The newspaper writer and editor Gene Weingarten is fond of saying that every story a journalist writes should be about the Secret of Life. There’s something in that – a writer should be looking for the heart of a story, the aspects that resonate with the reader, the grace notes that make a story about individual people in specific circumstances somehow feel universal.
And so I guess that’s how I came to feel empathy for Aquaman.
For those of you who don’t know, Aquaman is one of the icons of DC Comics, and yet he’s the one who gets the least respect. In fact, he’s become something of a public joke – Superman can juggle planets, the Flash can run at the speed of light, Aquaman… Well, he can swim well. And talk to fish. Don’t forget the talking to fish.
He also wears an orange shirt.
Now, this sounds dismissive, and it’s not representative of how he’s portrayed in the comics, at least not since I’ve been paying attention. But perception is 99% of everything in the media age, and so it’s something of a surprise to see that Aquaman has become one of the standout titles of the DC relaunch. Sure, the book has a top flight creative team (art by Ivan Reis, script by Geoff Johns, who’s the go-to guy for making a character cool by going back to basics.)
Or maybe it’s not a surprise, because Johns has made the brave decision to take all those dismissive perceptions of the character and weave them into the story. And so Aquaman intervenes in a robbery, but the police aren’t impressed because it didn’t take place underwater and there are no fish to talk to. A waitress and a slightly down-at-heel deputy treat the guy with respect, but everyone else thinks he’s a joke.
And Aquaman knows this.
I wasn’t one of the cool kids at school. I was fat. I was awkward. In some ways I was a victim. And I knew what people thought of me. And even today a stray memory can feel like a knife in the gut. It’s been decades but I still occasionally get a flash of anger over something that happened when I was 14.
You know what? I bet you’re nodding now, because everyone’s had moments when they’ve been made to feel like an outsider, a loser, a second-stringer.
And Aquaman – heroic, noble, strong, a king no less – is in the same boat. And we get to feel every stupid comment thrown his way. The book is great because of it’s action and superheroics, but the jibes about him talking to fish? That’s where its heart is.
But you can’t leave it at that because it risks undermining the character. At some point you’ve got to not only show why the character is worthy of his own title, but also show that at least a couple of other characters are aware of that too. And so, when Aquaman and his wife Mera save a small coastal town, they’re approached by a little boy, who simply says “You’re my favourite superhero.”
It’s an innocent moment of affirmation, but it has weight – how many people honestly say Aquaman is their favourite hero? But we’re back to high school – all those taunts and insults and mind games? One day they all stop. Things do get better. And it’s not because you’re a radically different person, it’s because people grow up and can more clearly see the positives in others. It’s a recognition of the worth of other people. It’s an understanding that being able to command an army of sharks is pretty cool.
And so the relaunched Aquaman is in excellent shape, not because he ignored all the jokes but because he heard them and managed to be cool anyway. And I’ll be getting the rest of the run, because it’s a book with heart and empathy.
Don’t let me get caught talking to goldfish though…