Friday, March 11, 2011

In which I talk about Aquaman, Plastic Man, why I like them and a bunch of great artists who drew them recently.

I assume most of you already visit Project: Rooftop, the superhero design and redesign site, on a fairly regular basis. If you’re an editor at DC and Marvel, I hope you do, and are always taking notes on creator contact info, because the quality of art and, especially, the quality of costume design there often surpasses what shows up in the super-comics I see.

So chances are, you’ve already seen the results of their “Aquaman: Sea Change” redesign contest, which were posted on February 28. I’ve been meaning to point them out and blab about them for a while—on account of Aquaman being one of my favorite superheroes and on account of my interest in character design—but was waiting until a day when I had a few hours to kills reading through all the comments and pontificating.

Seeing The Beat’s link to these swell Plastic Man images a week or so later reminded me that the “Sea Change” thing was something I had been meaning to blog about. Waking up today and opening my curtain to see my neighborhood completely covered in snow, with a strong wind blowing the snow sideways, so that every inch of every available surface, including the sides of houses, was covered in snow, convinced me that sitting in front of a warm lap top with a cup of coffee writing about Aquaman and Plastic Man might be a more pleasurable way to spend a few hours than digging up my car and driveway.

So, let’s talk Aquaman and Plastic Man.


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Plastic Man is pretty much a perfect corporate superhero character.

He boasts a unique, powerful visual identity; he has fantastic powers ideally suited to demonstration within comics medium and if they’re not quite unique (stretchy guys and shape-changers abound), he used them uniquely; he is closely tied to the work of his creator (no one’s ever done him better, and no one’s managed to radically change him for long), and yet he’s survived as a sort of not-quite-living legacy of that creator, a constant visual reminder in the background of some big DC crossover comic that “Jack Cole was here”; he’s incredibly versatile, and can fit into just about any genre of story or emerging medium well.

As an added benefit, despite being as old and, in some ways, as iconic as the other Golden Age superheroes still popping up in super-comics—Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Captain America, Captain Marvel, Namor, The Human Torch—he’s not as popular. Plastic Man and Police Comics are long cancelled, not shipping comics with their issue numbers in the high hundreds like Superman and Action Comics.

That makes Plastic Man a bit more pure of a character than some of the others (he hasn’t been messed with as much as them, if that makes sense), and it also makes it cooler to like him. Superman and Batman are New York Times bestseller; Plastic Man is an obscure poet the cool girl in class recommends to you. Wonder Woman and Captain America are radio pop songs; Plastic Man is punk rock.

I never need an New Yorker Art Spiegelman essay or a Chip Kidd-designed book to tell me how cool Plastic Man was, although I’m sure that helped solidify my affection.

As one of the Golden Age heroes popular at the dawn of comics and less so as time went by, Plastic Man existed in my imagination for a while as a teenager as interested in comics and their history as I was who Batman was fighting this month; I took my grandfathers’ generation’s word for it that he was awesome.

I associated him pretty strongly with Jack Cole, whose biography—while ultimately tragic—was in many ways also inspirational, and certainly one of the more compelling of the early comic book creators, who were in many ways just as colorful and exciting as the super-characters they created.

When I finally read a Plastic Man story that wasn’t from a library-borrowed DC Archive collection or by Jack Cole, it was in Grant Morrison’s JLA, which remains my favorite superhero comic book (Not necessarily the one I think is best, mind you, but my favorite).

So, for me, Plastic Man had the benefit of existing as one of those mostly unknown and unknowable Golden Age characters who existed primarily in my imagination (when he didn’t exist in a Cole story from half-a-century ago) to a Grant Morrison character in the middle of a massive, important-feeling, years-long superhero epic.

The way I perceived him, then, was a character who was the best of both worlds.

I should note that I didn’t always like Morrison’s portrayal of the character—I didn’t even understand a lot of the jokes Morrison put in Plas’ mouth, but the way he used him and his powers was pretty amazing (Particularly the take down of the Justice Legion’s Flash, where Plastic Man turned into a room). Many of the writers to use him after Morrison dusted him off were even worse, exaggerating his clownish qualities and using his powers mostly for un-funny puns.

That’s okay. Plastic Man is resilient enough to survive dozens of mediocre talents and years of bad stories (although, with the exception of Kyle Baker’s too short-lived monthly, its worth noting that the post-JLA Plastic Man rarely had his own stories, but simply scenes in other characters’ stories). That’s how strong Cole made him.

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As for Aquaman, my affection for him is probably a bit more shallow, although its gotten deeper over the years due to reasons that have little to do with the comics themselves.

I knew Aquaman long before I knew of Plastic Man, as some of my earliest television memories involve Super Friends episodes. I never really developed an antipathy towards Aquaman from those shows, but really did seem like a bit of a hanger-on, as he was usually around but rarely doing anything.

Looking back, I blame this on his inability to fly and the fact that he didn’t own his own jet like Wonder Woman and Batman. Unless the Super Friends were having an adventure near a body of water, Aquaman was the only Super Friend who never traveled under his own power, but had to be carted around in the backseat of Wonder Woman’s jet or whatever.

In 1996 I was enjoying DC’s Final Night crossover event enough that I checked out a few titles I wasn’t familiar with just to get more of the crossover (The premise was strong; the sun was going out, and no one knew exactly how to reignite it, so the story was as much about the heroes saying goodbye and dealing with not saving the day as it was about anything else—at least until the end, anyway. I bought Aquaman #26 by Peter David and J. Calafiore, and although I had no idea what the hell was going on, I was curious enough to try back issues and future issues.

David and DC made it easy to sample Aquaman at the time, as there were quite a few done-in-one stories featuring guest-stars one might be more familiar with: Superboy, Lobo, Green Lantern Kyle Rayner, Wonder Woman’s pre-JLA Justice league, Swamp Thing, even the Vertigo version of Animal Man…

Anyway, I ended up reading the series backwards and forwards from there, from the back-issue bins and the new comics racks, and really dug it. This, by the way, was the long-haired, bearded, harpoon-handed Aquaman.

It was my first prolonged exposure to David’s writing, and while some of his tendencies have long since started to grate, I really liked that series, and it definitely made me think Aquaman was cool and important and, dare I say it, bad ass.

Of course, much of that was simply because David was telling me that through the mouths of other characters, but there was certainly plenty of adequate demonstration of those facts too.

David’s Aquaman, and thus Aquaman at that time, was grumpy, moody and too-old-for-this-shit. He also had a sense of humor, could be kind of a douche but not as douchey as Namor, and seemed more human than other superheroes. Like, I’m pretty sure he was the only member of the Justice League that admitted to himself that he wanted to fuck Wonder Woman, for example.

David’s run was also pretty fluid in terms of genre—it was fantasy, it was sci-fi, it was superhero, it was pulp, it was myth. It depended on the story or the scene, but Aquaman’s background and purview was such that all of that fit in there pretty well.

DC eventually fucked up the book beyond repair, handing the title over to Erik Larsen and then Dan Jurgens before it was canceled. They’ve been wrestling with figuring out what to do with Aquaman ever since David left the book in 1998, actually, although I suspect that once Brightest Day ends, he’ll be back more or less in the same form he was during the Bronze Age, only with more souped-up powers and a more bad-ass attitude grafted on.

In other words, he’ll probably be like the Aquaman in Alex Ross’s various Justice League comics—he’ll look like the Silver Age Aquaman, but he’ll have the power level and attitude of the Peter David/Grant Morrison conception of the character.

Oh yeah, Grant Morrison. That’s another reason I like Aquaman. He was, of course, one of the main characters in Morrison’s JLA run too, and Morrison followed through with David’s vision of the character—a veteran, battle-heartened superhero who kind of hated the life and pretended to hate his co-workers, but actually kind of loved it.

As with every member of Morrison’s League, Aquaman seemed important and powerful simply because he was in that League, but Morrison repeatedly gave him unique opportunities to shine. Perhaps Morrison’s greatest strength as a Justice League writer was continually writing plots in which all of the characters had roles to play—roles only they could play—but without making any aspect of those plot seemed forced or transparent.

That is, in retrospect, it seemed like that was what Morrison was doing, but if it was, it wasn’t something immediately obvious (and thus distracting) when reading the stories the first few times.

I suppose there’s also an element of the underdog in my early affection for the character as well. Like with Plastic Man, since Aquaman was relatively unpopular to his peers, it made liking him seem more appealing.

He’s also an underdog within the stories he appears in, too; at least, the Justice League stories. Of the Big Seven, the only character physically weaker and more limited is Batman, so there’s something sort of exciting when you see Aquaman fighting the evil Green Lantern from a parallel universe or killer angels or superheroes from the 853rd Century. It’s easier to get caught up in the drama of Aquaman in danger, and easier to root for him in a fight.

Anyway, the character’s been a bit of a mess for a good ten years or so now in the comics themselves, with each new, post-David writer trying a radically different approach, often back to back. His supporting cast, setting, goals in life and even the number and nature of his hands would change from writer to write.

For a while the obvious fix seemed to be to let him lie fallow for a bit and then hand him to Geoff Johns to rehab as he did Green Lantern and Flash and, to a lesser extent, Hawkman. Instead of a Aquaman: Rebirth, however, we got Brightest Day, which seems to also be functioning as a Martian Manhunter: Rebirth and Firestorm: Rebirth type of story.

I started to like Aquaman more and more over the years though because the more I read of other stuff, the more potential the character seemed to have. Like, reading H.P. Lovecraft, or anything about Atlantis or the Hollow Earth, or sea life, or the ocean, or certain myths and fairy tales, once I started thinking about Aquaman on a monthly basis, I was constantly seeing things in my prose reading that seemed to apply to the character, so that if I’d read about a newly discovered prehistoric sea-going reptile of monstrous size, I’d think, “I wonder what would happen if it fought Aquaman?” and so on.

Anyway, Aquaman—Maybe DC’s most versatile, potential-filled, A-List superhero who also happens to be a bit of a grumpy jerk sometimes. I love that guy.

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As I said, Aquaman has been a bit of a mess for a good 12 years or so now. This is what he looked like circa 1998: Later he would add a tiara with a seashell on it, and replace his gold harpoon hand with either a gold robot hand or a morphing gold liquid metal robot hand.

Then he got a haircut, shaved his beard and left some stubble, took off his shirt, got a new pair of pants, started wearing a shark tooth necklace and had a magic water hand.Then they let him have his shirt back, and he was allowed to wear his old pants again. I like this look the best, particularly when accessorized with his green gloves, since when he had a glove over his left hand, you didn’t really have to think about whether it was magic water or flesh or liquid metal or gold robot or what—out of sight, out of mind.

Also, with a trident. He looks cool with a trident.

Then they made him look like this.

Not in the middle there; on the left, in a cloak and covered in tentacles. That’s Aquaman; the guy in the middle is Joseph Curry, Aquaman II. I read that whole series, and now I don’t remember exactly what the deal was. I think Curry was a clone with part of Aquaman’s soul in it or something…? It was complicated, went on too long, and was resolved too quickly. I don’t even remember what happened to the little Aquaman. I assume he’s dead, but I don’t remember.His look was pretty cool though: Then Aquaman sort of died or something, and then he was a zombie Black Lantern, and then he came back to life wearing a mock turtleneck I hate: Oh, then they cut off his hand and killed him again, but I think he’ll come back to life in like a week or three, since the whole cast of Brightest Day seems to be getting killed off abruptly.

Trade in the mock turtleneck for the shirt he was wearing right before he turned into a tentacley guy in Sword of Atlantis, and he’d look perfect, if you ask me.

But let’s not ask me. Let’s instead see how the various talented folks who contributed to “Sea Change” solve the problem of Aquaman’s chaotic costume design.

There are 20 redesigns up at Project: Rooftop, and it was interesting to look for common themes among them, as I think it gives a decent picture of how people view the character.

For example, in the comic books, Aquaman wore a beard between 1994 and 2003, just under a decade of his 70 years of existence. In other media, television Aquaman was clean-shaven through all the incarnations of Super Friends and Superman: The Animated Series (And on Smallville), but he wore a beard in 2001’s Justice League, Batman: The Brave and The Bold and this year’s Young Justice, so, again, about a decade, or one-seventh of his career.

Of the 20 Aquamen, seven of them have facial hair of some sort (I really like that on Yasmin Liang’s Aquaman; it looks more royal and 19th or 20th century, although less puffy, more close-cropped beards seem to be the favored direction for Bearded Aquaman).Aquaman lost his hand the same year he grew his beard, and had a prosthetic harpoon and/or golden hand until 2003, at which point he got a magic water hand, which lasted up until at least “One Year Later” in 2006, when he mutated into The Dweller-of-the-Depths in Aquaman: Sword of Atlantis. In the cartoons, the only Aquaman to not have two hands was the one in Justice League; he wore a harpoon-like prosthetic.

The alternate hands don’t seem to have stuck with the artists the way the facial hair did, though. They all have both hands, save for Otoniel Oliveira’s bad-ass design, which has the harpoon, and Zoe Maxine’s, which has the water hand. Eleven of the Aquaman are carrying traditional tridents of some kind, while one carries a harpoon, another has a little trident on a wrist-mounted cannon and another wears a sword on his hip. The designers seem to have formed a consensus on whether Aquaman should accessorize, and how.

I don’t always like the designs of the tridents he’s shown carrying, which vary from artist to artist in the comics, but, in general, I think he looks cooler with one. It gives him something to do with his hands, it gives him a way to look threatening or royal or in charge (raising it, pointing it, banding it on the ground) and it gives him a sort of visual icon or motif beyond the colors of his costume. Aquaman has a symbol like the other Justice Leaguer’s, but it’s small and on his belt, and thus not as arresting as a Bat-symbol or S-Shield. (David wrote some stories about a particular trident, which belonged to Poseidon or Neptune and had special powers and inflicted a toll on the person who carried it, but I think Abnett and Lanning were the only ones who ever touched on that idea, and that Aquaman’s been toting generic tridents since).

It may also be worth noting that a majority of the artists seemed to think of various types of wetsuits when designing their Aquamen—I would guess about 13 or 14 of the designs depend heavily on realworld wet-suits to some degree—none more obviously than Jordan Gibson’s and Daniel Heard’s.

It’s easy to guess why a costume designer’s mind might drift that way, but if Aquaman wore a wetsuit derived costume, he would do so more because he wanted to than he needed too. The Aquaman of the comics is evolved to be able to stand the cold temperatures of the depth, and thus doesn’t need insulation, and he swims like a porpoise, undulating his body subtly and sort of rocketing through the water, so he doesn’t really need a sleek costume or flippers and suchlike (although some of his official costumes have included fins on the legs and fin-like gloves).

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I really like the drawing of Daniel Mikah Govar’s winning entry; it’s very dramatic and slightly romantic. (Good trident, too!) I love the costume form the waist up, and wouldn’t mind seeing Comic Book Aquaman wearing that shirt in place of his old one. It lacks the green gloves, which I’d probably keep at least until his hand issues are made up.

I don’t care for Govar’s pants though, particular the webbed frog feet. As stated above, Aquaman doesn’t need ‘em, and I think they give him a frog or duck-like look that seems somewhat inappropriate. Just as Superman doesn’t need wings to fly, Aquaman shouldn’t need webbed toes or fins to swim.

My overall favorites are probably the aforementioned Liang’s, which is very realistic, pretty fashionable, and retains just enough of Aquaman’s visual signatures while to still say “Aquaman,” despite it being completely stripped down and different (Wonder Woman-like bracelets, black instead of green), and Zoe Maxine’s, which similarly strips down the traditional look while keeping the signatures. I like her addition of a Sword of Atlantis-like should-pad and royal-looking sash, too. Either of these, and a few others—Mike Maihack’s, Sean Izaakse’s, Chad Maupin’s, maybe Govar’s—look like ones we could actually see turn up in the regular, in-continuity comics as new Aquaman costumes. A few others look like great costumes for younger or older, maybe out-of-continuity Aquaman costumes.


The most unusual designs are those from Chris King and Nate Bellegarde. Both are so unusual, that it’s hard to imagine either ever actually showing up in the comics, but that doesn’t mean they’re not cool in their own right. King’s does show that Aquaman would probably look good in a light blue chain mail top over navy pants instead of the traditional orange and green, and I like the sword a lot too. The A-symbol is cool, but looks too much like Amazing Man’s to me, even if it's more suggestive of it than close to it. Nate Bellegarde’s is all-around incredible, and I think it’s somewhat fortunate that it’s so far divorced from the traditional Aquaman—that means Bellegarde should be able to use it somewhere else some day. I’d certainly want to read a comic book with that guy swimming around in it.

Finally, I just wanted to call attention to this one by Meghan Murphy—I love it. The costume is aces, although it’s hard to imagine Aquaman wearing that to fight Starro or whatever in, but I can see him wearing it to meetings are around the Aquacave.

What I really like about it though is the hairstyle and the look on his face. Along with Erica Henderson’s and Zoe Maxine’s, I like the way the facial expression suggest so much of the character. They don’t really suggest the Aquaman I know and love, but they suggest someone pretty cool nonetheless.

Plastic Man wasn’t up for a P:R redesign, although I’d actually kind of love to see that. Other than having long pants, I have a hard time recalling anyone ever messing with Plas’ costume design much at all—even when he appeared in Elseworlds type stories like Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Strikes Again and All-Star Batman and Robin, The Bow Wonder or Mark Waid and Alex Ross’s Kingdom Come or Waid and Frank Quitely’s The Kingdom: Offstpring, he was wearing his original duds.

No, he was simply chosen as the subject for the artists who contribute to comictwart.com, which, according to comictwart.com, features “A different character every week drawn by a bunch of twarts!”

So go look at Plastic Men by Dave Johnson, Ron Salas, Mitch Breitweiser, Francesco Francavilla, Chris Samnee, Mike Hawthorne, Patrick Stiles and Mitch Gerads.

Here’s Johnson’s:If you read JLA, then you probably remember the fill-in by Mark Waid which included a scene where Plas pulled a similar trick on Big Barda. Johnson’s piece really blew my mind, because as much as I’ve thought about Plastic Man over the years, I have never, ever, ever thought about what happens to his weight when he changes shape.

I don’t think I’m equipped with the scientific knowledge to understand how weight would work when applied to a person who had complete control of their body at a molecular level, but unlike the Martian Manhunter, Plas doesn’t control his own mass, so, um, huh, maybe Plas’ weight is constant…?

Huh.

Oh, and while there are eight different drawings of Plas, it’s worth noting that two of them have Plas clinging to curvy women, and a third has him using his powers to engage in an act of voyeurism.

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Related: As I was writing this, Chris Mautner wrote a short installment of “Collect This Now” on Robot 6 devoted to Jack Cole’s Plastic Man comics.

3 comments:

Johnny B said...

I thought Joe Kelly did a good job with Plastic Man in his JLA run; I recall thinking at the time that I wouldn't mind reading a Kelly-written Plas series.

Diabolu said...

I did need Art Spiegelman's help to stop the hating and love Plastic Man.

I wouldn't be surprised if we got a proper Aquaman: Year One soon. Johns dropped a lot of retcon hints. I like the general direction, but I'm still not sold on a lot of the specifics. I loved Aquuaman too long and given his potential too much thought for him to become a better dressed Sub-Mariner.

Petschorin said...

This Liang-version of Aquaman truly is stunning. That would be a bold new take.

Man, I'd love to read a good Aquaman-book.