My four year-old likes Aquaman. His favorite episode of Batman: The Brave and the Bold is the one with Aquaman’s family vacation, his Aquaman LEGO minifig gets played with more than Superman, and if he puts on green undies he simply must have an orange shirt. Yet the first reaction people have on mentioning Aquaman is “ugh, all he does is talk to fish”. People are so used to this reaction that writer Geoff Johns launched the recent New 52 Aquaman as someone who is the butt of jokes for just that.
This makes little to no sense in universe. Aquaman may not be able to change the course of mighty rivers, but he can crush a car and is invulnerable. That’s pretty impressive. Not only that, but he was one of the first married heroes and one of the first fathers. Yet people fixate on the “talks to fish”. They also used to fixate on “can only be out of water for one hour” a weakness thrown in later. That was thankfully retconned away in the 90s, by Peter David, never to be seen again. Peter David also felt the need to unjoke Aquaman by giving him a beard and a hook for a hand. This started a trend of writers finding ways to “tough up” Aquaman, so he would be seen as “serious”.
So why is Aquaman seen as a joke? Let me show you in video form:
That’s right, Superfriends. Aquaman was one of the featured heroes. In fact, this was not Aquaman’s first cartoon – he had previously appeared in 36 episodes of his own show, but the Aquaman in Superfriends was a bit different. I’ll let my podcasting friend Pól Rua explain (used with his permission):
For a generation of people, this was one of the main introductions to the DC comics characters, and it hit at exactly the worst time. In the 60’s Hanna Barbera did amazing cartoons. Crazy stuff. Non-stop punching and explosions. Jonny Quest and Space Ghost and Bird Man and the Herculoids.
So how could those guys adapting The Justice League of America go so badly?
Well, unfortunately, in between then and Super Friends, a bunch of parents’ groups started paying attention to Saturday Morning Cartoons and decided that all this violence was warping the minds of their children, so rigid censorship was applied to new cartoons.
The guys who wrote these stories frequently strained under the weird restrictions they had to follow – one that’s commonly cited is that Batman and Robin were not allowed to throw a punch [Mordechai’s note: Actually, no one could], in addition, most of the stories didn’t feature ‘villains’ per se. Rather than have the problems caused by an evildoer, they’d be the result of a confused monster going on a rampage, or aliens arriving and causing havoc because of misunderstanding Earth culture. Problems that can be resolved with understanding and reasoning.
So… let’s look at what these restrictions do to the Justice League.
Batman and Robin, who fight crime with acrobatics, martial arts and detective skills and use an array of devices from their utility belts.
Wonder Woman possesses superhuman strength and hand-to-hand combat ability, and also uses certain technological/mystical devices to augment her abilities.
Aquaman possesses great strength and resiliency, and rules Atlantis, as well as commanding the creatures of the deep.
Superman possesses superhuman strength, resilience, can fly, and has a blistering array of minor powers.
Without being able to use martial arts or detective abilities (because their enemies aren’t ‘criminals’, just misunderstood), Batman and Robin fall back on their utility belts almost exclusively.
Wonder Woman similarly ends up using her devices, with occasional non-violent ‘feats of strength’.
Aquaman resorts almost exclusively to his telepathic ability to command sea creatures.
Superman is the least affected. The scope of his powers allow him to fly into space and punch meteors, stop avalanches and other natural disasters, and performing amazing, but non-violent superhuman feats.The result is that a lot of Super Friends episodes consist of the other characters either sitting on their hands or dealing with minor collateral damage while Superman “saves the day”.
Okay, with that in mind, let’s look at common criticisms of these characters from non-comics readers (tell me if you’ve heard these before):
Batman and Robin are just normal guys with a lot of money so they can afford gadgets and junk.
Wonder Woman’s just some woman with a magic rope and an invisible jet.
Superman’s a joke because he can do everything.
Aquaman… talks to fish.
A direct result, ladies and gents, of the censorship under which Super Friends laboured from 1973 to 1986. Let’s also include that we had George Reeves as Superman, Adam West and Burt Ward as Batman and Robin and (after 1977) Lynda Carter as Wonder Woman, so all these characters were known quantities. Which led anyone watching Super Friends who knew the characters only from TV to ask, “I know who these others are, but who the heck is Aquaman?”
He never had a chance.
Personally, I think Pól doesn’t go far enough. Other characters, like Green Lantern, suffer from the same issue as Superman – Green Lantern once moved the planet. Although this was actually true to the comics – the writers used to have to find unique ways to keep him out of the action so that he didn’t just stop everyone himself.
Will we ever see a day when writers just tell a good Aquaman story without the shadow of Superfriends? Maybe in a few decades.I mean, it’s only been 35 years since the show went off the air. Meanwhile, Jason Momoa’s Aquaman movie is sure to be greeted with really original people saying “but all he does is talk to fish”.