Ryan Poll: Aquaman and the War Against the Oceans (2022) | featured image

Aquaman and the War Against Oceans (Excerpt)

Aquaman can be read as an allegory that responds to the climate change crisis, an era in which the oceans have become sites of warfare and mass death.

Aquaman and the War Against Oceans: Comics Activism and Allegory in the Anthropocene
Ryan Poll
University of Nebraska Press
November 2022


The New Aquaman’s Allegorical Project
to See beyond the Anthropocene

In the final decades of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first, Aquaman had become a perennial punchline in popular culture. This trope is exemplifed in myriad cultural texts, including Entourage, Family Guy, Robot Chicken, SouthPark, and SpongeBob SquarePants. On The Big Bang Theory (2007–19), a television show about a group of self-identied nerds, when one of the show’s central characters must dress as Aquaman for a superhero costume party, he protests, “Aquaman sucks!” His Aquaman costume tellingly resembles the iteration from the 1967–68 cartoon The Superman/Aquaman Hour of Adventure. In this version, Aquaman began to resemble Fred Jones from Scooby-Doo, a campy representation repeated in the long-running animated show Super Friends (1973–86), which replayed in syndication for decades. (The resemblance between Aquaman and Fred Jones is no coincidence; both cartoons were produced by Hanna-Barbera.) In the early twenty-first century, Aquaman had been figured as a worthless superhero because his superpowers were contained to the ocean, a geography implicitly posited as outside of and beyond Human concerns and affairs. As exemplifed by The Big Bang Theory, even self-identified nerds, those typically outside and critical of dominant narratives of power, agreed that Aquaman “sucks.”

When writer Geoff Johns began his multiyear reimagining of Aquaman (2011–14) for The New 52—a massive overhaul and rebranding of all DC superheroes to make them more modern and accessible to more diverse audiences—he began his transformation by acknowledging the pervasive discourse that posited Aquaman as an object of ridicule. In issue 1 of The New 52 Aquaman (September/November 2011), a blogger approaches the superhero and asks, “So how’s it feel to be a punchline? How’s it feel to be a laughingstock?” As the blogger makes explicit, this trope circulates widely in various forms and networks: “I’m sure you’ve heard all the jokes and seen all the skits from Saturday Night Live on YouTube.” Johns begins his modern Aquaman iteration by addressing a popular discourse that had previously existed primarily outside DC’s curated history and, hence, beyond Aquaman’s sanctioned story world. Put differently, this once outside discourse had become so mainstream and normative that it needed to be addressed explicitly from the outset and made internal, and even central, to the superhero’s narrative. In this sense, we can say that one of the narrative engines of The New 52 Aquaman is an ideological battle for respect and dignity—both for Aquaman and, by symbolic extension, the ocean.

Johns’s complex and layered multiyear run as the sole writer of The New 52 Aquaman from 2011 to 2014 can be understood as a concerted effort to counter this dismissive discourse by narrating how and why Aquaman matters. He matters because the oceans matter. The discourse that makes Aquaman the object of ridicule is a judgment not just on Aquaman’s value but, symbolically, of the ocean’s value as well. The blogger who confronts Aquaman with a barrage of hostile questions concludes with a rhetorical challenge: “How’s it feel to be nobody’s favorite super-hero?” This rhetorical question is animated by a hierarchical value system in which Aquaman—a conspicuous symbol of the ocean—is at the bottom. And to be at the bottom of this hierarchical structure is to be beyond Human concern, care, and even visibility.

This book argues that, far from being a joke, Aquaman— under the direction of Geoff Johns (writer), Ivan Reis (penciled), Joe Prado (inker), and Rod Reis (colorist)—becomes a salient figure for mapping the environmental violences that constitute the Anthropocene, as well as a popular icon for developing a progressive ecological imagination. As the comics series foregrounds, the global ocean is a salient geography in understanding and narrating the entangled violences that constitute the Anthropocene. Although the ocean is largely unseen and illegible in the dominant knowledge regimes of modernity, The New 52 Aquaman challenges this normative paradigm by visualizing and narrating how the Anthropocene is transforming the ocean into a vast and deep graveyard.

Aquaman is a symbol of the Ocean, a geography that covers more than 70 percent of Earth’s surface and a geography that is central to a healthy and sustainable planet. (From this point forward, I will capitalize the word Ocean, which I will use interchangeably with Oceans, because as maritime historian Eric Paul Roorda, the editor of The Ocean Reader: History, Culture, Politics, argues, the “stylebook spelling of ‘ocean’ diminishes it as a geographic reference. To capitalize Ocean is to challenge the conventional wisdom that the seas can be taken for granted. They cannot.”) Earth is a water planet, yet paradoxically, in dominant discourses, the Ocean is frequently positioned as peripheral to Human affairs. The New 52  Aquaman seeks to challenge and change this conception.

The Global Ocean, as political geographer Philip E. Steinberg argues, is a “social construction.” Every culture redefines the Ocean in relation to their histories and worldviews. How we socially construct and engage with the Ocean changes how we perceive and conceive it.  at is, the Ocean’s metaphoricity and materiality are inextricable.

The New 52 Aquaman’s centering on the Ocean challenges the Anthropocene’s narratives and epistemologies. Maritime historian Helen M. Rozwadowski writes, “The vast expanse of the world ocean, the dominant feature of planet Earth, has remained at the edges of our histories…. Writers have embedded a terrestrial bias in virtually all stories about the past.” Rozwadowski continues, “Dry land is the presumed norm.” The normative Humanities and the normative Human—ideological constructs that I am capitalizing throughout to highlight their artificiality—have a “terrestrial bias,” and The New 52 Aquaman, I argue, is an attempt to break this pervasive bias. The comics intervention in this bias becomes all the more urgent because in the twentieth century, as literary and environmental scholar Steve Mentz argues, the Ocean became “displaced…… from the center of” the dominant “cultural imagination.” The marginalization of the Ocean coincides with the rise of “terracentrism,” a concept that “refers to people’s tendency to consider the world and human activity mainly in the context of the land and events that take place on land.” Tellingly, the marginalization of the Global Ocean and the subsequent rise in terracentrism overlaps with the history of Aquaman, whose debut was in More Fun Comics 73 in 1941.

Aquaman, this project contends, is a progressive, popular figure for narrating the Ocean’s central role in imagining politics beyond the myopic, violent paradigm of the surface world, beyond the prism of the Anthropocene. The Anthropocene names and recognizes a new geological age defined by unprecedented “human-driven chemical, physical, and biological changes to the Earth’s atmosphere, land surface, and oceans.” In this new geological age, Humans have become “geological agents,” affecting species and geographies everywhere.  As Jan Zalasiewicz, Mark Williams, and Colin N. Waters write, the term Anthropocene signifes how the contemporary world is “undergoing rapid environmental change” as evident by “the clearing of rainforests for agriculture, the eutrophication of lakes and shallow seas by fertilizer run-off, depletion of fish stocks, acid rain, and global warming.” As these examples suggest, one of the primary geographies in which the Anthropocene’s devastation is most evident is the Ocean.

However, despite being a central geography in which to see and understand the violences of the Anthropocene’s unfolding, the Oceans are frequently projected, in Humanistic theories, as an externality, an unthought of and uncared for geography beyond the Human. As The New 52 Aquaman highlights, the Anthropocene develops and expands by refusing to recognize the Ocean as a complex geography worthy of study, respect, and dignity. The dominant world order is enabled, in large part, by not seeing the Global Ocean, by practicing and perpetuating an aggressive form of ecological ignorance. By turning toward the Global Ocean, the horrors of the Anthropocene become visible—horrors that are typically kept hidden, buried, and external to dominant discourses and epistemologies.

Central to The New 52 Aquaman, both the comic and hero, is to dismantle a central ideology of the Anthropocene, one that positions the Human as beyond nature. This conceptual work is allegorized by Aquaman. Aquaman, whose birth name is Arthur Curry, is a superhero who lives between two worlds: the surface and the Ocean world. His father is Human and worked as a lightkeeper, and his mother is from the Ocean and was once Queen of Atlantis, an underwater kingdom. The intimacy and coupling of Arthur’s parents—one Human and the other from the Ocean—was forbidden by both the surface and the Ocean world. Yet their intimacy, their willingness to defy the dominant social order of their respective worlds, is a form of utopian world making that leads to their mixed-race son, Arthur Curry, the future Aquaman. In The New Aquaman, Arthur negotiates both sides of his hyphenated identity, between land and sea. Initially, Arthur is “lost” (the name of an early comic issue in the series) and hapless, not at home in either the Human or Ocean world. However, by the end of Johns’s narrative run, Arthur learns to see that his hyphenated identity is not a marker of shame but a source of epistemic strength. As stated late in The New 52 Aquaman, Arthur’s mission is “to unite land and sea.” To see the Oceans and land as one—to decenter the terrestrial bias that structures normative epistemologies and narratives—is a radical ecological and activist project and one, I will argue, that critiques all forms of hierarchical thinking that reign on the surface world, from capitalism to racism.

The ideological divide between the surface and the Ocean is a foundational feature of the Anthropocene. In the Anthropocene, the surface world is the world of Humanism—an ideological category, as I will later elaborate, that excludes most biological humans—and global capitalism. From the perspective of the surface world, the Ocean is figured as a form of nature, a social construct that is projected as mere background and external to Human affairs. The New 52 Aquaman critiques this ideological divide at the heart of the Anthropocene by making visible how the two worlds are interrelated and internal to each other.

Arthur’s efforts to show that the surface and Ocean worlds are dialectically conjoined can be understood as allegorizing the critical project of the “blue humanities.” The blue humanities critique hegemonic forms of Humanism that posit and reify Humans as divorced from other species and ecologies, including, most prominently, the Ocean. In contrast to the Humanities’ myopic frame, the blue humanities encourage innovative and creative thinking to help forge new paradigms and philosophies to think about how human and marine life are interconnected and how the Ocean, like its surface counterpart, must be historicized. Aquaman, this project contends, is an accessible figure for thinking through the blue humanities and for teaching Ocean literacy more generally. Aquaman, like nearly all superheroes, is a  figure of hope who refuses to capitulate to cynicism and who embodies the utopian principle that another political order is both possible and winnable.

Aquaman is one of the most conspicuous political figures in mainstream U.S. superhero comics. Although the aquatic hero has many iterations since his debut in 1941, central to Aquaman’s identity is his birthright. Aquaman comes from a royal family, and his destiny is to be king of the underwater Kingdom of Atlantis. Myriad story lines have centered on Aquaman wrestling with his role and responsibility as king and what it means to rule and care not just for a particular underwater kingdom but for all the Ocean. As a comic and figure, Aquaman is an allegory about politics beyond the myopic paradigm of Humanism—the belief that Humans are at the center and measure of all social relations, a hubristic paradigm exemplifed in the name Anthropocene (“Anthro-” has its roots in the Greek word for “human,” anthropos). As King of Atlantis, Aquaman moves beyond the narrow Humanist defnition of politics that concerns itself only with Human citizens, and instead he wrestles with what it means to rule, lead, protect, and be responsible for multiple species. This is a radical conception of citizenship that includes all marine species and a radical conception of politics that recognizes all geographies as political geographies. Aquaman, in short, helps bring politics into the twenty-first century by making the concept of ecology central to the concept of the political.

How, this project queries, do we read Aquaman comics differently by reading the underwater protector through and against the prism of the Anthropocene? The New 52 version of Aquaman, and subsequent iterations, actively works to realize a new world order, one beyond the Anthropocene. Aquaman works to bridge the ideological and material divides between the surface and the Ocean world, working to show how the two worlds profoundly influence one another and how the two are intertwined. In contrast to the logic of the Anthropocene, the Human and Ocean worlds are not two competing worlds, but rather, they are mutually constitutive. In a 2018 interview, Ivan Reis, the primary penciller working with John on The New 52 Aquaman, explains that Aquaman stories matter because of the story world’s primary geography: “The ocean serves a few different purposes in that it’s able to host different stories and bring up different questions about the problems of the planet, including environmental issues.” Reis foregrounds that in The New 52 iteration, Aquaman is an environmental hero.

Moreover, Reis stresses Aquaman’s hyphenated identity. Reis emphasizes that “Aquaman lives in two worlds,” the surface and the Ocean, that are ideologically viewed as separate, distinct, and noncompatible. Aquaman’s mixed heritage has conspicuous racial resonances. Reading allegorically—a method I practice throughout this project—Aquaman can be read as a mixed-race superhero. This allegorical reading became literalized with the casting of Joseph Jason Namakaeha Momoa, better known as Jason Momoa, to play Aquaman in the 2018 movie that is largely based on Johns, Reis, Prado, and Reis’s narrative run. Momoa is Hapa, a Hawaiian word used to describe someone of mixed heritage.  (Hapa was originally a derogatory term used to describe “mixed-race children of plantation guest workers from the Philippines, Korea, China and Japan, and the women they married in Hawaii in the early part of the 20th century.”.. Today, though, Hapa is a term widely embraced by mixed-race Hawaiians.). In the following pages, I chart the transformation of Aquaman from a blue-eyed, blond-hair white superhero into a Hapa superhero and the wider implications of this sea change in representation and politics.

The New 52 Aquaman, I argue, imagines the Ocean as a geography that disrupts and challenges what Sylvia Wynter critically calls “the regime of the Human” and the intertwining ideologies that constitute this regime, which includes Humanism, racism, genderism, ableism, and capitalism. In conjunction with this critique, The New 52 Aquaman, I contend, begins a process in comics, movies, and television in which the Ocean transforms from a white imaginary into one that is explicitly Black, brown, feminist, queer, and Indigenous.


Excerpted from Aquaman and the War Against Oceans: Comics Activism and Allegory in the Anthropocene by Ryan Poll by permission of the University of Nebraska Press. ©2022 by the Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. [Footnotes omitted.]