Last week's trailer for Injustice: Gods Among Us trotted out the usual affirmative action for Aquaman—no, really! He's powerful!—and my first thought was "Nereid, please." DC has been wallowing in primary-color guilt over Aquaman for generations now. Every mainstream presentation of him takes great pains to show him as mighty, volatile, arrogant, bearing the uneasy-lies-the-head conflict of being the monarch of the sea. Shut the fuck up. This is a guy who breathes water and talks to squid. He's one of the few fighting game characters who should be lockable. As in, win five matches and never see him again.
I bought some shitty comics when I was a kid. I have all the No. 1s of Marvel's New Universe—Kickers, Inc. included. I've got a full run of Speedball. I have a lot of Walt Simonson X-Factor before finally giving up and discovering girls. But I never, not once, bought a copy of Aquaman or anything with him in it and I never will. Like all great prejudices, mine is borne of abject ignorance and based on stereotype and caricature. Even better, it was indoctrinated by a textbook.
"Water Breathing—This is a wimp power. Face it. When the great super hero parties happen and Ulterior Motive Man asks you what you do and you say 'I breathe water,' you end up wearing a full fishbowl." —Marvel Super Heroes Advanced Set (TSR, 1986).
I remember reading that when I was 13. It stripped away the kindly notions of full equality that Super Friends sought to portray and presented me with the reality of a world in which things like bench-pressing a skyscraper or running at the speed of sound had actual crimefighting merit, and communicating with a Chilean sea bass did not.
Let's face it. Comic books are representative of those who create them. Most mortals wish they can repel bullets, burst into flame unharmed, or project devastating lazer beams from their eyeballs. They don't wish to be able to swim at 100 miles per hour, because that's not fighting crime, that's exercising, really really hard.
Aquaman rates my scorn because he is one of the few DC Universe characters—let alone one of its oldest, ostensibly primary heroes—who is derivative of a Marvel character: the Sub-Mariner. This further legitimizes the idea that Aquaman is not so much the king of the sea but the family embarrassment of DC's royalty. Namor debuted in 1939. Aquaman's first appearance came in 1941. Both are human-Atlantean hybrids. Both have a royal claim to their undersea realms. Only one, to my knowledge, talks to fish.
But when Bill Everett created Namor, he got it right the first time: that guy was a haughty, brooding badass from the get-go. His inferiority complex reflected the knowledge that 70 percent of the Earth's surface is water but 100 percent of anything important happens on land. Sub-Mariner was one of the first antiheroes, if not an outright villain, to have a dedicated appearance in a monthly publication. When World War II delivered Hitler as the ultimate comic book baddie, Namor allied with the surface dwellers.
Moreover, Everett had the foresight to give Namor the power of flight, realizing that underwater made for a very, very limiting theater of combat. Namor also was imbued with super-strength that was as usable underwater as on land and in air. Namor was made greater, more threatening by his above-water incursions, where Aquaman is, narratively, limited by them.
DC has tried so hard to make Aquaman into a tough guy it's almost a trope. Look, he's stabbing Darkseid in the face. Oh here, now he's got a barbecue fork for a hand. Now he's got Thor's hair. Yet no matter how much they give him a scaly, armored exterior, this is still a guy wearing a green-and-orange costume—for 70 years. I am colorblind and I can tell you that is jacked up.
None of this addresses his depiction in Super Friends, in which he rode around on a jetski, or had to hitch a ride in Wonder Woman's invisible jet plane, and was even less important to the story than the Osmond Twins from Outer Space and their idiot blue monkey. Super Friends, let's be blunt, was notorious for hamfisted inclusions of ethnic minorities, Asian to Latino to Native American. But they all got better treatment than Aquaman. That show debuted in 1973. I was born in 1973, which means I have never known a world in which Aquaman was not a Sea-Doo riding eunuch.
See, I don't have a prejudiced bone in my body. It's just how I was raised.