the only work that he can do is call fishes, what the hell with this???

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