Aquaman may be one of the most well known superheroes, but that doesn't mean he's one of the most popular. Though his fans know he's among the most powerful and fearless characters in comics, the general public has been laughing at the orange and green clad hero since his days on the 1970s Super Friends cartoons. Long derided because his main superpower seems to be his ability to "talk to fish," and due to his perceived uselessness out of the water, Aquaman is more associated with punch lines than punches.
But the hard luck hero has been steadily working his way onto the pop culture A-List over the past few years, and his new comic book series has turned into a best seller. "I really thought the character had tons of potential," says Geoff Johns, DC Comics' chief creative officer, who is writing the book. "Having Aquaman be the king of Atlantis but a joke on land, that's a great dichotomy for a character."
As part of a relaunch of DC Comics' entire line this fall, Aquaman was given a solo series for the first time since his last book was cancelled in 2006. Ironically, that was just as his mainstream image makeover was beginning. A guest appearance on Smallville (played by American Idol semifinalist Alan Ritchson) in the fall of 2005 was a hit with fans, and on HBOs' Entourage main character Vincent Chase got his big break starring in a (fictional) blockbuster Aquaman movie directed by James Cameron. More recently the sea king became the breakout star of Cartoon Network's Batman: The Brave and the Bold thanks to an unabashedly jolly (while still plucky) reinterpretation of his personality.
Still, Johns felt that the new Aquaman comic needed to address the hero's laughingstock history. "You have the fans, like myself, who always root for the character, and you're always on the defensive immediately," says the author, who has previously rebooted other dusty DC franchises, like the Justice Society, Teen Titans and Hawkman. "And I wanted to take that approach in the book, that he's the ultimate underdog of superheroes. He becomes much more human and relatable by being underestimated." In the first few issues, police officers have mocked him to his face, and in a recent issue of Justice League of America (also written by Johns) Green Lantern, on meeting him for the first time, says, "I thought Aquaman was a sketch on Conan O'Brien."
This honest take on the character has won raves from old fans — and brought in new ones. The first issue has sold more than 100,000 copies (an impressive number by today's standards) and with issue No. 4 going on sale this Wednesday — in comic book stores and online — the book ranks in the Top 20 for sales, according to Diamond Comic Distributors. Still, a recent cameo in an SNL Digital Short illustrates what he's up against. "It's going to take a long time to make Aquaman the coolest superhero there is, but I love fighting against that tide," says Johns, who confesses that water-themed puns are inevitable when talking about the character.
Given that much lesser known heroes like Iron Man, Thor and Green Lantern have turned into Hollywood stars, could a screen-version of the King of the Seas be far off? "You will see Aquaman in a lot of different things beyond comics," Johns promises, but, "that's all I can get into now."
One place where he could conceivably show up is Cartoon Network's upcoming DC Nation programming block, a partnership with Warner Bros. Animation and DC Comics slated to launch in 2012. Sandwiched in between shows like Young Justice and Green Lantern: The Animated Series will be animated shorts showcasing DC's enormous library. "Some are reinterpretations of characters that we know," says Johns, "some of characters that we never thought we'd see animated."