Sunday, 28 March 2010

Some Fantastic Place No 3: Like Gloria Steinem Said: Wonder Woman # 40 & 41

I do have a problem with any Wonder Woman that hasn't been produced by Charles Moulton, a man who was so patently out there that anything sent back to Planet Earth from Planet Moulton - aka Planet "Huh?-What-Was-That-Again?" - is worthy of our baffled and engrossed attention. Consider this quote from Moulton taken from a letter written to the historian of comic books Coulton Waugh, as quoted in Les Daniels's "Wonder Woman: The Complete History";

"Frankly, Wonder Woman is psychological propaganda for the new type of woman who should, I believe, rule the world. There isn't love enough in the male organism to run this planet peacefully. Woman's body contains twice as many love generating organs and endocrine mechanisms as the male. What woman lacks is the dominance or self-assertive power to put over and enforce her love desires. I have given Wonder Woman this dominant force but have kept her loving, tender, maternal and feminine in every other way."

I have no idea what a love generating organ is, or how it can be measured to establish how much more love it produces than the male equivilant, but just reading Moulton's words gives me something of a psychedelic high. As a feminist, I can't help but believe that sexual and gender equality should be built on something more rigorous than "love generating organs", and I'm as uncomfortable with the idea that women should rule the world as I am with that which argues men should, but reality does looks more intense, more meaningful, and, frankly, just that little bit more charmingly bonkers through Charles Moulton's eyes.

I have a strong sense that Mr Moulton's Wonder Woman fulfills a similar purpose to his other major invention, the systolic blood-pressure test or "lie detector". Both super-heroine and lie detector can be used, I'd contend, to help uncover what sort of person a subject might actually be, although issues of Golden Age Wonder Woman comics are more reliable scientifically in this process than even the most advanced lie detector. For it is my deeply-held contention, backed up by years of opinionated experience, that anyone who declares that they aren't fascinated by the early Moulton/Harry G Peters stories is a dull dud of a reader, and quite possibly a dull dud of a person too.

Now, here's a guide to how you can use these early Golden Age Wonder Woman stories to discover the truth about even a somebody who you barely know;

You (interrogating): "Have you read "Battle For Womanhood" from Wonder Woman #5 from July 1943?"

Subject: "I have."

You: "Who else except for Wonder Woman appears in the story?"

Subject: "Er. George Washington?"

You: "Who else?"

Subject: "That really small evil scientist with the big head?"

You: "Dr Psycho. Yes. (Pause for breath.) Would you agree with me that this story was absolutely fascinating?"

Subject: "No. Not really ... "

And here Charles Moulton's invention of the fascination detector, or "Wonder Woman" as we civilians know it as, reveals the true nature of your interviewee, for a "Not really .." answer objectively reveals several things about this subject. Either (a) they don't know what "fascinating" means, or (b) they are a strangely unimaginative and obtuse individual. We shall have none of the cultural relativism here which holds elsewhere in my blogs. There is only one acceptable response to the Wonder Woman produced by Charles Moulton and his collaborators between 1941 and 1947. These stories are empirically fascinating. They may not always be narratively exciting, and they may not always be exactly fun. Lord knows, they're often absolutely barking and they're regularly ridiculous. And after a while, the sense of repetition does begin to grate.

But. But Moulton's unique and often absurd fusion of Freudianism and Feminism, of bondage and submission and various other sundry and wondersome sexual perversities, and the sheer utter intellectualised oddness of his scripts, must serve to help indicate how engaged or otherwise an individuals brain is. If you can't play around on Planet Moulton in the Wonder Woman exhibits, and feel exceedingly fascinated while you're there, then something is seriously wrong with your intellectual curiosity. With, indeed, your intellect.

I know I'm out on a limb here, but stick with me.

But of Wonder Woman since Moulton's premature death in 1947? Ah, I have endless problems with the many, many takes on Princess Diana since then. (Perhaps a "Points On The Curve" about Wonder Woman might be an appropriate way to engage with those concerns.) But Mart at the estimable "Too Dangerous For A Girl" review blog, which you should visit as soon as you're finished here using the link to your right in the "Comic Book Role Of Honour (UK)" list, inspired me to check out Gail Simone and Aaron Lopresti's two-part adventure "A Murder Of Crows" in DC's current "Wonder Woman" # 40 and 41. Will we discover any pleasing moments there-in? And shall we approach the material through the tiara-shaped window or the amazonian bracelet-shaped one?

You decide.

Pleasing Moment No. 1. Wonder Woman seems to have acquired a troop of intelligent, talking great apes as a bodyguard. This is an obviously fine idea. It's both absurd and simultaneously appropriate, for Moulton himself would have approved of having such an obvious symbol of male brute force under Diana's tempering control. It's also touching to see that Wonder Woman is both strong enough and kind enough to inspire loyalty and obedience from a very large and very powerful white ape. It's a wonderful conceit. I hope these apes all have their own invisible planes and invisible parachutes too. With invisible guns which fire purple-healing rays.

And I love the way that that gorilla enjoys his ears being scratched.

Pleasing Moment No. 2.
Ah, that ridiculous breast-plate and those star-spangled knickers. What was charming when Mr Peters was drawing Princess Diana in the 1940s, give or take a slightly-more tasteful skirt and the occasional skin-shielding cloak, often looks at best absurd and at worst tacky and titillating when most "realistic" super-hero artists tackle it. Yet Mr Lopresti here avoids prurience, bless him, and even the threatening sheen of camp silliness. Instead, his Wonder Woman is an athlete, her few clothes a functional uniform freeing her extremities for the purpose of flinging them around at super-villains and Nazi storm-troopers.

And thankfully there's nothing sexualised at all about this Princess Diana. She's strong and she's beautiful, but she's not projecting her sexuality to exert power over others nor conforming to anyone elses' demands as to what a woman should be. I have regularly cringed and raged when Wonder Woman has been portrayed as a pair of preternaturally large breasts flying around beneath some wide be-lashed child's eyes and above a pair of hips which a twelve year girl might find constrictingly narrow. But this, this feels innocent to me, in the best sense of the word. (Indeed, in the above panel, I can even accept that daft breast-place, for this Diana, it seems to me, would be determined to wear a daft breast-place if she felt it symbolised something important, such as her Wonder Woman Foundation.)

And, forgive me if I speak from the distant and socially conservative days of the mid-70s and my youth, but I can't help but feel that Wonder Woman should regularly be seen comforting small children. Isn't that what super-heroes are for, comforting small children, in age or in spirit? There is a place for the Wolverines and Punishers of the superhero community, slashing off limbs with their bloody claws and blowing holes through communities of gangsters with their very big and noisy guns. But there's also much to be said for a strong, calm woman who can reassure a small girl and boy that a train-eating, Central American God-worm has gone now.

Pleasing Moment No. 3. I'm entranced by Wonder Woman's stance in this panel. She looks as if she were stepping back and taking a breath after sternly if quietly scolding a small dog that has run its claws up the side of a old sofa. That she's staring rather at a gargantuan Mesoamerican deity who she's just compelled to vomit up an entire ingested subway train serves to underline how very powerful she is. She doesn't need to pose. She knows that she's worthy of respect, both according to her rank and because of her achievements. And our Mesoamerican god Quetzlotl certainly agrees. I love the way that he knows her, that he is respectful of her, and that he apparently genuflects while speaking her title: "I am sorry, Princess." Ms Simone's sense of how important Princess Diana is is charmingly understated, in that there's no reeling off of endless titles and mythical protocols, but the point is clear. This is a very important (Wonder) Woman.

And of course Princess Diana, daughter of Queen Hippolyta of The Amazons, would be known by the great deities of Central America, and by those of everywhere else too. That juxtaposition of the mythical and the contemporary, the mundane city-scape and the mystical train-eating deity, that's something which suffused the more modest designs of Mr's Moulton and Peters. And I'm pleased to see it's spirit here, almost 70 years after Wonder Woman's first appearance.

Pleasing Moment No. 4. In her famous introduction to the 1972 hardback collection of Charles Moulton Wonder Woman adventures, the then-stratospherically-famous feminist Gloria Steinem touchingly explained how she became so enamoured of Wonder Woman at the age of 8. "No longer did I have to pretend to like the "pow!" and "crunch!" style of Captain Marvel or the Green Hornet ... Here was a heroic person who might conquer with force, but only a force that was tempered by love and justice." And here we see those qualities of strength and restraint still extant as Diana gracefully sways to avoid the haymakers thrown by the far more aggressive Power Girl. I love how, contrary to superhero tradition, Lopresti avoids drawing Diana's face as being contorted with teeth-grinding rage. In fact, how remarkably benign her face is, relaxed almost to the point of contempt while facing an opponent who has previously punched her into Canada. This is battle as strategy, not a test of determination and machismo, not a question of ego and rage but a matter of calculation and will and regret. This is not, on the whole, how men fight. And all the better for it.

I think that Mr Moulton, and Ms Steinem, would have approved of the spirit, if not necessarily the form, of this panel. Huzzah to Ms Simone and Mr Lopresti.

Pleasing Moment No. 5.
As we already discussed in "Some Fantastic Place No 1", "Spooky little killer children are always entertaining villains." And these little horrors, in their school uniforms almost straight out of "Village Of The Damned", the 1960 film adaption of John Wyndham's "The Midwich Cuckoos", provide us with a pleasingly beguiling mixture of malice and good manners. (I can't say that I approve of how Diana eventually punishes them, however. Too many years in the English school system has made it impossible for me to approve of extra-judicial corporal punishment, or "spanking" to be disturbingly explicit. )

Result: For my mind, a pseudo-realistic superhero universe is still an uncomfortably inappropriate environment for Wonder Woman to play out her adventures in. Like poor old Captain Marvel, I can't help but feel that she is a creature of fancy and fairy tale, far better suited in some ways to guest-starring with Rupert The Bear than with the grim'n'gritty super-heroics of the contemporary DC Universe. But I will happily concede that if she must continue to be shoe-horned into this flatter, less magical landscape than that of her creator's original imaginings, then Ms Simone and Mr Lopresti's vision is both respectful and entertaining. Which is, I must say, a result. Huzzah!


Wednesday, 24 March 2010

Yet Trouble Came: David Low & "Very Well Alone"


Things were bad, and then they got worse. I had no idea of how they could ever get better. It was so tough that I read the Book Of Job for comfort. I thought that if I could stare into that bleakness without Job's faith in God, I'd toughen myself up for the days and days and days to come.

But The Book Of Job is no text to test a lack of faith against.

"I was not in safety, neither had I rest, neither was I quiet; yet trouble came."

And it did.


It was so cold that Christmas that I couldn't hold my palm flat against the window pane of my attic flat.

Why was I trying to keep my palm flat against that freezing glass?

Who knows?


The days stayed that way for longer than I could tell you, and of course it felt like it lasted forever.

I started to consider charms. Icons. Symbols which, if they couldn't inspire me, could remind me that there was such a thing as inspiration.

I taped a C-90 of my very favourite records. I stacked my most beloved dozen books on the nesting table beside my bed. I spent money that I should have spent on food on photo-copying the 25 most moving panels from the comic books that had affected me most. I bought little Corinthian football figures of my favourite players from that season of 1995/6 and set them out in a 4-4-2 formation on the old dressing table. I picked the happiest, friendliest action figures I had packed away and set them out to smile their Super-Friends' smiles at me from the window sill.

And I took my ancient copy of David Low's magisterial cartoon "Very Well Alone", drawn for The Evening Standard in the most hopeless days of World War Two, and I placed it in a rickety little brass picture frame that I'd swapped in an Oxfam charity shop for some old academic text-books. And wherever I was, I'd quietly slip it from the plastic carrier bag I kept it in, and I'd stare at it.

And it would stare back.


There's no hope in "Very Well Alone", but there is defiance. The odds are impossible, the enemy irresistible. The sea will wash the soldier away even before the swarms of bombers arrive. But my God that Tommy there is going to fight until he dies.


Low drew the cartoon in June 1940, when the continent had fallen to the armies of Nazi Germany, when the invasion of Britain was considered by many to be imminent and inevitable and - perhaps - irresistible. The majority of the British Army had been successfully evacuated from mainland Europe, but it had been forced to leave pretty much all of its equipment behind. "I tingled when I drew it." Low would recall in his "Autobiography" of the cartoon, and it's easy to see why, for the cartoon is brilliantly audacious in its lack of consolation. It transmuted the spirit of Churchill's immortal speech to the House Of Parliament on June 4th 1940, though in the two weeks between that and the publication of "Very Well Alone", France had surrendered and the situation seemed immeasurably worse;

"We shall go on to the end ... we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender .... "

And as time passed, I realised that what moved me so in Low's wonderful cartoon was the conviction that life wasn't about winning. It wasn't about survival. It wasn't about comfort or promise or boy-loses-girl or boy's-lost-friends or anything that I'd previously considered important.

It was all about defiance.


I have no idea how things got better. Years had to pass, but they did. I never found what Camus called his "invincible summer", but eventually I got by.


One year ago, my wife and I visited the Cartoon Museum in London's Little Russell Street. And there, to my surprise and amazement, I found the original of my other favourite cartoon of Low's from 1940, "All Behind You, Winston". I laughed out loud, and then I kept on laughing. It was so unexpected, and so inexpressibly precious. It was impossible to believe that this was the paper he'd worked on, the white paint and India ink he'd so skillfully applied, the finished work he'd have delivered to the Evening Standard's offices on May 13th 1940. And it was similarly impossible to drag myself away. I admire no artist, let alone no cartoonist, as I do David Low.

My wife took several pictures of me standing before "All Behind You, Winston". The flash caught in the glass front of the cabinet, but that's OK. I have a photograph of me and an original masterpiece by Low, the cartoonist so brilliant, so wonderfully offensive to the ignorant and the homicidal of all and any nations, so funny and bright.

And defiant.


And then we left for our hotel, and packed, and caught the train home, where our cats were waiting with all the howling complaints that cats are compelled to make when their pets return.

To my mind, David Low is the greatest political and social cartoonist that there's ever been. It's shameful that there's only the excellent "Low & The Dictators" by Timothy Benson that's still in print. Low's "Autobiography" can still be bought for a few pounds second-hand. But if you can, I urge you to acquire Colin Seymour-Ure & Jom Schoff's "David Low" from 1985. It is the knees of the bee.


Wednesday, 17 March 2010

He Even Took His Socks Off! Why We Long To Be The Hero Revealed, And Yet Not The Hero.

1. I Love You More When You're Undressed

There are moments when I wish to partially undress in front of strangers.

No. Please. Wait a minute!

It isn't quite like that.

Let me explain.

2 The Hero Revealed, Not The Hero.

My wife is convinced that I want to be a super-hero. She's sure that if only I was a little fitter, my ligaments less pingable, my short stubby legs less like two chipolata sausages bent awkwardly in half to approximate knees, that I would have the Lycra and the thigh-high boots dragged on at the drop of a car-alarm.

But I don't think that I want to be a super-hero. At least, I don't think that I do. I've given the matter some considerable thought across a significant portion of my 47 years on Earth, and I think that what I actually want to be is be a super-hero at that moment of the action when the hero's existence is revealed.

I want to be in that moment when my chubby little, not-suitable-for-guitar-playing, fingers rip apart the front of my Premierman extra-large shirt to reveal my identity-defining insignia beneath. (I don't actually know what insignia that would be, actually, but I have no doubt I'll be compelled to give the matter some serious thought now. If anybody might care to design one, I'll wear it in my heart forever.) I want to see fear mixed with significant, almost adulatory, respect on the faces of the people I'm showing my top under-garments to. And then I want whoever it is that's been shown my vest and the symbol scrawled on it to just go away. I'm not too concerned how they do it. Running away in fear and terror swearing never to return would be acceptable, as long as they're not being too loud in their distress, because that always attracts attention. Backing off trying to look undaunted while leaving the neighbourhood with surly expressions would be tolerable: I know some folks have a surfeit of pride. And to tell the truth, I'd even be happy with a nod of the head, a swift non-demonstrative apology, a shake of the hands and a promise on the evil-doers part never to darken my tiny little hometown ever again.

I don't care who they are. Super-villains. Robert Mugabe. Anti-social drunk footballers in early middle age thinking the concrete balls outside the Hawthorn Hotel should be hauled into their deer-killing family tanks and taken home as a trophy of diminishingly-potent masculinity. That bloke at the end of our road who covers his flower beds with tautly-affixed black plastic bags and leaves his garden like that all year round. (I mean, why? Why?) It doesn't matter who they are, all I care about is that they go away.

But actually striping off the rest of the clothes and trading punches with the ne'er-do-wells before me? It's not on, really. The simple logistics are too challenging. I am a man who regularly stumbles and trips his way across the bedroom floor like a one-legged ex-ballet dancer hopping in his sleep simply by trying to take off his socks at night, and who never remembers to make something other than his socks the last thing to be removed. I have actually several times managed to twist my ankle while standing still. This is true. So public undressing while preparing to engage in superhuman - or even standard-issue ordinary human - combat is a bad idea.

But far more importantly, hitting people has consequences. And I suspect that most people who like super-heroes have a profound dislike of consequences, of responsibility beyond the bills and the housework, of the real and threatening world beyond their doorstep.

I mean, if you hit someone, if you really hit someone, it never ends. It has consequences. And comics tell us this. How many times has Batman to capture the Joker again before we all learn that partial disrobery and violence isn't the solution?*

* Though neither is the chosen solution of the testosterone-positive minority of "I've-missed-the-point" fans who feel that Batman ought to just execute his arch-enemy. What is wrong with these people? Have they never heard of the Law Of Character Perpetuation? Kill off one smiling white faced smiling psychopath and pretty soon they'll be another one just like him, but with even less history and questionable charm.

3. Not Thinking About My Superhero Career, Baby

The aching bones, the swollen muscles, the twisted ankles, the wrenched backs, the burnt retinas, the post-traumatic stress disorder, the guilt, the shame, the endless and irreducible responsibility, the anxiety, the constant worry about whether we look good in unforgiving Lycra.

As I have tried to explain to my long-suffering wife, racing the onset of the inevitable "Oh not comics again" cognitive protective process that causes her eyes to glaze over and her left hand to reach out for a gardening magazine, being a superhero is an unbelievably hard job. I don't think we'd want that job.

I wouldn't. I wouldn't want to be hunted down through the gutters of Apokolips, no matter how glorious the cause that brought me there. I wouldn't want to be standing in front of an exasperated Hulk, wondering why until that point I'd never noticed my mutant ability to unconsciously retract my testicles to a quivering point directly behind my lil'man-nipples.

I always imagine that iconic Steve Ditko/Stan Lee sequence where an exhausted Spider-Man, tormented by the certain death of his Aunt May if he allows himself to be trapped, hauls an unbelievable weight of machinery and debris off of himself. It's possibly the most involving, most moving example of action in Spider-Man's almost 50 years of comic-book existence, but as a middle-aged man who struggles to haul himself in and out of a very low-rent gym every day, because I pretty much have no choice in the matter, all I can think of when I review those pages is: "That is going to hurt in the morning. No amount of deep heat and shallow exhausted sleep is going to untweek those biceps. Peter Parker, my young lad, you have got to start taking better care of yourself."

For, yes, I think we'd all like to be the Spider-Man who has just thrown tons of Ditko-debris away and freed himself from certain death, who stands in the moment of triumph, the devil behind him, sweet victory ahead. But the Spider-Man who had to exceed super-hero design specifications to free himself? The Spider-Man who has to try to stand up afterwards and, worse yet, walk forwards while his muscles spasm and his nerves start to send the signal to begin numbing up the surface of his skin?

No. You don't want to be that Spider-Man, not really. At least, I don't think you do. I certainly don't.

4. His Back, His Poor Scarred Back

There's a touching scene in an old Batman story by Alan Brennert and Joe Staton where Catwoman sees the Bruce Wayne's naked back for the first time and flinches because it's a patchwork quilt of scar tissue, impact wounds, and all the other visible manifestations of 40 years of impromptu battlefield surgery. (You'll find it in "The Brave And The Bold" # 197, from 1983) It's a scene which has been "homaged" time and time again over the years since, most notably in an Alex Ross black and white poster page, though Ross chose to graphically show what Brennert and Staton only referred to. It's a mark of Brennert's almost entirely unrecognised brilliance as a comic-book writer that he nailed something which everyone who read it must have immediately recognised as "right" and "true" for the character, and yet pretty much no-one would have thought of it before. For being a superhero, particularly for "normal" folks, as we so often laughably think of The Batman, could only come at the most terrible and traumatic physical cost.

We may be used to the idea now that most sane folks wouldn't want to be the Batman outside of a temporary immersion into a computer game. But I'm not sure that all of us who continue to dabble in this strange little hybrid genre of ours have quite cottoned onto the idea that it isn't simply Batman whose super-hero life would be an unending trauma. It would be all of them. All of them. Physically progressively broken down, mentally scared and with a high probability of early-onset neurological disorders, they would all be, sooner rather than later, hobbling around, confused about who they are and wondering where they were going.

Because that's what happens when people fight all the time, when they're in a consistent state of heightened anxiety and awareness. Alan Brennert opened a right can of worms with that one panel all those years ago. He pointed at something which the genre still hasn't - no matter how many painkillers Daredevil so injudiciously guzzles down - come to terms with, and probably never will. Perhaps it simply can't.

Human beings, and pretty much all of the super-human beings too, weren't made to be in the trenches of a never-ending apocalyptic war. Not whether its a war on super-crime, super-gods, or whatever other overwhelmingly evil opponent you might think of.

But of course I'm telling you something you already know. Doc Samson is the single most over-worked mental health professional on Marvel Earth. Night Nurse? Never gets to sleep, has to drink from a drip while she sets an endless line of broken superhero femurs. Dr Midnight? Is really called that because he never gets out of superhero surgery until the witching hour at least.

And the closer and closer superhero comics get to the event horizon of their spurious if-often-affecting obsession with "realism", the more this central fact of the realities of human anatomy and psychology will loom as the elephant in the room:

These folks should all be dead. 100 times over. Dead, dead, dead. Deader than Deadman.

And he's really dead. As far as dead comic book characters go.

Which isn't very dead, really. But there you go.

5. If We Don't Believe That That's Violence, What's All That Violence For?

The truth of the matter is, of course, that one of the least important ingredients of a superhero comics is the violence. We know this. If it were the violence that sells, then it'd be a simple matter to conquer the Diamond Top 10. Now, this would seem counter-intuitive to many folks who'd never willingly turn the glossy cover of a costume-and-cape book over unless mockery was their mission in mind, but it's so. And I think we can establish this with the simple expedient of looking at the work and extreme popularity of Brian Bendis, who, with the odd visceral dismemberment of Olympic deities aside, actually tends not to push his artists in the direction of mindless, page-after-page violence. Sometime is indeed going on here, Mr and Mrs Jones, but you really don't know what it means. Because there's a secret that superhero fans have keep quietly to themselves, and even from themselves, for decades now. A counter-intuitive truth that anybody contemptuous of the underpants-over-their-tights brigade would never consider.

Whisper it. Superhero comics aren't really about superheroes, or superheroes and supervillians fighting each other, although the colours of the spangly uniforms and the Kirby-krackle spitting off their powers are fascinating and exciting in their own way. Because if Superman belly-pokes the Toyman with his super-strong Kryptonian finger, we superhero fans aren't really that interested in who's going win. We know who's going to win. The children of the 1940s might have been concerned that Captain America or The Red Bee might loose their life in battle. But readers aren't worried now. We're older, more media-savvy and we've been reading these comics for so long now that we can reel off a whole series of case-series where capes have died and returned to life before the hearse was even filled up with petrol and checked for oil.

So what do we want, if we don't want endless scenes of mindless violence?

I mean, what's the point of all that muscle if it isn't driving someones nose into someones brain? (It could be the brain of the person who owned the nose. It could be somebody else's brain. The nose could have been removed from its' owner body. The nose might not have been. But the question remains the same.)

6. Civil War: Civil Disobedience In The Name Of Irresponsibility

When Marvel Comics ran their elephantine cross-over event "Civil War", it was billed as a battle between those who supported the comic book US Government's demand for the super-powered to register their identity with them, and those who refused to do so in the name of individual freedom. And of course most readers were appalled at the idea that the likes of Spider-Man and Squirrel Girl would have to give up their secret identities and possibly go to work for the man.

But I don't believe the popular response had anything to do with a libertarian versus state power conflict. It can't have. Anyone with half a brain in their heads, or at least one without a nose inserted into it, could see that any government would be utterly irresponsible if it allowed masked super-powered vigilantes to roam their streets. Governments protect the rule of law, not Daredevil's right to pop out on a whim and whack anyone he suspects of being really rather bad.

No. The fan's objection to Super-Hero Registration in Civil War was rooted in something far more prosaic. For most fan's like to imagine popping out, bashing a few anti-social louts smoking outside the late-hours supermarket, and then dashing back for a cup of tea and Newsnight. The idea that they might have to clear their lout-bashing with someone, or explain their actions to a professional superhero manager, or put in some mandated community hours patrolling the town's all-day summer music festival while cider-drinking punk rockers shout obscenities at their colourfully-attired backs; that's what the objection was about.

Because there's as many reasons for the popularity of superheroes as there are people reading superhero comics. But certainly one of them is the straight-forward appeal of irresponsibility. We don't want so much to fight crimes or right wrongs as fight some crimes very occasionally when we can be bothered and when it doesn't cause too much fuss and bother.

7. Except For The Real Nutters Of Course

Of course, there are a small number of comic fans who would take whatever super-powers they could get and embark upon a killing spree the likes of which only the Great Dictators of the Twentieth century could match. These are the posters who type in really big capitals GIVE SUPERMAN HIS MASCULINITY BACK, by which they mean "Have him kill lots of people". And if I ever seem a little contemptuous of all those, like myself, whose superheroic dreams only go as far as clipping a few surly teenagers round the ear as they ask for 20p for some ciggies outside the newsagents of a Tuesday night - and without saying 'please' I might add - then don't let me obscure the fact that a healthy society is better served by idle would-be superheroes than potential mass murderers dreaming of proving their manhood by flash-frying all and sundry with their stupid-vision powers.

8. A Return To The Point About Exhibitionism

And that's where my idle daydreams of flashing my fearsome chest-insignia at threatening criminals come into play. Because the insignia of super-heroes have a simple purpose, beyond the cash-raking practises of modern marketing. The insignia is the equivalent of a really big, mean dog's growl. It wins the fight before it's started by letting everyone know exactly what's going to happen before it needs to happen at all. In a world where would-be urban gangsters push strangers into the road to avoid their attack dogs, where roads are a stage to allow scowling louts to wander in front of cars while sneering that "What you gonna do about it?" look that can strip a bonnet of paint and a man's face of a long-cultivated beard, in a world where neighbours come to blows about grass that's too high and borders that are too broad; that colourful symbol of "I'm gonna whoop you sucker" would be worth it's weight in gold.

Until of course that lover of wild flowers and high looping grass rips open her shirt too and reveals her own badge of super-poweredness, because then we'd have to fight. And if we wanted to be fighting, if we really wanted to be fighting, we probably wouldn't have been designing our chest-symbols in the first place. Or dreaming of the deterrent effect of selective super-hero undressing. We'd just be out there punching people.

And I suspect that for alot of us, the slight desire to actively fight the good fight is actually the desire to not have to fight the good fight at all. We don't want to change the world so much as be left alone by it.

Which is quite rightly a sin by the lights of political activism. But not so sinful once the day has already been filled with nappies, the school run, the plumbing, the bills, the cats, the bats, the aspirins to ward off heart attacks, the stumbling across the carpet naked except for two socks and a pair of glasses.

Listen to me, you. Gggggrrrrrrrr.

Good doggie. Doggie go home. Me doggie go home. Work on trouser-and-sock removal 'stead of fighting.

9. Ah. More Socks, And Superhero Socks too

Warren Ellis is a crafty devil. For someone who's public persona would have him spending all his time endorsing deviant sex, psychedelic indulgence and non-conformist anti-state agitation, he really has spent alot of time thinking about what superhero fans want from their comic books. (Perhaps because superhero comics aren't by his own admission anywhere near his favourite kind cup of tea.) Underneath the cutting-edge scientific concepts, the smart "I'm a rebel me" dialogue and the widescreen ultra-violence, there's also some charming staples of superhero convention hiding in plain sight. There's always a secret base, some measure of sentimental team-bonding, and, in "Ultimate Secret", the best superhero-changing-clothes scene in many a long year. The details of why and where aren't relevant to enjoying the moment where Captain Marvel (2005 version) disrobes in preparation for activating his Kree battlesuit. For not only is the scene a collection of snippets evoking most every great "where can I change" scene in superhero history, it's also a significant innovator, for Ellis and Steve McNiven have remembered the importance of socks in this vital moment of transition from mortal to super-mortal. And it's the little touches like this that matter, those previously unthought of moments which tell us so much about the character concerned. Look, he can't even leave his socks on. Captain Marvel has to be naked before he can flash anything at anyone. Which again is counter-intuitive, but, for all of those too sock-challenged to pull something like this off before combat, admirable too.

9. The Hero Revealed
It's when Arthur pulls Excalibur from the stone we love him most. Everyone around him can see that he's the King. He's won the battle without doing any more than waving the sword around. Before him is the slaughter of the children, the fall of Camelot, the betrayal of Guinevere with Lancelot. But in the moment he held that sword, he must have felt that there wasn't a soul in this world or any other that wouldn't back off the moment he lowered Excalibur in their direction.

Safe at last, sword in hand. The worst long before him, a distant future when folks know that he holds Excalibur, and yet don't back off at all.

Sunday, 14 March 2010

Some Fantastic Place No 2: What The World Looks Like When We're Feeling Better: Superman/Batman: The Search For Kryptonite

Nothing ever looks so real and beautiful as the world does when a painful illness is passing. I recall listening to my wife's chickens scratching away at the flower beds beneath our bedroom window one summer as I was becoming able to both hear and walk properly again after an unexpected and disconcerting ear virius. Nothing ever sounded as good as those daft chickens did then. And I suspect that in the highly unlikely event that anyone will ever write my biography - I think I'd have to turn to serious levels of mass murder to inspire such a thing - the "Rosebud" moment could well be the sound of those chickens, their beaks raking the soil, their communal "buk-buk-buk" rising and falling in volume like the well-practised chanting of a chain-gang, as I realise that I can hear them.

Never liked those chickens much before. Can't say I like them that much now. But one man's snow sledge is anothers' chicken-squawking and scratching.

And I'm telling you this because it's another potential 'Rosebud' moment that caught my eye and made me think in "Superman: Batman: The Search For Kryptonite", just one panel of apples that made me glad I'd read the graphic novel and which gave me something to think about after I'd returned the book back to my local library.

Our Pleasing Moment:
Things have not been going well for Superman in "The Search Of Kryptonite". Lana Lang has exploded a thousand dirty Kryptonite bombs in order to protect LexCorps store of the glowing green and radioactive material from Superman. (Don't ask. It's painfully like watching family or close friends arguing. Just go into the next room and think about the summer or something until it's over.) With the Earth now utterly poisonous to Superman, it's left to the Toyman to clean up the planet's atmosphere so that Kal-El can come home.

So far, so-so. But then, out of the blue, as we are told that the Toyman has cleared the Earth of all traces of Lana's Kryptonite - no, don't ask, because I am really not talking about it! - is a tall vertical panel of ripe apples on the branch. And that immediately slows down the narrative and forces us to wonder what's going on. Why are those apples there? And it dawns on me then that we're suddenly being shown as well as told that the Earth really is clean of Kryptonite, a difficult trick to do when all that Kryptonite was in the form of " ... a microscopic film". The story-telling shifts a little step to the left from its literal, traditional style for just for that page, and becomes something more quietly imaginative and less obvious. Coming across those apples is like tripping up when out walking while preocccupied by everyday troubles: catching your balance, you find your musing concentration is broken and all of a sudden you notice there's a world around you.

I presume that the panel of apples shows just one of the many, many views that Superman gets while scanning the world for K-particles with his microscopic vision. Or perhaps it's that Clark associates a clean, welcoming world free of K-radiatioon with fresh fruit growing in a farmyard; a Kansas farmboy might likely do so, I believe. What could more redolent to Clark Kent of a untainted and safe environment, of a good and wllcoming place to be, than the sight of healthy apples ripening in the sun?

Whatever, it's the unexpected appearance of a few apples in the story which made me smile. It was a pleasing decision by the Green and Johnson and Davis to trust there more to the imagination of the reader, and one I appreciated. I felt as if something of Clark Kent, the lonely exile living on the Kent's Farm in Smallville, had been directly communicated to my mind. It was, in its own quiet way, a fine moment.

Result: It's hard to imagine there's much that anyone can show us about Superman that we've not encountered or thought about before. Well, not anything that isn't plain daft. But the idea that Clark thinks of apples when he thinks of home, or that he looks to make sure that apples are clean and safe when he's scanning the planet for poisons; these are little 'Rosebud' moments. They evoke more than they actually explain, yes, but isn't that how memory and feelings work anyway? And it may not seem like much, because it's not as if we've discovered something spectacular, something that will reshape the Superman mythos fundamentally forever, such as discovering Krypton was a province of Hell, or Clark is part-Time Lord, or Lana Lang runs LexCorp and explodes Kryptonite bombs against Superman .... er .... no, let's not go there. (No, let's really not.) But the apples feel far more important than any universe-threatening peril. It's as if something far more important on a much smaller scale has been discovered. A little tiny detail about Clark Kent's soul.


Friday, 12 March 2010

Some Fantastic Place No 1: The Sinestro Corps War Volume II

It's really tough working out how good a comic is. So lets not bother. Let's take a more relaxed and emotional path to evaluation. Let's do away with all pretense at intellectual analysis and abandon all critical thought, fanboy indignation and continuity cop-ness. Let's just start looking for good things. Little good things, perhaps, just tiny nuggets of fun. Imaginative single panels, witty snatches of dialogue, unexpectedly appropriate sound effects. All the things we would have noticed and treasured when we had less comic books to indulge in and far more time on our hands. Because just about every comic book has something splendid in it, if you care enough to look, and because it's a shame to read something and not take something positive away from the experience.

Indeed, let's admit that most of us have read far, far too many superhero comic books. Possibly thousands and thousands of them. We've read so many comic books that the chances of us being surprised by anything new we read are slight to very slim at all. We've read so many classics that very few comics stand a chance of giving us something that we haven't had before. We're saturated with superheroes, satiated with superheroics, but we keep coming back for more. And more. And more and more and more. And more.

And sometimes we read perfectly decent comic books, and even really rather good comic books, and push them aside because we forget to engage with them. There's another one coming, and another after that, and perhaps those ones will give us more of what we've liked so much before. It's the conspicuous consumption of comic books. We're wasting things that we could be putting to better use.

Take the example of "Green Lantern: Sinestro Corps War Volume II". It's not particularly my cup of tea. My ability to absorb all the detail of intergalactic, thousands-of-superheroes epics was excessively stretched during the original Crisis, and, like an old muscle over-exercised, it's never returned to its original capacity. And I might be tempted to take this impulsively-borrowed book back to the library with a shake of the head and a refrain of "In my day ... ". Which would be a waste. Because there's some good moments there. Perhaps not the obvious cast-of-thousands double-page spreads, not for me. But fine little moments all the same.

Pleasing Moment No. 1.
Spooky little killer children are always entertaining villains. But everyone knows that tiny kiddie suicide-bombers bent on the murder of a really big sentient planet - who's also a Green Lantern - are a guaranteed smile-generator. This page takes that brave step forward towards questionable taste by having a Green Lantern coldbloodedly incinerate one of these murderous Children Of The White Lobe. It's gruesome and unexpected. The frightened silent face of the kid as it awaits flash-frying is disturbingly effective. (Writer: Dave Gibbons - Artists Patrick Gleason & Angel Unzueta.)

Pleasing Moment No. 2.
It's damn hard to generate a sense of wonder in a great big superhero punch-up anymore. The law of diminishing returns started to kick in around May 1964, when the Fantastic Four and The Avengers teamed up to not defeat the Hulk. Nowadays, thousands of superheroes can slug it out high above the Earth with tens of thousands of supervillians and it all seems rather mundane and predictable. But this page from the beginning of Green Lantern # 25 does bring something of the scale of the Sinestro Corp War home to the jaded reader. As the skies above the Earth are lit up by fearsome explosions, the rings of dead Green Lanterns and of their mortal opponents hurtle into space to find replacements for their vanquished owners. And the scale of the conflict, and the immensity of what's at stake, becomes so much more moving for the absence of superhuman fist-fights. All we see is the breadth of the fighting and its' terrible consequences. (Writer: Geoff Jones - Artists: Ivan Reis & Ethan Van Sciver)

Pleasing Moment No. 3.
I'm a fool for strange and cute non-humanoid Green Lanterns, and what could be better than a "super-intelligent smallpox virus" looking for revenge for the murderer of its dead partner? (And how pleasingly silly that a single throwaway comment written by Alan Moore for a Green Lantern backup strip in 1988 should result in this panel some 19 years later.) (Writer: Geoff Jones - Artists: Ivan Reis & Ethan Van Sciver)

Pleasing Moment No. 4. And on the theme of strange and cute non-humanoid Green Lanterns, here's a familiar-looking crystalline GL floating above the ruins of one of the many Terran battlefields of this war. I love his Mohawk, the fact that he/she/it looks as if they're wearing a very big and painted-on version of Robin's mask, and the way in which it seems to be staring around just daring a half-dead Sinestro Corp Member to try something. If I were caught out in this fighting, I think I'd be reassured to see this fearsome tentacled warrior floating nearby. (Writer: Geoff Jones - Artists: Ivan Reis & Ethan Van Sciver)

Pleasing Moment No. 5. Sometimes even the dumb moments in a comic book epic can be endearingly entertaining. Here we see Hal and Kyle running across the rooftops of Coast City because their rings have been exhausted of their power. And on the one hand it's interesting to see the two superheroes reduced to powerlessness. It's as if they were everyday cops trying to escape a master criminal after their car's been stolen from them. But on the other hand, it's enchantingly dumb, as dumb in its own way as the scenes of Batman and Robin supposedly walking up the sides of skyscrapers in the '60s camp show. Because, of course, you can't run 10 blocks across a the rooftops of a major metropolitan city. There are things called roads in the way. And alleyways. And the sheer faces of very tall buildings. It's a big, silly fib of a scene, which could only be made better by the Green Hornet and Kato sticking their heads of a window and demanding to know what the two depowered Green Lanterns are doing there. (Writer: Geoff Jones - Artists: Ivan Reis & Ethan Van Sciver)

Result: It certainly is a result. Not only have I satisfied my curiosity about what went on in the Sinestro Corps War, but I get to keep 5 pleasing moments which I might otherwise have simply skimmed over in search of plot resolutions and High Noon-style showdowns! I win! (And since I won't write about the books which don't have any pleasing little moments in them, I'll always win when I play "Some Enchanted Place".)

Wednesday, 10 March 2010

Points On A Curve No 4: So Who Exactly Is This Aquaman Fellow Anyway?

For the last of these "Points On A Curve" entries on Aquaman, I sat myself down and, with an old-fashioned pencil and a single dog-eared piece of paper, made a list of all the truly memorable visuals involving Aquaman that I could think of. In truth, there weren't that many, especially considering that the character's been being published for 70 years, but obviously those that've stuck in my memory have played a considerable part in creating "my" Aquaman, and thinking about how he came to be is the purpose of "Points On A Curve". So, my Aquaman is in part evoked in a panel from a comic published in 1963, from a 2005 cover, from a punch-up with a old enemy in an 1984 issue of Justice League: none of them connected by a particular story or a recognisable theme or even a consistent take on the character and his powers. But added together, they form their own 'continuity'. (It's all very post-modern, though I don't think there's anything distinctively modern about the process.) In order that each image sits well together, the mind unconsciously connects each image to each other, creating an Aquaman all of its own. Who knows what this Aquaman of mine might have been if I'd've never seen a particular image, or if my emotional state had been different when reading some other Aquaman stories. But there we go. From all these little components comes what feels emotionally like the 'real' Aquaman. Join the points up and there's your King Of Atlantis and the Seven Seas.

In talking through these examples, I thought I might group them in response to some of the most common objections to Aquaman. In truth, I was just interested in whether the images in my memory could constitute part of a defence of Aquaman against his critics. And because the images did seem to achieve that end, to my own mind, it made me wonder how much of my understanding of Aquaman has been formed not just by what I've read of the character's adventures, but also of all the criticisms I've come across of the character's viability.

1. What's The Point Of A Superhero Who Can Only Survive For A Short-Time Above Water?

Those who feel that Aquaman needs to loose his hand to piranhas and his baby boy to the machinations of his brother Orm in order to develop a little gravitas may just have missed the point. Even the apparently happy-go-lucky early-Silver Age Aquaman was by his very nature already a tragic hero. It's not just that his mother died while Aquaman was young, nor that his father never lived to see his boy Arthur's adult achievements, nor that his mother's home city of Atlantis had declared him an exile, though all of that would be tragic enough for most of us. The real tragedy of his existence lies in Aquaman's inability to stay alive on land for longer than very short periods. Though as much a man of the land as of the sea, his traditional lore stated that he couldn't survive above the oceans for longer than approximately an hour. His father's world is something he can only briefly visit, and only then at great peril to his life. He's permanently in exile from one of his homelands, granted by his biology just the occasional temporary visit before retreating back to the safety of the ocean again. It's as if Superman could only visit Lois in Metropolis for an hour a time, and then at great cost to his life. (And I have often wondered how compelling it would be if Aquaman fell in love with a surface woman.)

It's hard to imagine how Arthur must long to walk across our world without having to be constantly calculating when he can next immerse himself in water. How very much he must long to walk in the desert, or indeed in any environment where plentiful water is absent. Imagine; those everyday opportunities that we so take for granted are denied him. He can't even just step out onto a city street and keep walking. It makes his every trip out of the ocean an example of bravery and determination. I wonder how far many of us would go out from the shore and under the water if we could breathe there for just one hour? Every time Aquaman steps out of the waters in order to try to do some good, he's literally taking his life in his hands. In many ways, this makes Arthur the closest 1960's DC came to the kind of super-hero that Stan Lee revolutionised mainstream comics with. For as Tony Stark, for example, had a dodgy heart which was only kept functioning by his armour, and just as every battle clothed in the Iron Man armour threatened Stark's heart with death, so too does Aquaman literally put his life on the line every time he hauls himself up onto the land.

And yet he does, particularly when the greater good would be served by his doing so. Every second that passes is a second closer to not a distant, but to an immediate, death. Every action he undertakes out of the sea must inevitably weaken his ability to stay alive. Just stepping into JLA HQ must immediately cause his mouth to start drying out, and his facial muscles to tighten. He will be thirsty pretty much all the time. His heartbeat and his respiration rate will quickly increase. He'll be fatigued, shattered by headaches, muscle cramps and nausea. And this will all start to hit him pretty quickly after setting foot on dry land, for if he has but 1 hour before he's fatally dehydrated, the symptoms of that process must kick in quickly. It's a good job that he's so perfectly adapted to life far beneath the waves: he has unbelievable strength and stamina, otherwise he'd never be able to put one foot before the other while on land. As it is, he must feel so clumsy and vulnerable on land compared to his life beneath the sea. He can surely never be relaxed or feel completely safe in our everyday world.

But you'll notice that none of the Atlanteans we see on dry land whinge about this process. They're obviously a stoical lot, far hardier than we surface-dwellers. The sheer pleasure of experiencing the extremes of life above water, and sometimes the necessity of fighting there, must outweigh the quickly-developing suffering that they accept they'll simply have to endure. *1

2. He's Married, He's Got Kids, He's Just The Wrong Man For The Age Of The Permanently Adolescent Fan.

I've always felt uncomfortable with the character and appearance of Mera. In the first decade and some of her existence, she was little more than the beautiful princess from a far-off land completely besotted with and devoted to Aquaman. She seemed neither particularly strong, nor particularly distinctive, unless, of course, the avid fan decides to take her flipper feet into account. Despite that, I never had a problem with Aquaman being married. It was refreshing to have the character committed to a lifelong relationship. It added something far-less-than-typical to the mix. And given that Aquaman, in whatever version of his origin the reader wanted to run with, had endured considerable loneliness in his adolescence, it felt appropriate that he should have someone worthwhile to create a home with. And since Mera did have an interesting super-power, in her ability to manipulate water into a variety of solid forms, and since she did have her alien heritage as potential for future development, it always seemed that there was considerable promise for the couple's future development.

And then, in the usual way of comic book companies trying to generate interest through the imposition of angst into a leading character's status quo, Aquaman's marriage was prised apart. His son - Arthur Jr - was murdered, his wife rejected him, and then began to go mad. On and on continued the estrangements, the irrationalities, the insensitivity's, until I ceased to care about the marriage or Mera herself. That is, until I saw the photograph below in an issue of Wizard Magazine.
Now, I'm not in the habit of cutting out photographs from Wizard Magazine, or indeed of reading Wizard at all. But that photograph amused me, and, as it amused me, it struck me that it felt "right" for the characters. I'm not suggesting that Mera should suddenly change her sex, but the obvious strength inherent in Mr DeForest's take on her - the untypical relative height for a woman, the imposing sense of alieness brought about the trans-gender portrayal - immediately said to me that this Mera was no bitter ex-wife, lovelorn teen bride, or mentally-fracturing female stereotype. (On reflection, the couple in this photograph have much in common with John Byrne's portrayal of the She-Hulk when she was dating the much shorter, but still physically substantial, Wyatt Wingfoot.) There is a sense that this is a unique couple, and a couple who are together because they love each other even when their relationship obviously exists outside the boundaries of what a "normal" affair is usually considered to be. And then, when in recent months Geoff Johns reintroduced Mera into mainstream continuity as a determined - and then exceptionally violent - Red Lantern, I couldn't help thinking that Mera ought to look somewhat taller, and just a little less feminine.

And I suspect that an Aquaman that tolerant of, and excited by, difference might be simultaneously interesting enough for today's audience and yet still compatible with the family man of the '60s and '70s. Otherwise, yes, he's in risk of seeming to be just a staid old family man, or far worse, a serial failure as a non-serial monogamist.

3. He's Too Nice A Bloke And He's Too Grim And Gritty A Bloke Too

Anyone picking up the recent black and white reprints of Aquaman's adventures in the early 1960s in the first Showcase Presents" volume will have noticed how writer Bob Haney managed to portray Arthur Curry as being both a happy-go-lucky superhero and, at times, a far more melancholic character. It wasn't that Aquaman was ever bent with angst. In fact, he was remarkably stoical about his unhappy past, in the way that heroes of that now-distant past wore their suffering lightly, but unhappy his past undoubtedly was.

And it is that Aquaman that I always emotionally return to. The idea that the Aquaman of the past was a two-dimensional, happy-smiley character misses the darker dimensions that Haney brought to the strip. And because so many creators and commentators have associated Aquaman's continuing failure to attract an audience with his supposed lack of emotional depth and angst, they've dragged him further and further into the darkness without ever recapturing the character's mid-60's popularity. In fact, the more that Aquaman is mutilated, emotionally and physically, the less appealing he becomes to his audience. And the reason for his decline is, I suspect, that the balance between a strong and well-adjusted nature with a melancholic past has been fatally unbalanced in the direction of the melancholy. Yet the Aquaman of Haney and the Super-Friends didn't whine or rage. He didn't often brood. He was actually damn good company, comfortable with men, respectful of women, possessed of a beautiful smile and damn good head of hair. The tragedy was there, but it was rarely stage front and centre. That's why we admired him.

It's not that I want Bob Haney back writing Aquaman, knocking his scripts through to our world from the afterlife via ouija board, and I surely don't want the simple, innocent stories of the early '60s anymore than I want the grim'n'gritty ones of the past oh-too-many years. But I do want an Aquaman that I look up and who I'd like to spend time with. And Haney's Aquaman was a kind and decent man, touched, but not marked, by self-obsession and darkness. There was some kind of joy to him.

Could we say the same of many of Aquaman's later incarnations?

It's the fact that Aquaman had both his light public face and his darker private one that gives his character a useful depth. We can see some of the character's less-affable side in the painting above by Alex Ross. It is part of a King's responsibility to take charge of less pleasant situations, and I have no doubt that Aquaman is capable of executing a danger to the state if such is necessary and legally sanctioned. That's what I see in this painting. A man who is capable of doing difficult things without descending into public displays of self-gratifying self-pity.

We've already discussed how decisiveness is a key quality of "my" Aquaman. It's also displayed in Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely's Justice League graphic novel "Earth-2", where Aquaman's brief cameo appearance shows him quickly and effectively taking out the exceptionally powerful alien supervillian Power Ring. When the big time beckons, Aquaman is confident, but not foolhardy, and decisive, if not impulsive.

And when the battle is over, Aquaman will revert back to being a prince among men, and not a sulking, childish bore. Because a sulking, childish bore is not who he is.

4. There's No Crime Underwater And The Sea's A Boring Place To Be

It's hard to imagine that anybody believes that the sea isn't an exciting environment to set a superhero adventure series. Anybody walking on the shore while even a mild winter storm kicks up the white froth on the waves can testify to the terrifying potential for violence inherent in the ocean even in the slightest of its tantrums. And that's just one of an almost-infinite number of moods that the sea can offer up as a backdrop to a superhero's adventures. But it does seem to me that artists have rarely been bothered to step out and actually take a look at the sea before they begin to draw it. At the very least, they might rent a couple of relevant DVDs, or subscribe to one of the middlebrow satellite nature channels. Ramona Fradon's effective shot, shown above, of Aquaman and Aqualad riding into a storm is still one of the best examples of an artist thinking about how to portray the perils of a stormy sea , and that's from more than 40 years ago. It isn't that Fradon's panel is such a masterwork. In truth, it isn't. She's used some effective artistic shorthand to show the waves swirling and rising, to show the character's hair blowing in the wind, to show Aquaman having to lean into the gale to keep his balance. It's a non-specific cartoon version of a storm at sea, but it's an effective one, and it shames most of her successors.

The sea, with its almost-literally endless vistas and moods and denizens to set scenes in, should be the greatest gift that any Aquaman creator could ever think of. (The opportunites for undersea-life inspired BEMs alone is unimaginably huge.) And yet Aquaman's world has so often seemed like an undersea desert. Where are the plants? Where are the creatures? Why does no-one in Atlantis put the sea-life to use? Why when an artist shows us an underwater community don't we see tame and/or friendly dolphins acting as guards, or trained mantas pulling goods into warehouses. For that matter, has anybody ever sat down and worked out - even roughly - what sort of sealife exists and prospers where Atlantis sits?

I believe that I would make it a rule that each new writer, artist and editor assigned to Aquaman had to read - yes, actually read - one of Conrad's great sailing novels. "The Rescue" would do it, would help to show that the ocean isn't a flat blue desert through which Aquaman might occasionally stick a strangely-perfect haircut out of. Conrad's autobiographical novels might actually help establish something of the sea's extremes and countless subtleties too. Because as things have stood, the ocean has been a dull, dull place in Aquaman, and something needs to open folks' eyes to the fact that there are real oceans out there and they are as different and complex within themselves and between themselves as any variations that the surface continent can provide.

A noble exception to this rule was Kurt Busiek and Butch Guice's run in "Sword Of Atlantis", where a significant amount of artistic grey matter was obviously invested in thinking about how to represent undersea life in an interesting and fictionally-believable form. What a shame that Mr Guice was deliniating such a dull and hopeless undersea world. If, as we discussed in "Points On A Curve 3", a succesful setting for a superhero tale is one which inspires the reader to wish, to one degree or another, that they could visit the world in question, then "Sword Of Atlantis" was doomed to failure because it chose to show little but darkness, poverty and barbarism. It's a terribe shame that Guice's artistry wasn't directed to portray something more positive than sword'n'sorcery wastelands, so that the reader might have had somewhere less depressing to imagine in addition to the after-the-end-of-the-world Mad Max-isms.
The same problem of creators not engaging with the facts of the oceans has crippled attempts to provide Aquaman with a unique, appropriate and engaging gallery of villians. It's a fact that Jack Kirby's Deep 6 were more terrifying as seabound protagonists in their original appearance in the New Gods than anything Aquaman's own strip has delivered in 7 decades. (And that certainly includes the appearance of the Deep 6 in Aquaman's own strip decades after Kirby first introduced them.)

It isn't that the ocean is the only setting for Aquaman's adventures. But, ironically, of all the arenas where he has been put to play out his various parts, it's the undersea world that has been the least developed and the least special. And from that has come some of the resistance to Aquaman as a character: folks often decry the value of an underwater setting for superhero stories and we Aquaman fans struggle to defend the strip because there's so little we can put under the noses of the doubters to prove our case.

Isn't it ironic? The undersea superhero's undersea world is the least visually developed part of his mythos. And until the opposite becomes true, there'll be no point listing all the crimes and conflicts that can engagaingly occur down below the waves.

But as soon as a few folks start thinking about Aquaman's world, as Busiek and Guice did on "Sword Of Atlantis" and Morrison and Quitely did in "Earth-2" when they showed the Atlantean Navy in the panel shown below, the potential in the oceans as a backdrop for adventure becomes obvious. And enticing.

5. Aquaman's Not Powerful Enough: He can't compete with Superman and Batman

It's not that Aquaman isn't a powerful enough character. We've discussed that. And he's certainly a massively powerful superhero too. Those who'd have it that he can only swim and talk to fishes are either ignorant or enjoying the illicit pleasures of knowingly playing up to stereotypes. The problem is not that Aquaman isn't powerful, on land or sea, the problem is that he's rarely shown using his power in exciting and involving ways. Grant Morrison understands this, and understands how this has undercut Aquaman's appeal. In the fourth issue of his Justice League, Morrison shows Aquaman being taunted by an immensely powerful White Martian: "What can you do? You can't run or fly fast, can you? Your skin may be tough but not so tough I can't just cut through."

This of course sets up Aquaman to respond by declaring that he " .. can locate your brain's basil ganglia, the part inherited from your marine ancestors ... And just for starters, I can give you a seizure".

It's a perfect comic-book moment, one in which both character and writer win our applause because of the way they unexpectedly manouvre themselves out of a tight spot by exploiting a perfectly logical escape. And in showing Aquaman's powers in a visually arresting as well as an intellectually interesting fashion, it immediately promotes the character to the front-rank of super-hero fighters. But if Aquaman can cause a superman-powered White Martian to collapse with a stroke, then he should be shown doing so regulalrly. And the effects should be fearsome, because the power is a fearsome one. It doesn't matter whether it's difficult or morally repugnant to him. If he can do it, then needs to be shown doing it, and doing it in interesting ways.

It's remarkable how rare it is to see Aquaman drawn in interesting and appropriate ways when he's using his powers. While under the sea, Aquaman's main attributes are strength and speed, but too often these attributes are shown in dull, prosaic drawings. If Aquaman can swim incredibly fast, then he must be constantly shown moving at incredible speeds, as Nick Cardy did in the drawing above and Jim Aparo did in the drawing below.

And Aquaman's strength needs similarly to be shown in imaginative and engaging ways. He has incredible power and density. He'll come at you so fast that you can't see him coming, and he's too strong for you to be able to hold off. Above or below the sea, the man is a tank. Just as Luke Cage is for Marvel, so Aquaman needs to be for DC. A tank.

Above the ground, he's still incredibly powerful. He can take his blows as well as dish them out. He can leap very small buildings, which can be damn impressive if an artist has his wits around him. He can run fast, though he's probably something of a slow starter. And he's tough. He gets in-between dangerous people and their helpless victims. George Perez illustrates this in the panels below from JLA #193.

In conclusion: Aquaman is an incredibly fast-moving, water-breathing, super-strong tank who can give you a stroke just by thinking about it and command pretty much all non-human life beneath the waves. How utterly cool is that? What could be the problems with that?

6. His Powers May Be Impressive, But He's Still The Superhero Who Talks To Fish

The beautiful panel above by Ramona Fradon is a comic-book Rorschach test. Anybody who isn't charmed and thrilled by the sight of the young Aquaman taking the salute of hundreds of undersea creatures has no business reading comic books.

But the key point isn't that Aquaman can talk to fishes, and whales, and sea-dragons, and to quite frankly any kind of undersea life that you care to remember or invent: the key-point is that Aquaman is loved by most everything under the sea. The lonely boy who lost his family and knew no home was accepted as King by " ... every sea creature ... " long before Atlantis elected him its monarch in a desperate attempt to stave off civil war. There's an emotional truth to this that no amount of comic-book illogic can undercut. (In fact, the scene relies on ill-logic. Where have all the creatures come from? Why do they recognise young Arthur as their king? How can they recognise Aquaman as being anything at all given that most of these sea creatures are barely conscious? What service does Aquaman owe in return for their allegiance?)

But there's something terribly sad and poignant about these scenes. Since the early '60s, when these panels were drawn, the oceans have been terribly emptied of life by over-fishing and environmental pollution. If Aquaman is the protector as well as the King of undersea life, then he's perhaps not done a terribly good job of it, imagining that the DC Universe is not unlike our own. Perhaps we have to picture Atlantis existing in another dimension, or underneath some great force field, where the threatened - and extinct - species of our world can be safely protected until sanity returns to the oceans.

8. So, Then, Who Is Aquaman?

In the end, all these random images and idle thoughts of Aquaman coalesce into a distinct, circumscribed figure. He's not an Aquaman who can do anything or be all things to everyone. He has limits, his weaknesses and his inflexible core attributes. And it should be no surprise, of course, that this should be so. The human mind imposes order upon the world even when there's no order to be had. It's only to be expected that my Aquaman would possess significantly more coherence and purpose than the constituent parts which inspired him did.

My Aquaman is fast, and strong, and tough. He's good-natured and decisive and, of course, brave. He's been alone and knows what it feels like to be hopeless, but he keeps his miseries private. He's a constitutional monarch of a seafloor empire with the occasional responsibilities of a tyrant. He's a family man surrounded by a court of wife, son, step-son and assorted friends, allies and rivals. He's King of the Seven Seas and all the creatures in it. He's a passionate humanist and a loyal friend. He'll kill you if he has to, but he'd much rather not.

He's Aquaman.

* 1: It does seem strange that Aquaman hasn't developed some strategies for helping him survive in the hostile conditions on land. Perhaps the Atlantean Embassies and Consulships should keep emergency vehicles containing H20 atmospheres. Perhaps emergency waterdrops could be organised with friendly governments or organised using the JLA transporters. If nothing else, there should be water-suits available for long stay visits. After all, Aquaman and his court can't be the only Atlanteans living in the surface world. Diplomats, students, dissidents, draft dodgers, traders, artists: if the ocean floor is crawling with humonoid life, then our world should be full of water-breathing visitors.