Originally Published January 6, 2011
DC Comics recently relaunched their entire series, giving curious but uninitiated nerds a convenient entry point. Fellow blogger Drew Baumgartner 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 Drew’s blog (which you should all be reading anyway) every Friday. This week, I’m hosting the discussion of Aquaman while Drew is hosting the discussion of Nightwing.
Patrick: Aquaman is poised to make a comeback. Stacked, even. Writer Geoff Johns and artist Ivan Reis know what everyone thinks of the character and they’re making a very specific effort to make him one of the great heroes in DC’s stables. And these titans of the industry attempt to accomplish this by making Aquaman out to be a mighty force for good, a nearly invincible warrior that saves a seaside village from gang of roving fish-monsters.
Here’s the thing: I don’t love the heroes I love because of their strengths. Yes, I like big green constructs and batarangs and truth lassos, but I would never tune in to the Flash to see how much ass he was going to kick. Look at all the other major heroes we’re reading right now: Batman struggles with his skepticism regarding the Court of Owls; Green Lantern reevaluates his priorities as well as his perception of good vs. evil; Wonder Woman turns her back on her people and her mother to help a stranger in need; Flash explores the infinite possibilities of a world where he can out-think time. This is all markedly more interesting than Aquaman’s momentary “should I kill this civilization of man-eating monsters” dilemma.
Maybe a little context would help. Issue 4 opens with Aquaman and Mera swimming down into the trench after the monsters that abducted the seaside villagers. They see the inbred offspring of these fish monsters as well as their queen (so… wait a minute: if there’s a queen, I’m not really sure “inbreeding” would be an issue… look, they’re deformed or something) before rescuing the villagers and collapsing the trench. Just before he seals off the trench (to either re-separate the monsters from the human world or kill them all, it’s not totally clear) Aquaman has this crisis about “boo hoo, the monsters are living creatures too and they’re just doing what they need to do to survive and who am I to decide human life is more valuable than theirs?” I know they’re trying to play Aquaman as an outsider, but this is really too much – especially as it seems to have no bearing on his decision making process anyway. Aquaman kills the monsters. End of story.
Back on land, we’re treated to the one moment I actually enjoyed from this issue. A little boy, freshly rescued from his monster-food-pod, says to Aquaman “You’re my favorite super hero!” Awwwwwwwww! No, wait, I didn’t like that very much. It’s cheesy and cloying and plays back to Drew’s least favorite scene from issue 1. After getting his kudos, Aquaman bounds off. Once out a earshot, one of the cops on the scene says “I still don’t like him.” And I like it so much because Aquaman’s not standing right there to whip out his phallic trident and start pounding his chest like a macho gorilla jackass.
And then Arthur and Mera take in a dog that they rescued in issue 3. Deputy Sheriff Wilson suggests they name him Aqua-Dog. I’ll let that sink in for a second. Now, that may well be a joke. There’s a lot of strong comparisons throughout this 4-issue run to Superman, so this could be a joke on how lame Krypto the Super Dog is. Also, a lot of people have been calling Mera “Aqua Woman,” so the joke could be at the expense of the characters that don’t respect Arthur and Mera enough. Either of these solutions would be fine. But so help me god, if that dog puts on green and yellow fish scale armor and starts fighting crime, I’m walking.
With such an abrupt resolution to this trench nonsense, I wonder why we needed to spend any time with that crummy marine biologist in issue 3. It’s possible that the scene at the bottom of the trench could have felt like the end of Aliens, where Ripley discovers the queens nest, but only if the audience is given the time to breath and draw their own conclusions about the creatures. In Aliens, they play to the maternal characteristics of the queen, so – even while she’s physically revolting – you almost empathize with it when it calls off its guards to let Ripley escape without burning the egg field. There’s a moment where Ripley thinks she successfully reasoned with the monster, but not a minute later, the queen opens a nearby facehugger egg. Resolved that there should be no peace between them, Ripley burns the fuck out of the whole field of eggs and blasts some grenades into the queen’s reproductive organs. There’s not a word of dialogue in this scene, by the way. Imagine if the bottom of the trench had played out more like that and less like Aquaman and Mera explaining things to each other before killing an entire race of monsters. Best way to get me invested in what Aquaman is thinking is to make me think those same things. No amount of “for the children” from the monsters is going to make me view them as anything but beasts. Right? They’re essentially depicted as piranhas with arms and legs, right?
Oh, there’s some art too, I guess. I’ve read enough comics to know what sort of spreads are supposed to wow me. A two-page splash filled with gigantic sea-monsters should be one of these wow-spreads. Tell you what, Drew, I did not feel it. Also, I have to say, coming off last week’s Flash/Wonder Woman double feature, Reis’ highly realistic characters and settings feel really boring to me.
Color me disappointed. We’ve reached the end of the first story arc for the grand reintroduction of the new, cool Aquaman. You gonna stick around to see what happens as the characters delve into the history of Atlantis? Sounds like a lot of nail biting exposition to me! Aquaman might not be as lame as he used to be, but his stories are just plain weak sauce.
Drew: Do you remember the experience of watching a movie you had taped from an airing on TV? The experience of fast-forwarding through commercials, somehow developing a sixth sense for what kind of ad signals the end of commercial breaks? I suppose this is still a common experience in the world of DVRs, but while a DVR recording runs the risk of lopping off the last minute or two of an episode of 30 Rock, VHS always had the danger of entire halves of movies being taped over. Maybe my family was just bad with the VCR, but I have distinct memories of just never seeing the ends of movies, having to settle for brusque synopses of the final act. That’s always disappointing, but that disappointment is sharpened when the movie you’re watching is terrible. If I put an hour or two into a bad movie, I want to get the reward of resolution, or at least to see the big set-piece the whole movie has been building towards.
That disappointment is exactly how I’d characterize my experience in reading Aquaman 4, which is a feat, considering I actually read it. I suppose this is just a way of saying that neither the emotional resolution nor the big set piece were rewarding. We already knew the monsters were serving some kind of queen, so the only reveal is what she looks like (surprise: it’s a bigger version of the monsters), and we already knew Aquaman was going to fight the monsters, so the only reveal there was how he did it (an impersonal cave-in: the most exciting of all fights). Reading the issue is no different from reading Patrick’s synopsis, except that the synopsis at least allows me to imagine that it may have been handled well. Let’s be clear about this: I think reading this issue actually frustrates my desire for resolution more than not reading it. If that’s not a sign that we should cut our losses, I don’t know what is.
That conclusion makes reviewing this issue feel about as hollow as… I don’t know, the emotional resonance of this story? I’m sorry, I’m not even interested enough in this title to hate it, it just isn’t worth our time. Johns plants enough seeds to get me to think of this Trench arc more as a first act to a larger story, but nothing is compelling me to stick around to see how it concludes. I suspect Arthur might return to the trench for clues about Atlantis/round two with the monsters, but I have no hopes that it will be handled well, and no interest in sticking around to see it.
I actually liked the way over-the-top cheesiness of the back-on-land conclusion, at least, I liked it more than you did. Johns is certainly laying it on a little thick, but the gee-wiz enthusiasm of that little boy reminds me of golden age Superman, as does Aquaman’s reunion with the cat he saved from the tree (er, dog he saved from the monster pod). It’s all very corny, but it’s self-aware, and is clearly trying to make connections with classic Superman stories. I at least found that goal charming, which is more than I can say about anything else in this title.
Sorry I don’t have more to say about this issue, but we really could just put up a big SKIP IT icon and call it a day. Suffice it to say, I won’t be sticking with this one.
Aquaman, Animal Man, Batgirl, Batman, the Flash, Green Lantern, Justice League, Nightwing, Wonder Woman, Batman and Robin, Swamp Thing