As we prepare for Aquaman's first solo outing on the big screen (with apologies to Vinnie Chase), we should not forget that the initial choice of Jason Momoa was viewed by many comics fans at the time as a head-scratcher. "He looks nothing like Aquaman" diehard comic readers exclaimed, some less than excitedly, when Momoa made his debut in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice back in 2016. To a certain extent, that is true, though any argument about being faithful to his look depends on what era or interpretation for DC's King of Atlantis you're talking about.
Created by Paul Norris and Mort Weisinger in 1941 as an 8-page feature in More Fun Comics #73, Aquaman's initial origin story involved his father teaching him how to breathe and survive underwater (as fathers are wont to teach their children to do). But, the story of one of DC comics most recognizable heroes has undergone dozens of alterations to both his history and powers over the years. And to that point, there have been varying looks to the Arthur Curry as well.
SYFY WIRE has assembled a distinguished group of illustrators who have all contributed to Aquaman's visual evolution on the page over the years to discuss their contributions, their thoughts on adding to King Arthur's legacy, and what they think of the new big screen iteration.
Before we begin, we will be alluding to two periods in Aquaman's history during this gallery whose creators we were unfortunately unable to speak to. But, they are no less crucial to painting the overall picture of the characters visual progression over the years.
Chuck Patton/ Penciler
Notable Aquaman issues: Justice League of America (Vol. 1) #217-#227. #233-239; Justice League of America Annual (Vol. 1) #2; Who's Who: The Definitive Directory of the DC Universe (Vol. 1) #1
We get our most recognizable image of Aquaman from artist Chuck Patton, who in 1985 was completing a run on the Justice League of America on-going series that featured the DC's favorite mariner as team leader. That same year he was also tasked with providing the bio image for the first issue of Who's Who in the DC Universe, encyclopedia time series meant to catalog DC's library of characters at the time.
Tell us about your personal history with the character before you came to draw him in Justice League?
Patton: I was a HUGE fan of both Nick Cardy's and Jim Aparo's Aquaman. Cardy's Aquaman was a powerful superhuman with a lot of pathos. But (Artist Jim) Aparo brought this lithe, muscular look to him, much like an underwater Tarzan. And I liked that, making my Aquaman lean, lethal but still very human.
And when you finally got on the title yourself, what were you looking to bring to the Arthur look?
There wasn't much room to make Aquaman look any different in JLA than where he was already established in the DC universe. It was the accepted practice for all the characters to remain the same in whatever book they appeared, except for their storylines. The whole point of JLA was exactly what made the Super Friends popular: You wanted to see how they bonded together despite their differences.
What did you learn about Arthur Curry during your time with the character?
Aquaman really was this Outlaw King type, a royal raised as a commoner but far gifted beyond either role. And despite their occasionally picking a chairperson among themselves, the JLA never had a "regular" leader, and that was the other thing we became excited to explore, and who better than one who was an actual King.
Suddenly, we got an Aquaman who was not only strongly in charge but willing to make tough decisions, take down his enemies HARD with a power that went from being a joke to becoming absolutely scary! This Aquaman became a warrior, and I loved it!
Is there another version iteration of Aquaman that stands to you since you're initial work with the character?
I LOVED what Peter David brought to his version with the beard, long mane of hair and the hook hand! So he stole a page from Namor, but left out the Submariner's overbearing alien-ness and fully embraced a kind of Robert E. Howard like barbarian nobility that I enjoyed and related with.
Your career has taken you into animation these days, which has given you among other things a chance to revisit characters you worked on during your comic book days like Aquaman in another medium. Any particular project stand out to you?
Patton: I really dug the Steve Reeves' Herculean goofball version in all his "Outrageousness" from the animated Batman: The Brave and the Bold series! What a hoot in boarding that guy! I see a bit of each of them in Jason Momoa's Aquaman too, and I'd love to take a swing at drawing him now.
Neal Posner (writer) and Craig Hamilton (illustrator):
Notable Aquaman issues: Aquaman Vol. 3 #1-4
In a mini-series from 1986, written by Neal Posner and illustrated by Craig Hamilton, Aquaman donned an ocean-blue body suit that was intended more for camouflage than super-hero pomp. Though this look did not survive for long after the mini-series concluded, it's remembered fondly by many fans of the character, for if nothing else the radical departure it took from his usual look.
Marty Egeland (penciler) and Howard Shum (inker):
Notable Aquaman issues: Aquaman #1-25 (1994); Collected in Aquaman by Peter David
In 1994 came the most pronounced change to Aquaman's look. Gone was the clean-shaven Sea King; Peter David, Marty Egeland and Howard Shum introduced readers to a more strident monarch who was bent on seizing the respect he felt he'd been denied in years prior, during an arc that saw him gain a beard and lose a hand.
So when you were asked to be a part of the '90s relaunch of Aquaman, what challenges did you have to overcome in dreaming up the appropriate look for this iteration?
Egeland: Aquaman had been seen as a bit of a joke for decades, likely due to his unique superpower that allowed him to speak with fish. It was the '90s and DC wanted to shed some of that old stigma surrounding the character. The idea was to "grit" him up and show just how powerful this guy really is. My series finds a brooding Aquaman, having hidden himself away in his underwater cave and shut off from everything around him. I was tasked with giving him the look of a guy who had been pushed around for too long and when he finally emerges from that cave, he has the long hair and beard.
Were you shocked in any way by how much farther you were allowed to go as your time on the series went on?
Egeland: Not really, there was a bit of concern that we were going too far at first, but this was the '90s. Superman had just died and been replaced by four separate guys, only to return sporting a mullet, so our departure didn't seem so drastic by comparison.
Shum: I liked the long hair and bearded Aquaman on our run because it's a different look than all the other super-heroes.
And the hook hand which became stayed with the Arthur for almost a decade?
Egeland: Oh no no! Don't let Peter David hear you calling it a "hook!" He would be quick to correct you that it has always been a harpoon!
Harpoon aside, the upcoming movie owes a lot of visual cues for their version of Arthur to you two, any thoughts on that?
Egeland: Visually, the movie certainly takes some cues from my run on the comic. Long hair, beard, and armor. As flattering as that is, it also seems very fitting for the Sea King to have a look reminiscent of Neptune or Poseidon, so that, I believe is where much of its inspiration comes from.
Shum: I like that Marty established the beard and long hair and they used that. I like the trident in the movie because if you are looking for an iconic look associated with the sea, a trident makes more sense to me than the harpoon hand in our book. I've mentioned to Marty that we should do our take of Jason Momoa as Aquaman.
Notable issues: Aquaman (1997) #32-49
Jim Calafiore picked up the baton from Egeland and Shum and ran with it alongside Peter David for another 25 issues that saw Aquaman battling the Justice League, vengeful sea gods, and Dopplegangers of himself.
How long were you on Aquaman? What was going on with him when you were on the title?
I started filling in around issue 5 of Peter David's run. This was the bearded, darker, harpoon-handed Aquaman. I did nine fill-ins up to issue 30. I took over the regular art chores as of issue #32, but like to think of #34 as my first official issue as the regular artist as I had a small hand in plotting it. My last issue was #49.
How did the character evolve visually while you were drawing him from issue to issue?
His look was already established by Egeland and Shum when I came on, so not much (unless you count his on-again, off-again chest hair). But I definitely drew him differently from the classic "clean" look. I gave him harsher features, an angular nose. When I drew the classic look, it was smoother, smaller nose. I didn't care that side by side they didn't "match." It was about the character and who he was at that moment.
Outside of your own interpretation do you have a favorite look for Aquaman over there years that you wish you had gotten a chance to draw?
I always thought the Craig Hamilton blue-wave costume looked interesting, but really I liked his original orange and green costume. Since in my run he was already redesigned, I only got to draw that costume a couple times. Wish it had been more.
Notable issues: JLA # 73 and #75; Aquaman #1 (2003) Collected in Aquaman: The Waterbearer trade paperback
In 2003, Aquaman was absent from the DC universe, having been killed during the line wide cataclysmic event known as "Our World's at War." The character would be resurrected in a storyline running through the JLA ongoing series and culminate in a new Aquaman ongoing series. Yvel Guichet was accompanied by veteran writer Rick Veitch for this redesign.
What do you remember as you were assigned your initial story in JLA: Obsidian Age/The Hunt for Aquaman, in your lead up to taking on the latest relaunch?
Guichet: I wasn't following much of Aquaman fan right before going into JLA Obsidian Age. I do remember catching a lot of the David/Calafiore/Palmiotti Aquaman run in the '90s but mostly as a fan of the art. While working on JLA Obsidian Age, I remember I had to do some catch up reading.
At some point, I remember thinking how crazy it was that as a kid who loved these Justice League characters [I] was now getting to work on their comics, officially. Nonetheless I was far more indifferent to Aquaman as a hero getting to this point knowing less about the character compared to other JLA members.
This version of Aquaman would be a departure from the harpoon toting rough around the edges interpretation that had come just prior. How were you asked to approach it?
We wanted Arthur to look reborn and rugged all around to just take the "slick" off of him for once, forgetting he once had all the lavish comforts of living like a King. The new haircut, trimmed beard and going shirtless set the tone for his new path. The trousers were now the only piece of clothing we wanted to worry about. On its own, we needed to see the familiar appeal of Aquaman within it. So I played it up a lot.
Despite that, the appearance of the new water hand and wrist bangle was still meant to be all the attraction. Arthur Curry has bony fish pants and trimmed beard but that new shiny blue appendage was literally left field! The water hand was attached to his body with a beautiful gold wrist bangle ornament given to him by the Lady, so I think only this kept on any semblance of his majesty in some way. The rugged scaled aqua leggings are encrusted with what looks like ingrown organic hardened but lightweight fossilized fish bone material.
Which version would you like to tackle one day?
I always appreciated the appeal of the classic orange scaled armor, so if I were drawing him today I wouldn't mind going with a modern take of my own beginning with that.
Ivan Reis and Joe Prado:
Notable issues: New 52 Aquaman
Aquaman the movie owes a huge debt to the 2011 New 52 reintroduction of the character. Many elements from this run featuring the art of Ivan Reis and Joe Prado (with writer Geoff Johns) have made their way into the movie. The savage Trench, and the war waged on the surface world by Atlantis and the film's villain Ocean Master in some cases are panel to screen homages to the work of these talented artists. Read SYFY WIRE's new interview with Reis right here.
Notable issues: Aquaman Rebirth #1 (2015)
In the DC comics version of "Here and there and back again," The Rebirth initiative in 2015 was intended to return DC's classic stable of characters back to a more recognizable and hopeful starting point for new adventures. Hence in Aquaman's case a return to a uniform and status quo (as King of Atlantis) that harkened back to more of the elements Aquaman had become known for, while still acknowledging the progress made by the character to date.
Talk about your time on the "Aquaman: Rebirth."
Walker: I was excited to be asked to work on Aquaman for a bunch of reasons. The thrust of the Rebirth relaunch appealed to me and working with Dan Abnett was very comfortable since we'd done a bunch of work together, before and I'd always had fun with him. Plus, DC's intent for the book was something pretty classic. Aquaman can be interpreted in lots of different ways and still work. But to come onto a series and make something that felt pretty evergreen was definitely a deal sweetener.
Were you a fan of the character going in?
Walker: I was. I'd read it pretty consistently since the '90s. And that included all sorts of different takes on the character. From hook hand to water hand and back to...err...skin hand.
Visually, what is it you wanted your interpretation of Arthur Curry to say?
Walker: I wanted to give him the classic look, but with the illusion of change. Superhero comics these days serve many masters. About 75 percent of the audience wants the version they knew when they caught onto the character (whichever version that may be). The other 25 percent wants something new, that's totally theirs. So, that's a lot of contradicting desires to tap.
So, I tried to take classic elements for all the characters, and just rethink them. Maybe the scales were fewer fish scales, and more like stones, off the ocean floor. Maybe the fins on the legs are less like triangles on his pants, and more manta ray wings, that move with his direction. Things like that. As with any change you make to an 80-year-old character, some people will think it's really cool, others will hate it. *shrugs*.
I also wanted to underline him as romantic character. There's something very romance inspired about his whole world and environment. And he is one of the few characters that's had a really strong, interesting, long-term relationship with the same character. So, I wanted to make him (and them) very sexy and beautiful. Not just physically, but in their interaction.
What version of Aquaman through the years stands as one you'd love a chance to draw at some point?
Walker: The hook hand era would be fun to dabble in, cause it's very different from what I worked on. But also, it would be fun to play with a Silver Age type story, that's light and upbeat. Where he's unapologetically talking to sea creatures and riding around on them. I have no shame in loving that kind of comic book, still.