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The tragedy of Aquaman

It’s true: Aquaman has huge physiological problems. The temperature, the osmotic gradient, the pressure would all kill him, he’d never be able to maintain the caloric intake needed for his super-swimming ability, and the psychic screams from all those fish would drive him mad. But Southern Fried Scientist missed one, and this is the one that always ruined my childhood fantasies of growing up to be Aquaman: oxygen. The dissolved oxygen in seawater is much lower in concentration than in the atmosphere, so all that activity has to be carried out by an oxygen-starved brain and musculature. If Aquaman had gills, they were tiny and discrete, hardly adequate for the job; if he was using the respiratory surface of his lungs to extract oxygen, well, tidal breathing is incredibly inefficient, and using the delicate membranes of the alveoli to generate negative pressure in a dense medium like water, they were going to be shredded. Aquaman dies, twisted by osmotic shock, brain numbed by oxygen starvation, with a cloud of blood gushing out of his mouth.

I really did used to like Aquaman, and he was one of my favorite superheroes, just because I loved the idea of being able to dive off a dock and swim forever. But when I started thinking about it, on every page my brain would be shrieking, “HOW ARE YOU RESPIRING, AQUAMAN?” and I’d be distracted.

Lesson learned: less thinking.

Comments

  1. says

    Don’t let the science get in the way too much, I always assumed that there was not a small amount of magic in what Aquaman does… Atlantis and all that.

    In some ways you have to treat superhero comic books the same way creationists treat biology/geology/astronomy/archeology/icouldgoononandon. The text trumps everything. Aquaman can do what he does because the text says he does. In fact we can see him doing it in the panels, again and again and again. The difference is that no one wants the sayings of Aquaman to become LAW.

  2. kevinalexander says

    I could never figure out why Bruce Banner would buy pants where the upper part including the belt were super elastic but everything else would shred away whenever he got pissed off at someone.

  3. Pyra says

    Suspension of disbelief is integral in all good fiction. Once it’s lost, it’s gone forever. :(

  4. says

    Poor Aquaman. He never seemed to fit in at the Justice League of America, his “super” powers being so limited. He was like … [wait for it] … a fish out of water! [Bazinga!]

    (I am truly ashamed now.)

  5. ChasCPeterson says

    Yep.
    I thought Aquaman (and also Namor the Submariner) was so cool that as a kid I drew a book called Fishman.
    I got interested in physiology much later.

  6. says

    @Zeno, It depends on who is writing him. For a great take on Aquaman in the JLA I recommend “JLA: Year One”. First of all his powers are not as limited as people think. He has a small degree of super strength and invulnerability. Second, his powers in the ocean come in a lot handier than you would think in the JLA, who spend a lot of time skipping across the globe, which is 2/3s water.

  7. oolon says

    Plenty of oxygen in water, bloody stuffs made of it! He obviously uses his orichalcum to catalyse a bit of electrolysis, although I wouldn’t want to be near when he farts. Wait a minute, perhaps that is the reason he needs to be in water all the while! It all becomes clear now…

  8. puppygod says

    Well, the answer is obvious – there is only one source of energy with enough energy density – nuclear. Well, there is anti-matter, but disregard that. And taking into account that nuclear fusion is not possible in biological context due to temperature/pressure demands, the answer that remains is fission. Don’t think to much about exact biochemistry of this process.

    Apparently Aquaman uses his underdeveloped gills to filter seawater for fissile isotopes. When he feels tired, he goes swimming by the Fukushima shores and feels invigorated again.

  9. delduq says

    The term you are searching for is “suspension of disbelief”. Hard to watch/read most stories without a good dose of it.

  10. davec says

    Lou (at #2): don’t say “no one.” I have founded a political party that is based solely on the Word of Aquaman. And our numbers are swelling…

  11. Stardrake says

    First Rule of Comic Superheroes:

    “Void Where Prohibited By Natural Law.”

  12. rr says

    PZ (Rebecca Watson) is just trying to take away Aquaman’s right to hit on teh mermaidz.

  13. says

    I had the same experience with centaurs. Time and again as a child, I’d painstakingly sketch their skeletons out, bone by bone, marvel at a 90 degree turn in a spine, and then try to figure out how the hell internal organs worked with a body plan like that.

    It was just a mess.

    I could accept hand-waving magic explaining how mermaids could get legs or how a heavy dragon might fly. I couldn’t accept two hearts, four lungs, two very different digestive tracks and metabolisms, a body that would need in excess of 15,000 calories a day, and pitiful little human mouth–incapable of eating the diet the horse body needed–at the front end of all of this to support it. It was just too concrete, too easy to examine.

    To this day, I can’t bring myself to enjoy any fantasy literature where centaurs–stupid, impossible centaurs–play a central role.

  14. Gregory in Seattle says

    The fannish band Ookla the Mok sings about Aquaman in their song, Arthur Curry (Aquaman’s birth name in the Silver Age of comics.)

  15. says

    It’s…Credible Man! Able to walk, and even run for minutes at a time, on dry land! Can please up to one woman at a time! Extracts sufficient oxygen at 21% concentration! Leaps several feet at one time!

    It’s Credible Man!

    Glen Davidson

  16. Big Boppa says

    I know what you mean. Last night I watched ‘Top Gun” and during the flight scenes I kept thinking about how these guys were smiling and wisecracking while they were pulling loops and dives at 4 to 5 gs without so much as a hiccup.

    The rest of the time I kept thinking about what a whacked out loon burger Tom Cruise is…

  17. Ogvorbis: Dogmaticus sycophantus says

    Any movie or book portraying events prior to, oh, about 1950 I damn near have to gag myself (that’s a 1943 helmet in ~1936, that’s an MP40 in ~1936, that’s a 1944 Studebaker in the German Army in ~1936, etc.). I never enjoyed superhero comics for much the same reason — Spiderman sailing across the city suspended by his superwebs hanging from, what? the top of the comic box? He’s above all the buildings and is still swinging across the page! Aquaman manages to outswim tuna and he has the hydrodymanics of a human? Riiiiight.

    The only place I can suspend disbelief is in fantasy and science fiction books. And even then, if there is no credible economy, my mind rebels.

    I wonder how Aquaman deals with nitrogen?

  18. says

    oolon #8

    Plenty of oxygen in water, bloody stuffs made of it! He obviously uses his orichalcum to catalyse a bit of electrolysis, although I wouldn’t want to be near when he farts.

    He’s frequently shown producing a constant stream of bubbles as he superswims away – apparently he is producing whole-body farts of pure hydrogen.

  19. DLC says

    Believable Superheroes ? where ? Okay, Batman comes close. At least most of his tech is somewhere on the same planet as “Do-able”.

    Aquaman and Wonder Woman are tied up, hanging over a horrible doom. both struggle. Aquaman says: “My ability to communicate with fish is of no use, Wonder Woman! ”
    Wonder Woman grimaces, as if to say “when was it ever?”

    – one of those inter-show clips shown on Adult Swim on Cartoon Network.

  20. Randomfactor says

    Fortunately the ocean is filled with a vast salty suspension of laboratory-grade disbelief for him to swim in.

    Did you know that science doesn’t know how Aquaman breathes? That’s because they keep mucking around with flying bumblebees.

  21. Matrim says

    My opinion of Aquaman was solidified when he was hit by a car going at a decent city-speed clip and the car stop like it had hit a telephone pole. Aquaman is a boss.

    But really, as everyone has more or less said, you can’t apply real-world science to things that aren’t real (at least where they are not trying to be real world). Honestly Aquaman raises fewer questions than the Flash. Hell, to hand wave all the things wrong with his powers they had to invent the “Speed Force,” the mystical source of all super-speed powers (with the exception of Superman’s).

  22. says

    Myeck Waters:

    He’s frequently shown producing a constant stream of bubbles as he superswims away – apparently he is producing whole-body farts of pure hydrogen.

    Come to think of it, Abe Sapien* does the same thing. It was explained in one of the Hellboy animated features (Blood and Iron, maybe?)– he burps out excess air.

    So, yeah. Shorter me: I totes agree with you.

    *Far superior to Aquaman in every way (comic version. Not movie version).

  23. wcorvi says

    And now we have to say ‘Aquaperson’. Think of all the women who would aspire to do this, but feel dissed.

  24. ChasCPeterson says

    He’s frequently shown producing a constant stream of bubbles as he superswims away – apparently he is producing whole-body farts of pure hydrogen.

    No, no.
    Superswimmingspeed produces cavitation bubbles.
    Easy one.

  25. says

    But Aquaman saved Detroit when Detroit’s own superhero, Crusader, accidentally created a Lake Erie slime monster after he went mostly blind and launched a mirror satellite to make Detroit daylight all the time. He was still trying to protect his beloved Detroit from car smugglers and fell to his death from a rooftop while sprinting to stop Aquaman from destroying his satellite. When you have a local superhero so stupid he continues running over rooftops *after* he goes blind, Aquaman, even with a dodgy physiology, is positively refreshing.

  26. says

    ChasCPeterson #29

    He’s frequently shown producing a constant stream of bubbles as he superswims away – apparently he is producing whole-body farts of pure hydrogen.

    No, no.
    Superswimmingspeed produces cavitation bubbles.
    Easy one.

    Wouldn’t cavitation bubbles quickly fill in, instead of rising? I suspect the bubbles are actually a form of fartjet propulsion. I hypothesize that he takes water in through his leading surfaces, breaks the molecules, uses the oxygen and jets the CO2 and H2 out his trailing surfaces. Fine control of the intake and output would give him precise handling characteristics on par with that observed in Homo Namorus or possibly larval Mosura.

  27. anuran says

    The orange scaly suit wasn’t clothing. It was his actual micro-villi encrusted integument. He breathed through it like the amphibian that he was. That’s why he got weak and would eventually die if he was out of water for too long.

  28. ChasCPeterson says

    It was that she’d been arrested for her actions related to researchers using animals.

    yes.
    rising wasn’t mentioned.

  29. ChasCPeterson says

    ooh, that didn’t go well.
    uh

    Wouldn’t cavitation bubbles quickly fill in, instead of rising?

    yes.
    rising wasn’t mentioned.

    (there we go)

  30. anoncoward says

    Aquaman rules!

    It’s not just sushi, he can control us by tapping the primal fish we evolved from.

    And I’m certain he can control Cthulu, when the time comes.

    Also this.

  31. vaiyt says

    @Ogvorbis at 20:

    It depends on the artist.

    As I remember, John Romita Sr. (the second Spider-Man artist and the most influential on the character’s visual design) started the trend of not paying attention where the web went. He explicitly told new artists to draw Spider-Man’s web-slinging as a substitute for flying.

  32. brett says

    This reminds me of an analysis I read once of Iceman’s powers, and how he should realistically set everything around him on fire whenever he cools something to freezing.

  33. says

    Out of curiosity if “suspension of disbelief” is invoked than the important missing part is “willing”. We know that Aquaman couldn’t exist; nor Superman; but what about children. Ask them how the Invisible Women can see and what would the response be?

    As we grow older we learn that the comic-book physics aren’t real and what we see in those pages couldn’t happen in real-life… so why doesn’t that happen to a large number of people for religion?

    Is it really the difference of being told by authority figures at an early age that religion is true whereas comics aren’t? Is it being steeped in a culture that holds religion in such a high esteem so that it surrounds our young?

  34. Shplane says

    This is exactly why I only read indie comics. They might be impossible, but at least they’re impossible in a way that isn’t incredibly silly.

  35. gorunnova says

    That’s the problem with many people reading comics: They think it’s sci-fi, when it’s actually fantasy. Any medium that has Superman has to be based on magic, and magic means that they can bypass the laws of physics / biology / etc.

    Note: This doesn’t apply to more realistic, genuinely sci-fi or modern comic settings, just the main Marvel and DC ones and others like them.

  36. Rick Pikul says

    @Caerie: You made a classic error, you tried to visualize a centaur’s skeleton using a single spine for both torsos. It works better if you use two spines and connect them through the ‘T’ joint. (Back in the ’90s I came across some work by an anatomist who designed a workable joint.)

    One outcome of using two spines is that it also removes the idea that ‘taurs are inflexible where the torsos join. It turns out that a ‘taur would likely be very flexible at the forward hips/lower shoulder.

    (For an extreme example: http://www.furaffinity.net/view/4816188/ )

  37. says

    As we grow older we learn that the comic-book physics aren’t real and what we see in those pages couldn’t happen in real-life… so why doesn’t that happen to a large number of people for religion?

    Because no one is constantly reinforcing the importance of believing and finding excuses for it.

  38. andrewkiener says

    Ok, late to the party, but here goes: Transpiration through the skin, plus multipe cellular metabolic systems so he can get by on more than just oxygen (like extremophile bacteria using sulphur). Where normal lungs would go, he has multiple pressure vessels to regulate concentrations of various blood gases and avoid the bends etc. Superelastic body tissues with piezoelectric-type properties, which actually convert all that crushing pressure into propulsive energy for the superswimming.
    Did I miss anything?