“Future State: Aquaman:” An Interpretation of the Hero’s Journey with Emotional Depth

Recently, there has been a movement in the biggest superhero media to do in-depth emotional explorations of their characters. While this isn’t a new idea, with the film Watchmen delving into the idea of superheroes as people who, despite their superpowers, they can’t escape their emotional wallows like the rest of us. This has been further explored in shows like WandaVision, Invincible, and The Boys, and now in more mainstream comic books like the DC Comics series “Future State.”

This series follows the young heroes that follow in the footsteps of major Justice League members like Superman, Wonder Woman, Batman, the Flash, Aquaman, and Swamp Thing. It takes on the form of an anthology series with one or two issues following a certain character before they move onto the next one. The series opens with two issues following Aquaman, formerly Aqualad, the mentee of the original Aquaman, and the daughter of Arthur Curry and Mera: Aquawoman.

The first part opens on them in the ocean after a fight with Black Manta and from the beginning, it is established that Aqualad is now Aquaman (a queer lead superhero of color!) and Aquawoman has the ability to control sea life, a leap beyond her father’s ability to simply communicate with it. And it’s established that she doesn’t like to use this power because it feels unethical.

In the midst of an argument, they look around and realize that suddenly the water around them has turned pink and the sky is green. When this happens in comic books, this often means that the characters are on another planet. This time is no different. They’re in an ocean called The Confluence, described as “an ocean that spans space and time” It’s a fairly quick explanation, but the comic is 50 pages in total so running with the exposition as quickly as possible is expected of the reader. This is their entry into the unknown and where the character development is catalyzed.

They’re separated after an attack by a large sea creature. Aquaman is arrested for being a suspected Earth spy and waits for six years for Aquawoman to rescue him. Aquawoman loses her leg in her escape. She washes up on an island, taunted by the species of alien fish for her failure to save her partner, the loss of her leg, the guilt she feels over her own abilities… it’s a debilitating cacophony of guilt. And it serves as an allegory for any intensely emotional process a person goes through. Sure, she’s grieving the loss of her literal leg, but good art benefits from hyperbole.

As she pleads with the fish to leave her be, she forces a fish to jump out of the water and fuse onto her leg. I take it that this happens because of a combination of “it’s an alien fish plus she has incredibly strong superpowers,” but either way, it unleashes an even greater wave of grief-giving from the fish before.

And just as humans sometimes do, she falls so deeply into the throes of her emotions that she hurts something around her. Sure, it gets her what she needs (a leg), but it unleashes a wave of emotion from the sea itself as she falls away from the person who was once afraid to use her powers to control sea life.

As the ocean taunts her and calls for the return of the fish, she makes the decision to survive on her own, conjuring everything Aquaman taught her about survival. This moves her Hero’s Journey process further along as she enters the next part of the personal growth process: ignoring the waves of self-pity and defeatism that seem immobilizing until they’re pushed to the side. It’s shown in her line “Um, I think I’ll be able to survive on my own,” as the ocean says that she’ll never survive all that will be sent to push her out of this universe.

As she survives, she goes through the skills she learned while training with Aquaman: hunting, de-escalation, throwing hands, solitude, and retreat. It’s therapeutic for her as we see the voices start to fade back until she is bugged by the singular voice of the fish she made into her fake leg. To watch a superhero age physically and mentally through a situation that emotionally relates to most readers makes for a very beautiful sequence in just a few pages. After which, she is ready to escape the limbo she’s stuck in and free Aquaman.

The biggest change in herself is clear from the beginning of the final sequence: she is controlling the marine life around her. It’s not because she’s sunken into her anger, but because she’s found a way to balance her abilities with the creatures it affects. By freeing Aquaman, the whole ocean benefits. She breaks into his cell, and he immediately remarks how much she’s changed in six short years, and she has. She’s taller, stronger, and unshakeable on her new foundation. And when their business is done, she releases the sea creatures from her grasp, and they keep swimming to find their way home.

This quick story was so compelling because of the way that it was able to weave together an emotionally relatable journey of guilt, accountability, self-reflection, and growth while staying true to the comic book style. It’s refreshing to read something so emotionally honest from DC Comics in such a digestible format.

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