Sunday, November 24, 2013

The Superhero Theme Project Part 5: Aquaman

Despite being an original member of the Justice League with a history that predates DC comics as a company, Aquaman gets very little respect. The ability to breathe underwater and control aquatic life was compelling when the character was pitted against World War II U-Boats in the pages of propaganda comics. Outside of this environment, though, he’s just another strong guy that talks to fish. Today, he’s best written as an environmental crusader and sometimes even a dissident, which doesn’t translate well into the street-level settings that his more visible peers inhabit. Still, there are dedicated writers who believe in the character, and for those that are willing to check the footnotes of comic history, Aquaman has suffered through no small amount of tragedy and triumph in his canon.

Probably for no other reason than his gravelly-voiced rendering on the Super Friends animated cartoon I watched in my youth, I also have a soft spot in my heart for the character. I completely understand why he is a hard sell to a wide audience, but I still see him at the sitting at the very foundation of the DC universe. I was happy to see that he regularly appears in the Little One’s bedtime board books alongside Superman, Batman, Flash, and Green Lantern, so she had an opportunity to connect with the character.

When it came to looking for Aquaman’s theme, I obviously had to acknowledge the splendor of the ocean. My first pick was the final movement from Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, a composition called The Great Gate at Kiev. This piece had a couple of strikes against it, however, he most troubling of which was that most renditions pass the five minute mark. Also, it is not a driving piece like many of her favorites. The Great Gate of Kiev derives its interest from its proud theme and dynamic contrasts rather than brisk tempos, and I was not sure that it would hold her attention throughout the quieter sections.

I continued doing research, reviewing the space opera themes that I came across during my research for Green Lantern, but they did not sit right. The imagined majesty of space is probably informed by the actual grandeur of the sea, but I don’t think that they should be synonymous. The ocean’s magnificence is distinct in that it is ancient and dichotomous. As long as humans have stared out into it, we have been viscerally aware of how it is simultaneously serene and terrifying, welcoming and defiant. As the King of the Atlantis, Aquaman doesn’t just survive in these extremes, he is the master of them. His theme had to be more than majestic – it had to be regal. I came back to The Great Gate at Kiev, counting on the piece’s thematic strength to keep her engaged.

Once I decided on the piece, I began planting seeds for the Aquaman theme during her evening book readings. When Aquaman came up, I pointed out to her that he was one of two heroes in the book that still don’t have songs. I told her that he had one and that if she could remember to ask for Aquaman next time she was in the car that I would to play it for her.

The next day we were going through her usual favorites while out on errands. While we were waiting in the parking lot for my wife to run into a store, the Little One, without any prompting, requested “Aquaman.”  She was immediately very, very excited by its attention-grabbing opening.  Because the car wasn't in motion, I was able to guide her through the imagery I had in mind.  Her interest in The Little Mermaid and the Dinosaur Train submarine episodes thankfully provided some context for what lies above and below the ocean’s surface.  Our imaginary Aquaman navigated these extremes with ease, alternatively mastering the waves above water or swimming peacefully under the surface.  Needless to say, the five minutes went by very quickly.  When my wife came back out to the car, the Little One excitedly screamed “MOMMY, AQUAMAN!”


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