Later this week, Aquaman‘s origin story will be told on the big screen for the very first time. Created in 1941 by Mort Weisinger and Paul Norris, Aquaman has had a popular, but tumultuous publication history. Despite over 75 years of on-again off-again series, Aquaman has remained one of DC’s most enduring characters.
A solo Aquaman movie may have been overdue, but it’s also easy to see why it’s taken so long. Aside from the fact that technology has finally caught up with the premise, the character’s origin has been told – and re-told – several times. Before the past decade in particular, Aquaman’s powers and origin were simply too convoluted and confusing. Now, it’s time to examine the different backstories of Aquaman/Arthur Curry to see how he has evolved throughout the last eight decades.
Aquaman made his debut in November 1941’s More Fun Comics #73. While narrating his own origin story, Aquaman described his father as a famous undersea explorer, who discovered the lost kingdom of Atlantis. After making a “water-tight home in one of the palaces,” Aquaman’s father studied Atlantean technology and secrets. Using this information, he molded his son into a “human being who lives and thrives under the water.”
For a character that has become known for being the King of Atlantis, it’s fascinating that this wasn’t even part of the character’s inception. It was also here that Aquaman was established as having the ability to communicate with sea life. Surprisingly, this was not telepathy, but rather some kind of weird fish language. During his early days, Aquaman fought Nazi U-Boat commanders and various Axis enemies.
After World War II ended, Aquaman primarily battled maritime threats. The comics even went as far as to send Aquaman up against silly characters like Black Jack, his one time nemesis. Aquaman stories continued to be told in Adventure Comics through the rest of the forties and into the fifties. There were also several additions to the character’s mythos – including a super weird underwater octopus sidekick named Topo. However, it was in the final year of the decade that the backstory as we know it finally began to be formed.
It was in 1959’s Adventure Comics #260 that provided the first true Silver Age incarnation of Aquaman. In this issue, Aquaman’s origin was re-imagined from the ground up, and it eventually became the most widely accepted incarnation. The story introduces Arthur Curry as the son of Atlanna, an Atlantian princess who was banished from the kingdom due to her interest in the surface world. One night during the storm of the century, a lighthouse keeper named Tom Curry found and rescued Atlanna. The two quickly developed a bond and a romantic relationship, which in turn led to the birth of their child, Arthur.
Atlanna kept her heritage a secret from Tom, but as soon as Arthur was born, this mystery began to unravel. When he was only ten months old, Arthur accidentally fell off of a boat, but he miraculously began to swim. If that weren’t harrowing enough for the parents, Arthur was struck in the water at the age of two and thought to have drowned. Much to their surprise, Arthur was able to breathe underwater, which eventually led him to interact with sea creatures.
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It was only on Atlanna’s deathbed that Arthur and Tom learned of her ties to Atlantis and eventual exile, as well as her son’s ability to live underwater. After Atlanna’s death, Tom devoted himself to training his son to control his powers. Arthur eventually honed his ability to control sea life using telepathy, and his father helped him to become the protector of the oceans. After Tom passed away, Arthur decided to leave Amnesty Bay in search of his place in the world. He took on the Aquaman persona and assumed his rightful place on the throne as King of Atlantis. Arthur met and married Mera, and they had a child who was unimaginatively named Arthur Curry Jr. (a.k.a. Aquaboy).
The sixties also featured the introduction of notable Aquaman supporting characters Dr. Vulko and Garth (a.k.a Aqualad and Tempest). Key villains were also introduced, including Black Manta. It was later revealed that Tom Curry had another child with a normal woman, whom they named Orm. While Orm was Arthur’s half-brother, he came to despise his sibling. Years later, Orm become one of Aquaman’s most hated foes: Ocean Master.
The Modern Age saw massive changes that essentially tried to re-contextualize just about everything we knew about Aquaman. By the eighties, Aquaman and his powers had pretty much become a punch line, thanks in large part to his portrayal in Super Friends. After Crisis on Infinite Earths in 1985, several miniseries attempted to expand and re-tell Aquaman’s origin once again. Both in terms of writing and visual appearance, Arthur Curry became a much more serious, brooding character than ever before. This is also where everything starts to get convoluted.
1989’s The Legend of Aquaman Special (or Aquaman Special #1) once again rewrote the character’s origin from the ground up. This time, he was named Orin at birth, and he was the heir to the throne of Atlantis. Although it was originally thought that King Trevis was his father, we learn that Atlan – an ancient Atlantean wizard – apparently impregnated Queen Atlanna during a dream, which isn’t weird at all. In this slightly rape-y twist of events, the superstitious Trevis cast Orin out of Atlantis, leaving him to die in a place called Mercy Reef. Ironically, a lighthouse keeper named Arthur Curry eventually found the feral child, but only after dolphins raised young Orin as one of their own. Arthur eventually disappeared, but not before bequeathing his name to Orin, because that’s not confusing at all for readers.
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Orin then traveled to Alaska where he met and fell in love with an Inuit woman named Kako. Kako became pregnant with his child Koryak, but Orin was driven back to the seas before he knew about it. Upon returning to Atlantis, Arthur was arrested and thrown into an Atlantean hard-labor prison called the Aquarium. Here, he met a re-imagined version of Vulko, who mentored Orin while also explaining how Atlantis had become a totalitarian society. The future Aquaman also caught a glimpse of his mother, but she died before they could be reunited.
Strangely enough, Orin’s prison uniform was essentially his classic costume. When he broke out of prison, Orin didn’t discard his prison duds. Instead, he used it as a symbol of his heritage while protecting the oceans. Orin eventually returned to Atlantis and learned that Vulko had led a revolution, thereby making Orin a citizen of Atlantis. He also took his rightful place on the throne, only to return to the surface to once again fight the likes of Black Manta and an alternate version of Orm.
Interestingly enough, the longest continual run of Aquaman also features the most dramatically interesting version of the character from the ’90s. The fifth volume of Aquaman tried to move the character away from his pretty boy image. Orin was given longer hair; a beard and one distinct feature in particular – a retractable harpoon that replaced his hand. It’s the most ’90s thing that DC could have done. It may also be the most badass version of Aquaman to date.
The New 52 & Rebirth
In the New 52 reboot, writer Geoff Johns used the post-Flashpoint timeline to make more significant changes to Aquaman’s origin. The re-launch not only cemented his Silver Age beginnings, but also re-established Arthur Curry as the half-human, half-Atlantean son of Tom Curry and Atlanna. However, the tables were turned as Atlanna saved Tom during the fateful storm. Naturally, the two once again fell in love.
When Atlanna learned she was pregnant, she returned to Atlantis to relinquish her royal duties in order to raise her son on the surface. She was imprisoned, and narrowly escaped before the birth of Arthur. Knowing that the Atlanteans would never stop looking for her, she decided to leave Arthur with his father. When she returned to Atlantis, she was forced to marry someone chosen by the people – the captain of the Atlantean guard. They had a child, Arthur’s half-brother. Orm, who once again became Ocean Master.
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When Orm was young, his father was killed. Atlanna used this as an opportunity to once again escape, this time enlisting Vulko to help plan her exit. Unfortunately, Atlanna was conveniently murdered the night before her big breakout. Many years later – after Arthur’s father died – he discovered the existence of his true heritage after Vulko visited him on the surface world. Aquaman decided to let Orm keep the throne under the condition of maintaining peace with the surface world. As we learned in the Throne of Atlantis storyline, Orm didn’t live up to that promise. This caused Aquaman to finally embrace his destiny as king with the hope of restoring peace between his two worlds.
DC Rebirth didn’t really change Aquaman’s origin. It was more about re-establishing certain relationships between the characters. Since the start of the New 52, the comics have also put an emphasis on Arthur’s duality. They explore Aquaman’s public perception on the surface as a weak superhero, mirroring the real life ridicule that the character often receives. To counter that, Johns and artist Ivan Reis portrayed Aquaman as a hero who was just as formidable as the rest of the Justice League. That went a long way towards justifying his inclusion among the world’s greatest superheroes.
Powers & Abilities
For decades, Arthur Curry’s powers and abilities were seen as weak and even silly to non-comic readers. It got to the point where Aquaman was considered to be a joke and a loser. As noted above, DC has finally turned around that perception by portraying Aquaman as one of the company’s most powerful heroes.
Aquaman is most well known for his ability to telepathically communicate with sea life. However, his inherent capacity to survive underwater and swim at super-speeds can’t be discounted, That’s the cornerstone of his true power. Because Aquaman’s body is able to withstand the ocean’s massive pressures, his enhanced physiology makes him even more powerful when he comes to the surface.
Additionally, Aquaman has enhanced strength, speed, agility, reflexes, and senses. Basically, he’s the total package. Bullets bounce off of him, he can lift buildings with ease, and he can even withstand lava. Now, Aquaman’s about to display an even greater superpower at the box office as he puts the entire DCEU on his shoulders. The early indication is that Aquaman is going to be a hit when it drops this Friday, December 21. From now on, Aquaman isn’t going to be anyone’s punchline.