GRAPHIC NOVEL and TRADE PAPERBACK (TPB) REVIEWS

by The Masked Bookwyrm

Aquaman ~ Page Two

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Aquaman: Time and Tide 2006 (SC TPB) 88 pages

coverWritten by Peter David. Pencils by Kirk Jarvinen. Inks by Brad Vancata.
Colours: Tom McCraw. Letters: Dan Nakrosis. Editor: Kevin Dooley.

Reprinting: the four issue mini-series from 1993

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

Number of readings: 1

Reviewed: July 2015

Published by DC Comics

In the aftermath of DC's Crisis on Infinite Earths (which supposedly re-booted the DC Universe) there were all sorts of re-starts for various key characters. Multiple re-starts in fact. By the time of Time & Tide, Aquaman had already had two mini-series, two one-shot specials, and a recently cancelled monthly series all within about six or seven years. Each of those various versions weren't, technically, re-boots -- but the continuity between them could be a bit tenuous.

Time and Tide was an attempt to establish the foundations of Aquaman's saga. The 1989 on-shot special had re-told his actual origin in a straight, linear fashion. So instead Time & Tide was modelled after something like John Byrne's Man of Steel mini-series in that it hopscotches through Aquaman's life. The first issue (guest starring The Flash) presents an adventure that introduces him to the surface world as the "super hero" Aquaman -- then the second issue jumps back to his youth as a kind of ocean-born (and borne) Tarzan, being raised by dolphins (a concept not previously articulated, I don't think). Then there's an interlude of a teen Aquaman living among the Inuit (and meeting his first love). The series wraps up with a story set squarely in the middle period of his life, as king of Atlantis, with Mera at his side, and having his first encounter with arch foe Ocean Master.

Instead of simply telling one long story, it's a collection of different tales -- and different styles, from the super-heroing of the 1st issue (battling The Flash's foe, The Tricktser) and the more archetypal undersea action of the final issue, to the Tarzan stuff, etc. It's meant to help get readers up to speed and to have the pieces on the board ready for the monthly series David was already prepping. But it still presupposes the readers' familiarity with Aquaman lore (only a passing reference is made to the light house keeper who raised him after the dolphins) and with some crucial plot stuff coming into play in the final issue that doesn't really seem to relate to anything here (I guess prior to this David had already been establishing the history of sunken Atlantis in the 1990 mini-series, The Atlantis Chronicles). So although you might pick this up expecting a tidy, handy primer on Aquaman -- at least circa the early 1990s -- some things are still confusing. The problem with this -- and the whole post-Crisis reality -- was it ignores the established mythology...except when it wants to accept the established history. Making it hard to know what was, and wasn't, supposed to be considered canon!

For insance, Ocean Master is still Aquaman's half-brother (as he was when first introduced back in the 1960s) but now with a completely different lineage, relationship, and even ethnicity!

Indeed, his ethnicity seems oddly vague. Here Ocean Master would seem to be Inuit -- except he's drawn, and coloured, to look caucasian. One wonders if DC had qualms about making yet another of Aquaman's arch foes non-white (following Black Manta) since no one had bothered to make any of his friends non-white.

I also think the handling of Ocean Master is an interesting illustration of the debate about what qualifies as "smart" or "sophisticated" and what doesn't. When the character was introduced in the "simpler" 1960s, the point was that Aquaman bore no ill will toward his half-brother, and was frequently conflicted when forced to fight him. And as things progressed, even Ocean Master seemed to waffle in his villainy. To my mind this made their battles intriguingly complex and conflicted. But in the 1970s he seemed to be re-positioned as simply a one-note bad guy, and one for whom Aquaman felt no particular compassion. This was continued in the 1986 mini-series, and is re-inforced even more here -- where Ocean Master is a complete creep and Aquaman feels no kinship for him since they weren't raised together. I dunno -- to me the 1960s version was the more creatively atypical.

Time & Tide is uneven but generally enjoyable. David is a fan-favourite writer, often known for his mix of humour and drama. And there is whimsy and humour without sliding too far into just out right silliness and camp (the first issue is probably the most deliberately light-hearted). The very narture of the different issues means the plots can veer about and be a little eclectic as opposed to every issue just being a battle with an arch foe. At the same time, the stories can feel a bit wanting at times. The very nature of establishing aspects of Aquaman's lore, laying groundwork for (presumably) plans David had for the up-coming monthly, means things can be a bit unsatisfying, leaving some things unexplained even as it is meant to fill in other gaps. And because there are months -- years -- between the stories, no one aspect really gets developed much. (All of this reminds me of Byrne's Man of Steel series).

One thing to acknowledge is a slight "mature readers" vibe, ranging from a few bare bottoms (mostly male as Aquaman is initially a feral fish man, but with one panel of woman) to some racier allusions and references.

Kirk Jarvien's art is cartoony but robust. His square, angular figures aren't maybe the obvious visual style for the lithe, undersea hero, nor his ocean world as atmospheric or lushly detailed as some artists. But his story telling is clear and with David's penchant for slipping from drama to humour, Jarvien's style is certainly effective at playing up the brighter and whimsical aspects. Interestingly, where he especially excels is in the depiction of the undersea life, such as dolphins and sharks.

Anyway, Time & Tide is sort of a mixed bag. As a grab bag of tales, and different tones, it's enjoyable. And though the actual plots can be a bit thin, David's storytelling is sometimes quirky and avoids generic cliches. And the art is bright and accesible. Yet equally, because of that very diversity, the stories are of varible impact, often leaving as much unexplained as explained about the overrall mythos, and with the art more cartoony than dynamic.


Aquaman: The Waterbearer 2003 (SC TPB) 128 pgs.

coverWritten by Rick Veitch. Pencils by Yvel Guichet, with Norm Breyfogle, Joshua Hood, Dietrich Smith. Inks by Mark Propst, Sean Parsons, Dennis Janke.
Colours: Nathan Eyring. Letters: Mike Heisler. Editor: Dan Raspler.

Reprinting: Aquaman (2002 series) #1-4, Aquaman Secret Files #1 (2002-2003)

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

Number of readings: 2

Published by DC Comics

Poor old Aquaman has been caught up in the current fervor at both Marvel and DC that is never prepared to just let a property rest and recharge and be relegated to honourable guest star status for a while. Instead, because one assumes sales figures have been uneven, Aquaman's been knocked around, re-imagined, re-invented and resurrected a bunch of times over the last decade or so. This then-new series follows on the heels of some big, multi-title crossover epic in which Aquaman had been killed. Now he's back...but exiled from Atlantis which has become a tyranny ruled over by dark sorcerers. Aquaman finds himself in Ireland, with a new, magical hand (which replaced the hook he had...which replaced his real hand) and making a connection to a magical, Celtic force -- Annwn, the Secret Sea.

Of course this revival/reinterpretation clearly didn't take very well, as this creative team would be gone after about a year and a clean shaven Aquaman would be back to wearing his familiar orange and green costume and dealing with less magic-themed stories...before, of course, getting caught up in the whole "One Year Later" nonsense and being replaced by a whole 'nother Aquaman (see the above review).

I told ya they aren't prepared to just let a property be benched temporarily with dignity.

But the Veitch/Guichet combo works reasonably well. Aquaman is personable enough, there's some effective humour, and character interplay between Aquaman and his new supporting cast, including a spunky female Irish maritime cop. The art by Guichet is robust and detailed, with a kind of organic fucundity that suits the fantasy-flavoured plots, richly detailing the plants and rocks and ocean waves. It's a bit cartoony, and a bit cluttered -- particularly during the action scenes, there's just too much detail to always grasp what you're seeing (particularly with monsters that don't adhere to existing biological templates). But generally, it works.

The plotting is a bit repetative, as it often involves the evil Atlantean sorcerers sending goons and/or sea monsters to try and kill Aquaman...and he keeps triumphing through the Deus ex machina of his magic hand (which, when you think of it, is reminiscent of old Aquaman stories where he'd often triumph just through the Deus ex machina of telepathically summoning a sea creature to help him). And a sequence where Aquaman and Tempest (the former Aqualad who also seems to have magic powers these days) infiltrate Atlantis in the bodies of possessed fish seems to undermine the environmentalism some previous writers attempted to instil in the character. Aquaman, when discovered, is only concerned about getting out of the fish's body before it's killed, rather than thinking he maybe owes it to the fish to try and save it too!

And these first four issues don't really form a story arc, per se. The issues are relatively self-contained (as Aquaman is bearded by a menace and defeats it), but Atlantis is still enslaved by the end of these issues, and Aquaman still doesn't fully know who the magical Lady is who gave him his new hand or why. Indeed, the final issue ends on one of the those "to be continued" epilogues (that is, the main adventure is over, then the Lady shows up uttering cryptic warnings of an impending danger).

The result is, it's readable enough on its own, if you want a few issues of this era of Aquaman...but it's best read as that, as a collection of a few issues, rather than expecting a "graphic novel" telling a full story. And since, as mentioned, clearly this period of Aquaman wasn't that successful, it doesn't look as though DC intends to release a TPB of the remainder of the story arc.

Yet, for all that, and maybe just 'cause I'm a softy (or because there are almost no Aquaman TPB collections out there) I kind of enjoyed these issues. Enough so that, if I could find the next few issues cheap (as I did these), I'd be tempted to pick 'em up. Which then brings us to another point. Because sometime after first posting this review, I did track down much of the rest of Veitch's run (which ran to #12). I've often grumbled that a lot of comics spend a lot of time with story arcs, hinting at things to come, and then fail to deliver. In the case of Veitch's run...the succeeding issues in fact go off on a completely new story line -- the Irish supporting cast only reappearing towards the end, and though we cut away occasionally to events in Atlantis, that too is largely peripheral. As I commented about the issues in this TPB, Veitch's plotting is a bit repetative for the longer arc, as Aquaman just fights the same foe issue after issue. Clearly Veitch wanted to play around with the whole mystical aspect of his new direction, one not inappropriate to Aquaman (who, after all, isn't a conventional super hero) but not wholly a comfortable fit, either. And it could be this emphasis on fairy realms and the like might have discouraged readers -- assuming they were discouraged. After all, maybe Veitch never intended to write more than 12 issues, and certainly he does seem to build to a certain resolution by the end. It's just not an especially satisfying resolution, with the evil wizards of Atlantis somewhat curbbed in their powers (through a rather vague, mystical way) but still in charge. I mention this just because I said I was intrigued to see where Veitch took his story, because I was assuming it was some 12 chapter graphic novel -- but, as so often happens in comics, it turns out he didn't really take it anywhere.

This is a review of the issues as the appeared in the monthly comic.

Cover price: $__ CDN./$12.95 USA.


Showcase presents Aquaman, vol. 3 2009 (SC TPB) 448 pages

Written by Bob Haney, others. Art by Nick Cardy, with Sal Trapani, Pete Costanza.
black & white. Letters: unbilled.

cover by CardyReprinting: Reprinting: Aquaman (1st series) #24-39, Brave and the Bold (1st series) #73, and a story from Superman's Pal, Jimmy Olsen #115 (1965-1968)

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

Number of readings: 1

Published by DC Comics

DC's "Showcase presents..." collections follow the model of Marvel's Essential volumes, reprinting huge runs of old series (along with some related guest appearances). The down side is they're presented in black & white. The up side is sometimes even just one of the actual back issues might cost you as much as this whole book!

Aquaman, monarch of undersea Atlantis, is one of those characters I've long had a passing affection for, presumably as much for the milieu, given I have similar affection for Marvel's Sub-Mariner. I won't say I'm a hard core fan, and have had little interest in certain eras of the character (despite a long run in the 1990s, somehow a hook-handed, "bad ass" Aquaman just never piqued my interest).

In truth, I picked up this volume as much for artist Nick Cardy (particularly his late-'60s, early-'70s style that I was familiar with thanks to his work on The Teen Titans and some Brave & the Bold team ups). With a sketchy, realist style, a nice eye for narrative composition, and a moody use of shadows (accentuated here in black and white), Cardy's style conveys a lot of mood and drama, without drawing attention to itself. The initial issues here reflect Cardy's simpler, earlier style -- but it's still effective, with well proportioned, clean limbed figures. And it gets better, and more compelling as the issues progress. In fact the aura of sophistication with which his art imbues the stories is apparent by its absence...such as the B&B issue reprinted here. Though written by regular Aquaman writer Bob Haney, it's drawn by Sal Trapani, whose art is okay...but the story feels less compelling.

While Marvel in the 1960s was already exploring a little deeper characterization, more quirky humour, DC was often content with straight forward, juvenile comics (although, in an awkward emulating of Marvel and the campy Batman TV series, there's a preponderance of deliberately pseudo-hip captions!). And there's definitely goofy aspects, like sawfish literally sawing through things. Or Aquaman having a pet walrus in a couple of issues, without Haney seeming to realize a mammal couldn't just stay submerged constantly. Yet, even so -- there's a lot of page turning entertainment contained herein.

The characterization isn't especially deep, some of Aqualad -- Aquaman's kid sidekick -- expressions are downright goofy in their Robin-esque alliteration ("Cryin' Catfish!"). But what compensates is the sheer storytelling chutzpa. In this age where often the most minor plot is stretched out over multiple issues to justify the TPB collection, there's something remarkable -- and appealing -- about this collection where each story begins and ends in a single 23 page issue. And they still manages to cram in more plot, action, twists and -- yes! -- even some character growth than some modern TPB collections! And for all the breeziness, some of the stories do deliver pathos, as characters make sacrifices, or villains reveal hidden humanity.

Chief writer Bob Haney writes rapid fire plots full of breathless daring do and unexpected complications. The heroes are likeable -- such as Aquaman with his rugged heroism. And even the "boy sidekick" idea works better than I thought it would. Maybe you have to be older -- and so less self-conscious -- to appreciate a character like youthful Aqualad, here not quite the confident young man of the Teen Titans comics and later Aquaman stories. There is a humanizing vulnerability to him, a sense that he can get in over his head -- and knows it! Meanwhile Aquaman's wife, Mera, is a curious figure, sometimes the damsel in distress...even as in other stories, she'll save the day. With her "hard water" powers, she can seem more powerful than Aquaman!

Aquaman has undergone traumatic changes over the years, and these stories take place in a happier time, with Aquaman in possession of all his limbs(!), still king of Atlantis, Mera at his side...and with Aquababy bouncing on his knee (yes, he really was called Aquababy -- I don't think he was given a proper name, Arthur Jr, until later). Aquababy's later murder certainly provided for emotional stories, but I knew some fans never quite forgave DC for doing that. And reading these issues, I can see why. These stories practically demand fans be enamoured of the boy -- with hyperbolic captions proclaiming him the cutest tyke around.

As I get older, I kind of think there was a greater maturity behind the concept of this Aquaman, as a "family man", with his wife, baby, and adopted son, than the later Aquaman who is your usual adolescent fantasy super hero -- single.

These also issues introduce villain Ocean Master, who unknown to himself was Aquaman's half brother, and there is an intriguing attempt at a more emotionally complex adversarial relationship than a lot of then-concurrent comics.

There can be an inconsistency, as if Haney is just throwing anything into the mix without regard to continuity (assuming other writers weren't involved -- the comics themselves were uncredited at the time), such as having Aquaman suddenly go on land-based missions for the U.S. government in a couple of issues that seem to have been inspired by the James Bond spy fever of the 1960s. Or sometimes the characters' speech patterns vary.

Still, there's a lot of genuine entertainment at work because of that variety. In fact, one of those spy flavoured issues, with Aquaman trying to thwart terrorists even as he is being hunted by the police, is an exciting thriller. On the opposite extreme, a story where Aqualad first hooks up with Aquagirl (who is given the dignity of a proper name -- Tula), comes across as a cautionary "after school special" about juvenile delinquency, as wild girl Tula ends up leading Aqualad astray. It's corny (particularly the under water "Go-Go" bar where human patrons hang out in scuba gear!) but conversely, boasts a sophistication in themes (if not so much execution) that a lot of modern comics lack, in its portrait of Aqualad as fallible, and with its emphasis on Aquaman as a patriarch of an unlikely family. In fact, of the Aquaman issues reprinted here...I can't honestly say there's a "bad" issue in the bunch (even if many aren't classics, either).

Part of the appeal of Aquaman is precisely that it's a kind of unusual super hero comic. But maybe that's why Aquaman, Sub-Mariner and even The Black Panther have often had trouble with genuine mainstream commercial success -- they're super heroes...but not super heroes.

Throughout the action is high, but death and brutality is used more sparingly. It's an interesting lesson for modern writers, who just seem to layer on the violence, mayhem, and sadism because they have no other story tricks. There is an issue here that begins with the massacre of an entire under sea settlement -- and the resulting story does seem to have a darker, grimmer edge. But it only has that because it was unusual. Otherwise it would have lacked any impact. Funnily enough, when Black Manta shows up for an issue, there's also an extra level of intensity -- I don't know if that's just because, with the advantage of foresight and knowing he will be responsible for Aquababy's later death, he takes on an aura of lethalness the other foes don't, or whether his creepy, features' obscuring costume is just unusually effective, but it was interesting to note.

Anyway, there's definitely a camp aspect (sometimes deliberate, sometimes not) in the antics and corny exclamations. But there's also a lot of storytelling intrigue, as well, as the fast pace plots keep you turning the pages, genuinely interested to see how it all resolves, beautifully rendered by Cardy's pencils and inks, and set against the atypical milieu of an undersea world.

Cover price: $__ CDN. / $16.95 USA



 

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