Review: Aquamen trade paperback (DC Comics)

Although the Aquamen miniseries has neither the punch of writers Brandon Thomas and Chuck Brown’s respective Aquaman: The Becoming or Black Manta preludes, I’d still have happily kept reading an Aquaman series in this vein.

Traditionally Aqua-series have struggled to make interesting plots around sometimes-dull Atlantean mythology; Brown and Thomas have both shown they can keep things hopping, and moreover, the emphasis of their Aquamen is positively superheroic, even steeped squarely in the DCU. There’s also an emphasis, as with the current Flash title, on reestablishing an “everything old is new again” Aqua-family. My favorite Aqua-genre is still political drama, but I can see how an Aquaman (Arthur Curry and Jackson Hyde)-as-superhero title would appeal to many, and I can get behind that.

I’ve only the mildest inklings that maybe Thomas and Brown’s series ended before they’d planned, but Aquamen sure feels that way, with the fifth issue ending on a cliffhanger and the sixth issue not quite connected to it. Given the book’s focus on family, it’s unfortunate that the needs of other crossovers must begin to pull that family apart in the end, especially when that’s said and done for the writers on Aquaman (for the most part). DC won’t go too long without another Aquaman series on the stands, but honestly I can’t see who they could be waiting for better than Brown and Thomas, and indeed with Sami Basri on the art.

[Review contains spoilers]

Aquamen impresses from the start with a few cinematic, or even post-cinematic, page sequences. Movies can certainly show scenes in parallel, even connected with continuous music or voiceover, but a number of times the writers here do that uniquely comics thing where they layer multiple panels on the page, all forwarding different scenes in different locations. If the reader still can’t process it all “all at once,” it is more juxtaposition than other mediums can offer (and which even most comics creators don’t often attempt). Thomas and Brown make it look easy, depicting the three Aquamen (Arthur, Jackson, and Black Manta) on the way to their stories coinciding.

[See the latest DC trade solicitations.]

It is that the story is well-told visually (credit too to Basri) that helps smooth over some of the rougher patches. Particularly, the book picks up from Aquaman: The Becoming with Jackson angry over his own perceived failures and angrier once he finds Arthur’s been working with Jackson’s estranged father Black Manta. The writers let us know Jackson’s upset often and at length, to the point it becomes repetitive, and far beyond what makes sense for Jackson when obviously Arthur and Manta are on the trail of a real threat.

There’s also a plot thread, never fully resolved, that questions whether Arthur’s being mind-controlled, that he’s lying to Mera, and what he does or doesn’t remember after having been “murdered” by Mera in the last Aquaman series. A lot of this, including who indeed is the actual villainous mastermind in this piece, wasn’t satisfactorily explained, and tying it to a ill-conceived storyline in which a pregnant Mera killed Arthur in a fit of hormonal rage just seems asking for trouble.

But on the other hand, Aquamen features a robust Aqua-family within and without, which I was happy to see. There’s Arthur and Mera and Jackson, and then after some time in which former Aqualad Garth was bounced from title to title, he’s here as well (though more sarcastic than I recall from the New Teen Titans days). Tula’s been around for a while, too — the past-continuity Aquagirl, famously killed in Crisis on Infinite Earths — but she’s portrayed as full-fledged member of the Aqua-circle here, and indeed we see the beginnings of a Garth/Tula relationship, near 40 years after the last one ended. Though we neither see former Aquaman stalwarts Murk or Dolphin, other Aquagirl Lorena Marquez gets a mention, and I’d have loved to see where the writers were going with that.

As well, Frankenstein is here, and Steve Trevor, and Raven, plus an extended team-up for Jackson and Batwoman Kate Kane both in and out of costume, a new World’s Finest I’d happily read more of. Where, post-Crisis, Aquaman’s interactions with the larger DCU felt somewhat limited and an Aqua-story set on land was uncommon — you’d rarely see Batman and Aquaman in each other’s titles, that’s for sure — Brown and Thomas make Jackson’s connections between worlds seem rather effortless. Again, given more, I’d have been along for the ride.

I can hardly explain Aquamen’s ending to you, which sees one among the book’s bad guys going to blow up the Atlantean security council, and then in the final issue, that’s just ignored. Instead there’s some political wheeling and dealing among questions of whether the world governments will attack Atlantis and vice versa, but then that too gives way for news of Aquaman and the Justice League’s deaths at the head of Dark Crisis. This all came to nought, as we know — the audience never believed the Justice League was dead, the League wasn’t even “dead” that long in Dark Crisis, and most of the heroes' respective titles never even acknowledged their absence — making the time spent on it in Aquamen unfortunate.

Again, Thomas and Brown built up the Aqua-family, only to have Aquaman “die” in the last issue, and not even to have the rest of the cast come together to mourn him in the end except on that issue’s cover. The short term sales gain of Aquamen “tying in” to Dark Crisis is this series own long-term loss.

Ostensibly Brandon Thomas writes an epilogue to he and Chuck Brown’s Aquamen in his backup story collected in Dark Crisis: Worlds Without a Justice League. There is acknowledgment of the themes, at least, as Arthur (in a dreamscape) basks in his gathered family; “Look at this, Mera,” he says, “Look at all we’ve built.” It’s sweet, and might even have been worth including in Aquamen (short of Arthur vowing to murder Dark Crisis' Pariah in the end), but still doesn’t explain, y’know, the Atlantean sleeper agent who blew up their security council and no one batted an eye. That’s a shame, and again I’m curious who’ll take the reins when DC inevitably visits Aquaman again.

[Includes original and variant covers]

Rating 2.5


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