Superheroes are often closely associated with their origins, even close to a century later. Peter Parker was bitten by a radioactive spider, but when he got his powers he didn’t stop a criminal who later killed his uncle. Some 54 years later, he is still associated with that origin.
Bruce Wayne sees his parents die, murdered by a criminal. The criminal, unnerved by the child’s unswerving glare, then runs away. That middle bit is often forgotten, though it may indicate Bruce Wayne would become a crime fighter no matter what happens to his parents. But the murder and the anonymity or unimportance of the villain are fixed elements in the story.
Superman was sent to Earth in an experimental rocket from an advanced scientific civilization. This is often called the Moses origin, but that’s a stretch. Sure, basket in the river and rocket in the field both containing a child who will grow into a miraculous adult has similarities. But how common is it in stories to find a baby somewhere other than a woman’s womb? Pretty common.
Of course, some heroes aren’t closely associated with their origins and very often this signals a lesser light in the superhero pantheon. Once, Wonder Woman was a statue brought to life by a goddess, now she’s the daughter of a god and his bit on the side. The whole birth-through-woman-only thing got tossed out for reasons I cannot discern other than Queen Hippolyta is the ultimate MILF. But she’s not the only one whose origin changed.
Green Arrow went to the south west with his ward, met some criminals, and beat them up. One crook said Oliver Queen sure shot a mean green arrow, and his ward sure was speedy. Then they died.
Jack Kirby thought that was pathetic (I side with Jack on that one) and rewrote it so Green Arrow by himself was shipwrecked and had to defeat pirates who’d taken over a ship to get off the island.
In Kirby’s version, Oliver Queen creates trick arrows for no essential reason other than he’ll use them in his superhero career. But until the CW series, Green Arrow was not closely associated with his origin. Not like Spider-Man, Superman, or Batman. More like Wonder Woman.
And more like Aquaman, who has multiple origins. And he’s not closely associated with any of them, either. When Aquaman first appeared in 1941 he wasn’t from a living Atlantis. His genius father trained him to breathe underwater, swim very fast, and communicate with and command undersea creatures. Naturally he wears a costume as he does all this. All superheroes really want to be cosplayers.
Mort Weisinger was responsible for this. It’s well known he imitated Aquaman from Namor the Sub-mariner. Less noted is the original was just a specific application of an idea that was doing the traps big time.
The idea was that you could train and educate people to make them perfect. In stories the idea goes back at least to 1886 when the first Nick Carter story was published. Nick was trained to be physically, intellectually, and emotionally perfected by, surprise, his father, Sim Carter.
So when Weisinger stole Namor he gave him a new origin which itself was then 55 years old.
Mort is actually French for dead, did you know that?
Nick Carter could pick up a horse that had a heavy man sitting on it. He could do it with ease, too. Nick Carter spoke 12 languages. He was highly intelligent (duh), extremely observant, and obviously a detective. He was always polite and comfortable with all classes of people.
Believe it or not, people really thought human beings could be perfected education in real life – in the public school system! Take any child and you could train them to have a higher IQ. If you gave them rich educational background they would become sophisticated. If you gave them physical training they became healthy people. People believed this and the ghost of it still exists in the idea of special programs for disadvantaged children and advanced schools for the wealthy.
Another character with the same origin was the Doc Savage. Clark Savage Jr was trained by his father to be a perfected human being. He is a doctor (hence his nickname), scientist, inventor (in any field the story required), and occasionally a musician. Physically, he is strong, fast, and agile enough to climb up the outside of a building. He is a gentleman, always polite, and comfortable in any situation and with any social group of people.
In the Legion, Karate Kid is the master of a new kind of Karate that does not merit its own name. To perfect that skill you have to start training in it as a baby.
The Jedi in the Republic demand a child of very young age to educate them to be superheuman, though being fantasy rather than science fiction, the person has to have an innate skill to begin with. Science fiction and politics gloss over that bit.
Both Anakin and Luke Skywalker were said to be too old to start training. I don’t know if they heard of Karate Kid.
People actually presented the idea you could train people to be perfect. Since they weren’t creating such people they said they would have to train them from an ever younger age, an excuse they seem to have stolen from fiction.
In fact, by the time Doc Savage’s classical run was over in the 1930s, the idea pf training people to be perfected was losing some steam. It would still hold in the Soviet Union until that empire fell, but the Nazi regime also believed that training had to mold the superior genes of the German people. Later they found out that didn’t work. So the idea of training perfected people lost force but is still the underlying notion of a lot of educational bureaucracy.
Of course, the whole idea may be revived when Dwayne Johnson plays Doc Savage on the big screen.
Aquaman was another of the wunderkind-made-to-order sort. What killed it was two things. First, no one remembered. His origin did not impinge on later stories. The second thing was his perfection was way too limited. It is useless to excel in areas no one cares about. Against all other superheroes of the time, Aquaman did not live where people lived.
Aquaman wasn’t based even in a fictional city. He lived alone in an isolated place underwater (SCUBA gear hadn’t been invented, yet, there were no private submarines. So his stories basically meant he came to the surface to rescue the shipwrecked or beat up pirates. In World War II he destroyed German U-Boats. After the war no Nazis built any undersea bases, even though the news carried the odd stories of Hitler got away, there were secret Nazi bases, and so on.
So, Aquaman lacked a way for readers to empathize. His skills were created by a cut-down version which had been applied more successfully elsewhere. Little wonder he needed to be rewritten from the ground up. If they’d done it right, it would have only been necessary once.
The new origin was published in 1959. In it a woman from the sea came to land, married a local, and gave birth to an extraordinary child, Arthur Curry. In other words it’s like the sea nymph, Thetis, who gave birth to Achilles. She dipped him in the water but held him by his heel, so that was his only vulnerable place. She didn’t tell his dad about her origin until she left. Please note all of this, like every other Greek myth, depends on which version you read.
The idea was also floated that King Arthur was the son of a sea nymph, eliminating Tintagel altogether. It went over a little bit less well as his membership in the nine worthies. Did Weisinger know of the alternative origin story to King Arthur? He was known to be well-read and professionally at least he seems to have never had an original idea. So it is likely but not proven that he stole the idea of Namor, the original origin, and the second origin and told the writers and artists what he wanted stolen.
That he took the Arthur story wholesale would explain some of the gaps in the narrative because he was using a shoehorn to fit things in.
Aquaman’s father rescues a woman, Atlanna, from the sea during a storm. He is a lighthouse keeper who does not get on the radio and tell anyone of her existence. Somehow the stores he has which are measured to supply him for a few months are made to stretch for two. Does he tell people he needs more supplies because a woman showed up, unexpectedly? This would probably have been the 1920s, so it was a big thing back then. The moral police would have dragged her away, him too, but to some other place.
This was the time when two women admitted they liked having sex (whether with each other or with men isn’t clear) so they were put in an insane asylum for being morally insane. They got out in the 70s. It was a big thing.
He is much older than her, but that doesn’t seem to be a problem. He gets her pregnant, she gives birth, does anyone know the word obstetrician?
Arthur grows up unaware of his heritage. But he does breathe underwater in a way which inexplicably does not make his father take him to a doctor during his legally scheduled time off (if Atlanna was still hidden, what did he do with her at those times?). The boy also plays with sharks, which followed him home, obviously.
These are inexplicable signs of an extraordinary child common in mythology and literature. And it matches the sort of miraculous (or seemingly miraculous) child who grows into an extraordinary adult. But to go from extraordinary child to ruler-in-waiting there must be a revelation or test.
In this case it is a revelation. On her convenient deathbed, Atlanna finally tells her older husband and young son that she comes from Atlantis. They believe her. Possibly it’s Arthur Curry’s underwater antics. But it is very convenient that she should have a slow death that leaves her lucid long enough to say all this.
And why didn’t Tom Curry call for an emergency evac? Or a visiting doctor at least?
But Arthur is confirmed as the ruler of the oceans and the King of Atlantis. She was a princess (duh) who looked to the surface world too much and when she got caught sneaking out to look at it, she was thrown out of Atlantis, made her way to the surface world in a storm and started the whole ball rolling with Arthur’s older-than-her dad.
Why would Arthur inherit that title? This is never explained. Are there no other claimants? Would you throw out your last line of legitimate succession rather than keep her (or at least her womb) in Atlantis?
And if her crime is looking to the surface why did they send her to the surface? Isn’t that like taking soldiers of questionable loyalty and forcing them to go to the Soviet Union, Communist China, Fascist Italy, and Nazi Germany? Does that sound bright?
I mean, Atlantis let Lori Lemaris attend college on the surface with hell knows what fake qualifications. There she paired up with Clark Kent but she found out he was Superman (telepathic, she is) and he found out she’s a mermaid. This story happened in the same year Aquaman’s new origin was revealed and they happened under the same editor.
And note, though no one else ever has, succession in Atlantis is through the mother, at least some times. A landsman, not even an Atlantian, can still sire the king if the mother is royal.
I bet that was by accident.
Arthur is eventually able to review all the sea creatures as they pass by him as an act of loyalty. No one notices this mass migration which dwarfs anything ever heard of before, ever, on land, in the air, or under the sea.
And they don’t eat each other, so I don’t know how they survive.
Maybe they do eat each other. But the fact remains that every sea creature gives its loyalty to Aquaman. At no time in any case that I know of does a sea creature even try to resist his commands. They don’t even demand dinner first.
As time went by, Aquaman found Atlantis, eventually joined it and became its king. He was given an evil half-brother, Ocean Master. This was Arthur’s own Mordred. Everything was set in place.
Then it happened again. Aquaman’s origin was changed and so was his brother’s. They are no longer sons of Tom Curry, they are the sons of Atlan the wizard and Atlanna. He lived on his own like mowgli in The Jungle Book but under water. Now Arthur (not Tom) Curry takes Aquaman, whose name is now Orin, and adopts him. Kind of a come down, really.
Aquaman goes back to Atlantis and becomes a prisoner of the dictatorial government. His mother dies (again). He escapes. He becomes a superhero in the public eye. He goes back to Atlantis and becomes king. Does anyone see a cause-and-effect process here? I don’t.
And the milieu he works in keeps changing. Initially he was a [weird] symbol of modernity and science. Then he increasingly gets pulled into magic, putting him in Arthurian stories, becoming entwined with the Lady of the Lake, and making his father a wizard.
And yet, no one ever read Plato’s Timaeus and Critias. How can I tell? What does Atlantis do besides sink? It declares war on Athens. So, Aquaman of Atlantis meets Wonder Woman of ancient Greece. And? Where are all the scenes and stories from that? Why aren’t they friends while gods and wizards try to tear them apart?
Like Henry Pym, Aquaman keeps getting reinvented to cover up having done it wrong before. Do it right and you can stop because you’ll have one of the greatest characters in comics. When he’s done right he sells and then editorial changes are imposed from above and his sales drop off. Here’s an idea: take away the water and what have you got? A guy who’s a civilized king but a feral wildman, he’s a magician who champions technology. How can you fail to have a million stories?
Now put the water back. What is water in literature? A symbol of life and death, a thing to meditate on (in Aquaman’s case) and you have an otherworld to operate in, yet one with a background of high science. It means when Aquaman comes to the surface he is not a clown, he is someone you can’t understand but need to figure out.
Look at the Justice League trailer. Aquaman shows up every year when a town by the sea, in the winter when food is scarce. And he saves the people by bringing fish for them to eat. When Bruce Wayne shows up, Aquaman doesn’t care, he has to be cornered and all he does is shove Bruce into a wall having picked him up by the shirtfront. And he tells Bruce no. This Arthur Curry may or may not be from Atlantis, but he cares about his people, not people as an abstract. Once again, have to figure this guy out.