Review: Aquaman – New 52

In Brief:  In the first two volumes of Aquaman from DC Comics’ New 52 line, the creative team of Geoff Johns, Ivan Reis, and Joe Prado relaunch and revitalize this familiar if not overly popular character.  In Volumes 1 and 2 (the first twelve issues of the series), Aquaman confronts a mysterious subterranean invasion, then his old foe, Black Manta, while learning new details about the fall of Atlantis.

Pros:  This is an A-team lineup from DC.  Johns, Reis, and Prado have produced a beautiful book, well plotted, with mystery and effective characterization.  Johns’ take on Aquaman is somewhat darker than you might expect, but it works well here.

Cons:  There is a certain formula to the Johns storytelling method, and he certainly doesn’t flip any scripts or pull any big surprises here (not that DC would let him).  Some of the fight sequences seemed off in their pacing and could have used more panels to convey the action.

Full Review:  As we understand it, the idea behind the New 52 was for DC to rebrand/relaunch the books and characters in their universe – everything from issue 1, with a lot of the previous continuity jettisoned to make way for new stories.  I previously picked up the Batman relaunch (and sadly did not review it here) and have the JLA relaunch in the queue.  Aquaman probably would not have made the cut if not for a referral from a friend willing to lend me the first two volumes.

The nice thing about the New 52 concept is it does provide a good jumping on point.  I don’t know much about Aquaman beyond the Justice League, but that doesn’t matter here.  Purists may grit their teeth at the loss or sweeping away of so much back-issue history, but taking these familiar heroes, rebooting them in their prime with some sense of their origins and pivotal moments does provide an effective hook for new readers.  Picking up a book about a character with whom I had no prior investment (as opposed to Batman or the X-Men) was also an interesting prospect, allowing me to read and assess a little more objectively.

Now Aquaman has suffered a bit at the hands of pop culture in recent years.  If you’ve watched Robot Chicken, Family Guy, MAD TV, etc., you may have noticed.  Geoff Johns addresses this in the book’s opening sequence – the whole Aquaman-is-lame argument kind of summarized and utilized in short order.  He illustrates the reasoning:  Aquaman’s standoffish personality, his lack of interest in PR, and the whole misconception about talking to fish.  He also sums up the sadness and loneliness of a boy with strange abilities raised by a single dad.  That’s Aquaman.

As the story progresses we get the sense of a man a little too obsessed with revenge and prone to avoid communication with his allies and friends – character flaws that provide some depth.  If his background makes him sympathetic, some of his actions and choices make you wonder – particularly in some of the flashback sequences from his early super-hero-ing years.

The narrative revolves around the mysterious destruction and sinking of Atlantis many centuries earlier.  Starting with an invasion of predatory fish-creatures from a trench deep within the Ocean.  The creatures are frightening and they’re hungry.  While their origins remain a mystery Aquaman and his girlfriend Mera find the vestiges of an ancient Atlantean ship within the trench.  They discover more riddles about the King of Atlantis and his role in that cataclysm – the same King who forged Aquaman’s trident and as we soon learn, a host of other fantastic devices.

The second part of the narrative explores Aquaman’s early years, when he tried to track down his arch nemesis Black Manta with the help of a team of heroes who all used other lesser Atlantean devices for their powers.  In the present, Black Manta is back and he’s tracking down and killing Aquaman’s old team, taking their power-devices.  Johns is solid mixing in flashbacks and interweaving the present action.  Black Manta is a pretty bad dude – suit powered in the Iron Man tradition – and his hatred of Aquaman, as we soon learn, is obsessive and also well-deserved.

The Geoff Johns method is in fine effect here.  If you were to back and outline the narrative points within the issues (and I may at some point) you would a pleasing confluence of mystery, character origin, action, and introspection.  This is why he’s one of DC’s go-to guys.  Of course the flipside of this is that once you’re familiar with the method, you’re unlikely to meet with many surprises.  But then, that’s not why we read super-hero comics anyway.

We do like these books for the art, the sequential storytelling, and Ivan Reis and Joe Prado have the goods.  You can immediately appreciate the level of detail and the consistency.  It’s even more impressive with all the water effects, some undersea action, and a bevy of gadgets and weapons.  This kind of artwork often requires a second look – especially when combined with a storyteller like Johns.  Second looks can give you an appreciation for the angles, the shading and lighting, the softer lines used to convey flashbacks.  Rod Reis, the colorist, also deserves some accolades:  with the amount of detail, his job on this book wasn’t easy.  Ivan Reis seems to prefer wide panels and sweeping action and fight scenes, but if I had one complaint it would be that some of these scenes seem a little rushed.  The pacing could have been slower.  But far be it from me to suggest we start decompressing a comic books much more.

Bottom Line:  This is top shelf comic book material.  If you’re an Aquaman fan, you probably already know, but if not you may want to give ‘The Trench’ and ‘The Others’ some consideration.  You get a primo creative team on their game and you may also gain new appreciation for a well-known if not always appreciated super hero.

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