November, 1941 — 80 years ago — marked the debut of the comic book superhero character Aquaman.
As a kid in he ’70s I followed Aquaman’s adventures in DC comic books and on Saturday morning cartoon shows like Super Friends. The oceanic hero was frequently the butt of jokes about his narrowly limited skill set — basically villains needed to be near the water in order for Aquaman to do battle with them, usually by using his telepathic ability to command fish. He was created by writer Mort Weisinger and illustrator Paul Norris, and for decades, this look with the superhero tights and the bleach blond hair was the image people recognized as the character.
In 2018 the character was reimagined in a big screen version starring Jason Mamoa, and now, like the actor, Polynesian. I thought this was an interesting tack to take, for the new look reminded me a good deal more of the character Aquaman was likely created to compete with in the first place: Namor, the Sub-Mariner, who had debuted in 1939.
The Sub-Mariner is a Marvel character, and to date there hasn’t been a dedicated Sub-Mariner film, though some have been in the works. (The character is due to make his MCU debut in Black Panther: Wakanda Forever in November 2022). The Sub-Mariner is in the Marvel tradition of ambiguous anti-heroes. Sometimes he is not a hero at all, but more like a villain. And like Thor and some other Marvel characters his backstory is rooted in mythology. He is the daughter of a Princess of Atlantis, and goes around saying things like “Imperius Rex!” and “Excelsior!” Originally inspired by Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, his name happens to be “Roman” spelled backwards. Both Aquaman and the Sub-Mariner wield Neptune/Poseidon style tridents.
Aquaman’s backstory in the comics was a little more prosaic. He was the son of a scientist who dove to bottom of the sea and found an Atlantis-like city there. He built an undersea lab and trained his son to have super-swimming skills and to communicate with the denizens of the deep. (In time he had his own charge, Aqualad, his “Robin” style sidekick). But the 2018 movie, once again, makes Aquaman more like the Sub-Mariner, a supernatural being with a mother from Atlantis.
Unlike Superman, Batman and a handful of other Golden Age superheroes, Aquaman got no 1940s movie serials, although Johnny Weismuller was around then and would have been perfect casting. Underwater scenes were indeed possible at the time, you see them in studio ra pictures occasionally, but Aquaman has never been the same kind of draw as the Man of Steel or the Caped Crusader. Until now, that is is. The 2018 Aquaman movie has grossed over a billion dollars! There’s treasure at the bottom of the ocean!