Aquaman has never been a hero whose solo adventures have particularly appealed to me. His appearances in various incarnations of the Justice League have been variable. At times, his character’s been bland; at others, he’s been spiky, almost adversarial, although, even when he was sporting a hook, long hair and a beard, he still wasn’t as effortlessly arrogant as Marvel’s Namor. Despite having some cool moments in, for example, Grant Morrison’s JLA run, he was never someone whose personal story I was invested in. The New 52, with its controversial re-boot, provides a useful opportunity to delve deeper into the character, though, and the name of Geoff Johns as writer of this first issue is enough to… ahem… whet my appetite. But, enough of the rubbish water puns. Let’s see if the issue’s worth the effort.
Well, yes, it is. For one thing, the art’s pencilled by Ivan Reis whose work I’ve enjoyed in various iterations of the Green Lantern series. What’s even better, though, is Johns’ script, which systematically takes all the misconceptions a casual reader like me might have about the character and addresses them head on, even, in the process, making me feel a little guilty for having them in the first place.
The story is bookended by the introduction of a race of deep sea monsters who I assume are going to be the main bad guys of this first story arc. The monsters look suitably scary (think fluke man from that X-Files episode) and their introduction is suitably dramatic – and brief. The majority of the issue is a metatextual manifesto, an elegantly and economically told examination of the character and a mild rebuke to readers who haven’t given him a chance before. Such is Johns’ power as a writer that he managed to make me feel more for Aquaman in this single issue than I have in over thirty years (on and off) of encountering him in other titles.
We start with Aquaman foiling a bank heist (and in some style too!) which leads to assumption number 1.
Aquaman’s only interested in marine issues.
Erm… no. Evidently not. The message here is clear. Aquaman’s a bona fide superhero and he does what all the other superheroes do: stop crime, punish wrongdoers, help people – whether they’re in the water or not. Ivan Reis’ artwork not only does a great job of getting across just how strong Aquaman is here, but also how very uncomfortable he is dealing with ordinary people (in this case the cops who’ve been chasing the aforementioned robbers). But, then, can we blame him when they do stupid things like ask him whether he now needs a glass of water? (Because Aquaman just loves water, right?)
We then get a rather uncomfortable protracted scene in a sea shore diner. The waitress is shocked when Aquaman orders fish and chips. (Assumption number 2: Aquaman loves all fish to the extent that he won’t eat them. Apparently not true. Assumption number 3: Aquaman ‘talks’ to fish. Also not true – fish brains are “too primitive to hold a conversation”. Dolphins, however, are a different matter.) There’s a nicely written brittle awkwardness to the conversations between Aquaman and the waitress and Aquaman and the blogger who starts an impromptu interview with him while he’s waiting for his order to arrive. Johns writes Aquaman as polite but guarded. He’s well aware of his status as “nobody’s favourite superhero”. Johns’ interspersing of the memories that act as a counterpoint to his often curt answers builds up a considerable amount of sympathy for a character traditionally seen as cold and distant.
It’s after the restaurant conversation that we see Arthur Curry with his guard down in a quite beautifully written and drawn meeting with his wife Mera. Starting with him remembering his childhood with his father, the melancholy mood (powerfully evoked by the artwork including a muted colour palette from Rod Reis) is lifted by Mera’s dramatic appearance and an elegantly scripted (and drawn) conversation ensues, in which, perhaps surprisingly given his earlier encounters with the surface world, he announces his decision to leave Atlantis and settle down on the surface.
The issue ends with a three-page sequence that draws on a number of established horror tropes to good effect. Aquaman may have decided to shun the underwater world of Atlantis but the sea isn’t finished with him just yet.
All in all, this is close to the perfect debut issue. Johns’ pacing (which I’ve complained about elsewhere in relation to Justice League) is here faultless: the prologue is intriguing and ominous; the introduction of Aquaman is dynamic and exciting; the restaurant scene is subtly and cleverly done (the treasure coins seen in one of Aquaman’s memories provide payment – and tip – for the waitress), giving us a clear sense of Aquaman’s character; the meeting with Mera is touching and gives us some important overall plot information; and then we’re back to ominous (and downright disturbing) horror action at the end. It’s a satisfying and unexpectedly touching read and a powerful riposte to anyone who has dismissed or belittled the character before. (Like me, then!) Highly recommended.