When you talk about Aquaman at any length, there’s always a certain conversation that hangs in the background: that of his relevance. For years, he was the butt of jokes, the man who talked to fish, the “also attended” of the Justice League. Despite numerous reinventions, despite his role as a founding member of the Justice League, the image of Aquaman in the public consciousness remained that of a spandex-clad seahorse riding buffoon. That stigma surrounding the character remains to this day, a permanent mark on the cultural zeitgeist that, in all honesty, will probably never truly go away. What I find fascinating about Aquaman, however, is that he exists as a part of a duality. You have your Super Friends incarnation, sure, but there is simultaneously a vision of the extreme that can ultimately be traced to Peter David’s post-Crisis treatment of the character. While directly at odds with the former “softer” interpretation, this rough-around-the-edges outlaw incarnation has carved its own space in the minds of the general audience, coexisting in an endless push and pull for cultural relevance.
While other status quos had attempted to balance these personalities to varying success (with the “Sub Diego” status quo being most prominent among them,) there was no moment more powerful in the progression of Aquaman both as a character and as a story engine than that of the New 52 relaunch of 2011. Working with the advantage of a clean slate, Geoff Johns, Ivan Reis, and Rod Reis instilled Aquaman with a strong sense of personality and fabricated a rich visual language that would propel the character forward into future stories. This momentum would carry the titular character into line-wide crossovers, critically acclaimed runs, and eventually even to the silver screen. This is, of course, in large part due to the retooling of Arthur Curry to fit into a more traditionally heroic role, but the influence of the worldbuilding done by Johns (and later Parker and Abnett) cannot be overlooked, as it allowed for a rich vein of stories over the next decade and beyond.
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Easily one of the strongest titles in the New 52 as a whole (and arguably the single most effective case of reimagining and repackaging its material for readers both modern and future), Aquaman stands the test of time as a perfect jumping on point and a love letter to the character to be passed down through generations.
Perhaps the strongest influence of the New 52 relaunch on the staying power of the Aquaman title is its refinement of the character. There is a fine line to walk within the boundaries of Arthur Curry’s characterization, and Johns tackles this approach head-on. A significant portion of his reinvention hinges on the notion that Aquaman has been misunderstood. No longer the doofy sea king of the past, when we first meet Arthur in Aquaman #1, he is a force to be reckoned with. He stops real, actual crime. He is a founding member of the Justice League. Hell, he even seems to be as strong as or stronger than his peers. He is a legitimate superhero and deserves to be respected as such.
Except… he’s not.
Misunderstood to the core, our hero is surrounded by people who see him as a joke. The worst part, though, is that nobody’s laughing at him. Aside from the occasional SNL joke (real topical, Geoff), he is mostly viewed as a nobody. Those who do know even the slightest bit about him see him as a strange fish-man who just doesn’t fit into what they think of as the archetype of a hero.
This mentality is where we meet Aquaman in this bold new direction for the character, yet honestly, it’s what was needed. I think it’s easy to say in the climate of 2021 that this level of self-awareness about public perception is ham-handed, that writers should be more subtle in their assurance that yes, Aquaman is an interesting character. In 2011, though, this clash of mentalities was more prominent and deserving of direct reference, especially at such an opportune time for upheaval and change. While, yes, Johns’ dialogue is heavy-handed at times, it exists in the perfect moment, making the right argument at the right time to firmly establish its core thesis: “Aquaman is cool, you guys, I swear!” Does it hold up on reread? Perhaps not, but as an entry point to the character, this hurdle must be overcome. The argument has to be made.
So who is this Aquaman? If this characterization is so important to his character growth, what does he stand for? I think the most apt description of the hero we meet in the New 52 is just that, The Hero. He is a man of the people, even if the people reject him. Where previous depictions strove to set him apart by portraying him as hard and tough, Johns intentionally humanizes Arthur. Son of a lighthouse keeper, he embodies the work ethic and morals of the average man. He lives and breathes small town New England, growing up in Amnesty Bay and holding it close to his heart despite its people’s frequent rejection. A distinctly populist take on the character, this is a surprisingly fresh vantage point that to my knowledge had never been explored to any significant extent before Johns’ relaunch. Of course, this is only half the story. Aquaman is heir to Atlantis, right? Well, it’s complicated. Yes, he is son of Atlanna. Yes, he is royalty. When we meet him, however, this is the furthest thing from his mind. This reluctance is the most fascinating part of his character, and I believe it truly helps set the character apart from the rest of his 60+ year history.
Where does that leave the characterization moving forward? Over the course of its 52 issues, Aquaman sees Arthur grow as a man, as a ruler, and as the mythical Hero. Moving past Johns’ tenure on the title, Aquaman undergoes a personal progression, ultimately evolving into what could be considered The Lighthouse, an adventure hero king striving to find and plant his footing in a hostile world while retaining all the morals and honor that had defined his personal journey thus far. This role of a medium between his two responsibilities is the natural evolution of the archetypal Man of Two Worlds that Johns envisioned for the character and carries forward a strong narrative into the future of the Aquaman title through the Rebirth relaunch and beyond.
While character work was and is essential to the continued success of the Aquaman property, it cannot be understated how much the world built over the course of the title’s 52 issues contributed to the lasting success of the book moving forward.
A Man of Two Worlds needs his two worlds, right? Amnesty Bay and Atlantis are not unique to modern comics by any means, but the work done to flesh out the characters and operations of these locations make them feel vibrant, alive in a way that feels fresh and new. Atlantis teems with life, reflecting the waters in which it resides. While again, the concept of supporting characters within the day-to-day life of Atlantean royalty is by no means new, the relaunch breathes fresh air (or clean water I suppose) into the cast and wider world. Chief among these additions are his Arthur’s half-brother Orm the Ocean Master, Murk (captain of the royal guard and eventual confidant and close friend of King Arthur) and Tula (rough but eventually intensely loyal to the king) as well as a host of political figures, factions, and . These political figures stake their place immediately, sending shockwaves through Arthur’s life as he tries to adjust to their games. This expands into larger storylines, breaking out of the boundaries of Atlantis, but always anchored by the visual language and tone set early on. Of course, this extends to Amnesty Bay as well. A small town and a vibrant pool of friendly faces, the setting provides for an essential focus on the mental state and humanity of Arthur Curry. Some of the best moments in the title are in these small glimpses into the “normal” world, with the absolute standout being Arthur’s high school reunion, an all-time great issue in an era of redefinition for the property.
One of the most impressive reinventions of the modern era of Aquaman was that of his partner Mera. A counterpart to Arthur’s reluctance, Mera was a force of nature in her own right, readily willing to fight any obstacle that stood in the way of the couple’s happiness. Her presence was a shining star of the relaunch, complementing Arthur in the best ways and establishing a dynamic of trust and confidence. The natural ease with which they interact right from the start is a feat unto itself, but Mera’s character also deepens over time, evolving into one of the most fresh characters of the line. As the series progresses, she becomes an integral piece of the formula— a co-star in her own right, and brings a unique depth to the book.
These stories provide the backbone for the relaunch, and they propel the property forward into greater heights. Whether the book focuses on small vignettes like the high school reunion and Mera going to the store or larger narratives like that of the War of the Seven Kingdoms, the book is always anchored in humanity. The New 52 era contains such classic story beats as the Trench rising from the deep, Atlantis going to war with the Justice League in the “Throne of Atlantis” storyline, and seeds of the Seven Kingdoms narrative later explored in the film. Rich in story potential, these ideas are just a few bricks in the larger groundwork laid by the relaunch. They have lasting ramifications, building onto each other and compounding into a rich tapestry of worldbuilding that is rarely so successful across multiple creative teams.
So, the big question: How did Aquaman fare after the era of the New 52? How did those four years affect the future of the property? I think we should start with the big answer.
There was a movie! Based directly on New 52 concepts and storylines! It’s so strange to think that the power of that relaunch propelled the character onto the big screen, but it happened and it was incredible (Pardon my editorializing for just a moment). Just seven years after Aquaman #1 released, we saw the Trench on screen, and there’s a good chance they’ll have a spinoff movie. We saw Mera and Queen Atlanna; we saw Ocean Master in his funky little mask. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that Aquaman wholeheartedly embraced the weird and ran with it, and that weird is directly lifted from the pages of New 52 Aquaman. To see that level of care and unabashed fun put into a property I hold so dear is one of the most incredible feelings in the world, and it would not have been possible without the care and love put into these characters and storylines over this 52-issue period.
The growth that Aquaman has seen as a character over the past few years has been enormous. In addition to his portrayal in the film universe, his presence has grown in comic stories as well. He has been an integral piece of the Justice League franchise, and his solo book has run continually from the advent of the New 52 through the recent Future State initiative, a nearly 10 year stretch for a character that had been seen as a joke for years. One of the first storylines in Scott Snyder’s blockbuster Justice League run was wholly dedicated to Aquaman, with “Drowned Earth” exploring the devastation of the ocean wreaked onto the whole of Earth. There was even a limited Mera series, fleshing out her past and exploring her motivations as a hero. The last few years have been an incredible time to be an Aquaman fan, with a stellar run on the main book to back up these newer additions.
Dan Abnett’s Rebirth run (as well as his 4-issue run closing out the New 52) explored the dichotomy of heroism vs. duty in a modern political landscape. Navigating Atlantean corruption on a monumental scale, Arthur must be torn down to return to his humanist roots in the inevitably seminal “Underworld” storyline (which I would readily recommend to anyone looking to read Aquaman). Analyzing myth and how it relates to the realities of the modern world, Abnett’s runs on Aquaman and Mera are a personal favorite. They also lead directly into Kelly Sue Deconnick’s run on the title, which will easily go down as one of the best of all time. Directly evolving from concepts and character developments built over years of previous storytelling, Deconnick’s Aquaman deals with issues of identity and everyday life. Her tenure on the book brought Amnesty Bay to the forefront, giving it a life of its own and asking how it affected Aquaman as a man. None of this rich storytelling would land quite as well if not for the collaborative and additive work of the last decade of Aquaman stories. That is in no way, of course, meant to take away from the achievements of a single creator on the title. Rather, this collaboration has led to some of the best comics in recent years, and without a single creator’s tenure on the book, it would not be where it is today.
I think there’s a fairly pervasive notion within comics fandom that relaunching is cheap, that it’s a way to squeeze money out of consumers. And while that might be true to an extent, there are genuine miracles that can happen because of them. I can’t say what Aquaman would look like without the New 52. Who knows, maybe this spark would have happened with or without a #1 to back it up. What I can say is that the clear delineation and new direction given by the New 52 give us a convenient window to point to and note the direct and exponential growth over the past decade of storytelling. Is New 52 Aquaman wholly perfect? Of course not, there are some stories that just don’t work for me. Johns’ “The Others” tends to drag on reread and ultimately feels unnecessary. Cullen Bunn’s “Exiled” shoots to change up the status quo and Aquaman’s relationship to the world but just doesn’t land. But these stories still happened. These stories still matter. They were part of a larger wave of storytelling that introduced me to comics and have kept me hooked in the five years since. And I think there’s something special about that.
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