In the universe of DC Comics, the land of Atlantis was the nexus of magical energy on Earth. Eventually, disaster struck and land sank beneath the sea. Some Atlanteans survived this, though. The twin cities of Poseidonis and Tritonis now lay at the bottom of the ocean, protected by transparent domes. The people of Poseidonis used advanced science to obtain gills, enhanced senses and stronger, tougher bodies; while mystic forces transformed the Tritonians into actual mer-people. Members of the royal family born with blonde hair, an unusual trait among Atlanteans, often had a strong talent for magic. A blonde-haired monster named Kordax could even command sea life.
Thousands of years later, Atlanna of Poseidonis ran away from home and obligation. Near a place called Mercy Reef, she met Tom Curry, a reclusive lighthouse keeper, and the two fell in love. They married and had a son named Arthur, a blonde child with a special bond to the sea. After both of his parents were gone, Arthur went out into the world, eventually finding Atlantis and learning that its people saw him as a cursed freak due to his hair.
Thanks to his unique heritage, Arthur Curry had near-bulletproof skin, enhanced senses, superhuman strength, increased vitality, and was able to communicate with all forms of sea life. Seen as a freak by Atlantis and the surface world, he made the ocean itself his home and dedicated himself to protecting its creatures. Occasionally, he would venture onto land and fight super-villains, which helped him gain a reputation as a hero among the public and earned him the name “Aquaman.”
As a founding member of the Justice League of America, Aquaman’s fought costumed villains, aliens, demons and mad gods. A while back, he actually died only to later be resurrected by strange forces. Forced to reconsider his place in the world, he now travels the world with his former wife Mera, a warrior from another dimension, once again at his side.
So let’s look at what kind of wardrobe is worthy of the king of the seas.
THE GOLDEN AGE
Aquaman first appeared in 1941, just a little before the U.S. was attacked at Pearl Harbor. In fact, in his early stories, Aquaman was fighting Axis forces before America was. It was pretty standard practice for artists at the time to design superheroes as bright, colorful characters. Kids responded to it and it made them visually striking.
A large number of characters who came about during the Golden Age of comics (roughly 1935-1951) were adorned in primary colors in various combinations. Sometimes it would be a primary color and a complementary color, such as red and green. So Aquaman’s outfit here stands out by being mainly two secondary colors instead. There weren’t a lot of guys running around in orange and green at the time. Not only that, but after about 30 feet of depth, light begins to filter through water and so everything takes on a blue or gray tone to the human eye. By wearing the two vibrant colors he’s chosen, Aquaman has made himself easier for people to see when he’s deep underwater.
The costume is fairly simple. Form-fitting shirt and pants with an “A” on the belt to remind us of the character’s name. The pants actually extend into boots here. I’m not always a fan of that, but for Aquaman I don’t mind. It hints at a wetsuit design, more so when you consider the fins on his calves. And I like that the chain-mail shirt gives an impression not only of body armor but also of fish scales. It reminds us that Arthur isn’t just someone with water-based gimmicks. The ocean is his natural home.
The “A” is a bit simple and obvious and so it comes off as hokey to me. The yellow of the gloves and the fins really stand out and make this costume seem a little loud and garish, even for a superhero. And those gloves seem like they’d be a bit cumbersome for a character who spends so much time underwater. On the other hand, the gloves have a nice swashbuckler look and during this time part of the appeal of Aquaman was that he was a globe-trotting hero, traveling far and wide on adventures against modern-day pirates, Nazis, aliens and other menaces.
A prime example is this scene wherein Aquaman fights a few amoral hunters by THROWING A POLAR BEAR AT THEM! Ridiculous? Yes. And yet, let’s face facts. Any of us would be absolutely terrified if someone threw a freaking live and possibly angry polar bear at us like a lawn dart! So way to be, Aquaman!
After many adventures, Aquaman got his outfit tweaked a bit. The yellow gloves and fins were re-colored to match the green of his pants. This minor touch gives a much better balance to the overall look. The letter “A” on his belt has also been toned down. By making it an arrow head and simply implying the letter, it becomes a symbol more unique to Aquaman rather than something directly taken from the human alphabet.
Here’s an experiment for you. Draw the literal letter “A” on a sheet of paper and go to a comic book store. Ask the staffers and a few customers which hero comes to mind when they see that letter. Many of them will say “Captain America.” The true uber-geeks and trivia fans may suggest “Amazing-Man.” Some might get luck and say “Aquaman,” with a shrug. Now, draw this arrow-head belt buckle instead and show it to them. No one’s mistaking that for Captain America. A lot more people will see those two bars that meet at an angle and will know, “Hey, that’s Aquaman.” And that there is an effective symbol, despite (or because of) its simplicity.
I’m not much one for heroes wearing shorts over their pants. But later on, many artists stopped drawing Arthur with black shorts and instead gave him ones that matched the color of his pants (or perhaps we should call them leggings). Some artists have drawn this “classic” look with the shorts and some have drawn it with the pants being one solid piece. I definitely think that’s better, as it again gives us a sleek, swimmer look.
The gloves were also changed so that they now had fins that matched the ones on Arthur’s calves. I don’t know how practical these would be for someone swimming alongside dolphins but hey, they look cool.
Either way, this outfit is pretty successful as a design. It’s simple and streamlined, yet instantly memorable. Does Aquaman look like some terrifying, imposing figure? Not really, no, but then again he’s not supposed to, at least not at this time in his history. As Aquaman entered the 1960s, he became a much more formidable and serious opponent that he had been in his early days, but the idea behind his persona wasn’t “I’m tough and snarling, so don’t mess with me.”
This was a character meant to evoke a sense of the strange and the mysterious, someone who was of two worlds and reminded us of that with his presence. His color combination is unusual but somehow seems fine for someone hanging alongside exotic fish and who might choose an area of multi-colored and exotic corral reef as a resting point. He is a character meant to seem alien wherever he is, both to the surface world and even the people of Atlantis.
Another indication of this outsider quality involved a change in how Aquaman operated. Originally, he literally spoke to sea life the same way that we would see Tarzan speak to animals. We were simply told that Aquaman knew the language of the fish. But as the years went on, the story altered and it was said that Aquaman had a telepathic connection to marine life that allowed him to summon them from afar and communicate with them.
And that’s much eerier, when you really think about it. Imagine being on a ship in the middle of the ocean or going deep sea diving and running into this strange, blonde man with reflective, orange-gold fish-scale armor who with just a glance or a thought could call forth sharks, manta rays, dolphins and whales to act as his escort, giving them commands that you can’t hear.
Another reason not to have Aquaman in darker colors or in an intimidating outfit is that he’s not some obsessed lone wolf character. As the Silver Age of comics went on, he had his apprentice Garth AKA Aqualad, his wife Mera, and later his son Arthur, Jr. He went from being an outsider to being elected King of Atlantis and for him “Aquaman” was a nickname, not a secret identity. His family and subjects were all aware of the kind of life he led and his wife would often help him directly rather than stay at home, worrying over his fate. Even as Arthur became shorter-tempered and more aggressive in the 1970s, even after the tragedy of having his son murdered by an enemy, he was still a character meant for strange and occasionally swashbuckling adventure rather than skulking in alleys.
So the colors and design tell us that, while this guy may be serious, he’s not someone looking for a fight. If you want to explore his strange, undersea world and its wonders, he welcomes you.
In a 1980s mini-series that focused on Atlantis’ connection with magic, Aquaman sported this new camouflage outfit. If the classic suit makes us think of Aquaman as a fish-like creature due to his scaled armor, this look makes us think of water itself. It almost implies that Arthur is an elemental, a literal creature of the ocean rather than some hybrid of marine life and man.
It’s not a bad design but I’m not sure it quite fits Aquaman. It’s very decorative, more so than I think would be in Arthur’s straightforward nature. Some have pointed out that this costume is more realistic to them and seems like a real wetsuit and that might be my other problem with it. I could see someone getting a wetsuit like this at a shop that sell expensive or custom-made diving gear. That makes it less special to me and diminishes the initial impression that Aquaman is someone otherworldly.
Still, I can’t deny that the look is memorable and there’s a reason folks still mention it over twenty years later.
THE HARPOON LOOK
In the 90s, after writer Peter David took over Aquaman’s new series, it was decided to give the hero a new look that would attract new readers and at last let them realize how tough and formidable he truly was. The look didn’t happen overnight, though. First, we saw Aquaman get himself a big, scary beard and grow out the hair that was already getting longer. Then, an enemy Charybdis wanted the secret of how Aquaman could control sea life. When Arthur explained he only communicated with marine animals and that he couldn’t mentally dominate them or override their will, Charybdis didn’t believe him. So he attempted to call the hero’s bluff by sticking his hand into a tank of piranha. The fish acted as such fish will and Arthur was left with a stump.
After recovering from the loss of his hand, Arthur found himself thinking about symbols that different heroes employed. He decided that he needed a symbol of sorts that would show he was a creature of the sea but also one that could take a weapon of the surface world and turn it against those who would use it for harm. So he took a harpoon that had been used to kill a dolphin he thought of a as a brother. Many readers over the years have called this a hook, but it’s really a harpoon end, folks.
After a few adventures, Arthur decided his harpoon needed an extra edge (pardon the pun). So he went to S.T.A.R. Labs, a research center that has provided advanced tech to many heroes in the DC Universe. They gave him a new, fancier golden harpoon that could spin like a drill and fire outward like a grappling hook. The cord could also fire off a nasty electric charge.
Of course, the weapon alone is not what makes a character dangerous. It’s the attitude of the guy who wields the weapon. The harpoon wasn’t just for show. Aquaman didn’t just wave it around threateningly while speaking in a funky pirate accent (though it would have been hilarious if Arthur had been saying “arrr” at the end of every sentence). He definitely used this against people, such as in this scene above where he’s threatened by Power Ring (an evil Green Lantern) and responds by lancing the guy’s forearm before knocking him out with one super-strong punch. Talk about insult and injury all in one!
Around this time, Arthur altered his outfit as well. The pants were altered and now the shirt was gone, replaced by plate armor. I was against black on Aquaman before, but at this point in his life he’s lost his kingdom, his son was murdered, his wife left him because she blamed him for their child’s death, he’d lost a hand, and he’d discovered that his life was possibly not his own, controlled by strange forces of destiny and prophecy.
So this is an Aquaman who’s just plain had it and is suspicious of all those around him. The harpoon, the black, and the plate armor all say that. The altered look is also a great visual clue to readers that they need to pay attention to the character, because things in his life have seriously changed.
The armor is also done in the old style of protecting the arm that isn’t carrying a weapon, which is a nice touch. And the green scales on the pants recall the aquatic look of the orange shirt. All in all, Aquaman has gone from “King Arthur of Atlantis” to being Conan underwater. This look successfully says all that.
On occasion, Arthur would wear a bulkier, full suit of armor when he knew he’d be taking on an army or a group of very powerful opponents. These weren’t bad designs, but definitely not meant for more than special occasions.
Plate armor on the arm is fine, but a full-on suit just seems wrong for a character who spends a lot of time swimming at the bottom of the ocean at high speeds. Bulky armor implies weight and goes against any feeling of freedom, something normally associated with the ocean.
Erik Larsen took over the Aquaman title for a while and gave us a new look for Arthur, complete with sea-shell crown to indicate he was in charge of Atlantis again. Too bad the rest of this look makes me think of a figure skater. Seriously, what’s going on here? Why go from an armored look to wearing a V-neck that goes down to your belt buckle? Decorative arm bands and bracelets do not properly serve as armor replacements.
Larsen quickly dumped this look but the seashell crown, which had originally been seen on Aquaman in the famous Kingdom Come story by Alex Ross and Mark Waid, remained for a couple of years after. Another change that stuck was that Aquaman got himself a new harpoon which could actually shift into a golden mechanical hand, giving him the ability to applaud dolphin stand-up comedians for the first time in years.
After being thought dead for a while and temporarily existing as a being literally composed of water, Aquaman returned to the life of a superhero in a new series that delved more into his magical roots. Visited by the famous Lady of the Lake of Arthurian legend, Aquaman’s mechanical hand was replaced by mystical water that gave him healing abilities. For some time now, Aquaman had occasionally been visited by prophetic dreams but this new hand allowed him much stronger visions of things to come.
In his new role of “Waterbearer,” Arthur went for this shirtless look that gives an impression of high fantasy. Those pants look like something a sea elf might be wearing in a DragonLance novel (if sea elves weren’t nudists, naturally, but I digress). It also has a strangely pirate-like appeal to it. Not a bad design. But I think the “A” now looks too much like a plain English letter again and there’s also the problem that this look makes Aquaman resemble Marvel’s aquatic anti-hero Namor, the Sub-Mariner. Frankly, Aquaman has long suffered unfavorable comparisons to Namor for years, so I’d rather he didn’t wear anything that brought the Sub-Mariner immediately to mind.
After several issues, Aquaman kept the waterhand but returned to his classic look. The biggest difference was that he no longer had gloves and there was now gold trim on his collar and at the ends of his sleeves. I think that little touch would’ve been okay when he was king, but at this time Arthur was once again an outcast so the gold-trim is a bit too regal for my tastes.
During this time, Aquaman’s belt buckle was pretty much dependent on the whims of the artist. Depending on what issue you read, it was either obviously a letter “A” or something a bit more stylized and subtle than that.
CALL HIM JOSEPH
Some time after the crossover Infinite Crisis, a very powerful spell mutated Arthur into a creature known as the Dweller of the Depths. Though his memories were confused, he was driven by the belief that the ocean still needed an Aquaman to protect it. He sought out a family member, Arthur Joseph Curry, a young man who’d been genetically altered to have similar abilities. This new Arthur Curry (who I will call “Joseph” because it’s less confusing and he later decided to go by that name anyway), was meant to give a stronger “sword and sorcery” look to readers.
Joseph’s look would be fine if he were a pirate or some medieval warrior who sailed the seven seas. But for a guy who is spending most of his time underwater, I’m not thrilled with it. It nods to Arthur’s classic design, but overcomplicates with shoulder pads and bits of armor. And while I’m willing to concede certain unrealistic things because it’s a comic book, I can’t look at that sword scabbard without chuckling, imagining it constantly hitting Joseph on the leg as he swims from one place to another. Should’ve strapped that scabbard to your back, buddy.
Arthur did all he could to help Joseph become a hero, but later on he was killed himself. Without a mentor, Joseph wandered around for a while and then disappeared from the public eye. A couple of years later, the crossover “Blackest Night” involved several individuals being literally raised from the dead. Our boy, the real Arthur Curry, was among them and was ready for action again.
As we can see, this is the classic look again, but with a couple of minor changes. The entire belt is now of a golden, metallic material and gives some great lighting effects. Another change is that the gloves are no longer swashbuckling nor decorated by fins like his calves.
It’s an interesting look for the gloves. In a way, they imply a couple of loose fins on a fish and it’s a design unique to the character. Do I like these gloves better than the finned ones? I don’t know yet. But they don’t tick me off, so I’m willing to let them grow on me.
Another alteration is the collar. Rather than ending at the base of the neck like a t-shirt or resting a little lower along the collar bone, this is a higher collar that gives Arthur a slightly more professional look. We tend to associate collars of that style with military or authority figures. Since Aquaman considers himself protector of the seas, whether he’s king of Atlantis or not, and is willing to punish anyone who behaves in a way he doesn’t like, this is a nice touch.
I hope you dug this look at Arthur Curry’s fashion evolution. We will definitely be discussing his live-action interpretations in an upcoming article. If you enjoyed this or consider yourself an Aquaman fan, do me a favor and start writing to DC. Ask them to publish more of Aquaman’s classic stories in trade. He’s an interesting character with a rich history and the guy definitely deserves more support. This has been Alan Kistler, Agent of S.T.Y.L.E., signing off.
Alan Kistler writes the comic book history/fashion column Agent of S.T.Y.L.E. He is an actor and freelance writer living in New York who has been recognized by Warner Bros. Films and major media/news outlets as a comic book historian. He is also the creator/host of the web-show “Crazy Sexy Geeks: The Series.” He knows entirely too much about the history of comics, Star Trek, Doctor Who, time travel, and vampires that don’t sparkle.