Waiting for the Trade – Aquaman

Waiting for the Trade
By Bill Miller
Aquaman Sword of Atlantis: Once and Future
by Kurt Busiek and Butch Guice
Collects Aquaman Sword of Atlantis 40-45.
Why I bought this: I don’t recall whether I was looking up Aquaman or Kurt Busiek when I came across this—either is equally probable as Aquaman is my favorite of DC’s top tier heroes but I own little of his stuff as I own little DC relatively speaking; while Busiek is in my view the finest Avengers writer ever and thus I’d like to read more of his stuff. Regardless when I discovered there was an Aquaman series written by Busiek my interest was piqued. That it has a name straight out pulp serials like “Sword of Atlantis” attached to it only intrigued me more. And once I saw the name of the first volume was an Arthurian reference I knew had to own it as there a few things in the world that fascinate me more than Arthurian literature. A quick trip to Amazon later and it was mine.
The Plot: So apparently after another of DC’s aptly named Infinite Crises they yet again restarted their continuity-timeline. God only knows which one or why, I stopped keeping track after Zero Hour. But from the standpoint of a trade like this it actually makes things easier since hey it’s a whole new beginning so it doesn’t matter if you don’t know what came before. Anyway spoilers ahead.
Chapter 1 – A storm destroys what looks to be an oil-drilling platform knocking someone who looks an awful lot like Aquaman into the ocean, where he can breathe and is contacted telepathically by a mysterious voice. The voice leads him to a battle between King Shark (a humanoid shark, I’ve actually seen this character before as he was a villain in Superboy’s book post Reign of the Supermen) and a group of green-skinned Creature from the Black Lagoon-looking people called the Aurati. The voice directs our hero to aid King Shark and he does so and together the follow the voice to a squid-headed dude who looks like the villain in Pirates of the Caribbean 2. Squid-head dresses the young hero in Aquaman’s garb and tells him that is who he is. nu-Aquaman, whose name is Arthur Joseph Curry (traditional Aquaman’s name is Arthur Orin Curry and that is brought up), gives his version of his origin: that he was born premature on a sea lab away from medical help so his dad injected with an experimental drug that enabled him to breath underwater but now he can’t breathe air for more than an hour and has lived his life in an aquarium tank on the sea lab (called Avalon Cay) until the storm knocked him into the ocean. Squid-beard (who comes to be known as the Dweller or Depths so lets call him that from now on) gives a prophecy that gives us the traditional Aquaman origin including his marriage to Mera and death of his son at the hands of his brother Ocean Master until ultimately making a deal with dark-powers to save his people that will leave him transformed. Arthur doesn’t believe that he’s Aquaman and swims off, while King Shark notes most of the Dweller’s prophecy already happened years ago. Dweller finds the differences between this Arthur and traditional Aquaman odd; and as he muses on how well he remembers what he prophesized we get a close up on his hand which is made of water—which is meant to signal that the Dweller himself is the original Aquaman.
 (Don’t ask me why he has a water hand other than I know Peter David had Aquaman lose a hand and replace it with a harpoon in the early 90s, so at some point he replaced the harpoon with magic water I assume).
Chapter 2 – We begin with Arthur on the losing end of a sword fight with a green-skinned warrior (not an Aurati) as narration tells us three days have passed since chapter 1. We then flashback to Arthur and King Shark searching the sea lab wreckage for survivors and finding none, although Arthur’s father is not among the bodies they find. King Shark decides to go his own way, while Dweller agrees to accompany Arthur to Maine where he hopes his uncle will have heard from the missing father. Enroute they meet one of Mera’s warriors who requests their assistance in dealing with the Aurati. Dweller agrees for Arthur but when he learns Mera is there he bails so she doesn’t see him. Mera is looking over Atlantean refugees as Atlantis was destroyed in the latest Crisis crossover, and could use assistance although she questions why Arthur is dressed as her ex-husband. This leads to him offending one of her warriors and a challenge of honor and thus we return to the swordfight that opened the chapter. Arthur loses a lot before pulling the Hulk Hogan comeback and is debating whether to strike the killing blow when King Shark returns.
Chapter 3 – King Shark takes Arthur to a dive bar where he flashes around some gold Mera gave him to pay for drinks. This leads to some disreputable types trying to rob him and we get a demonstration of Arthur’s level of super-strength in a rather one-sided fight. King Shark and Arthur have a heart to heart about their upbringings, and we learn King Shark is the son of the God of Sharks. Arthur feels a buzzing in his head, which leads him and Shark to Windward Home: another sea lab of scientists with an adventure team (The Sea Devils) who I gather were supporting characters in prior Aquaman stories. They explain they were trying to summon Aquaman via mystic-telepathy (hence Arthur’s buzzing) because the ghost of Vulko (royal advisor to the king of Atlantis) is now residing on their lab.
Chapter 4 – Arthur and Vulko compare notes on Aquaman with Arthur saying he only knew him from the 60s cartoon show (which I own on DVD and is quite fun btw) and was never impressed with Aquaman compared to the other Justice Leaguers as Arthur has all of Aquaman’s powers except talking to fish which he doesn’t care to do. Anyway Vulko is a ghost now because of something Spectre did in whatever Crisis reset this reality and after comparing notes with Arthur, Vulko wants to meet the Dweller to discuss his prophecy. Meanwhile the sea lab people get word that Arthur’s father is indeed dead, it just took awhile to identify the body because of sharks; however they also note a lot of high-level types seem to be interested in what happened to Avalon Cay. Arthur is mourning his dad with King Shark and Vulko attempting to comfort him when Arthur receives a massive telepathic summons from the Dweller that Mera and her refugees are under attack by the Aurati.
Chapter 5 – Arthur, King Shark and the Sea Devils race to the rescue. They meet up with the Dweller and capture an Aurati scout, learning from him the Aurati are being forced to participate in these raids by surface men in armored dive suits who have taken their women and children hostage. The villains also have a female humanoid shark-crocodile hybrid working for them, who King Shark finds attractive. They sneak into the villain’s fort and rescue Mera and her guards. Despite the squid-face she recognizes the Dweller as her ex-husband. Then as they begin to mount their attack they discover the head villain is Ocean Master. Dweller warns Arthur not engage but he ignores him and is quickly out-fought by Ocean Master and stabbed in the stomach.
Chapter 6 – Ocean Master guts Arthur. Mera uses her full-power (she can create “hard water”– in this case she makes an explosive force field type effect) to allow the heroes to escape. Dweller uses his full mystic powers to heal Arthur, and in the process fully reveals himself (he’s been wearing Merlin-Obi Wan type robes all story) and we see half his body is made of water. Meanwhile the heroes’ army is losing badly to the villains’ army so Arthur comes up with a plan to lead the villains into a trench where the Sea Devils can blow it up and collapse it on them. However Ocean Master takes out the Sea Devil with the detonator. All seems to be lost when the trench collapses anyway and we learn from witnesses a pod of whales aided the heroes. It is implied Arthur summoned them and not Aquaman/Dweller whose powers were drained from the healing. Mera vows to investigate mystic sources as to whether Dweller’s condition of being half-water is potentially fatal (since it used to be just his hand was water and it’s spreading) and/or reversible. Dweller meanwhile knights Arthur and dubs him the new Aquaman. Finally we get a pair of reveals as the trade ends. First we see a flashback of why King Shark came back to Arthur’s side when he left in chapter 2; and it is because the God of Sharks senses Arthur has a great destiny and wants King Shark to stay close until the right moment when he will be tasked to kill him. Then we see Arthur’s father is alive and being held prisoner by a shadowy evil corporation.
Critical Thoughts: I liked this a lot. I can see how someone who is a longtime Aquaman fan could hate this story since it’s a new character barely out of his teens parading as Aquaman, while the original is both horribly mutated and mentally confused about his memories/identity. But taken in a vacuum its an interesting story, and clearly did no long-term damage to the character since DC reset their continuity again in the new 52 and while I haven’t read it yet I’m fairly the sure the original Aquaman is back to his status quo in that reality. For my first Aquaman trade (though in the 90s I did read some of the Peter David run plus I of course know from the various animated series over the years) it’s good jumping on point to his world and the different supporting characters in it as we see them all through Arthur’s fresh eyes.
The art is for the most part quite good. It doesn’t have that “wow” pin-up flare of a Jim Lee or Rob Liefeld, but it conveys the mood and action of the story well and that’s the primary job of comic art. Many of the underwater scenes have an interesting look to them, which again helps with the mood of the story since the whole underwater world is new to Arthur. When splash pages are used such as Arthur donning the Aquaman costume or King Shark’s father appearing they have the desired dramatic effect.
I enjoyed the parallels to Camelot with Arthur as King Arthur, and Aquaman/Dweller as Merlin. They’re not overdone (well the Avalon Cay name is a little obvious): meaning it’s not just a retelling of Arthurian myth underwater, which admittedly would still be kind of cool but other than the change of scene what would be the point? Instead the parallels are there, so that if you know Arthurian myth it provides a secondary level to enjoy the story on and it gives Arthur’s journey of self-discovery a more mythic quality that it probably wouldn’t have on its own. Busiek is clearly a big fan of the Arthurian legend as his very first Avengers story had them face Morgan Le Fay and travel to a Camelot-style alternate reality, while his first Aquaman tale is this story (and I keep being tempted by a Superman trade entitled “Camelot Falls” at my local comic store by him too).
My one criticism is the scene where Arthur mocks the 60s cartoon show/Aquaman’s powers to Vulko. I get there is this whole Comedy Central inspired riff on Aquaman having lame powers currently out there in pop culture; but if you’re reading an Aquaman comic you probably don’t feel that way about the character so why incorporate that into the story? Because it comes off as DC telling the reader they’re wasting their time and money reading books about this character. I like Aquaman best of DC’s heroes precisely because his powers and setting are so different than any other character. There are scores of characters in comics who can fly and throw cars, or shoot laser beams, or stop bank robberies. There’s only one who talks to fish and maybe it’s because I live within walking distance of the ocean but I think Aquaman’s power would be damn interesting to have in real life: more-so than 99-percent of the other comic characters out there. And from a potential plot perspective how many heroes can breathe underwater? Marvel has Namor, Sting Ray and Triton (who are B, C and D-list respectively) and DC has Aquaman’s supporting cast (like Aqualad). Thus Aquaman is the only A-list character who has the ocean to play with–which means he has a whole unique setting for stories that a good writer can exploit and tell creative stories that literally can’t be told with any other character. And his ability to talk to fish means you can occasionally allow some truly unique narration (as Peter David proved in his run) that even Aquaman’s undersea contemporaries like Namor will never offer. Throw in that you can use his ties to Atlantis to explore larger mythic themes or his link to the ocean to tell environmentally conscious stories and I just don’t see the need to belittle the protagonist when he has such a variety of unique story potential.
Grade: A-. Busiek is one of the finest writers in comics and he shows it again here. While this isn’t an Aquaman story in the traditional sense, when you have a character with a 70-year history it’s okay to break up the status quo once in awhile. Sure, Arthur’s tale does not vary too far from the usual heroic coming of age story, but it is written in an engaging way with a colorful supporting cast—King Shark in particular comes across as a much more nuanced character than the one I remember in Superboy. I’d be happy to read more of this run to see King Shark’s eventual heel turn on Arthur but alas it seems DC never printed any follow-up trades to this.