Review: Aquaman: Death of a Prince trade paperback (DC Comics)

Thursday, October 20, 2011

[This guest review comes from dedicated Aquaman fan Wayne Brooks; Wayne's local comics shop is AfterTime Comics in Alexandria, Virginia.]

Aquaman: Death of a Prince has three things going for it. One, it’s a really great introduction to the Aquaman universe (it even has his origin in it). Two, it reprints for the first time the greatest, darkest, and important era of Aquaman’s history. Three, and most important, it totally entertains.

The death of Arthur Jr. was, and still is, one of the most profound moments in Aquaman’s life. At the time the original stories were published (circa 1974-1977) no DC hero had experienced this kind of heartache. In Death of a Prince you will see Aquaman the hero and Aquaman the king, but at the story’s heart we find Aquaman the father, who experiences a parent’s worst nightmare.

The irony is, to some, Aquaman’s adventures are not that interesting. They see him (thanks to Super Friends and comic writers with limited imagination) as a second-to-third tier character, if that much. Bottom line, Aquaman is not cool. But every so often the comic book stars align and an editor selects an excellent creative team and proceeds to show what many fans knew from day one: when crafted with care, Aquaman can definitely have some excellent adventures and carry a book. Starting in 1974 Adventure Comics editor Joe Orlando did exactly that! If you are expecting the fish yappin’ boy scout from Super Friends or the “outrageous” hero from Cartoon Network’s Brave and the Bold you are going to be disappointed. What you get is a story that presents all the sides of Aquaman; you also get one hell of a great trade.

Death of a Prince collects Adventure Comics #435-437, 441-455, Aquaman #57-63. The entire creative talent involved is top tier. Paul (Justice Society and Legion Of Super-Heroes) Levitz, David (Iron Man) Michelinie, Steve (Aquaman) Skeates, Martin (Superman) Pasko, Gerry Conway (creator of Firestorm and long-time Justice League of America writer), and Paul Kupperberg handle the writing, plotting, and scripting. And there’s the art -- pure gold! We start with Mike (Legion Of Super-Heroes and Warlord) Grell, and then proceed with Jim (The Brave and the Bold) Aparo, and close with Don (Batman and Marvel Family stories) Newton. Now that’s quality.

One of the interesting aspects of Death of a Prince is several of the stories show the many different roles Aquaman has to play. In “Day in the Life” we see Aquaman, the man, just trying to take a day off. In the story “H in for Holocaust,” we see the King of Atlantis protecting his people. A number of stories feature Aquaman as a traditional super-hero. This all comes to a head in “And Death Before Dishonor,” where Aquaman is torn between his kingship and his role as a superhero; in the “Sea King in Exile” storyline, the Atlanteans de-throne Aquaman, accusing him of being an absentee ruler

I also appreciated that we see the entire Aqua-family throughout this book, including Mera, Garth (Aqualad, and later Tempest) and Tula (Aquagirl, often unknown to post-Crisis on Infinite Earths readers), Dr. Vulko, and Aquababy (even before he was known as Arthur Jr.). In “H is for Holocaust," we're also (re)introduced to one of Aquaman’s best unsung supporting characters, NATO General “Hair Trigger” Horgan. I'd love to see Geoff Johns bring this character back; his "ends justify the means" approach (even if that means harming the seas) is a perfect foil for Aquaman, and could even involve Aquaman in stories involving the Navy and Coast Guard.

Beginning with “Dark Destiny, Deadly Dreams” we experience Aquaman’s greatest failure, the death of Arthur Jr. at the hands of Black Manta. I remember my reaction when I read this as a kid . . . it shocked the hell out of me! In 1977, killing off supporting cast was still somewhat rare for DC (I know Alfred and Steve Trevor each died, but both came back). But to kill a child? Believe me, nobody saw that coming! I don't blame Aquaman for his rage when he goes after Black Manta, but justice and mercy prevails and Aquaman turns Manta over to the Navy. We’re left with this exchange between Aquaman and the Navy Captain:

Navy Captain: “…So I guess your job is over!”

Aquaman: “No, Captain, not quite yet. You see, I took off after The Black Manta so fast that I left a bit of unfinished business behind . . . one that could well prove to be the hardest task I’ve ever faced!”

“Oh Yeah? And what’s that?”

“Telling a mother that her only child . . . is dead.”

Now that’s chilling.

While the stories in this book were first rate and contain some gorgeous art by Grell and Newton, the reason this trade is gold is because of the fabulous art work of penciler/inker/letterer extraordinaire, Jim Aparo. From Aquaman clocking The Fisherman with a haymaker (I would love a poster of the cover of Adventure Comics #447) to ordering a school of attacking Men-O-War, to depicting a whale slamming into a submarine, in Mr. Aparo’s hands the Aqua-world never looked better. When Aparo drew a hero throwing a punch, mister, you felt it. In one panel Aquaman even clocks two goons with a hammerhead shark!

Aparo also never let you forget we’re underwater. From Aquaman’s flowing hair to his swimming at super-speed (sorry Flash, Arthur could give you a “run” for your money), Aparo drew the briny deep for all it’s worth. His art gave Arthur the presence, strength, and dignity some artist miss. From the passionate embrace of husband and wife to the sight of Aquaman hold the lifeless body of his son with pure rage on his face, Aparo shows us why he is one of comicdom’s greats. Fortunately books like this help to remind us how truly lucky we are to enjoy his work.

With Aquaman: Death of a Prince, we have a hero and a king who endures triumph and tragedy, and a trade well worth owning. This book shows the unsung versatility of Aquaman, and why he's one of comicdom’s greatest heroes. I strongly recommend it.

Thanks Wayne! And a shout out too to one of my favorite blogs, The Aquaman Shrine -- have you seen the swag they brought back from NYCC? More reviews coming up!
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6 comments:

  1. Now, if DC would just collect the earlier Aparo Aquaman work that starts right after the last of the three Showcase Presents volumes, jumping right into my all-time favorite Aquaman saga, the year-long "Search for Mera" ... It seems to me (not having done the research, however) that that material could in one volume fill the gap betwee the end of the Showcase Presents volumes and the beginning of this one. Cheers, Kent

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  2. I agree. There is a gap that needs to be collected whether it's a 4th Showcase edition or preferably another book in color like the Death of a Prince. Great review!

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  3. I just placed my order for this. I've been looking for an Aquaman collection for a while. And I've been eyeing this collection since it's release.

    My only concern is it's from the 70s. I have read comics from that time and other eras but I'm not usually big on them, particularly the art. It's not bad, just not my style.

    I'm happy this collection is in color, that's what puts me off of the showcase series. I don't mind reading them if I can get them at my library but I don't think I would buy one.

    Good review by the way.

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  4. I think Jim Aparo's art is fantastic. While Norm Breyfogle was my favourite Batman artist, I still recognized Aparo as drawing the definitive Batman. Also, Neal Adam's art from the 1970's (Batman, Green Lantern-Green Arrow) was great as well.

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  5. How does Death of a Prince intersect with the Showcase Presents Aquaman books? Sounds to me like DC could sell a follow-up volume to this book, kind of like the Great Darkness Saga hardcover and its companion.

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  6. Realitätsprüfung10/25/2011 09:10:00 PM

    Ironically, Showcase vol. 3 ends with Aquaman 38. Issues 1-39 represent the entire run of Bob Haney & Nick Cardy. With issue 40, a new creative team took over - Steve Skeates and Jim Aparo. Their run began there, beginning with the Search for Mera, culminating in the Death of A Prince trade.

    Which means that by reprinting the second half of their run, DC has effectively published volume 2 without publishing volume 1.

    Taken as a whole, the Skeates/Aparo is often heralded as the marine king's finest hour. And while I'm grateful DC has seen fit to collect pieces of it, in color no less, it *really* should have been collected in order.

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