Review: Aquaman: Sword of Atlantis - Once and Future trade paperback (DC Comics)

Saturday, July 28, 2007

I love this Aquaman comic book! Yes, these are words I never thought I'd find myself saying either, and yet having just finished Kurt Busiek's Aquaman: Sword of Atlantis - Once and Future, they're truer than true. Forget what you may have heard about this being a hardcore swords and sorcery book--yes, there's magic here, but there's also superhero action, humor, engaging characters, and some hints of what might make a true Aquaman series great. Sword of Atlantis is a strange recreation of the Aquaman mythos that, as conceived, seems almost doomed to fail, but the actual story itself is a fantasic graphic novel.

Sword of Atlantis follows Arthur Joseph Curry, born with the ability to breathe underwater and raised in isolation until Infinite Crisis dumps him in the ocean. Recruited by the mysterious Dweller of the Deep to fulfill an ancient prophecy, Curry first saves King Shark, and travels with him to visit the refugees of Atlantis, including Queen Mera. Curry and Shark have a series of adventures, meeting the Sea Devils, before they're called on to save Mera's people from slavers lead by the Ocean Master.

One of the best things about Sword of Atlantis is just how likable Arthur Curry is. Curry's an innocent, and as such not only is the ocean as alien to him as it is to the reader, but he completely unfamiliar with the world above the ocean; a scene where Curry first enjoys a cheeseburger is priceless. Curry ends up unwittingly donning the former Aquaman's armor, and spends much of the rest of the trade (with increasing, hilarious frustration) either convincing those he meets that he isn't Aquaman, or having to prove himself to those who consider him unworthy of the former monarch's fins. Curry is a stranger in a strange land, moving from adventure to adventure with Charlie Brown-esque perseverance and reluctant heroism. Rarely has a Aquaman felt this accessible.

Sword of Atlantis has a road trip feel to it, not unlike a "Wagon Train to the Ocean." Curry and King Shark make their way through the ocean on their way to Curry's relatives in Maine, in search of Curry's father, often falling into adventures as they travel. Supporting characters come and go, leaving mystery and dangling plotlines in their wakes; though King Shark may not appear exactly as he's been portrayed before, he makes a fascinating, morally ambiguous companion, and the identity of the Dweller remains a compelling puzzle throughout. Busiek makes good use of many old Aquaman standards, including Mera and Vulko, but always in ways that make their value clear to new readers.

Despite how enjoyable Sword is, however, Busiek continually reminds us that Curry is not "the" Aquaman. The Atlanteans and others consider Curry a "young upstart," much like Kyle Rayner replacing Hal Jordan--there's a sense in Sword that Aquaman has just become a legacy character. It's strongly hinted early on that the Dweller may indeed be "our" Aquaman (though my guess is that he's Tempest, or that he's the embodiment of Aquaman's watery hand), such that Curry can't escape seeming a (very compelling) replacement. I thought of Kevin Smith's Green Arrow while reading Sword, waiting for the hero to return from the dead to replace his replacement; I sooner believe that Curry is meant to be a stand-in until the real Aquaman returns than I do that Bart Allen was meant as a stand-in for the Flash. Curry feels temporary, and Sword more like a plotline in the Aquaman series than a series on its own. Unfortunately, some of the attractiveness of Sword's story also makes it necessarily finite.

Sword of Atlantis is a compelling Aquaman story, strangely even more compelling in Aquaman's absence. From Mera to the Ocean Master to the denizens of an underwater bar, everyone speaks in awe of the original Aquaman, such that the reader can't help but feel the same; the Dweller presents Aquaman's history in such mythic terms that I wonder that it never seemed so mythic before. Even Curry thinks back to what he knew of Aquaman from the old Aquaman cartoon, giving a wide perspective on all of Aquaman's incarnations. Much like JLA: The Obsidian Age, Aquaman seems best used when used sparingly; it's hard to say what this will mean when the hero finally returns.

[Contains full covers; One Year Later symbolized on back and mentioned on copyright page.]

One Year Later continues to impress, and Aquaman: Sword of Atlantis succeeds on multiple levels. I've just seen listings for the second volume, and I'll be awaiting it quite eagerly. More reviews on the way!
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