REVIEW: Aquaman #1

I have a friend called Sergio, and he’s a massive Aquaman fan.  For the many years I’ve known him, his unwavering support of the undersea hero made him the subject of much ribbing from myself and our mutual geeky friends.  And when even other comic geeks are ribbing you about your favorite superhero, you know you’re in trouble.  I’ve laughed at plenty of the tried-and-true “Aquaman is lame” jokes from various pop culture sources over the years, and while I was sure he wasn’t as lame as those gags made out, he was never a character I ever felt much inclined to read about, and so – until now – I’ve never bought an Aquaman comic.  Despite all this, whenever Sergio would write about Aquaman, he’d touch on a deep and fascinating mythos full of richness and epic scope for those who cared for it, and I always thought that if an actual comic could portray the world of Aquaman with the same passion as my friend, then the character could stand to become a lot more popular.

Then I read Aquaman #1.  Sergio, feel vindicated: this comic’s for you.

I’m not going to pretend like this relaunch of Aquaman as part of DC’s New 52 came totally out of the blue and took me by surprise.  Truth be told, I’ve been at the very least curious about the title ever since the creative team was announced back in June.  See, as part of DC’s ongoing attempt to restore credibility to this tenured Golden Age hero – following on from the groundwork laid in Blackest Night and Brightest Day – our buddy Aquaman was paired up with the same dream team that helped elevate Green Lantern from obscure hero punchline to A-lister: writer Geoff Johns and artist Ivan Reis.  Though the work Ethan Van Sciver and other artists did on Green Lantern: Rebirth and the early issues of the last Green Lantern relaunch also played a role in elevating this fallen mythos, it was when Ivan Reis stepped onboard that we got such classic, top-selling tales as Sinestro Corps War, Secret Origin and Blackest Night, making Johns/Reis the pairing most synomonous with Green Lantern’s resurgence.  Who better, then, to attempt the same trick with Aquaman?

Geoff Johns has long had a talent for taking classic characters who have been around for ages, honing in on that one most enduring core quality and bringing it to the fore in a way that makes the character feel fresh and relevant.  In the case of Aquaman, that enduring trait he singles out is that scorn and mockery the character has to deal with, which Johns slyly transfers from an opinion held by readers to one held by people within the DCU.  Repeatedly throughout the issue, criminals, cops, and even regular citizens (particularly one internet blogger who bears a striking resemblance to Matt Fraction) make gags about how lame Aquaman is, how he’s just “the guy who talks to fish.”  At first, this is played for laughs, effectively so (Johns has been stretching his funny bone a lot more since the relaunch, I’ve noticed).  But as the issue progresses, this becomes a poignant statement of character.

Through conversation with his wife Mera, we learn that Aquaman has chosen not to return to his undersea kingdom, as he feels like his human appearance meant the Atlanteans never truly accepted him as one of their own, even when he was their king.  And thus we get a sense of what it means to be Aquaman: he works tirelessly to defend two realms, land and sea, and on land he isn’t appreciated and dismissed as the “fish guy”, while in the sea he is scorned for being too human.  Arthur Curry is a man with no true home, and thus it’s appropriate that his abode of choice is a lighthouse on Amnesty Bay, on the boundary between land and sea.

It’s also worth noting that it’s his father’s lighthouse.  A recurring theme in Johns’ character work, particularly in his revival of Silver Age heroes, has been the long shadow cast by lost parents.  That is in effect once more here, with happy childhood memories with his father seeming to haunt Arthur’s thoughts.  Some words of wisdom from his father – about how he could have had the more glamorous role of ship captain, but chose instead to remain as a lighthouse keeper because it was his responsibility, and one has to live up to responsibility even when it’s thankless – seem to serve as the grounding for Aquaman even in the face of mockery and rejection from those he protects.  These little flashbacks and references to Aquaman’s past were also useful for me, as I’m not overly familiar with the character’s origin.

Johns crafts a simple, straightforward, highly accessible tale here that does its job at introducing this character to new readers better than many of the New 52 have done.  There is a fine balance of action and characterisation to make this issue a rewarding read in its own right, with the looming threat of the monstrous Trench adding an incentive to come back for issue #2.  If I had any small nitpick with Johns’ storytelling here, it would be that I don’t like the translations, showing the Trench talking to each other in their own language.  It “humanises” them, makes them that little bit less intangible and monstrous.  Think how less scary the xenomorphs in Aliens would have been if every so often we got subtitles saying stuff like, “Hey bro, we totally smoked those Marines there!  We, like, totally ATE their asses!”

But that’s a small nitpick.  Overall, some fantastic writing by Johns here.  In the New 52 as a whole, I’ve noted a return to form for Johns, specifically that he seemed to be firing on all cylinders with Green Lantern #1.  But Aquaman #1 is easily his best effort from this first month of the relaunch.

Of course, Johns’ writing is only half of the equation.  The other half lies with Ivan Reis.  I was a huge fan of the stunning work he did on Green Lantern: his clean, beautiful pages were the sign of a superstar in the making.  Then, his work on Blackest Night followed through on much of that early promise, showing he was more than capable of handling a massive event.  But in the later issues of Blackest Night, and particularly going into Brightest Day, I felt like his work began to get more or a rough, “grim-n-gritty” look I was less keen on.  Thankfully, Reis is back on top form for Aquaman #1, a fact made clear immediately from the stunning, instantly iconic cover to the issue: surely one of the best covers of the New 52.

Looking inside the comic itself, the interior art is just as impressive.  The action scenes are dynamic and exciting.  The Trench look truly monstrous and frightening – a triumph of design.  But my favorite parts of the artwork in this issue were the smaller beats, such as the silent reaction shots of various characters that really help sell a gag, or the flashes of annoyance Aquaman gives when someone cracks a joke, or – in one particularly badass moment – when a bullet grazes past his forehead.

As always, the near-symbiotic relationship between penciller Reis and inker Joe Prado bears splendid fruit.  Prado’s lines are fine, but have just enough thickness to make Reis’ characters jump off the page.  And surely the distinct, textured look of the Trench is thanks largely to the contribution of Prado.  In fact, those two opening pages where the Trench are introduced could surely be called an inking masterclass, as we’re presented with the ominous darkness of the ocean depths, then with the emergence of creatures even darker from within.

I also want to acknowledge the coloring of Rod Reis, in particular as regards Aquaman’s vest.  I’ve seen some people question why Aquaman has reverted to his classic costume, when his pirate look was much cooler.  But the glittering, shimmering quality of Aquaman’s orange vest shows how cool the costume can be.  Much like how Hal Jordan’s old duds were revitalised by injecting some glowing green, this plated (and, as we discover, bullet-proof) design looks cooler than ever thanks to Reis’ deft coloring of it.

On just about every level, Aquaman #1 is a huge success.  While my curiousity had been piqued, I did not expect going in that this would be DC’s best new release of the week, but it was.  I’m now an Aquaman fan, thanks to this issue.  And I’m sure I won’t be the only one.  I think my friend Sergio is about to have lots of company.

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