Disclaimer: I am by no means an expert on Aquaman. Before starting this Rebirth project, most of my knowledge of the character came from the Hanna-Barbera cartoons, the DC animated “Timm-verse,” and our own HolyBeeofEphesus’s reminiscences over his Aquaman Underoos. I used to see the character as someone who embodies the frivolous excesses of superhero comics: goofy costumes, ludicrous powers, and a two-dimensional view of good and evil. Sure, Aquaman is helpful if your boogie board is carried off by the current and he’s no doubt great at giving informative lectures about recycling plastic six-pack rings, but in the middle of an invasion of Earth by Apokalips or a serial-killing spree, give me Batman or Superman, please. To me, Aquaman was a lot like a Speedo–there’s a time and a place that it’s useful, but in everyday life, I’m probably not going to need it.
Yet from the very first Rebirth issue, I found myself drawn to Dan Abnett’s interpretation of Arthur Curry, aka Aquaman: the King of Atlantis. The preconceptions I had of the character as a simple, orange-clad, fish-speaker, who at best is a B-lister on the Justice League, were replaced by an exciting and surprisingly complex character. Abnett draws extra attention to Aquaman’s Otherness. He is both human and not, the son of Atlantean royalty and a simple lighthouse keeper. In this context, Aquaman makes a fascinating outsider, someone who wants to belong and has dedicated his life to helping others, yet is rejected by those he’s chosen to protect. In an age when issues related to social identity make headlines weekly, it makes sense to see comic books, which have historically reflected social concerns, exploring these themes. Marvel has definitely been leading the charge on this front, and though DC is trying to highlight periphery heroes like Cyborg and Blue Beetle, it’s actually Aquaman with his blonde hair, blue eyes, and perfectly square jaw that tackles issues like xenophobia, classism, and the massive polarization that’s corroding the global community.
In the opening Rebirth issue, Abnett reintroduces the Deluge, an armed dissident group that wants to keep Atlantis isolated from the rest of the world. Simultaneously, Arthur is working to bring Atlantis to the forefront of the world’s state in an effort to peacefully share ideas, technology, and perhaps have a say in the direction Earth develops. Abnett, who hails from Britain, subtly evokes the sentiments of Brexit and our own U.S. election, as the Deluge, comprised of the lower, “poor” class of Atlanteans, use giant prehistoric beasts and deadly Atlantean weapons to wage a war of terrorism on the surface.
This makes the rest of the world, particularly America, equally frightened of the Atlanteans. In the last few years, Atlantis has had its fair share of not-so peaceful encounters with the surface world, even drowning Gotham City in a massive tidal wave, so the tension between the two worlds and the dramatic stakes of Aquaman’s mission feels justified. When Aquaman’s Spindrift Station, the acting embassy for Atlantis in Massachusetts, is attacked leaving civilians dead, the fragile peace between both worlds is further strained. This is the catalyzing event of Aquaman in the first eleven issues. It is that single, granular idea of an outsider struggling to merge two worlds that propelled this book to the top of my favorites list, even though it admittedly gets convoluted by arch-villainy, Atlantean marriage customs, a Bond-esque secret organization, and a classic, poorly named DC staple, The Shaggy Man.
While I’m a fan of critical commentary in comics, Aquaman primarily functions as a fun adventure story. Atlantis is filled with gorgeous technology and a cast of interesting characters that are given life on the page thanks to Abnett and a team of talented illustrators.
Though Phillipe Briones and Scott Eaton both do great work designing the character and spaces of the Aquaman sandbox, my favorite artist alongside Abnett is Brad Walker. Walker’s characters look like cleaner Leinil Yu drawings, and the guy knows how to create dramatic poses in exciting panels. Walker’s action sequences in issues #1 and #6 in particular are kick-ass. Still every artist is doing respectable work invigorating the Aquaman universe. Fans of the series will recognize familiar faces like Tula, the Regent of Atlantis with great headgear, and Murk, the surly, barnacled leader of the Atlantean royal guard, who has the same swagger as Ray Stevenson. Of course the most important recurring ally in Aquaman is Mera, an aquakinetic firebrand with flowing red hair and a no-nonsense attitude.
Because he’s torn between two worlds, and because he is aware he is perceived as a joke, Aquaman is a mixed-up dude. Where Marvel’s Namor is all ego and action, justifying his every impulse with a booming “Imperious Rex!” Abnett’s Aquaman is prone to contemplative dialogue before fighting, which is where Mera comes in. Mera sees the virtue in Atlantis maintaining its anonymity in the world; as Abnett points out, history has given good reason to avoid us surface dwellers. Despite her feelings, Mera is Arthur’s biggest supporter, challenging her own concerns and prejudices to pursue a mission of peace. But, honestly, this book would be boring if people didn’t occasionally smack each other and blow some shit up. When Aquaman’s pursuit of peace through voluntary incarceration and diplomacy fails, Mera’s blunt, reactive nature takes over, steering the book toward a sequence of events that involves a melee with US artillery and culminates in a showdown between Aquaman and Superman. Note: Mera doesn’t let Aquaman fight on his own, she gets her hands dirty and goes toe-to-toe with Supes, too. She may not have the autonomy afforded to characters with their own book, but she is by no means a passive female without agency. When Aquaman’s philosophical musings about politics and identity become cumbersome, Mera is there to correct the course, either as a bad-ass mermaid warrior or as the romantic interest and queen-to-be. One of the funniest gags in this book is how Abnett punctuates periods of exposition and plot-building with casual innuendo between this power couple.
Abnett and Co.’s ensemble of cool characters is rounded out by Aquaman’s archnemesis, Black Manta. If you’re willing to buy into the whole nautical world of Aquaman, then I think you will recognize Manta as someone equally iconic, as menacing and integral as Lex Luthor and the Joker are to their respective nemeses. There is something meta about Black Manta in the sense that he embraces his role as someone whose sole purpose for existing is to mess with Aquaman. The opening issue acknowledges Black Manta is justified in hating Arthur, but that motivational vengeance is dashed right out the gate. In one of the series’ best action sequences, Aquaman and Black Manta engage in an intense stabbing match, where Aquaman offers his life up to Manta, only to point out that the end of Aquaman would mean the end of Black Manta. Manta concedes, but while on his way to jail, he is rescued by the sexy techno-pirate, Blackjack, who was sent to recruit Manta by the Nautical Enforcement of Microcosmic Order, or N.E.M.O. The group’s acronym is ridiculous, but it gets a pass because Abnett acknowledges it through Black Manta. Plus, their henchman wear cool headgear. Anyway, N.E.M.O is a conglomerate of aristocrats who secretly dominate the world through its oceans, controlling a wealth of trade routes and resources, whose only obstacle to supremacy is the kingdom of Atlantis. Seeing the opportunity to have his vendetta against Aquaman funded on a grand scale, Black Manta seizes control of N.E.M.O from their leader in a delightfully evil doublecross. The swiftness with which he resorts to violence and his enduring grudge against Aquaman despite his reluctance to kill him, puts Black Manta’s evil on a scale similar to Shakespeare’s Iago, a villain for the sake of villainy. In a time when bad guys seem to need some sort of tragic past to soften them and justify their evil, it’s refreshing to have an antagonist who is just plain nasty and proud of it.
While Aquaman excels as a classic superhero action story, I can’t help but wish it would double down on its social themes. Having a character who resembles an Aryan poster boy as your strongest advocate for social justice is too subversive for a comic company that mainly relies on the recognition of its “big three” characters to sell books, but damn if it wouldn’t be a bold move! Aquaman’s effectiveness as an outsider is impeded by his resemblance to the dominant social class, but Abnett writes him as a convincing Other. Aquaman is an alien on his homeworld, a character with vast potential limited by the standards and history of a society that both devalues and depends on him.
I do have some criticisms of Abnett’s approach: methinks he doth protest too much when trying to legitimize Aquaman as a serious hero. Though some of his jokes about talking to fish hit the mark, at a certain point he should just write the character seriously instead of justifying to readers why they should take him as such. He repeatedly reminds us how powerful Aquaman is not just as a superhero, but as the head of state of the most powerful nation in the fictional DC universe, but we’ve yet to see him make a meaningful, lasting impact as king. In terms of N.E.M.O, the book could emphasize how a war based on cultural differences and geography is actually the plot of fear-mongering elites that want to keep the capital and control of the world in the hands of a greedy few.
Abnett implies a lot about what Aquaman could be, and I only hope to see more follow-through as his run continues. Some say “potential” is a dirty word. I had a teacher who explained potential as an underhanded compliment, meaning you had ability that wasn’t being used. I don’t quite see it that way, particularly when talking about this book. Potential keeps us in a state of suspense, it’s exciting, it’s frustrating, and it challenges us as readers to keep reading in the hopes of something awesome. It is Aquaman’s potential for thoughtful entertainment that stimulates the imagination and makes it so engaging.
Abnett’s ambition to bring Aquaman to the forefront of DC reflects the character’s ambition to bridge the gap between two worlds. Aquaman may not be the perfect stand-in in terms of representing the human fear of the foreign, and he’s certainly not as potent a symbol of progressivism as say, Ms. Marvel. No other book in the Rebirth event, however, even attempts to get this topical, and Aquaman’s nature as an outsider and his history of being maligned as second-class makes the plot to unite two divergent sides feel honest and effective. Atlantis is a world built on science and mystic lore, where ancient feuds and outmoded thinking prevent a technologically advanced society from socially progressing. Plato originally explained Atlantis as a utopia thwarted by its own hubris, which I find somehow poetic when thinking about our own world.
This book has good ideas and drama on all fronts, from the personal to the ideological, and Aquaman’s sandbox is filled with many great characters and possibilities that I hope Dan Abnett and many writers to come continue to explore. As of right now, Aquaman is an essential read in DC’s slate of Rebirth books. I may not be able to judge what the greatest Aquaman stories of all time are, but I can say that this run is a great place to start for any fans of classic superhero storytelling.