This article was originally published at Comics Bulletin on January 14, 2016.
Every two weeks in a new installment of “Leading Questions”, the young, lantern jawed Mark Stack will ask Comics Bulletin’s very own Chase Magnett a question he must answer. However, Mark doesn’t plan on taking it easy on Chase. He’ll be setting him up with questions that are anything but fair and balanced to see how this once overconfident comics critic can make a cogent case for what another one obviously wants to hear.
So without any further ado…
Why is Aquaman the best member of the Justice League?
Mark, I thought we’d already covered this subject when I explained just how great the Martian Manhunter is. He’s the sure sign of an excellent iteration of the Justice League, a clear barometer of quality. Then I recalled that we don’t call you “King Baby” for no reason at all. You’re just on the cusp of being able to legally enter a bar in these United States, which means you’ve grown up with a very specific iteration of the Justice League, one that lacks both the Martian Manhunter and the quality associated with his name. If we’re focusing on the Justice League you know best, Geoff Johns’ Justice League, then I can absolutely understand and explain why Aquaman is the best member.
Johns’ run on Justice League began with the launch of the New 52 and has lasted more than 4 years to date. The 47 issues to date and all of their various spin-offs, tie-ins, and events have been defined by two intertwined themes: 1. Superheroes fighting one another instead of supervillains and 2. Superheroes acting like big, ol’ bags of dicks. If you pick up any of the big Justice League (“War”, “Throne of Atlantis”, “Forever Evil”, “Darkseid War”, etc.), you will encounter both of these tropes to various degrees. Sometimes superheroes do manage to team up and actually punch bad guys, but it’s only after they both fight each other and act like great big dicks doing it.
Amidst all this cliche and dickery exists a hero who looks pretty good when compared to the dildos in costumes surrounding him; that hero is Aquaman.
Johns has had a stiffy for the Prince of Atlantis from the very start of the New 52. Both in Justice League andAquaman he gave the character more attention and respect than he had seen in a decade. Whatever your opinion of those series may be, there’s a clear direction established for this one character that’s hard to contradict. Aquaman is supposed to be cool now. Johns’ kicked off the Aquaman series by having him directly address the many jokes that had been used to degrade the character for years. Having him act so seriously and continually confront late night talkshow style gags read more like self-deprecating humor than an affirmation of quality though. However, Johns’ introduction of Aquaman to the Justice League in Justice League #4 provides the hero with exactly what he needs to overcome preconceptions.
He straight up murders a bunch of aliens with sharks. I don’t care how over superhero comics you might be, that panel is some pretty excellent violence. If Justice League had just become a book about Aquaman killing bad guys with sharks while everyone else squabbled, it would have been a dramatically better series than what it became instead. We’ll always have this panel though, and that’s not nothing.
Aquaman also does an excellent job establishing who he is as a character in this issue, making himself someone to be respected as a leader and superhero. Unlike the first few issues of Justice League in which heroes like Batman, Superman, and Green Lantern would meet by punching each other, cracking wise (or attempting to), or bickering, Aquaman assesses and responds to the situation like a goddamn adult.
In just a few brief moments, Aquaman is the first person to acknowledge that this is a group of people capable of handling extraordinary threats and begins to formulate a plan. He isn’t overbearing in the way he does so either. As he speaks to this crew of big, colorful characters for the first time ever, he just lays out the facts and points towards a solution. It doesn’t take long for leadership and calm to be squandered though. Batman starts making smarmy comments, Flash is more interested in what Aquaman can do than handling the invasion of earth, and Green Lantern refuses to listen to the plan being presented, deciding instead to instigate a dick measuring contest. That gives us the great panel of sharks murdering Parademons, but it’s still a poor use of time.
The Aquaman we see in Justice League is a pretty great superhero and not a half bad character on his own right. He checks off a decent number of familiar tropes, man of two worlds, lost prince, powerful outsider, but these are all put to good use in how he acts and interacts in the canvas that is DC comics. Aquaman shows himself to be wise, discerning, and thoughtful, qualities developed through his unique experiences. These make him a strong leader, capable teammate, and powerful warrior. When you combine all of that with the motherfucking sharks, it’s pretty clear why this guy is a valuable member of the Justice League. Aquaman doesn’t just have superpowers, he knows how and why to use them.
Nowhere is Aquaman’s position as the best member of Johns’ Justice League and all of the others as just a bunch of dicks better presented than in the Aquaman crossover event “Throne of Atlantis.” This is one of those stories that requires readers to go a step further than having low standards; it’s one where you have to actively shut down functions of taste and intelligence in order to get through it. Luckily, I’ve already taken this bullet, so if ou haven’t already read it, you won’t have to in order to find out what happens.
“Throne of Atlantis” is instigated by a mysterious figure who commandeers control of a Navy ship in order to fire Tomahawk missles at Atlantis, destroying the city. In response Orm, the king of Atlantis and Aquaman’s half-brother, leads a counter attack on Gotham City. As Orm prepares to invade Boston, the Justice League arrives to do exactly what Aquaman told them not to do, preventing any chance to discover the real cause of this confrontation and provoking the Atlanteans to attack. Eventually, the League gets their way, defeating the Atlantean army and imprisoning their king.
The plot of “Throne of Atlantis” has a lot in common with The Authority. A group of superpowered individuals decide they ought to determine what is best for humanity and exert their power to control an incredible situation that would normally follow set protocol (e.g. international law). They have absolutely no concern that a foreign nation was attacked by the United States, even if it was on accident, and that the response of that foreign nation was one of comparably retaliation. The Justice League only cares about their people and their country, and will act in a unilateral fashion to destroy anything that threatens that. It’s facism by the way of capes.
However, Johns’ doesn’t possess this level of self-awareness and doesn’t realize what he’s actually written. Rather than being critical of the dickery on display or insantiy of what the Justice League causes, it continues to skip along treating them like righteous heroes, completely oblivious to the live’s lost because Batman is an asshole. This also puts the disparity of heroism between Aquaman and his colleagues on display, because he is once more the only person on the team with even an ounce of common sense.
As events begin to unfold, Aquaman attempts to explain to his teammates why things may be different than they appear on the surface. He’s the only teammember with any insight or experience with both parties involved in these attacks, and has extensive knowledge of the politics of one. There’s no one better prepared to assess what has occurred and make a plan, and he is ready to offer his guidance in as objective and clam manner as possible.
Then Batman accusses him of misreading the situation and explains how things are going to be. We all get that Batman is supposed to be the guy with all of the answers, but here he doesn’t have a counter-point, just declarations. The Batman in this Justice League isn’t the greatest detective or even the smartest guy in the room, he just has the biggest swinging dick.
Aquaman still manages to convince the League to let him speak with Orm before they go in guns blazing, and attempt to stop the submerged Atlantean army. The conversation between the two brothers is tense, Orm wants revenge for the thousands of Atlanteans killed by a U.S. missile, but he does not order an attack. It even appears like Aquaman might be able to convince him to stay his hand long enough to figure out what has happened.
Then Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman show up and start a fight, declaring they really didn’t think Aquaman was going to find a peaceful solution after about one minute of listening in. Even when they show up ready to fight, Orm still doesn’t launch an attack. That is, he doesn’t until Batman throws an explosive device for no good reason. What’s the point of having the biggest swinging Bat-dick if you don’t get to swing it around?
Again and again in “Throne of Atlantis”, Aquaman is shown to be the most valuable member of the Justice League, and probably the only person who should even be a member. He acts rationally with wisdom and courage, only to have his best efforts defeated again and again by the actions of his teammates. He’s clearly the best member ofthis League, because he’s the only member who isn’t an antagonist in the series.
Whatever caused Johns to latch onto Aquaman as a hero in need of rehabilitation, it’s probably for the best that it happened. Without Aquaman the current Justice League would only be about superheroes who act more like supervillains, casuing problems and shouting at each other. In that hurricane of misery, there is still one capable of evoking an ideal and summoning sharks to murder evil aliens; that hero is Aquaman swimming against an never-ending current of dickery.