Once considered the joke of the superhero universe, the truth is, the DC Comics hero is one of the luckiest characters around. Arriving during the Golden Age of comics, Aquaman never appeared on the cover of a single comic book for 19 years, and yet survived, and even thrived, when many other superheroes from his era disappeared.
Aquaman debuted in More Fun Comics #73 in October of 1941. (Timely Comics’ Namor, the Sub-Mariner, another underwater breathing hero, had debuted a full two years earlier). Described as the son of a renowned oceanic explorer, his father taught his young son how to breathe underwater, and he became the marine champion called Aquaman. But Aquaman never achieved Namor’s initial popularity, and was reduced to being a backup feature in More Fun Comics. He never even qualified to be a member of the Justice Society of America.
After World War II, the popularity of superhero comics declined rapidly, and only Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman were popular enough to survive the purge. Luckily for Aquaman, he found a home in the back of Adventure Comics, home of Superboy, in 1946. And that kept him safe while low sales and changing tastes erased dozens of far more popular superheroes from the news stands.
As the Silver Age began in the late ’50s, DC started to revamp their old heroes like Flash for the new Atomic Age. Aquaman was given a new origin (rather, he took someone else’s), becoming the hybrid son of a human lighthouse keeper and an Atlantean Queen, and heir to the throne of Atlantis. This was Namor’s origin story, “borrowed” by DC for Aquaman when it seemed like Namor would never return. During this new era, Aquaman joined the newly formed Justice League, where he proved popular enough to finally receive his own series in 1962, 21 years after he made his debut. Not long after, he received his own cartoon series, and a spot on the Super Friends, making him a household name and one of DC’s premier characters.
But that’s just the broad strokes! Below are the comics that represent the important chapters in the life and times of the King of Atlantis, and the prime reading material you’d need to read to catch up on his adventures before he makes his solo big screen debut.
MORE FUN COMICS #73 – “THE SUBMARINE STRIKES!” (1941)
Aquaman’s very first appearance was in an anthology comic that he shared with several other heroes, including future Justice League teammate Green Arrow. In fact, Green Arrow made his debut in this issue as well, giving it even more historical significance. In “The Submarine Strikes,” we get a quick recap of Aquaman’s origin story, and learn that his famous father used a hundred scientific secrets to enable him to draw oxygen from the water to develop his speed, strength, and mental powers. His debut costume would be the exact same one he’d wear for the next 45 years, with only his gloves changing from yellow to green.
ADVENTURE COMICS #260 – “HOW AQUAMAN GOT HIS POWERS!” (1959)
Some 19 years after he debuted, Aquaman would get a new origin story, during the same time that once retired Golden Age heroes like Flash and Green Lantern were also getting complete revamps. Aquaman explains that, years before, a lighthouse keeper rescued a woman on a raft during a hurricane. Her name was Atlanna, and soon, the pair fell in love and Atlanna gave birth to a young boy.
Given the name Arthur Curry, he develops all kinds of powers, and eventually discovers he is the heir to the throne of Atlantis, as his mother was the exiled queen. Although his origin would get new wrinkles over the years, this more or less became his most used backstory going forward. A few months later, Aquaman would join the newly formed Justice League of America in The Brave and the Bold #28, the first ever comic book cover he would appear on.
AQUAMAN #1 (VOL. 1) – “THE INVASION OF THE FIRE-TROLLS” (1962)
It only took him 21 years, but Aquaman finally headlined his own comic book in 1962, no doubt thanks to the character’s raised profile as a member of the Justice League. He was now the King of Atlantis, and had his own sidekick in Aqualad. Most of the stories in this series were pretty much like the one in this issue, where Aquaman and Aqualad fought off undersea monsters of one form or another.
This series ran for nearly a decade, and was popular enough that Aquaman even got his own cartoon series back in 1967. During this series initial run, Arthur would find a bride in Mera (a rarity for superheroes back then), a son, and an arch enemy in the form of his half-brother Orm, the Ocean Master. Not bad for a character that didn’t even appear on a single cover for nearly two decades!
ADVENTURE COMICS #452 – “DARK DESTINY, DEADLY DREAMS” (1977)
Aquaman’s series lasted for 56 issues until it was canceled, and he found a new home once again in Adventure Comics. His darkest hour began in Adventure #452, but the story was so popular, DC revived Aquaman’s ongoing solo title to continue it. During the ’60s and ’70s, Aquaman as a character had it all—a kingdom, a wife, and a son: Arthur Jr., a.k.a. Aquababy. But in “Dark Destiny, Deadly Dreams” Black Manta enacts the ultimate revenge, killing Aquaman and Mera’s son, something that would have been unthinkable just a few years before. Aquaman’s series lasted only a few more issues, but the effects of this story would be felt for years.
AQUAMAN VOL. 2 #1 – “THE RISE AND FALL, AND RISE AND FALL OF ATLANTIS” (1986)
Aquaman returned to his own title for this mini-series, his first solo title in eight years. This story had Aquaman fighting his arch-nemesis and half-brother, the Ocean Master, who was now reinvented as a powerful sorcerer. Written by Neal Pozner and drawn by Craig Hamilton, this series is best remembered for giving Aquaman and all new costume, now known as his “camouflage” costume. He only wore it for this one series, but it’s still beloved by fans.
AQUAMAN VOL. 5 #0 – “A CRASH OF SYMBOLS” (1994)
After a couple of one-shots and short lived series, Aquaman would receive his biggest injection of popularity, yet when writer Peter David took over writing chores on the character for a new ongoing series in 1994. He reinvented Aquaman as a long-haired, bearded, muscular and brooding king of the Seven Seas. His most drastic change would come in issue #0, after Aquaman replaced his severed hand with a giant hook. He did this, in his own words, “So the sea creatures know I’m of the surface, and the surface men know that the sea can turn their weapons against them.” The edgy, barbarian king version of Aquaman would last 75 issues and become a huge influence on the live-action film version.
AQUAMAN VOL. 7 #1 – “THE TRENCH” (2011)
After a few different iterations of the character in the 2000s, including one in which he had a magic water hand and another where he was replaced by a new young upstart who used the name Aquaman but wasn’t Arthur Curry, the real deal returned as part of DC’s New 52 with writer Geoff Johns and artist Ivan Reis. Returning to his classic costume, this Aquaman retained the attitude of ’90s King of the Seven Seas, and restored his relationship with Mera. It also and introduced many new elements to the overall mythology, like the mysterious group known as the Others, and the terrifying undersea dwellers in the Trench.
Which of these Aquaman titles are you looking forward to reading the most? Be sure to let us know down below in the comments.
Images: DC Comics / Warner Bros.