Sunday, 28 February 2010
Points On A Curve No 3: A Little House In Atlantis
A quote from a previous entry, to serve as a Reader's Warning - "Here then, by way of illustration, will be "my" Aquaman, and it's a character composed of brief comic book moments, images taken somewhat out of context, and suppositions barely supported by evidence. On reflection, this Aquaman bears no relation to any canon, not of today or any past era, and it ignores great swathes of work by very able creators; not because their work was poor, but because it didn't strike a chord with me, or perhaps because I never even read their work. My Aquaman isn't owned by any corporation, open to any critic's challenge, or amendable as a concept even by myself. Which, counter-intuitively, makes "my" Aquaman all the more real to me."
1. Aquaman The King Of Where You Say?
If Superman must come from a distant world, and of course he must, it would be laughable if it were decided that he should now have been rocketed from Vulcan, or Barsoom. If Batman must be the champion of a crime-ridden city, then it makes no sense to displace his mission to Manchester or Chicago. And if Aquaman ought to be a King, and we've discussed how he ought to be a king, then he ought to be the King Of Atlantis.
2. Atlantis, Atlantis, They Named It More Than Twice
There's a problem with the name "Atlantis" in the DC Universe. It means too many things. The popular concept of Atlantis is that it's a single city, and, originally, in the DC Universe, it was exactly that; one single submarine city. Then, very quickly, 'Atlantis' referred to several cities, appearing in different comics issued by separate DC Editorial offices, and there was an Atlantis inhabited by mermen and merwomen, and there was the Atlantis of Aquaman, and there were other towns and cities called Atlantis that appeared and disappeared whenever writers needed a sunken city of their own. It's all rather confusing if you like your fictional universes all neat and sorted, or, indeed, even if you don't.
(But then, if you take a read of Plato, you'll note that his Atlantis doesn't match the popular perception of it as being a single city either. Plato's Atlantis is a state centred on an island in the North Atlantic, with a "mighty host" as an army and an empire stretching along the North African shore from Libya to Egypt. So the idea of Atlantis has always been more complicated than might be thought.)
And despite its many attempts to simplify and streamline its continuity, DC still has a host of geographical locations called Atlantis, or related to Atlantis, or relying on an association with Atlantis to establish their identity. Aquaman's home is still often referred to as Atlantis, yet in fact his home city has been long established as being called Poseidonis, the greatest city of the Atlantean state. And there are also the 5 lost cities of Atlantis, sigh, and the original twelve tribes of Atlantis, and the 4 great religions of Atlantis, and by this time my head isn't so much spinning as utterly disinterested. I can't help it, I am already losing the will to go on. For the way of continuity is to pile up detail upon detail upon detail and then try to reconcile any contradictions between all of that detail with, yes, more detail. And I don't think, as I've been saying in these "Points On A Curve" entries, that that's how we build an emotional fondness for a character.
So for the sake of this entry, and in the name of simplicity, Aquaman's home city will be called "Atlantis", and the land and cities beyond the city boundaries will simply be the Atlantean State. Any other great cities within that Atlantean State will be simply called, for example, "Atlantis-Basilia" or "Atlantis-Tritonis" or whatever, which will immediately and effectively explain their relationship to Arthur the King.
3. Did You Wanna Go To Atlantis?
I never wanted to visit Aquaman's Atlantis when I was a kid. I wonder if many readers did. It wasn't that I sat around and made a list of comic-book locales that I wanted to see and, having ranked them in order of choice, put Atlantis at the bottom of the list. It was worse than that. I never even thought of Atlantis as being uninteresting, for it was so uninvolving that I never even thought about it at all. Atlantis was a just a place under the water somewhere, a domed city that Aquaman and his familiar supporting cast swam before, and all that I ever registered of it were those few lead characters wandering across the page and never the city itself that their affairs were often played out within.
Atlantis was a indistinct blur, a dull collection of stereotypical representations of whatever ill-thought idea "Atlantis" was at that particular moment. It might be Atlantis as a small domed farming town, or Atlantis as a vaguely Star Trek-esque city of the future, all skyscrapers and sweeping distant going-nowhere freeways. Sometimes it was a big city, sometimes small: sometimes broad at its base and squat, sometimes not unlike Kandor in Braniac's bottle, tall elongated buildings reaching precariously high from their narrow foundations.
And if Atlantis itself was ever-changing and yet never distinct, so its people lacked a fixed and coherent identity. Sometimes the citizens were vaguely reminiscent of Ancient Greeks or Romans, sometimes they were swimming-trunk-wearing members of what seemed to be a 1950's white-suburban water-sports society. All too often, the Atlanteans seemed to have stepped off the set of a cheap TV space opera. Then, as time past, the standard science fiction clothes from central casting were occasionally supplemented by a job lot of "Romans-And-Barbarians" costumes from Late Antiquity. Add in a few walk-through appearance by mermaids, barbarians, and an ever increasing presence from superhero central, and there are the peoples of Atlantis. Except that, of course, they're not there at all.
For those people always looked so dull and uninteresting. Even when they appeared to be capable of pointing a mean ray gun or swinging a mighty why-doesn't-it-rust sword, there was little sign of class, or gender, or race, or age, or individual character. Just as the city faded indistinctly out of one never-nailed appearance into another, so its people too never came into focus. Looking back, I suspect that if Aquaman had been a TV show, the directors would be deliberately keeping their camera lenses tightly pinpointed at the faces of their leads, while forever blurring any shot when the hazy painted sets and knock-off furniture and unconvincing walk-on actors threatened to peak out from behind the talking heads.
4. Where We Went On Our Holidays
But I always knew if I was in Kirby's Asgard. Or O'Neil's underground cities around the Blackhole Bypass. Or Motter and the Hernandez Brothers' Radiant City. Or Totleben and Bissette's Louisiana swamps. Or McCloud's art-deco utopias and suburban sprawls from Zot.
But Atlantis. Take away the fact of a dome resting on the flat, featureless bottom of a sea and I have no idea what Atlantis looks like, or feels like.
And even that dome keeps constantly changing shape.
5. That Imaginary Kingdom That No-Ones Ever Really Imagined
You might ask why it matters whether Atlantis is a convincing locale. And I would answer that, on a purely emotional level, I have always enjoyed the chance to wander around fictional environments. And if a place feels real enough for me to imagine visiting there, then the adventures set there will obviously feel more involving. I'll become less of a passive spectator and far more of a participant.
And if I want to believe in a King, then he needs to have a Kingdom, and I need to believe in that Kingdom too.
6. Let's Go To Gotham, Daddy, Mummy, take us to Mega-City One
Baudelaire believed that modern cities could be stultifying environments where the routines and facts of urban existence could deaden the observer's mind. His method for seeing through the city's nullifying surface to the more interesting world beneath was the flaneur, the gentleman's stroll without purpose, whose purpose was to observe the city rather than simply pass through it. In essence, argued Baudelaire, the city was a fascinating, many-faceted world, but it needed to be approached with a careful, detached eye.
If we gentlefolk of superhero comic books were to attempt a flaneur through our various beloved fictional cities, what would we notice that marked each one out as unique and interesting? And what we would find if we wandered through Atlantis?
a. The Superhero City Because Of An Artist's style And A Familiar Locale
Sometimes, a superhero's city is made special and unique by the work of a particular artist. Our pre-existing knowledge of a city is modified and made particular to a character by an artists stylistic choices and ticks. Consider how Ditko turned New York into a world perfectly suited to Spider-Man, all roof-tops crowded with chimneys and water-towers and sky-lights, a spin on the familiar that means we always know specifically where it is we're looking at, and where we looking is always perfectly appropriate for Peter Parker's adventures. A more recent example of this can be found in, for example, Alex Maleev's take on Daredevil, where photographs of NYC are treated and used as dark seedy city backgrounds over which the costumed super-people tumble and punch.
b. The Superhero City Invented From Scratch And Recognisable Through Its Architecture And Mood
But of course superhero locales don't all need to be recognisable versions of modern day cities. Yet even futuristic cities need to be characterised by a unique and consistent - if often ever-evolving - architectural style which informs the reader when and where they are even when familiar landmarks can't be seen. Judge Dredd's Mega-City One functions in this fashion. Even when the reader can't see, for example. the colossal Statue Of Judgement, they always know what kind of city they're in. Mega-City one is therefore more than its individual landmarks, it's the combination of its huge towering round-topped city-blocks, it's crash-barrier-less highways curving across the sky, it's hopeless slums deep in the shadows of the overcity, all clothed in darkness, coated in filth and characterised by hopelessness. A perfect, and perfectly recognisable, environment for a futuristic lawman to struggle with futuristic crime against.
c. The Superhero City Marked By Its' Identifiable Landmarks
Then there are those places where we can recognise a small number of fixed and specific landmarks even if the wider world around those isn't so distinctive. Consider Chris Sprouse's portrayal of "The Stronghold" of Tom Strong on Millenium City's Anvil Street. That huge golden statue of Tom overlooking the art-deco city while the high cable cars swing too and fro before it immediately marks out for the reader where they are, and what status Tom Strong has there.
Perez's Avengers' Mansion, the Edith Wharton-era townhouse with the super-hero portraits on every inch of every wall. Ditko's Greenwich Village home for Dr Strange. The Daily Planet building topped by that huge beringed globe. The comic-book city is constructed around such key landmarks, which we, on our saunters, would seek out as all good tourists must.
d. The Superhero City Marked By Its Recognisable Mood
Finally, we have those bases of superhero operations where the mood is everything. Gotham City itself is always malign and hopeless, whether we see it portrayed as an everyday American city or some futuristic or Gothic representation of such. Gotham is Gotham because its despairing mood is all. In Frank Miller's and Dave Mazzucchelli's "Batman: Year One", we see nothing of Gotham that looks any different from, say, everyday Chicago or New York. But the atmosphere is constantly and consistently intensely oppressive. As James Gordan rides the train into Gotham, the panels are as bled of colour as they could be: it's as if a pea-souper smog had invaded everywhere at Gotham's ground level, and Gordon's narration underlines the theme of despair; "Gotham City. Maybe it's all I deserve now. Maybe it's my time in Hell."
e. And All Of The Wonders Above Together
In reality, of course, all the four methods of making a fictional city distinct and appropriate to its heroes tend to be combined in practise to one degree to another. But can we recall many - if any - examples of Atlantis being given such a 'distinct and appropriate' identity? Has any one artist ever created a definitive Atlantis? Has an architectural style been constructed to allow Atlantis to be signified to the reader? Have any distinctive and consistent landmarks been established? Is there a specific mood that's been associated with Atlantis that's pertinent to Aquaman's adventures there?
Yet worlds we want to visit and revisit time after time after time have key landmarks we want to experience. Writers and editors may now often see such landmarks as objects to destroy to raise the stakes of jeopardy, but we wanderers of the superhero cities on our flaneur would like to, say, walk the long walk out to the X-Mansion in Westchester County and not find it long bordered up and abandoned. We'd appreciate it if Avengers Mansion was still solid and functioning. We want a world we recognise, so that we can better understand and empathise with what happens there.
But if Atlantis was destroyed, how, beyond its' crater and the absence of a vaguely city-like city, would we know? What buildings would there be to mourn the loss of?
And so why should we care if we never get to wander there again? We've got lots of other places to wander around. Like gentlefolk.
7. Born In A Light-House, Rests On A Throne
I can recall just one moment when it I was convicned that Atlantis is a wondrous place, and that effect was achieved not by showing me the physical appearance of the undersea city, but rather what it meant emotionally to Aquaman. In "Super-Friends" # 27, Aquaman is taking his fellow cartoon-series stars to his home " .... Poseidonis, the Greatest City of Atlantis!" It's not a melodramatic scene at all, just a quiet few pages where Aquaman ruminates on his past and his feelings. But between a disciplined script from E. Nelson Bridwell and some lovely expressive art from Ramoda Fradon, we get a strong sense of how much Atlantis, and in particular Poseidonis, means to Arthur Curry. (The script is a wonder of concision, giving a touching summary of Aquaman's origin and background in three - just three - panels!) And Aquaman is obviously immensely proud of Poseidonis, and immensely fond of his friends and family who live there. He explains how his mother and father died, and how his half-brother loathes him; Aquaman's wistful expression as he says this and looks forward to the city said to me that he was utterly alone before he found Poseidonis, and that this city had been his saviour. Home, at last.
So to me, that's what Atlantis is, the city where Aquaman found shelter and succour when everything else was lost. That's what Atlantis means. It's home, the adored home of a lonely refugee and a weary exile. It's a wonderful place.
And when one day Atlantis is given its mood, it's landmarks and its own architectural style, that's the Atlantis I hope I'll see.
8. We Like To Be There When We Can
So, if Aquaman is the King Of Atlantis, then his relationship with his city needs to be a far more positive one than is so often depicted. If Atlantis is the city and the nation which sheltered Aquaman when he had nowhere else to go, then as a King he should be her unabashed and fond protector. Atlantis should function as an ideal to Aquaman as much as a physical place, in the way that America still is to so many immigrants today. Atlantis should be Ellis Island and The Statue Of Liberty, the Empire State Building and Ground Zero at The World's Trade Centre, those places which speak of Empire and haven and the sacrifices of power. Because that's what Atlantis was to Arthur, and I think that Aquaman would be incapable of denying others the shelter and the opportunities that he's so benefitted from.
Atlantis is a city not on a hill, but under the sea. It's a symbol of hope, and of inclusion, and of a modernity tempered with respect for tradition. If it has its mystic tombs and magical cults of evil wizards, its warlords and seperatists - and it would need to in order to generate conflict for story-telling - it has more humanists and teachers, peace-keepers and bridge-builders.
It's a good place to live and a fine neighbour to have, even if there are some strange and dangerous things that sometimes go on there. It's a place you would like to visit, perhaps even stay. You'd be proud to have your kids study there, you'd want your nation allied to it, and you'd be disturbed if you heard of some subterreanen lizard cult gaining influence there.
9. The Wider Geo-Political Implications Of The Emotional State Of Atlantis
In Points On A Curve 2, we discussed how well Aquaman's Atlantis suited the role of "Sworn protectorate of over fifteen thousand submarine states". An Atlantis taking an active, leading part in a vast undersa alliance would be perfectly in keeping with Arthur's awareness that the life of the exile and the immigrant is a thankless one. Haven't superheroes always been concerned with protecting the weak against the strong? It would be the external expression of his internal self for Aquaman to led such a protectorate. And as "Aquaman: Sword Of Atlantis" showed us, the world beneath the waves is a damn dangerous one. Atlantis as a benign Rome facing the truly-barbarian hordes? (Especially when many of the barbarians would no doubt come from the great nations of the overseas world.) Why not? It feels as if it makes sense.
And it's not as if Peter David hadn't already focused on the potential for Atlantis and the undersea world to be a military power, David, after all, had Aquaman and his allies beating off an alien invasion without any help from topside of the waves. When the BEM's arrive, it's to Aquaman and his men and women the world would look to first to wheel out the big arms and the big armies.
10. Imperial Atlantis
And here the nature of this Atlantis certainly does throw up some hints about what Atlantis's political form and physical appearance might be. A state at the heart of a substantial military-alligned confenderation has several options of how to play its role, and Imperial Athens offers the best "how-not-do-it" example. In the wake of the Persian Invasions of Ancient Greece, from 490 to 480 BC, Athens organised the Athenian League, a mutual-defence pact between 140 Greek cities. Although Athens was the preminent power in the League, decisions were made on democractic basis of one-state, one vote, and the League's common treasury was held on the religiously important and politically unimportant island of Delos.
But as time passed, Athens decided that the League's taxes should go to herself, and the Treasury itself was removed from Delos. Soon taxes raised from military allies were being spent on great building projects in Athens and any city-state who objected, or even tried to resign from the League, felt the alliance's might turned against them. Athens in her arrogance went from first-among-equals to Imperial overlord, and the seeds of her own eventual fall were sown.
Being at the centre " ... of over fifteen thousand submarine states" would be a wieghty responsibility as well as a great honour for Atlantis, and a great temptation too. The moment the Imperial monuments start going up in Atlantis is the moment after the rot has settled in.
But a militarised Imperial Atlantis would still be an interesting place to visit. Even if the surface world as well as the undersea confederation was witholding its taxes, and King Aquaman was in hiding secretely planning a war on the generals who'd seized power in his city.
The King's city.