Agent of S.T.Y.L.E. - AQUAMAN: The Emperor HAS Clothes
NYCC 2011: DC All Access: JUSTICE LEAGUE
In the universe of DC Comics, the land of Atlantis existed and was an advanced society in ancient times. Some have also claimed it was the nexus of magical energy on Earth. Eventually, disaster struck and the land sank beneath the sea. While many Atlanteans fled, some remained in the twin cities of Poseidonis and Tritonis and these were able to survive the destruction thanks to a combination of magic and science. The now-domed cities settled at the bottom of the ocean and it inhabitants adjusted, their bodies altered to allow them to live and thrive in the new environment.
Thousands of years later, the woman Atlanna of Poseidonis ran away from home and obligation. Near a place called Mercy Reef, she met Tom Curry, a reclusive lighthouse keeper, and the two fell in love. They married and had a son named Arthur Curry. Thanks to his unique heritage, Arthur developed near-bulletproof skin, enhanced senses, superhuman strength, increased vitality, and was able to communicate with all forms of sea life. Though he was seen as a freak by Atlantis and the surface world, he decided to protect the two worlds he belonged to. To the people of the surface world, he was yet another harbinger of the new age of superheroes and they called him "Aquaman."
As a founding member of the Justice League of America, Aquaman has fought costumed villains, aliens, demons and even mad gods. At times, he has served as king of Atlantis, giving him authority over one of the largest and most scientifically advanced armies on Earth. These days, events have caused him to reconsider his place in the world, and he has moved back into his childhood home with his wife Mera, a water warrior from another dimension.
Got it? Good. So let’s look at what kind of Atlantean apparel is worthy of this formidable hero. Although Aquaman has occasionally worn specialty outfits with diving helmets or suits of armor for major battles, this article is focusing on the uniforms that served (or were intended to serve) as his standard looks.
THE GOLDEN AGE
The design is fairly simple. Form-fitting shirt and trousers with an “A” on the belt to remind us of the character’s name. The trousers extend into boots, giving it a sense of being a wetsuit. The scale mail shirt gives is a fine choice, implying both body armor and fish scales. It reminds us that Arthur isn’t just someone with water-based gimmicks; the ocean is his natural home.
The “A” is so simple and obvious that it comes off as a little silly. The yellow of the gloves and the fins also clash with the majority of the outfit and seem a little loud and garish, even for a superhero. What's more, the large design of the gloves makes it seem that they would be cumbersome for a character that spends so much time underwater. On the other hand, the gloves have a nice swashbuckler look and during this time part of the appeal of Aquaman was that he was a globetrotting hero, traveling far and wide on adventures against modern-day pirates, Nazis, aliens and other menaces.
Some artists began making the yellow gloves green instead and by 1960 this became the standard.
Now for you history buffs, it may interest you to know that in his Golden Age adventures, Aquaman was given no real name and did not have any connection to Atlantis. Originally, it was simply said that his father had experimented on him, giving him his aquatic abilities. But when the Silver Age of Comics began (1956 - roughly 1970), DC Comics revamped and rebooted many of its characters. Aquaman was now said to be Arthur Curry, a hybrid of surface man and Atlantean woman. And around the same time, his look got a few tweaks.
During the Golden Age, Aquaman had worn green shorts over his trousers. The colors had been the same, so it hadn't really stood out. As the Silver Age rolled around, the shorts were now black. This style I'm not keen on. In general, I don't much care for superhero uniforms that have shorts worn over different colored trousers, though sometimes I can understand the reason. For outfits that are mostly one solid color, different colored shorts could break that up and prevent it from looking like a body stocking. But this isn't the case here, since Arthur's shirt and trousers are different colors anyway. So it just seems an unnecessary extra detail.
Either way, this outfit is pretty successful as a design. It’s simple and streamlined, yet instantly memorable. Does Aquaman look like some terrifying, imposing figure? Not really, no, but then again he’s not supposed to, at least not at this time in his history. As Aquaman entered the 1960s, he became a much more formidable and serious opponent that he had been in his early days. He was a bit of a trash talker, tossing out a sarcastic joke at those who underestimated him.
During the Silver Age of comics, Arthur became protector of Atlantis on a regular basis and was then elected as its new king. This was part of the new emphasis that Aquaman was not just another superhero but also a character meant to evoke a sense of the strange and the mysterious, someone who was of two co-existing worlds. His color combination is unusual but somehow seems fine for someone hanging alongside exotic fish and who might choose an area of multicolored and exotic corral reef as a resting point. He is a character meant to seem alien wherever he is, both to the surface world and to the people of Atlantis.
In the 1980s, it became standard to draw Aquaman with solid green leggings and not adding the black shorts over them. This definitely improved the look. Aquaman's shirt had been simplified during the silver age, with some artists depicting it simply as an orange shirt. But by the 1980s, artists began emphasizing the scales on the shirt again, bringing back a sense of lightweight body armor.
Although his stories became darker in the 1970s and 80s (he lost his son, his throne and his wife) and he became shorter-tempered and more aggressive, the basic design and colors didn't change. Because while this guy was serious and, at times, darkly introspective, he was not some dark vigilante looking for a fight. And if you wanted to explore his strange, undersea world and its wonders, he welcomed you to it.
It’s not a bad design but I’m not sure it quite fits Aquaman. It’s very decorative; more so than I think would be in Arthur’s straightforward nature. Some have pointed out that this costume is more realistic to them and seems like a real wetsuit and that might be my other problem with it. I could see someone getting a wetsuit like this at a shop that sell expensive or custom-made diving gear. That makes it less special to me and diminishes the initial impression that Aquaman is someone otherworldly.
Right after the mini-series concluded, Aquaman returned to his classic threads and that was probably for the best. Still, I can’t deny that the look is memorable and there’s a reason folks still mention it over twenty years later.
Then, an enemy named Charybdis captured Arthur and demanded to know the secret of how he controlled sea life. When Arthur explained that he only communicated with marine animals on a very simple level and that he couldn’t mentally dominate them or override their will, Charybdis didn’t believe him. So he attempted to call the hero’s bluff by sticking Aquaman's hand into a tank of piranha. The fish acted as such fish will and Arthur was left with a stump.
After a few adventures, Arthur decided his harpoon needed an extra edge (pardon the pun). So he went to S.T.A.R. Labs, a research center that investigates alien and advanced tech and that has provided help to many heroes in the DC Universe. They gave him a new, fancier golden harpoon that could spin like a drill and fire outward like a grappling hook. The cord attached could also let loose with a nasty electric charge.
Around this time, Arthur altered his outfit as well. The trousers were now a mix of green and dark gray and the shirt was gone, replaced by plate armor. The armor is also done in the old style of protecting the arm that isn’t carrying a weapon, which is a nice touch. And the green scales on the pants recall the aquatic look of the orange shirt. All in all, Aquaman went from “King Arthur of Atlantis” to being Conan underwater. This look successfully says all that.
Larsen quickly dumped this look but the seashell crown, which had originally been seen on Aquaman in the famous Kingdom Come story by Alex Ross and Mark Waid, remained for a couple of years after. Another change that stuck was that Aquaman got himself a new harpoon which could actually shift into a golden mechanical hand, giving him the ability to applaud dolphin stand-up comedians for the first time in years.
In his new role of “Waterbearer,” Arthur went for a shirtless look that gave an impression of the high fantasy genre. The trousers seemed like something a sea elf might be wearing in a DragonLance novel (if sea elves weren’t nudists, naturally, but I digress). It also has a strangely pirate-like appeal to it. Not a bad design. But I think the “A” now looks too much like a plain English letter again and there’s also the problem that this look makes Aquaman resemble Marvel’s aquatic anti-hero Namor, the Sub-Mariner. Frankly, Aquaman has long suffered unfavorable comparisons to Namor for years, so I’d rather he didn’t wear anything that brought the Sub-Mariner immediately to mind.
During this time, Aquaman’s belt buckle was pretty much dependent on the whims of the artist. Depending on what issue you read, it was either obviously a letter “A” or something a bit more stylized and subtle than that.
CALL HIM JOSEPH
Joseph’s look would be fine if he were a pirate or some medieval warrior who sailed the seven seas. But for a guy who is spending most of his time underwater, I’m not thrilled with it. It nods to Arthur’s classic design, but over-complicates with shoulder pads and bits of armor. And while I’m willing to concede certain unrealistic things because it’s a comic book, I can’t look at that sword scabbard without chuckling, imagining it constantly hitting Joseph on the leg as he swims from one place to another. Should’ve strapped that scabbard to your back, buddy.
Arthur did all he could to help Joseph become a hero, but later on he was killed himself. Without a mentor, Joseph wandered around for a while and then disappeared from the public eye. A couple of years later, the crossover “Blackest Night” involved several individuals being literally raised from the dead. Our boy, the real Arthur Curry, was among them and was ready for action again.
BACK TO BASICS
It’s an interesting look for the gloves. In a way, they imply a couple of loose fins on a fish and it’s a design unique to the character. Another alteration is the collar. Rather than ending at the base of the neck like a t-shirt or resting a little lower along the collarbone, this is a higher collar that gives Arthur a slightly more professional look. We tend to associate collars of that style with military or authority figures. Since Aquaman considers himself protector of the seas, whether he’s king of Atlantis or not, and is willing to punish anyone who behaves in a way he doesn’t like, this is a nice touch.
Several months later, DC Comics relaunched their entire superhero universe. The new Aquaman collar look wound up being adopted by a few other superheroes as well, including Superman and Green Lantern. Aquaman's kept his new outfit despite the changes to continuity that have occurred. However, in the recent issues of Justice League, in a story taking place "five years ago," we see that he had a more detailed belt and a necklace during his early days (as far as the new history is concerned). This also works and, along with the slightly different hair styling, gives him a more roguish look that is a nice way of showing how his younger self differed from his current persona.
Whether this look will last or whether Arthur will opt for a different suit of body armor again, only time will tell. In the meantime, you can enjoy him as a member of the Justice League and as the star of the new Aquaman monthly series. And that wraps it up. We hope you enjoyed this look at the design history of the "king of the seven seas." Until next time, this is Alan Kistler, Agent of S.T.Y.L.E., signing off!
Alan "Sizzler" Kistler is an actor and freelance writer. He has been recognized as a comic book and Doctor Who historian by major media outlets. He is a contributor to the upcoming Star Trek and History by Wiley Publishing. He is the creator and co-host of the web-series and weekly podcast Crazy Sexy Geeks. His archives can be found at http://AlanKistler.com and his Twitter handle is: @SizzlerKistler
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