CHRONICLES OF COMICS – ADVENTURE COMICS #274 – AQUA-QUEEN

The Man Wit No Voice and The Pure Mood dig out and review a comic from their expansive back issue collection. It could be a pivotal story, a forgotten classic, or even a giant mistake not worth the staples binding it together. From the ’40′s to the ’00′s, come by every week as we take an in-depth look at comics history in CHRONICLES OF COMICS!

aquaqueen1If you’re new to the comics internet, there’s something I have to tell you; Aquaman is a pretty divisive character. For a long time, he really was the joke of the comics reading community – a few die-hard supporters aside, most fans couldn’t see past the smiling orange and green clad superhero, and memories of his often less than impressive turns in THE SUPER FRIENDS were all to fresh in our memory. But then a funny thing happened – mainstream media picked up on the idea that a superhero who talks to fish is a bit weird, and Aquaman jokes ran rampant throughout TV, movies and even in comics themselves. A lot of comic readers have a certain built-in resentment to members of the mainstream – despite the fact that a lot of us are obsessed with stories owned by giant corporations, the mainstream represents a collective summary of everything we’re against – lazy, unimaginative ideas, judging looks from the in-crowd, people refusing to understand that there’s nothing wrong with wearing X-men underoos well past the recommended age group THAT’S WHY IT’S CALLED ‘RECOMMENDED’ IT ISN’T WRITTEN IN STONE  … sorry, got a bit personal at the end there. Whether or not mainstream media is a cultural wasteland is up to the reader to decide, but before you could say ‘King Arthur’, comics enthusiasts were coming out in masses to defend the maritime hero. It was kind of an interesting and meta-moment; the minute Aquaman became a bullied outcast, we all related to him a little bit more. Geoff Johns took this to the logical next step in Aquman’s NEW 52 series, casting Arthur as a vengeful hero filled with adolescent angst and rage, and he was appealing to readers in a way like never before, even cracking the Top 10 multiple times throughout his first year. Suddenly Aquaman wasn’t so lame anymore.

But maybe he never was – in fact, in his Silver Age appearances in ADVENTURE COMICS, Aquaman was a complex, tragic hero, complete with an interesting trait that not a lot of costumed heroes share – Arthur had some serious mommy issues. A lot of fans are familiar with Brian Michael Bendis’ line that the Marvel Universe was built on daddy issues, and it’s true – and it’s just as true with the folks over the street at DC. Sure, Batman is haunted by the image of his mother’s pearls crashing down on the street, but what he really resents is that his father couldn’t be Batman at that moment, that he couldn’t protect a child’s life no matter what. Whereas Aquaman has found himself trapped, hanging on to the only person who ever really understood him – his mother, an Atlantean, who swam with Arthur as a child, taught him the magic of speaking to a variety of aquatic species, showed him that there was a whole other world that humans barely paused to consider the majesty of. When she died young, Arthur was left with his good-natured but bumbling working-class father – a father who didn’t understand the new world Arthur was a discovering, a man who only knew that he loved his wife and wanted what was best for his son. I don’t think Arthur really accepted his mother’s death, and many Silver Age Aquaman stories seem to agree with me – from stories about Aquaman’s struggles accepting women as anything but holy, maternal figures (AQUAMAN MEETS AQUAGIRL), to Aquaman often being forced into a role of teacher/caregiver (THE KID FROM ATLANTIS, AQUALAD GOES TO SCHOOL). Today we’re going to focus on AQUA-QUEEN, a story published in ADVENTURE COMICS #274, written by Robert Bernstein with art by Ramona Fradon. It showcases a young man’s struggle in accepting women as anything other than matriarchs, and also illustrates what makes Aquaman a good character in the first place.

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The story begins with Aquaman as acting judge in a swimming contest, awarding the crown of Miss Aquamaid to the strongest swimmer in the group. Unfortunately, Dale Conroy has a problem with that – a spoiled socialite heiress, losing isn’t something Dale is used to, and she promises Aquaman she’ll find a way to prove she’s a better a swimmer than even he! Soon, the two are involved in a series of contests, from long-distance swimming to holding their breath underwater. “Jumping Jellyfish! I never saw anyone swim that fast!” Arthur blushes after being defeated in contest after contest. Aquaman storms up to her, seething after having his ego deflated, and soon we see a pretty ugly side of the Atlantean hero – “You’re just a spoiled thrill-seeker who has too much money for her own good!” he says, towering over her. This isn’t me attacking the character, even if it may sound like it, because it’s things like this that make a character interesting. Aquaman would never classify himself as a sexist, and I’m not even sure I’d even call him one – but what I love about this scene is it illustrates what’s so terrifying about bigotry – it really does creep out of the deepest, darkest corners of our subconscious when we least expect it. “Right, AQUAMAN! The person who out-swam you is a GIRL!’ Dale gloats, and pretty soon, the media has put all of their chips behind the surprisingly talented heiress – ‘AQUAMAN IS DETHRONED — LONG LIVE AQUAQUEEN!’ roars across the radio.

It isn’t long, however, before Aquaman discovers the secrets to Dale’s new found abilities – she’s been cheating. But I don’t think this lessens the impact of the story in anyway; I think one could, justifiably, be tempted to use this as an example of the misogyny of early superhero comics, that women have no hope to compete with men, unless they use underhanded means. But to me, it’s exactly what’s appealing about the superhero genre – it’s not that superheroes are uber-police that keep us all in check, because they’re just as damaged and broken as we are. They become our idols, and something to look up to, because they don’t let their mommy issues and whimpering egos stop them from achieving something great, from helping people and trying to make the world a better place. When Dale discovers that Aquaman knew she was cheating and still let her win, she’s shocked. But to Arthur, as much as it pained him to do so, understood that it was more important that the infamous tabloid-star socialite save face than the beloved superhero. He makes a sacrifice, even a small one, to make somebody else’s life better, because he sees that she isn’t a bad person – “you showed you had a heart when you refused to harm those fish in your path!” Dale is so moved by this display of simple, human kindness, that she decides to stop putting such an importance on petty, superficial goals like beating people in races, and makes the decision to out herself to the world as a cheater. This is the work of a real hero – there’s none of the scare tactics of Batman, none of the shaming of Superman – it’s just a dude with problems who wants to help you sort yours out. AQUA-QUEEN isn’t a defense of Aquaman as a character, but it’s a reminder that we never should have stopped loving him in the first place.

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