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Aquaman, From Super Friend To Surfer Dude: The Bro-Ification Of A Hero

The author's collection of aqua-memorabilia. (Not pictured: The author's many, many Aquaman t-shirts. And the Aquaman tattoo on the authorial left deltoid.)
Glen Weldon
Private Collection (literally!)
The author's collection of aqua-memorabilia. (Not pictured: The author's many, many Aquaman t-shirts. And the Aquaman tattoo on the authorial left deltoid.)

Let's get the bona fides out of the way up top.

This post is about some of the sweeping changes that the DC Comics superhero Aquaman (Swift and Powerful Monarch of the Ocean! King of the Seven Seas!) has undergone on his way to this weekend's blockbuster movie Aquaman.Inevitably, it will elide many details important to ardent fans of the character, and open its author up to charges of not knowing whereof he speaks, of a willful ignorance of the character, of simply echoing stale observations hastily ransacked from the Aquaman Wikipedia page.

The defense humbly (okay, smugly) presents the following evidence.

Exhibit A:That photo atop this post? That's the author's collection of aqua-memorabilia. Kindly do not refer to it as a shrine, as it is simply the by-product of what happens when the author's lifelong obsession with a fictional character intersects with his husband's insistence that said obsession not take up more space in their tiny apartment than the top of one friggin' dresser.

Exhibit B: I've written about the connection I've always felt to the character in this space before. Here's an excerpt:

I was, from a very young age, a competitive swimmer. My teammates, in fact, nicknamed me "Aquaman" — not because I was fast (I really,  really wasn't) but because I could never dive off the starting block without sinking too near the bottom of the pool.

They were  such cut-ups, those guys.

I wore their derisive nickname like a badge of honor, devouring reruns of the 1960s  Aquaman animated shorts. I never missed an episode of  Super Friends. Inevitably, my fixation with aquatic heroes expanded to the real world: I started watching  Jacques Cousteau specials obsessively, built scale models of Cousteau's ship  Calypso and memorized long passages from his coffee table book,  The Ocean World.

By age 10, I had resolved to become a cetologist (a marine biologist specializing in whales and dolphins). At 13, I dragged my family to the just-opened Baltimore Aquarium, and stocked my home aquariums with fresh and saltwater fishes. At 14, I was the youngest person in my dive class, and — I found out later — the youngest diver my instructor had ever certified. Later, I interned at the National Aquarium in Washington, DC, and dove in Fiji and the Solomon Islands.

Eventually, I somehow eked out an undergraduate degree in Marine Biology, all the while demonstrating a truly appalling lack of aptitude for requirements like Calculus I, Calculus II, Organic Chemistry I, Organic Chemistry II, Physics I, Physics II, Quantitative Analysis I, Quantitative Analysis II, Chemical Oceanography and Physical Oceanography. My mild form of color-blindness transformed a harmless-seeming course called Intro to Phycology — which required students to identify, on sight, various forms of green algae, red algae, brown algae and blue-green algae — into a slimy hellscape of greenish-reddish-brownish-bluish-greenish frustration and despair.

In the end, all that math and seaweed proved too much for me. I gave up on Marine Biology, but I never gave up on Aquaman. He embodied everything I'd loved about it (high adventure in a strange and beautiful undersea world) and none of the things I'd despised (isohalines and Avogadro's number).

Exhibit C: The author's closet shelves are currently stuffed with 11 Aquaman T-shirts, 2 pairs of Aquaman pajama bottoms and 1 set of adult Aquaman Underoos. That last bit is likely more information than the present situation requires; it is included here in the interest of full transparency.

Exhibit D: This post will not concern itself with Aquaman's eventful, turbulent and, above all, densehistory of changes on the comics page itself, and will stick to his wider public perception, as driven by television and film incarnations.

But I have written about the ceaseless churn of his comics history before. (Up to 2010, at least.) (It's ... a lot.)

Exhibit E: The author's left shoulder is adorned with a tattoo of Aquaman, swimming and smiling, based on a classic illustration of the Sea King by artist Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez. (Said shoulder, like the rest of the author, is heavily freckled, so the net effect is that of Aquaman swimming through a deadly red tide while managing to seem awfully chipper about it.)

Exhibit F-Word: A while back I wrote a short monologue from Aquaman's point of view, in which he lashed out at a world that had come to mock him. (Warning: Contains explicit language and references to MySpace.)

All of which is to say: On matters aquatic, and Aquatic, I am thoroughly versed.

So here's how we got from the square, stiff, fish-cop Aquaman of Saturday morning cartoons to Jason Momoa's extreeeeeme!, puka-shelled Aqua- MY-MAN!

Phase One: "Gallopin' Guppies!"

Aquaman's been around since 1941, when his creators, Mort Weisinger and Paul Norris, established the basics: He protects the sea and its creatures, whom he commands via mental telepathy. He wears an orange and green outfit, and he's got this big pouf of blonde hair ... but jet-black eyebrows, for some reason. (There's always been something thrillingly trashy about that fact; it's only one of several reasons that you can imagine Aquaman being John Waters' favorite superhero.)

(... No? Just me? Fine.)

Like his A-list buddies Superman and Batman, he survived the post-war crunch, when the public abandoned superhero comics for crime comics, war comics and romance comics. Yet it took Aquaman 26 years to make his way off of the comics page, and even then he only did so by riding Superman's cape, with a CBS Saturday morning cartoon called the Superman/Aquaman Hour of Adventure.

On that cartoon, which consisted of several six-minute shorts, Aquaman and his sidekick Aqualad repeatedly saved the undersea city of Atlantis from various marauders including Black Manta, The Brain, Queen Vassa of the Mermen, and ... (shudder) The Fisherman.

He was pretty much your standard square do-gooder, firmly in the 1966 Adam West Batman series tradition. He had an Aqua-cave. He was forever referring to Aqualad as "tadpole" or some variant thereof. He registered surprise by shouting "Great Gastropods!" As you do.

Which is to say: He generally came off as a stiff. A fish-cop, basically — or maybe a fish-sheriff, as he and Aqualad rode around the ocean on giant seahorses while getting involved in various maritime scrapes.

The Superman/Aquaman Hour of Adventure, along with the several subsequent series that repackaged the animated shorts for syndication, were most notable for two things:

1. The hilariously stentorian tones of narrator Ted Knight, who, like his Mary Tyler Moore Show character Ted Baxter, was given to bombastic if ... unconventional pronunciations of certain words ("Aquaman" became, inevitably, "AACK-wuh-man!").

2. The choice to visually represent Aquaman's ability to communicate with sea-life via concentric circles emanating from his forehead, and to accompany it with an iconic ping-ing-ing-ing-ingsound that would become synonymous with the character.

These animated shorts found Aquaman literally in his element — they took place entirely in his undersea kingdom, where his highly specific powers found liberal and effective use.

That ... was about to change.

Phase Two: "In the Great Hall of the Justice League!"

In the '70s and '80s, on the Saturday morning cartoon Super Friends(the name of the series changed frequently over its 13-year history, but that's the name by which it is generally remembered), Aquaman earned a spot on the roster of the Earth's "four greatest heroes."

And while the show's producers did their best to apportion the requisite saving of the day equally among Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and Aquaman, most of the series took place on dry land. Inevitably, Aquaman's niche power set only proved reallyuseful when the threat facing humanity was somehow ... water-related.

Which, you know ... it often wasn't.

And with the rise of the internet in the 1990s, something changed.

Phase Three: "He just talks to fish!"

Those kids that had grown up on his cartoons were teens and adults now. They looked back on the cheesy, straight-laced aquatic hero of their youth — who couldn't even fly unless he strapped flying fish to his feet-- and started making fun of him.

On messageboards, in webrings and blogs, he swiftly became a joke. A meme, before memes were even a thing. (The internet wag known as Seanbaby proved his most scathing and dependable critic.)

By the early 2000s, some of those same kids started writing for TV themselves, and making fun of Aquaman became a cottage industry.

On shows like Cartoon Network's Robot Chicken, he was the much-derided, overeager schmuck always left behind while the other heroes did all the work.

(It seemed pointless then, and more pointless now, to respond to this kind of mockery by pointing out that the character's status as a hero with a circumscribed set of powers and abilities is preciselywhat makes him so appealing, that stories that show a character using their specific gifts in ingeniously apposite ways are inherently more compelling than stories in which characters breeze through every challenge based on raw power alone, that underdogs are more interesting than ringers, and that to be widely underestimated means to harbor the potential to surprise. So ... I won't bother pointing any of that out.)

Meanwhile, over on HBO, Aquaman was about to face his biggest threat ever ... in terms of public perception, anyway.


Phase Four: "It's Spider-Man underwater! Boom!"

The comedyish series Entourage, about aspiring actor Vinny Chase (Adrian Grenier) and his band of meathead pals in Hollywood, turned the notion that a blockbuster film could made about Aquaman, of all characters, into an extended joke.

It was a joke that played out over several seasons, beginning with its second, when Vinny ( veryreluctantly) agreed to star in the James Cameron-directed feature, face down hordes of rabid fans at Comic-Con, and act against his ex, Mandy Moore, who played Aquagirl. Eventually, Entouragepaid off that long-running joke with the ultimate punchline, in its usual, no-stakes, conflict-free style — the show's version of the Aquamanmovie became the highest-grossing film of all time.

Imagine, right? Useless old Aquaman, as the star of a successful blockbuster film? Haw haw haw!

Phase Five: "My MAN !"

On Nickelodeon's animated series SpongeBob SquarePants, the Aquaman stand-in Mermaid Man makes frequent guest appearances as a washed-up hero whom SpongeBob blithely worships, and Cartoon Network's Batman: The Brave and the Boldregularly featured a bluff, bearded Aquaman as one of its breakout characters. Both portrayals carry more than a faint whiff of satire, but both clearly come from a place of sincere, nerdy affection.

When it comes to live-action portrayals, however, the change in Aquaman has proven strikingly swift and stark — and far less nerdy.

Since Entourage went off the air, Aquaman has gone from being the buttof bro-ey jokes to ... well.

There's no other way to put it: To a bro himself.

A surfer-bro, specifically.

As played by Jason Momoa in last year's Justice League and in the new film Aquaman, he's become the kind of long-haired, tatted up, swaggering party animal duuuuudeyou could easily imagine rounding out Vinny Chase's ... entourage.

The bros ... won. Aquaman has become one of them.

Now, sure, maybe that makes him more popular. The film's already broken records in China.

But whenever a character like Aquaman changes this much, this quickly, something is gained ...

... but something is lost. Something, in this case, sort of agreeably square, and kind of pleasantly cheesy.

Some of us (hi!), might miss the old, fish-cop do-gooder, but that doesn't mean the newest incarnation of the Sea King is any less legitimate, any less "real," than the one we grew up with. Whether we love or hate Aquamanthe film, or Momoa's ... ah, full-throated portrayal ("Wooooooooo! AwRIIIIIGHT!"), our Aquaman hasn't gone anywhere. He's still out there somewhere, astride his giant seahorse Storm, summoning a sea turtle to hurl itself against a hole in Atlantis' dome, or some similarly silly aquatic endeavor.

That's the abiding truth of superheroes. They change all the time, but they do not necessarily evolve. They iterate, but their previous versions stick around.

Which is why, no matter how hardcoooore, how gnaaaarly, how extreeeeemehe becomes, some of us will always remember Aquaman as he once was: the undervalued, underestimated undersea underdog.

The hero ... who talks to fish.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Glen Weldon is a host of NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast. He reviews books, movies, comics and more for the NPR Arts Desk.