Wednesday, July 03, 2013

Awesome Losers: Aquaman and Hank Pym

Before anyone loses their mind in the comments section, let's be clear here:  I like both of these characters a whole lot.  But they are kind of problematic, often in some very similar ways.  They're both awesome characters, and they each had something happen to them in the 70s or early 80s that made them losers, whether that's in the eyes of comics readers, the general public, their own universe, or some combination.

In the mid-70s, Super Friends first came onto TV.  It was a superhero show for kids, and the characterizatons, scripting, plots, etc. all show it.  However, even though it was very silly, none of the main DC heroes came out of it looking really bad... except for Aquaman.  For most folks who grew up with the show, even some comic fans, Aquaman is this:
Tell me you wouldn't do this
Just a bit later, in the early 80s, Hank Pym was having a mental breakdown after accidentally creating Ultron, a genocidal robot.  He began to suffer from what the writers described as "schizophrenia," claiming that Hank Pym was dead and taking on a new costumed identity, Yellowjacket.  Due to a miscommunication between the writer and artist on the Avengers (back when we only had one Avengers book, kids!) what was supposed to be a panel in which Yellowjacket accidentally hits his wife while broadly gesturing became what he's known for:
This is what happens when creative teams don't talk

And that kind of sucks, in both cases.  Both are really great characters with a lot of depth and potential. They're both powerful characters, with wide-ranging in-universe impacts.  Pym is on a par with Richards and Stark in terms of his genius, having invented tons of crazy superscience stuff, not to mention the fact that he can grow to the size of a skyscraper and command insects. Aquaman is the king of Atlantis, super strong, durable, can command all marine life, and (sometimes) water itself. Pym is as much a part of the Avengers as Aquaman is of the JLA: both founders, both regular members of the roster. They are not slouches, either of them.

Beyond that, there are characters that, by all rights, should be as problematic as these two - I'm not going to go into it too much, because everyone has their favorites and no one likes hearing bad things about them, but I'll give a couple of examples. Spider-Man struck his wife (once, accidentally, while mentally stressed, as Pym was), but it's not a defining moment for the character.  Over at DC, Hawkman can fly and is a good fighter. That's about it, and yet he's regarded as more respectable than Aquaman.


Yarr, me hearties!
Because of all of this, the writers on books involving these characters tend to desperately try to restore them. But in order to do this, they use a few strategies that don't really work in the long run.  Sometimes, they do what Johns and Morrison did and have the normal human characters in the universe make fun of Aquaman (who, let's be clear here, should at least be terrifying to them, as he throws cars around and bounces bullets off his chest) and then have Aquaman defend himself and act like a badass.  On a related note, Aquaman suffered worse than almost any major character during the run-up to and throughout the Dark Age of comics:  the writers killed his young son, drove his wife insane and turned her into a villain, then cut off his hand and replaced it with a harpoon.  The character, before reverting to the orange and green look, had one of the most 90s costumes possible, only missing pouches and a gun.  

Alternately, they go about it the way that most writers treat Pym, as this contrite scientist who's really going to make it work this time, even though he's supposedly redeemed himself in a half dozen previous books since the Yellowjacket incident. One of the big story payoffs of the recent Age of Ultron event was Hank Pym once again "redeeming" himself.  However, a redemption story rings hollow when the character has saved the world literally dozens of times.

All of these attempts at "fixing" the problems with the characters ultimately just reinforces them.  The writers bring the issues up over and over again, or make transparent attempts to make the character seem more serious, which just draws more attention to the problem.  Instead, they should act like modern PR flacks that get out in front of a problem, address it, and then hope it goes away by making their client act like a sane person for as long as they can.  At this point, all they need to do is just write good stories for the characters and let it go.
Seriously, this is happening
Ant-Man, the movie, is coming out in 2015, as is the Justice League movie, which will presumably include Aquaman.  The time to stop spinning the characters' pasts is right now.  If DC and Marvel manage this and flex enough editorial control over the next decade, there's a relatively good chance that they can redeem the characters by doing what they should have done in the first place:  do nothing but tell good stories about them.
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