Originally Published December 2, 2011
DC Comics recently relaunched their entire series, giving curious but uninitiated nerds a convenient entry point. Fellow blogger Patrick Ehlers and I are two such nerds, and we’ve decided to jump in with a handful of monthly titles. We really wanted to pull out all the nerd stops, so we’re also going to be writing about them here and on Patrick’s Blog (which you should all be reading anyway) every Friday. This week, I’m hosting the discussion of Aquaman, while Patrick is hosting the discussion of Batman and Robin.
Drew: Geoff Johns is acutely aware that Aquaman isn’t cool. Most people are only familiar with him through his associations with the Justice League (or the Super Friends, as the case may be), where the comparison to the likes of Superman and Green Lantern have always been less than flattering. The problems those super team-ups dealt with never seemed to play to Aquaman’s skill set, so he invariably acted as the third wheel, either just standing around like a normal guy or running off to see what the fish had to say (unless, of course, the writers resorted to some contrived way of putting the action in or near water, which always felt like an act of pity). Johns wants to address these problems directly, much to the title’s detriment.
The first issue opens (after an intriguing teaser of the villain) on dry land with police in pursuit of a stolen armored car. Our hero, having heard the commotion from a distance, leaps tall buildings in a single bound to land right in front of the armored car. He proceeds to lift and toss the car on its roof before the criminals open fire. Fortunately, the bullets bounce off with no effect, and the robbers are shortly subdued. If what I just described to you sounds more like a Superman story, it’s because it more or less is a Superman story. Aping a much more popular hero (and one who is often accused of being kind of boring in his own right) fails to make Aquaman seem anything other than the less-cool little brother (which I think is precisely what Johns was trying to avoid).
After the police have the criminals in custody, they mock Aquaman until he leaves, at which point he decides he wants some fish and chips, so he heads to a local seafood place. The less said about this scene the better, but he crowd there also openly mocks Aquaman, eventually driving him away with a bruised little ego. All of this somehow drives Aquaman to decide that he wants to stay on land, and to never return to Atlantis.
Meanwhile. the school of man-fish teased in the opening have their first encounter with humans, a fishing boat crew that they quickly devour. They then set their sights on the shore, apparently devouring the entire seaside town of Beachrock. At this point, Aquaman (and Mera, his wife), are asked to help by a Barney Fifean deputy that is trying to figure out just what happened in Beachrock. After arriving on the scene, Aquaman and Mera (as well as the police, Navy, and Coast Guard) are ambushed by the man-fish. A fight ensues, and the man-fish are eventually driven off, though they take many victims with them back to the sea, victims Aquaman suspects may still be alive.
Aquaman takes the body of one of the monsters to Stephen Shin, a brilliant marine biologist who also happens to be obsessed with Atlantis. Shin both trained Aquaman and threatened to kill him when he wouldn’t reveal the location of Atlantis (hint: it’s at the bottom of the ocean), so their relationship is complicated, to say the least. Shin concludes that the monsters must live near deep sea vents, and hypothesizes that their insanely high metabolisms may have led them to exhaust their own resources, forcing them to the surface to find food. Aquaman and Mera promptly head to the deep sea trench in hopes of finding the monsters, and potentially saving any victims that are still alive.
I’m seeing a lot of potential here, but am a little frustrated that it’s taking a while for the story to really get started (a criticism I seem to have for much of Johns’ writing). This title is promising to start kicking some serious ass now that the action is underwater, but Aquaman spends almost all of these three issues on dry land, even occasionally standing on shore, looking out at the sea wistfully. BORING. The problem with Aquaman in super team-ups is that the action too often takes place on land, rendering him largely powerless. A solo title doesn’t need to share time with four or five terrestrial heroes, so is free to spend much, much more time underwater, where Aquaman is a certifiable badass. Instead, Johns spends a lot of time establishing what’s at risk, which is understandable — if Aquaman wasn’t fighting a clear threat to humanity, it might not seem that important — and a lot of time planting seeds for future stories. You can be sure Mr. Shin will be back (Mr.? Really? Dude needs to restore his reputation as a marine biologist but never thought to get a PhD?), and I think the flashbacks that are peppered throughout the story will start to become more important as we move ahead, so I suppose some of the time devoted to them is understandable, but other moments just feel like a waste of time. In the unfortunate seafood restaurant scene, we overhear a pair of women oogling Aquaman. Why do we need to be shown that random women find Aquaman hunky? Even if being attractive were somehow important to his character, is the fact that he’s drawn as an adonis not enough to establish this? This strikes me as an entirely wasted panel, one that could have been better used elsewhere.
I’m also seeing a lot of potential in the art, but am again frustrated by the story. Ivan Reis’s action panels are dynamic and vivid, making the prospect of an underwater showdown sound pretty good, but he’s been sidled by a lot of dialogue that doesn’t serve his art very well. Too much action must be crammed into too few panels, leading to unclear visual storytelling, which is a real drag. His art shines when there is little to no text, and the affect of beachside paintings for Aquaman’s memories is an effective choice. I’m looking forward to the prospect of a largely dialogue-free next issue, and hope Reis can find a way to give his art a little more room to breathe.
I suppose my biggest issue right now is the sheer volume of exposition in these first three issues. We get exposition in the restaurant when Aquaman has to explain himself, we get it at home with Mera when Aquaman tells her he’s decided to stay on land, we get it when the police talk to and about Aquaman, we get it when Shin delivers the classic sci-fi scientist’s conclusions drawn from entirely too-little evidence. I kind of expected this amount of exposition from all of the New 52, but the fact that the other titles have largely avoided these problems only serves to highlight them here. This isn’t a problem I anticipate continuing (and, in fact, may just be laying the groundwork for some awesome stuff down the line), but it’s still frustrated me for these first few issues. I dunno, Patrick, I’m almost ready to suggest that Johns’ skills at dealing with epic mythologies don’t translate as well to crafting individual story lines, but since you’re much more familiar with his work, I’ll let you have your say before I make any wild claims.
Patrick: I’ve read a lot of Geoff Johns in the past, but all of it has been in bound collections. I really loved my experience of reading the Green Lantern and The Flash after he rebirthed both characters. And I really enjoyed Blackest Night and Brightest Day, both written by Johns. Once I had decided I was a fan of Johns’ work, I went on-line, just to gauge what the general chatter about him was. And it’s about 50/50. Some people think he’s great and some people think he’s terrible. Naturally, I think the answer is both at once. Johns has a gift for crafting long arcs and paying off slowly building tension, and while that plays marvelously in a book that collects 8 issues at once, it is really fucking frustrating to read one issue a month.
Let’s imagine that you picked up a bound collection of Aquaman: The Trench (as it will inevitably be called). Maybe you wouldn’t be so disappointed that 7 or 8 early pages were pissed away on some expository bullshit in a seaside diner when there are like 200 more pages of stuff you might be interested in reading. Johns is a big-picture kind of guy, and that applies to size of story he’s comfortable telling too. The guy got his start working in film. So it’s no wonder that the more episodic nature of monthly issues trips him up a little. I read an interview with him once (or maybe it was notes at the end of a collection) where he said that he was constantly requesting to have more pages in each of his issues. It’s sort of mind boggling that the lead creative architect at DC Comics has a hard time writing comics.
I think this is something we’ve recognized in all three of his titles – we think there’s something to like there, but the story hasn’t really solidified yet. I’m considering dumping his monthlies and waiting for them to come out in trade. I imagine that I’ll enjoy the experience that much more. And if the price is waiting a few months for them to come out, well, I guess I might be okay with that.
But to the book in question:
I actually enjoyed the very Superman-esque opening sequence of Aquaman. I didn’t read it as aping so much as intentionally playing out a Superman story with Aquaman as the hero. There’s something satisfying to me about the easily recognized tropes being used as a shorthand for letting us know that Aquaman is a force to be reckoned with. The fact that he’s being compared to a hero that is frequently torn down for his lack of depth doesn’t much bother me. As my experience in the DC Universe grows, I’m coming to appreciate Superman more. Like Batman, Supes brings so much cultural baggage to a title just by showing up, and it’s interesting to see what people can do when either playing to or attempting to subvert our expectations of those characters and those symbols. And that’s largely what’s at play so far in Aquaman. But it doesn’t always work.
As you note, everyone in this series seems to agree that Aquaman is a shitty super hero. Fine. This joke works well enough, but loses potency exponentially with each use. It is additionally frustrating that Arthur’s only response seems to be whipping out that trident. There’s really no way to escape the phallic imagery conjured when Aquaman flips it out and almost dares his detractors to compare to the size of their own tiny penis… I mean trident… I mean penis. It paints Aquaman as kind of an asshole. And maybe it’s all part of the “not at home on land, not at home in the water” vibe the character is intended to put off, but it comes off as just kind of a bad development for the character.
Shifting gears a bit: that exposition dump in the third issue is just wretched. Mr. Shin, a character we’ve never met before, is introduced, as is his obsession with Atlantis and some theories about the fish-men. It slows the whole title down and makes me fear that we’re going to see a lot more of the impossibly motivated Mr. Shin. Can’t we just get more angry fish-men and few explanations about why the might be killing people? They’re fish monsters! Who cares why – just kill ‘em!
And then there’s Mera. She’s not really given much to do in these issues. She stands by Aquaman as his faithful wife and fights monsters by controlling water. That’s about it. But the character is markedly more interesting than that. At least, I assume she is – given that we’ve rebooted a few things, she is only exactly what these three issues have shown us. Before this series, she pretty excellently developed in Blackest Night and Brightest day (both from the team-up of Johns and Reis), so it’s hard for me to not impose that same character on the cardboard cut-out we see in these issues. Here’s hoping they intend to rebuild that same interesting hero.
And you rightfully praise Reis’ art. His action is excellent, and I’m finding a special pleasure in his lush, quiet backgrounds. I think you were referencing the image above when you were praising his work in Aquaman’s flashbacks. This is the first panel of issue three and it’s beautiful. I mean, you could hang that on a wall and no one would think you were a weirdo. Also, it manages to play in all the colors of Aquaman’s costume, so even while the character isn’t on the page, he’s still present – if you get what I’m saying.
So that’s it. Maybe we need to reassess how we take in Johns’ output.
Here’s a list of what we’re reading. The list is Batman heavy, and we’re not going to write about everything. That being said, feedback and suggestions on what to read and discuss are welcome. Overlapping books in bold:
Justice League of America, Batman, Batman & Robin, Nightwing, Batgirl, Aquaman, Green Lantern, Green Lantern Corps, Wonder Woman, Action Comics