Review: Aquaman and the Others Vol. 2: Alignment Earth trade paperback (DC Comics)

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Again, the near-blank slate of the characters in Aquaman and the Others Vol. 2: Alignment Earth lends itself to a dynamic plot; Dan Jurgens bends and weaves these characters lives together in fascinating fashion, something DC's cadre of established heroes wouldn't allow. At the same time, whenever Aquaman and the Others wins, it loses. Jurgens fashions a complex and largely non-traditional plot, but its impact is lessened by plain art and flat colors. The characters are strong and their interactions interesting, but the dialogue is sometimes tone-deaf and the villains uninspiring. We'll never see the Others again, which is a shame, because in other hands I think they had lots of potential.

[Review contains spoilers]

In the twisty paths of Alignment Earth, it comes out that the Others' Operative once killed one of teammate Prisoner's fellow soldiers, who became one of the Prisoner's ghosts; that solider was actually working for KGBeast, who's returned to threaten the Others, and who once trained with the newly-resurrected Other Vostok-X. This is a lot of coincidence, but it works in the story because it unfolds so unexpectedly: at first it seems Operative is a murderer, until we learn the truth about Prisoner's ghost; Prisoner's body is taken over by the ghost, so there's an aspect of uncertain identity; and much of it is teased out by new Other Sayeh's visions of the future. It's complicated stuff, more I'll admit than I necessarily gave Jurgens credit for.

Additionally, though the book does end in a battle royale between the Others and the villain team "Mayhem" (Jurgens's villain-naming, like "Legend" last time, remains weak), the real climax of the story is in the fifth chapter face-off between Operative and the possessed Prisoner. That's brave structuring, again more than I would have expected from Jurgens, to really make this book about two or three teammates and not something larger. Though the planet is at stake, this is a relatively smaller, character-based story of the kind that would have fit well between bigger stories among a longer series of Aquaman and the Others volumes. If Jurgens planned more like this, it's a shame he didn't get to tell them.

This complication even extends to Jurgens's two-part Futures End tie-in story (both the Aquaman and Others issues). These find Aquaman in the future trying to build an above-water home for the Atlanteans in order to create camaraderie with the surface world so they'll be more likely to share resources, which some Atlanteans see as kowtowing or even surrendering to the surface. Action-packed and surprising, the story is also exceptionally political and bespeaks well of Jurgens. The art here is by Alvaro Martinez and Sean Chen, and Chris Sotomayor starts the colors and Matt Milla finishes; it's all stronger and more vibrant than Lan Medina and Milla on the regular series, and it's possible Jurgens's story gets a lift here simply from the better art. (I mentioned in my review of Aquaman and the Others Vol. 1: Legacy of Gold that I didn't think Medina had a great showing in this series, though what I've seen of his work on the new Deadman mini is impressive.)

But Jurgens slips in a variety of areas. First, he's over-the-top in portraying Mera's jealousy over Aquaman's old flame Ya'Wara; Geoff Johns went there one time and then let it go, but there's two or three instances of Mera's sniping at Ya'Wara in the first chapter alone. That extends to the Futures End issues, where Aquaman is in a relationship with Ya'Wara and Jurgens suggests that Mera is trying to kill Aquaman and destroy Atlantis Island simply again out of jealousy. In present times Aquaman and Mera are in a committed relationship and of course Aquaman isn't going to cheat on Mera; Jurgens writes Mera as jealous because it's easy, and this suggestion that one woman might be this irrationally insecure about another woman is almost offensive (and further that Mera would go to war in the future over that jealousy). It's this kind of thing frankly that makes me worried about Jurgens writing a married Superman in Action Comics.

Not to mention that as much as Futures End factors into Aquaman and the Others -- which is not a lot, but a little -- Jurgens's Futures End tie-in issues have absolutely nothing to do with the OMAC robots that are shown in Sayeh's current visions. Given that Jurgens is one of Futures End's chief architects, and that Aquaman and the Others is perhaps the only ongoing series that utilized Futures End at all, I expected more detail or relevance from the Futures End than was present, even if I enjoyed the story overall.

Jurgens also continues to struggle with the dialogue particularly for Aaron, the Others' youngest teammate. Figure Aaron in his early twenties, if not sixteen or so, so born about 2000 or the mid-1990s. Jurgens has him cracking wise on names for the Vostok clone, including "Vostok 2: Electric Boogaloo," and later he accuses another character of "flippin' out, dude." This attempt at forced hipness is obvious and grates on the ear, and I wonder if Jurgens's Jimmy Olsen or Jon Kent in Action Comics will have the same difficulties.

As well, Jurgens has a couple scenes where the modest dress of Sayeh's Muslim family is referred to by Ya'Wara derisively or as "repressed" without any rebuttal. Maybe Jurgens means to revisit this later as part of growing Ya'Wara and Sayeh's friendship (and Ya'Wara, Jurgens should know, was in love with Sayeh's similarly-modest sister), but presented here with no follow-up it comes off unnecessarily and distractingly derogatory.

The rough spots are more's the pity because of the definite potential, and again strong characters, that Jurgens demonstrates for this title in Aquaman and the Others Vol. 2: Alignment Earth. The second volume certainly improves over the first, which itself had some good moments, so perhaps the third might have been even better. As I said, I have absolutely no expectation we'll see the Others again in Rebirth, but at the same time an Aquaman and the Others title was itself equally unlikely, so I guess anything's possible.

[Includes original covers, sketchbook and layouts section]
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