Uncollected Editions #1 - The Atlantis Chronicles

Thursday, November 18, 2010

[The first in a new series of posts called "Uncollected Editions" by Paul "Hix" Hicks]

Welcome to "Uncollected Editions," the first of what I hope will be an infinite series (at least six or so) where I highlight the gold that has never made the leap from staples to spine. I might even highlight some of the more tarnished stuff too, as even ordinary stories can be significant.

Exactly twenty years ago there was a mini-series (or was it a semi-maxi-series?) called The Atlantis Chronicles. There were seven issues, all running around forty-four pages, very few ads on quality paper-stock. It was written by Peter David and featured the sublime work of a single artist, Spain’s Esteban Maroto.

This comic stood apart from almost all of DC’s output at the time and since, in that it was a multi-generational fantasy epic. The only comics I can think of that are remotely similar are Age of Bronze and Camelot 3000. The premise for the book is it is an adaptation of the archeologically recovered manuscripts written by the various royally appointed chroniclers of Atlantis. This book follows seven generations of Atlanteans and covers thousands of years.

The story begins with Atlanteans living on the surface, packing lasers while the rest of the planet has spears. Their superior technology is a major impetus for the series of tragedies to come, as the king, Orin want to share the benefits of their knowledge and resources. His blond-haired brother Shalako, an isolationist, has major issues with rational, technological ways and believes in the power of the gods. The book shows us, without a doubt, that the power of the gods is very real and this sets up one of the themes of the book -– faith versus science.

Orin is a very modern character with a single wife in contrast to Shalako and his harem. Both brothers are arrogant and their conflict starts from Orin’s contempt for religion and Shalako’s conviction that science offends his gods. A skull-shaped speck in the heavens is the first hint of impending doom for the peoples of Atlantis. The reader is left wondering if the rapidly growing meteor is coming because Orin has offended the gods, or because Shalako is demanding their punishment of the secular king. Shalako’s fanaticism leads to him taking the next big step and reaching out to the dark gods for assistance.

Trouble with the locals leads to Orin commissioning a protective dome over the main city of Atlantis -– Poseidonis. Shalako’s subsequent interference in a peace negotiation with the neighbouring tribes leads to the death of Orin’s most trusted advisor and to Orin's harsh retaliation against the natives. Here’s the big theme emerging -– brother against brother. While possibly highly offensive to the sky gods, this dome is to keep out the hostile tribes, but it also serves as Poeidonis’ salvation when the meteor hits the ocean and sinks the known world. I don’t want to keep telling you the plot, but I am especially impressed with the bleak picture Peter David paints of what it must be like to go from living in the sunshine, to suddenly being trapped in a dome at the bottom of the ocean surrounded by decimation.

There is a rotation of narrators as the Chroniclers live and die, and this provides contrasting voices to the narrative. The first Chronicler is a staunch supporter of the fanatical Shalako, the second is a wannabe poet, third is a young woman obsessed with the gossip of the court, and so on. Some are unreliable, some are biased and some are salacious.

In a wonderfully organic way, Peter David shows the development of Atlantis and the adaptation (some technological and some magical) required of the survivors
Along the way many of the frequently asked questions about Atlantis in the DC Universe get some natural answers:

* How did they come to breath underwater?
* What about the mermaid-type Atlanteans?
* How does this all fit in with DC’s earlier Arion stories of Atlantis?
* What about the Idyllists (Aqualad’s people)?
* Where does telepathic communication with sea-life come from?
* Why is it bad to have blond hair?

The book isn’t a dry (heh) and clinical work, however; it’s packed full of human foibles and epic drama; there’s nudity, rape, violence, murder, betrayal, redemption all on show, but never gratuitous. It’s like AMC meets Shakespeare.

Maroto just rocks on the art, as his characters are all easily recognisable, even as they grow from children to old men and women. His strength in making the character’s faces "act" sells every bit of drama that David is going for. His architecture, fashion, interiors and sea-life are all wonderfully done, making the book a fantasy that you can believe in.

The book takes era-sized leaps to show the Atlantean response to the surface world and their impact on ancient Greece and Egypt. Had this story been written today, I’m sure we would have seen cheesy cameos by Black Adam and Dr Fate, but this book shows that the expanse of history is far greater than just some touchstone moments with familiar characters. Eminently suited to being read in a single volume, Atlantis Chronicles had varying chapter lengths within the issues and stories ended at the right moment, rather than fitting the page count available.

The book ends with Peter David giving you everything you need to know about Arthur Curry’s parentage and the details of his abandonment on Mercy reef. This was setting up his Aquaman ongoing series, which commenced with the Aquaman: Time and Tide Year One-esque mini series. The brother vs. brother theme is one that works very effectively in Aquaman lore but don’t be put off by that continuation, as The Atlantis Chronicles can be enjoyed completely independently of what comes after. It is also clearly superior to David’s Aquaman work, and every other comic I’ve ever read by him (even Young Justice? -- ed.).

I don’t know Peter David personally; I know he’s prone to strong opinions but I don’t know if he’s prone to bitterness. If I was him I would be incredibly bitter that DC never collected this book. At the time it was probably seen as a huge risk to put out a 300-page book when the sales weren’t guaranteed. Now, any buzz about this title is long dead. Original series editor Bob Greenberger was long associated with DC’s collected editions area and I can’t imagine he didn’t try to get it collected. I’m certain DC has missed out on a lot of sales from this decision.

These issues are some of the first I grab when an outsider expresses an interest in comics, right up there with Batman: Year One and Watchmen. This book could have made David and Maroto names akin to Morrison and Quitely, Millar and Jansen, Moore and Gibbons even. DC should have been releasing the Twentieth Anniversary Absolute edition this year -- this book was meant to have a significant legacy and that was very sadly stillborn.

I highly recommend that you find these issues if you can. Read ‘em, share ‘em, pass ‘em to your children.
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  1. Great new feature and completely agree.

    An excellent series that deserves a collected edition.

  2. CE, comparing Atlantis Chronicles to Young Justice, is like comparing The Dark Knight movie to Men In Black. Both are very enjoyable, but one is far more ambitious, intense and dramatic.

    There are a couple of sets of this series on eBay right now if anyone is interested.

  3. Admittedly I've only read the latter and not the former, so I might've been being a little flip there. My hope, however, is that if DC starts a new Aquaman series after Brightest Day, as I think is likely, it hearkens back to Atlantis Chronicles and some of this classic good Aquaman work, much like the "new" Legion has cut through some of the fluff of the later years to go back to when Legion was at its strongest. Here's hoping.

  4. Last week, I finally decided to scoop up all of my local comic shop's old issues of The Atlantis Chronicles left in stock. I am now of the opinion that one of the single-greatest tragedies ever perpetrated on the comic-reading public is the fact this series has never been re-printed.

    I have been posting the same thoughts over at the DC message boards, hoping someone---ANYONE---out there may take notice. I can't tell you how nice it is to see I'm not alone in this.