I heard from many of you after this lip-curling, anti-Atlantean tract last week, in which I explained my soft bigotry of no expectations of Aquaman. Your complaints were printed out, read and thrown into my fireplace to warm my home. Then I took a phone call. From the voice of Aquaman.
"This is Jens Andersen," said Jens Andersen, whom I better know as the creative director for DC Universe Online. But he also portrayed Aquaman in that character's appearances in the game — yeah, I guess because he's such a big-time hero they couldn't let a real voice actor handle the job.
"Oh, is this about that Aquaman thing?" I said. "Do you have a problem with me having a problem with him?"
"I got two problems," Jens said, pushing up his rhetorical sleeves. "My biggest problem is that the Sub-Mariner, the guy you stack up as cooler than Aquaman, is the most ironic choice to support any of your arguments. You want to pick on Aquaman's costume? Well, Namor has no pants..."
A salient point.
"He's worse than shorty-pants Robin," Jens continued, evidently willing to sacrifice Burt Ward to make a point. "He's wearing scaly underpants. How can you possibly say Namor is any cooler than Aquaman when he's walking around in steely underwear?"
Look, Namor's costume choice may be less than ideal — and this godawful Deney Terrio revision is objectively worse than anything Aquaman's ever worn, granted. But that ignores the main thrust of my argument. At least Namor has the power of flight, acknowledging the narrative limitation presented by being supreme over the underwater world where, last I checked, there were very few banks for a superbaddie to rob.
"I look upon that as a cop out," Jens sneered. "They [Marvel] didn't want to deal with the limitations of Namor as a sea character, so they put these dainty little wings on his feet and, oh, now he can fly, and that's what really makes him interesting?
"The cooler character, the one who has to deal with the constraints of not being a flier — of actually dealing with the responsibilities of an undersea king, is Aquaman," said Jens, who's giving a talk at GDC on storytelling in a superhero universe, as it is.
"And here's another litmus test for who's cooler. Do a search of Namor cosplay and Aquaman cosplay. You see guys going to Comic-Con like this all the time, I guarantee, they turn away from Namor, and not from Aquaman."
Another point for Jens — he's been to plenty of cons. But I must interject. I'm a Legendary subscriber to his game, and perusing its skills, and power sets, I find nothing that could remotely create an homage to Aquaman. This is a game that bent over backward, six months after release, to bring hard light powers to thousands of would-be Lanterns and Sinestros. But when I look through the iconic powers available to any character, I see a pheromone bloom, but I don't see breathing water or talking to fish.
"It's control sea life," Jens said, teeth gritting. "He doesn't talk to fish! They're not people! They don't have enough of a brain to talk! They're an extension of his will!"
Talk, control, squid, calamari, whatever you call it, it ain't there. If Aquaman is so damned important, how come he isn't templatised in character creation? You can quik-create an homage to Green Arrow if you want. Where's your champion of Atlantis?
"I had to fight tooth and nail just to get him into the game," Jens says, of Aquaman,"to give him his just desserts. And when I got him in, I put him in at the end of the game, as high level content."
I've played the instance as a hero — it's level 27. (The level cap is 30). Circe is impersonating Queen Mera, and has Aquaman under her spell. It is a tough ride. I could not solo it.
"I wanted players to feel like they've almost come to the Justice League level of power and then, pow, you have to take on Aquaman, which canonises him as a Justice League-level powerful character," Jens exulted. "I made it so that he just wipes the floor with you [Editor's note: he does] and all you're able to do is break the spell over him. Then he switches sides and you defeat Circe.
"Players in DC Universe never get to defeat Aquaman at launch," Jens continued. "It was definitely an F U to Aquaman haters out there. No one was able to take a picture of themselves teabagging Aquaman, or whatever."
What's more, in the Tides of War seasonal event (it comes out in summers), which presents Aquaman in a boss fight, it takes four players, minimum, to take him down. Superman and Batman are repeatedly beatable in solo instances. "I definitely had an agenda with Aquaman in a boss fight," Jens laughed. "He's just that bad arse."
Jens is my generation (I'm 39) and likewise grew up in the era of Super Friends, which some would call a hideous libel of Aquaman (and, by extension, his people). I considered it an evenhanded depiction of his powers relative to other superheroic archetypes, and think all of his ensemble appearances since then — such as in the forthcoming Injustice: Gods Among Us — are revisionist apologies for such emasculating treatment. DC Universe Online would seem to support that.
But it's not PR to Jens. It's personal. Growing up, he wasn't much of a swimmer. ("I wasn't much of an athlete," he said. "I was too busy reading comic books.") He has blond hair. Name the first super hero with blond hair — not covered by a mask, hat or a helmet — who comes to mind.
"All the fans' derision of him is reflected in the comics under Jeff Johns and Ivan Reis," Jens said. "He's an outcast, and he's an outcast because he has blond hair. It's a superficial reason why they hate his guts. It's a superficial reason why you hate his guts.
"He's a compelling and interesting character," Jens said. "He's just trying to find a place for himself in the world."
Chastened, even a little touched, I realised I was wrong. "Oh, all the crap you said you bought instead of buying Aquaman, everything you mentioned was Marvel," Jens said. "You do realise they're separate universes, right?"
Yes, well, when I was bicycle-riding age, the only comic seller within range was a Fast Fare that carried, for some reason, Marvel titles only. When I started going to high school, there was a drugstore nearby that carried DC, so I got into Batman and Jackson Guice's Flash then.
"Then you've got a problem of nature versus nurture!" Andersen said. "You don't hate Aquaman! You just never knew him."
"Alright, Jens," I said. "I'll create an Aqua-character in your game tonight. Now, how do you suggest I do that?"
Hashing it out, we figured on a hero, with magic (Wonder Woman) as his mentor. "Brawling or a staff as his combat style," Jens said, with finding a trident appearance weapon later as a priority. "I'd go with mental, as that represents most of Aquaman's power, and his role as a controller."
"Not nature?" I said.
"Well, yeah, I guess you could imagine that's seaweed coming out of the ground," he said. "A kelp blast." he said.
What about movement? There's no swimming in DCUO.
"I'd give him acrobatics. But you could cop out like your Namor buddy," Jens said, "and give him flight."