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GRAPHIC NOVEL and TRADE PAPERBACK (TPB) REVIEWS

by The Masked Bookwyrm

Aquaman ~ Page One

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"He was born Arthur Curry, half-breed son of man and mermaid, and rose to become ruler of the mighty sea kingdom of Atlantis...the dauntless defender of all the seven seas...


Aquaman: Death of a Prince 2011 (SC TPB) 336 pages

coverWritten by Paul Levitz, David Michelinie, Steve Skeates, Paul Kupperburg. Illustrated by Jim Aparo, Don Newton, with Mike Grell, Juan Ortiz, Carl Potts. Inked by various.
Colours/letters: various.

Reprinting: Aquaman (1st series) #57-63, and the Aquaman and/or Aqualad stories from Adventure Comics #435-437, 441-455 (1974-1978)

Rating: * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Reviewed: July 2015

Published by DC Comics

This collection of 1970s Aquaman stories seems to reflect the growing trend in TPB collections of omnibus volumes. When comic book TPBs initially began they tended to reprint specific story arcs or were random "best of..." collections. But then Marvel and DC both discovered success with their massive-but-cheap-black-and-white chronological reprints (Essential/Showcase Presents respectively). This seemed to lead to colour collections with more issues reprinted between a single cover.

So although this is called "Death of a Prince," as though focused on a particular, seminal storyline, the truth is it really just reprints, more or less, the entire run of Aquaman stories from this era. Including some ancillary shorts focusing on Mera and Aqualad.

Aquaman's comic had been cancelled in 1971. So in 1974 he was revived for a three-issue back up in the pages of Adventure Comics. Which then led to him taking over the main slot in Adventure. It must have done well enough for Aquaman to resume his own comic again (starting the numbering from where it left off in 1971) only to then have that get cancelled in the so-called DC Implosion. So this collection reprints all of that.

(Aquaman did enjoy a few more back-up series, but didn't headline again until the late 1980s).

Now it's entirely possible this collection was intended to simply reprint a story arc, but the editors were having trouble deciding where it should begin and end (not an uncommon problem in comics -- heck, I've read collections where you can think the editors missed including crucial parts of the story). Despite different writers involved, plot threads over lap, stories segue into each other, etc. In one of the first tales, Aquaman thinks how he and Black Manta are destined for a showdown -- making it seem like it's foreshadowing the later events in this TPB.

At this collections heart is the traumatic murder of Aquaman's baby son, Aquababy (or Arthur Jr, if you want to be more dignified). An event of sufficient impact on the character that it remains relevant even though DC's universe has undergone more than a few re-boots since. Not only that, these issues seemed a conscious attempt to re-shape the Aquaman mythos. In addition to losing his son, he is dethroned from being king of Atlantis, has a falling out with long-time sidekick, Aqualad, and even his relationship with Mera begins its road toward dissolution.

Clearly the editorial decision was to jettison much of the stuff around Aquaman and return him to being a lone wolf super hero (though funnily enough, by the final issue here, it reunites the characters).

As a collection of Aquaman circa the 1970s -- this (literally) can't be beat. But equally one could argue although there's nothing particularly bad here -- there's little that stands out, either. Perfectly okay page turners, but few individual issues/stories that are memorable in and of themselves.

The art can't be faulted, much, with Jim Aparo handling the lion's share -- Aparo who actually began his career at DC on Aquaman a few years before. His art here is, arguably, smoother, more confident than in those previous Aqua-stories -- more distinctly his style. But equally it's lost some of its earlier detail, its atmosphere. Arguably the very act of becoming more confident means it's a little less creative. But it's still good work from a top tier artist. Don Newton takes over toward the end, also a fine artist (and who would continue his association with Aquaman in some later back-up stories) -- though Newton's soft, organic style can be compromised depending on the inker he's paired with. The initial three short tales are drawn by Mike Grell, though definitely early in his career, and not as effective as he would become. Rounding out the solid art are back up tales with Juan Ortiz drawing a Mera trilogy, and Carl Potts some Aqualad tales.

The problem here lies mostly with the scripts -- with a variety of writers involved, but a sense no one has quite tapped into an inner muse. The plots are mostly just thin stories to support the action, with a lot of one-note villains engaged in fairly simple schemes. And with on going threads that never quite develop into much. Contrast this with the imaginative plotting of the much earlier stories reprinted in Showcase presents Aquaman, vol. 3, for instance (reviewed on next page -- though, to be fair, many of the issues here are only 12 pages or so.

I had recently been reading an earlier run of Aquaman (highlighting the Quest for Mera saga in my They Ain't TPBs section) -- and found myself commenting on that run's conspicuous lack of recurring super villains. But this run -- well, it's almost entirely a parade of costumed foes (some recurring more than once, such as The Fisherman, Black Manta, Ocean Master, and with others such as The Scavenger dropping by, and Kobra -- DC's attempt to create a cross-title uber-villain -- pulling the strings at one point). And the problem with relying too much on familiar foes is it becomes a crutch to avoid having to come up with complex plots or motivation. There's also a story arc wherein someone usurps Aquaman's throne -- recycling a plot thread from the Quest for Mera arc.

I also found the handling of Aquaman's abilities a bit repetitious. Obviously the fact that he can telepathically summon sea creatures is a nifty power -- but it probably is cooler used sparingly. Here, every issue he relies upon it multiple times, and not really with much innovation, or unusual applications.

And maybe part of the problem with so many of the issues and story arcs seeming mainly intended to change the status quo is that can smack a bit of creators who aren't sure what to do with the property (like the cliche of a writer who sits at his desk, shuffling papers, changing typewriter ribbon, etc. -- rather than just getting down to the writing). Even Aquaman himself has trouble coming into focus. There's an attempt to play up Aquaman as slightly brusque and bitter (even before his son's death), but not enough to really make that his personality (ala The Sub-Mariner's hot-headedness) but enough to make him not wholly likeable.

Even the idea of "revealing" that Black Manta is a black man can feel like part of this desire to toss in a change for the sake of change (and that's sidestepping whether that decision -- presumably inspired by the plethora of black characters with "Black" in their name -- just seemed a bit corny).

A lot of these changes feel perfunctory.

Nowhere is this more problematic than in the death of Aquababy. It's such a major change to the series -- yet just feels like creative house cleaning! There's very little build up or foreshadowing of it (no ominous warning on the issue's cover of the shocking event inside). And though it supposedly makes Aquaman embittered for the next few issues -- often it's barely noticeable, his dialogue often just as blithely cocky as usual, hardly like a man who just lost his only son! I suspect that's because the creative team (by this point with Michelinie as the writer) weren't really approaching it from an emotional perspective. It was merely as an opportunity to get rid of an unwanted story element.

Even all these years later I have some ethical qualms with a comic killing a toddler so cavalierly. I'd also argue that the fact that Aquaman was a family man, far from being a creative albatros around the character's neck, was actually a unique story aspect given he was practically the only super hero whose cast included a family.

With that said, the issue immediately following Aquababy's death -- Aquaman #57, with Aquaman having his showdown with Black Manta -- stands out. It feels a bit more atmospheric, set amid a sunken graveyard of ships, and is bolstered by the actions of a supporting character. It's one of the few times in these issues that there's any attempt to enrich the drama by giving some complex emotion to a secondary figure.

Ultimately I do have a long-time affection for Aquaman and the undersea milieu (I also like the Sub-Mariner). And as a grab bag of Aquaman tales, you can't really fault this. But despite featuring seminal changes to the character's life, few of the stories stand out here. Whether individual issues or multi-issue sub-plots. Perhaps it reminds you that just because certain issues might be "important" in terms of the development of the character -- it doesn't mean the storytelling itself was anything exceptional.

Cover price: __


coverAquaman: Sub Diego 2015 (SC TPB) 192 pages

Written by Will Pfeifer. Pencils by Patrick Gleason. Inks by Christian Alamy.
Colours: Nathan Eyring. Letter: various. .

Reprinting: Aquaman (3rd series) #15-22 (2004)

Rating: * * 1/2 (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Reviewed: July 2015

Published by DC Comics

I've read the main "American Tidal" story (#15-20) but not the final two issues included here -- just fyi.

I had kind of been keen to trackdown "American Tidal" for a few years after it was first serialized for, I'll admit, somewhat nostalgic reasons. Those being that for the first time after many years Aquaman was clean shaven and back in his familiar orange and green togs (albeit with a magical hand) and the covers by Alan Davis put me in mind of Don Newton, a key Aquaman artist in the late 1970s/early 1980s. Plus at six issues it seemed intended as an epic. Probably there had been other Aquaman sagas that long, but most that I was aware of tended to be story arcs comprised of shorter plots.

The premise is that San Diego literally falls into the ocean, killing thousands. But when weeks later a survivor emerges from the water, but dies on land, Aquaman realizes there may be other survivors -- but someone has genetically altered them to be waterbreathers!

A problem with American Tidal is basically rooted in the whole "decompression" idea of modern comics, where stories are stretched out over multiple issues -- perhaps to make them better suited to a TPB collection. (One suspects the thinking was American Tidal would be a TPB -- and the fact that it's only been released as such now, many years later, perhaps says something about the series' popularity at the time, as does the fact that it was marking a "change of direction" for the character, and was followed by yet another new direction a few issues down the line). The story is pretty thin and slow. I don't mean so much that it's slow in terms of pacing or with rambling scenes. I just mean very little seems to occur issue by issue.

Presumably thanks to big panels and limited verbiage, each issue only really advances the story by increments (usually there's maybe one key bit of information added to the plot). Heck, despite six issues and over 120 pages, there's only really four main speaking roles: Aquaman, Lorena (a young woman Aquaman befriends), J'onn J'onzz the Martian Manhunter (who guest stars for an issue or two) and, eventually, the villain. So it's not like there's a lot of character stuff or sub-plots going on beneath the broad strokes plot. While Aquaman himself never really becomes more that a generic protagonist to keep the story moving (he barely has any dialogue in the first issue!) That may be a fault of writer and artist both -- in one scene where a dolphin friend of Aquaman's is killed, Aquaman's reaction is mostly rendered in long shots and shadows, while the script just kind of shrugs it off after a panel or two.

And it's frustrating when you get to the climax. Although Aquaman finds the villain behind it (who, to be fair, is at least an original character, as opposed to it simply being a recycled old foe) it turns out other mysterious bad guys are behind him -- and they don't get revealed. In other words in a six issue epic in which there aren't many twists, turns, or character nuances, by the end it doesn't even wrap up tidily.

Although the story seems to be getting away from the fantasy/magic flavour of then-recent Aquaman comics and back to more super hero stuff, it still retains a lingering aura of horror and grisliness in the scenes and the (dark) visuals. And speaking of visuals -- Gleason's art is good and detailed and robust. Though his Aquaman is maybe rendered with a bit too much angularness to the lines, lacking the flowing organicness of Alan Davis' covers. And, as mentioned, there's definitely a bit of a horror vibe to the art, both in terms of simple shadows and darkness, and in terms of the graphicness of some of the violence.

Of course you can view this in the context of a lot of comics (with a new creative team settling in) as an attempt to re-set the bar. The main point of the story simply seems to be to re-establish Aquaman as once again at the head of an undersea city (since he hadn't been king of Atlantis for awhile) and with Lorena being established as a potential new super heroine/sidekick. Even the idea of the mysterious cartel behind the villainy was probably intended to introduce a new, recurring menace.

And maybe that's why it can feel a bit thin: because it was really conceived just to establish a foundation for the "new direction" of the series. But, then, they probably shouldn't have spent six months on it! And Pfeifer left the series a few issues later, so I don't know if the evil cartel was ever developed more.


Aquaman: Sword of Atlantis: Once and Future 2006 (SC TPB) 144 pages

coverWritten by Kurt Busiek. Pencils by Butch Guice. Inks by Butch Guice with Tony DeZuniga.
Colours: Dan Brown. Letters: Todd Klein. Editors: Joey Cavalieri, Michael Wright.

Reprinting: Aquaman: Sword of Atlantis (frm. just Aquaman 2002-, series) #40-45 (2006)

Rating: * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Published by DC Comics

The Once and Future story line begat -- yet another -- "new direction" for Aquaman, with the comic even acquiring the new sub-title: Sword of Atlantis. In the wake of one of its previous crossover "mega-events", DC Comics used a gimmick of jumping their reality ahead one year, hoping to tease readers with mysteries created by that one year gap. In the case of the Aquaman comic...Aquaman himself has disappeared.

So we are introduced to one Arthur Curry -- a blonde haired, water-breathing human who is frequently mistaken for Aquaman (who was also born Arthur Curry). But this Arthur Joseph Curry is not an Atlantean, but a human who had lived most of his life in an aquarium built by his oceanologist father. But a massive storm wrecked the aquarium and cast Arthur into the ocean...which is where this series begins. Arthur is recruited by the mysterious Dweller in the Depths, a mystical seabeing who is convinced Arthur is a prophesied hero destined to save the oceans, and even outfits Arthur in an orange and green ensemble reminiscent of the original Aquaman's.

One of the frequent gimmicks in comics is to take properties that seem to be floundering and try and kick start them by re-inventing the whole franchise. The discount boxes are full of such ill-fated re-imaginings. At the same time, it was just such a reinventing of old properties in the 1950s that gave rise to the Silver Age of comics. But the problem here is it wants to revamp the series by giving us a whole new Aquaman...even as he spends the first few issues bumping into characters from previous runs of the series, and dealing with the repercussions of past "mega events" (Atlantis had been destroyed by a rogue Spectre!). In other words, long time fans might be miffed about the change in the hero...even as long time fans are the only ones who are really going to appreciate a lot of the nuances.

Of course, fans have long memories, and killing off the previous hero is rarely a permanent solution (with the Silver Age Green Arrow, Green Lantern and the Flash all coming back from death to re-claim their titles from their successors in recent years), so the comic doesn't even try and pretend this is necessarily a permanent arrangement, leaving the door open for the "true" Aquaman to return. Oh, I'm sure writer Kurt Busiek was hoping his Arthur would be the new and forever Aquaman...but I'm guessing he was realistic enough to know that might not happen.

Anyway, at first, the new direction works reasonably well. For one thing, the art by Butch Guice is quite striking with its mix of realism and strange, even spooky undersea scapes, coloured in richly textured dark, sombre hues that evoke the sense of the ocean's depths. Arthur is personable enough and collects an off-beat supporting cast, including the shark/human hybrid, King Shark (who the dialogue implies was previously a villain, but here is recast as a quirky if enigmatic ally -- though not to be confused with Green Lantern's shark/human hybrid foe, the Shark!) and the even more mysterious Dweller in the Depths. Actually, the clues are so blatant about who the Dweller is that I assumed they were red herrings...but by the end of these issues, it certainly seems as though he is who we thought. Which, um, is a clever bit of misdirection. I guess. And the run is heavy on the cryptic, with hints of things to come, and mysteries barely articulated.

I've complained that a lot of modern comics writers, knowing a trade collection is waiting down the line, will stretch out minor stories to justify the collection. But the flip side is writers still not thinking in terms of the graphic "novel" despite liking to use that term themselves. In the opening issue Arthur encounters some undersea barbarian marauders, and in the final issues of this collection he and his allies defeat them. So there is a story that begins and ends. But it's a fairly minor story, plot-wise. Much of these issues are taken up with episodic intervals as Arthur explores his new domain, gets into an underwater bar fight, encounters various players from the past Aquaman series, like Mera, and the Sea Devils. Things that are of more significance for their relationship to stories that went before, or foreshadowing stories to come.

Recently reading some 1960s Aquaman comics (in Showcase presents Aquaman, vol. 3), one can scoff at the corny dialogue, the (sometimes deliberate) goofiness...but what's appealing is the pure storytelling at work. Whole, imaginative (and diverse) plots -- with beginnings, middles and ends -- crammed into single 23 page issues.

For all the greater sophistication of character and theme and presentation of these modern comics, they're inferior simply as stories.

And, to be honest, even the characterization isn't as convincing as it pretends. Arthur is given a bit of a hot headed temper...which is one of those character quirks writers throw in because they aren't sure how to get their hero into trouble logically (kind of like the Back to the Future films where Marty would go berserk if someone called him chicken). And just the whole concept of a guy who lived his whole life in an aquarium but can take on bad guys and get into sword fights is a bit unlikely.

When Arthur returns to his father's storm-wrecked lab, he finds a body shot by a bullet. But though that is clearly setting up mysteries for later -- Arthur himself doesn't allude to it again.

Arthur also refers to how he always thought of Aquaman as a second rate hero which smacks a bit too much of the self-reflectiveness plaguing modern comics, as if Busiek is trying to confront some of the criticisms of Aquaman-as-a-comic-book-hero. But I find it hard to believe a guy who'd lived his life in a fish tank, as a freak, would regard Aquaman with anything but awe and reverence. Busiek maybe figured he'd go for the unexpected, but it was just one more thing that rang a bit false.

And ultimately, by the end of these six issues Arthur has failed to prove himself any more interesting than the original Aquaman and, indeed, is even less so, with even fewer powers (though toward the end there are hints he might have some of Aquaman's telepathic abilities). Nor have the supporting characters really developed much beyond their introduction.

As well, as the issues progress, Guice's art seems to get a bit rougher and sketchier. Whether that's a deliberate intent (perhaps trying to evoke, say, Joe Kubert or someone) or just a reflection of Guice getting a bit rushed (old timer Tony DeZuniga is brought in to ink one issue, implying Guice was having trouble meeting a deadline), it means the initially striking visuals can get a bit sloppy at times.

These issues do come to a climax, forming a story arc. But a lot is still left unexplained, meant to push us into seeing where it's all headed. But it means that as a TPB collection, it's a bit unsatisfying. And another problem I have with the way so many modern comics are written that way -- where it's rarely about this month's story, and all about the future "arc" -- is that you're never really sure if it will go anywhere. Busiek himself left the series a few issues after this, and the comic itself was cancelled shortly after that. So we have a TPB collection introducing a brand new Aquaman...that may or may not be intended to permanently replace the original, introducing a bunch of cryptic threads...that may or may not have ever seen fruition.

Some of this was apparent in another Aquaman TPB, The Waterbearer, but I still think I enjoyed that book a bit better. Once and Future is an okay effort, with (mostly) good art. But as a story, it's a bit thin, with a lot of padding, with a hero that doesn't entirely distinguish himself as a personality.

Cover price: $__ CDN. / $12.99 USA.



 

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