Few characters have benefited from the New 52 like Aquaman, who under the pen of Geoff Johns and his successors has become a runaway hit, with stellar arcs like “The Others” and “Throne of Atlantis.” In the art department, Ivan Reis has earned his place as one of the premier Aqua-artists of all time. What new Aqua-fans might not know is that Aquaman has starred in many great stories before Brightest Day and Johns’ solo run on the character.
Aquaman first appeared in More Fun Comics #73, published in November 1941, in a story written by Mort Weisinger and illustrated by Paul Norris (incidentally, More Fun #73 was also the first appearance of Green Arrow!). Aquaman would go on to become a reliable back-up feature, appearing in World’s Finest Comics and Adventure Comics throughout the 40’s and 50’s. Along with his finny friends like Topo the Octopus, during this time Aquaman fought Nazis, charlatan sea wizards, and modern day pirates like his recurring foe Captain Jack Black. In this version, Aquaman gained his powers thanks to the genius of his father, an underwater explorer who discovered the secrets of Atlantis and transformed his son using that ancient knowledge.
As comics evolved throughout the 1950’s, and Golden Age continuity gave way to Silver Age innovation, Aquaman gained a new origin in Adventure Comics #260 (May 1959). This issue introduced the beginnings of modern day Aquaman, revealing his name as Arthur Curry and that he was, in fact, the son of a lighthouse keeper and the lost queen of Atlantis. Aquaman soon gained a friend in Garth, also known as Aqualad, who shared Aquaman’s powers and outsider status in Atlantean society. At this time, Aquaman’s primary creative team was Robert Bernstein and Ramona Fradon, who remains one of the most fondly remembered artists ever to work on the character.
Though enjoyable enough as a backup feature, Aquaman soon found himself in the big leagues, appearing on a cover for the first time in March 1960’s The Brave and the Bold #28, the first appearance of the Justice League of America. Most characters in the JLA had already undergone extensive world-building, either in the Golden Age (Batman and Wonder Woman) or in the Silver Age (Flash and Green Lantern under Julie Schwartz, Superman under Aquaman co-creator Mort Weisinger). Aquaman and Martian Manhunter were the exceptions.
To rectify this, Aquaman was finally given his first solo title, aptly named Aquaman, in 1962. Under the pen of DC editor Jack Miller, Aquaman found himself more heavily involved with Atlantis than ever before. Aquaman and Aqualad were soon joined by the water spirit Quisp, whose inter-dimensional powers aided them in their adventures. Miller’s greatest contribution, however, was undoubtedly the creation of Aquaman’s partner and future wife Mera with artist Nick Cardy. A queen from an underwater dimension, Mera had the ability to control water and make it take shapes of her choosing. In Aquaman #18, Miller’s final issue, Mera and Aquaman wed, an extraordinary move in an age when Aquaman’s fellow superheroes went through pains to keep their secret identities from their loved ones.
Writer Bob Haney followed Miller, and he and Cardy rapidly expanded Aquaman’s supporting cast, introducing characters such as Aquaman’s son Arthur Junior, the terrorist organization O.G.R.E, Aquaman’s half-brother Ocean Master, Tula (Aquagirl), Black Manta, and Aquaman’s chief advisor and friend Vulko. Through their creations and stories, Haney and Cardy added an element of familial soap opera that has been prevalent in the character’s comics ever since. Thus Aquaman entered the big leagues, and in 1967 he became the first DC superhero after Superman to star in his own animated series (also written by Haney), first in The Superman/Aquaman Hour of Adventure and then the following year in Aquaman.
But rough waters lay ahead for the King of the Seven Seas, and though the 60’s had been kind, ensuing decades would be not. Following his first ongoing series’ cancelation in 1971, Aquaman returned to back-up or co-feature status for most of the 1970’s, with a brief revitalization of his original solo series lasting only seven issues. From the mid-80’s on, Aquaman was victim to numerous false starts, the one exception being the controversial “harpoon-hand” period that lasted seventy-five issues during the 1990’s. It took Geoff Johns and Ivan Reis to revitalize the character, first in Brightest Day and then in their ensuing Aquaman run. But though Aquaman may have had a rocky publication history, it’s also a storied one, filled with many wondrous and heartbreaking tales and epics. Here are ten of the best.
1. The Search for Mera (Aquaman Vol. 1 #40-56, by Steve Skeates and Jim Aparo)
Under the editorship of Dick Giordano, Skeates and Aparo crafted what was arguably the first great Aquaman run, with stunning covers by Nick Cardy. For two years, Skeates and Aparo deftly mixed epic adventure, political intrigue, and social relevance with a maturity heretofore unseen in Aquaman. They began with “The Search for Mera,” an eight-part story arc that followed Aquaman across sea and land in search for his wife. These issues were followed by exciting and innovative tales like “Is California Sinking?” and “The Creature That Devoured Detroit,” stories that touched upon the anxieties of the times. Aparo remains the definitive Aquaman artist for many.
2. Death of the Prince (Adventure Comics #435-437, 441-455, Aquaman Vol. 1 #57-63; by Paul Levitz, David Michelinie, Paul Kupperberg, Steve Skeates, Jim Aparo, Mike Grell, Don Newton, and others)
The most famous – and infamous – of Aquaman stories, this 1970’s story arc began in Aquaman’s backup feature in Adventure Comics and concluded with the brief revival of his first ongoing. Written primarily by Paul Levitz, David Michelinie, and Paul Kupperberg, with dynamic artwork by Aparo and others, “Death of the Prince” found Aquaman at odds with a slew of enemies in a fast-paced series of adventures that climaxed with the death of his baby son at Black Manta’s hand. Though such shocking character deaths may be commonplace in today’s comics, Aquababy’s death was as disturbing as it was surprising in 1977, and laid the groundwork for the uniquely personal enmity between Aquaman and his arch-foe.
3. Thicker Than Water (Aquaman Vol. 2 #1-4, Aquaman Special; by Neal Pozner, Craig Hamilton, and others)
This beautifully illustrated 1986 four-issue miniseries by Neal Pozner and Craig Hamilton introduced Aquaman to the world of ancient Atlantean magic and provided him with a fresh new – though short-lived – costume. Pozner and Hamilton tied the history of Aquaman’s present-day Atlantis to the ancient Atlantis of Arion, the Atlantean sorcerer-hero who starred in his own solo series throughout the 80’s. The miniseries explored the unhealthy relationship between Aquaman and Ocean Master, the latter using his brother’s rage to fuel ancient magicks for evil purposes. The story was followed up in 1988’s Aquaman Special by Gary Cohn, Dan Mishkin, and George Freeman, a metaphysical tale that saw the character begin to recover from his consuming grief over the death of his son and reconcile with Mera. Though elements of these stories were soon retconned, magic would remain an important element of the Aquaman mythos, forever tied with Atlantis.
4. McLaughlin’s Aquaman Run (Aquaman Vol. 4, #1-13; by Shaun McLaughlin and Ken Hooper)
In late 1991, Aquaman was once again given his own solo series, this time written by Shaun McLaughlin and with art primarily by Ken Hooper. The series saw Aquaman move past his angst to become a better hero, pushing him onto the international stage while reconnecting him to the larger DCU, with guest appearances from Martian Manhunter, the JLI, Batman, and the Sea Devils. Though it started slow, both writer and artist improved as the series progressed, with stories like “The End of a Road” (#6) and most especially “My Hero” (#13) being among the best. The series lasted only thirteen issues, DC deciding to take a different direction with a new creative team.
5. Atlantis Chronicles (Atlantis Chronicles #1-7; by Peter David and Esteban Maroto)
One of the greatest and most unique DC miniseries ever released, the seven-issue Atlantis Chronicles weaved history, mythology, and comic continuity into one sprawling epic, telling the story of Atlantis from its earliest days to the birth of Aquaman. Peter David wrote a tale that read like medieval European history, filled with sex, politics, religion, and war, and Esteban Maroto’s artwork provided a mature style of fantasy illustration alien to most American comics of the 1990’s. Told from multiple perspectives by chroniclers whose writings collectively form a history of Atlantis, this story’s epic scope has rarely been matched by other DC comics since. Though published the year before McLaughlin’s Aquaman run, this miniseries laid the groundwork for David’s future work on the character. Astonishingly, Atlantis Chronicles has yet to be collected by DC.
6. Time and Tide (Aquaman: Time and Tide, 1-4; by Peter David and Kirk Jarvinen)
Picking up from David’s Atlantis Chronicles, Time and Tide was written by David with art by Kirk Jarvinen, presented in the form of Aquaman writing a journal about his early days. In this origin story, Aquaman recounts his first adventure as a surface-world superhero while teamed-up with the Flash, his young adult life being raised by dolphins, his first romance, and his first encounter with Ocean Master, whom he discovers is his brother. Poignant and fun, David’s story refined and tweaked elements of Aquaman’s origin, while Jarvinen’s cartoony artwork made this miniseries pop. Time and Tide sold well and led to David’s ensuing ongoing Aquaman run.
7. Peter David’s Aquaman Run (Aquaman Vol. 5, #0-46 and Annuals #1-4; by Peter David, Martin Egelund, Jim Calafiore, and others)
The most successful modern Aquaman run before Geoff Johns, David’s tenure on the ongoing Aquaman title provided much-needed stability for the Marine Marvel. David rebuilt Aquaman’s supporting cast, this time including newcomers like Dolphin and his estranged son Koryak. David combined underwater magic, old-fashioned superheroics, and the interpersonal drama of Atlantis’s first family to create a series of stories that explored Aquaman’s strengths and flaws as a hero, a father, and a king. The run is most famous for Aquaman’s loss of his hand, replaced by a harpoon – a controversial move that, along with Aquaman’s new costume, alienated some traditional fans. In spite of these divisive changes, the work of David, Egelund, and Calafiore proved popular – so much so that the DC Cinematic Universe’s Aquaman will look like their Aquaman.
8. Dan Jurgens’ Aquaman Run (Aquaman Vol. 5, #63-75; by Dan Jurgens and Steve Epting)
Closing out Aquaman’s longest running solo title, Dan Jurgens and Steve Epting gave us a regal and confident Aquaman, a mature hero and wise king dealing with threats to Atlantis both above and below the sea, and included guest appearances by the Justice League and Warlord. Jurgens wrote Aquaman as the King Arthur of the Deep, with Atlantis his Camelot. Adding to the legendary tenor of the run was the unusual narration, which saw a future Tempest/Garth narrate their past adventures. Epting provided powerful and emotionally charged illustrations, and the Mike Kaluta covers were glorious.
9. Sub Diego (Aquaman Vol. 6, 15-22; by Will Pfeifer and Patrick Gleason)
Will Pfeifer and Patrick Gleason’s all-too-brief run on Aquaman saw half the city of San Diego sink underwater and its citizens mysteriously transform into water-breathers. Faced with grim circumstances, the people of “Sub Diego” must adapt and rebuild their lives – much as Aquaman has had to do in the past and must now do again. Now exiled from Atlantis, Aquaman returned to his classic orange and green duds, and along with a new Aquagirl, helped protect the citizens of Sub Diego and taught them to adapt to their new way of life.
10. Arcudi’s Aquaman Run (Aquaman Vol. 6, #25–29, 32–39; by John Arcudi and Patrick Gleason)
Writer John Arcudi picked up where Pfeifer left off, and together with Gleason gave us Aquaman’s most underrated run. Arcudi continued the Sub Diego storyline, developing the sunken city into a more fully realized place while seamlessly reintroducing Aquaman’s supporting cast and classic villains into the book. Gleason’s wonderfully stylized artwork matured as the book went on, bringing out the wonder and mystery of the ocean. Arcudi and Gleason also developed Lorena Maquez, the new Aquagirl, into a solid supporting character, one who Johns later used for Brightest Day. Though cut short to make way for Infinite Crisis, these stories hold up and deserve to be more widely known.
Though I rank these as the best, there are many other wonderful stories to fill your thirst for more Aquaman – J.M. DeMatteis and Dick Giordano’s 1980 back-up tales in Adventure Comics and Kurt Busiek and Butch Guice’s incredible Sword of Atlantis, to name but two. (For more insight into these comics and more, I heartily recommend The Aquaman Shrine, a fabulous resource.)
Unfortunately, of the stories listed, only Death of the Prince, Time and Tide, and Sub Diego have been collected. It seems Arthur is as much a victim of negligent collected edition editors as he is of false starts and cancelations. But Aquaman is nothing if not a survivor. With his growing popularity both in and outside of comics, there is little doubt that the King of the Seven Seas will not only endure but thrive, and continue to entertain and inspire readers with new stories worthy of his rich past.