Comics You Should Own flashback – Atlantis Chronicles
This time around, in order to break up the Peter David run on The Incredible Hulk, I give you a flashback to … a Peter David comic! Fancy that! This was the first one of these I wrote for the old Comics Should Be Good, so it got a bit more exposure than the ones I wrote on my blog. Now, of course, thanks to Our Dread Lord and Master’s dominion of all things comics-related, we have an even bigger readership, so it’s a good time to reprint this! It’s pretty much unedited from when I posted it in 2005, so blame that guy if you think this post stinks!
Atlantis Chronicles by Peter David (writer), Esteban Maroto (arist), Gaspar Saladino (letterer), and Eric Kachelhofer (colorist).
DC, 7 issues (#1-7), cover dated March-September 1990.
Peter David is an extremely good comics writer. Some people may not like his stuff, but that doesn’t change the fact that he knows how to tell a story, he knows when to ramp up the action, he can be very funny, he knows how to tell single-issue stories and use cliffhangers, and he has an excellent grasp of comic book history. All of these attributes are shown in this seven-issue series that acts as a prelude to David’s 1990s run of Aquaman, the only time I’ve ever been remotely interested in the character (sorry, Bill Reed). Aquaman shows up in this comic, on the last few pages and only as a small child, but his history is laid out here, and if you know anything about DC’s aquatic history, this series is a treat for you.
What David does is present Atlantean history as seen through the eyes of the official chroniclers. The Chronicles are started by King Orin, who is ruling Atlantis centuries after Arion left and devastated the countryside – his Atlantis remains sunk, but the Atlanteans have risen again, and Orin feels that a history needs to be written of Poseidonis, Atlantis’s greatest city. Each issue is a section of the Chronicles written by a different historian, a device that allows David to show us that history does indeed change depending on who’s doing the writing of it. The first 4+ issues are the saga of Orin and his brother Shalako and Shalako’s son Dardanus and grandson Kordax and the civil war that almost tears Atlantis apart. The last few issues deal with the Atlanteans’ attempts to conquer the world, which they thought had been destroyed when Atlantis sunk. Finally, we are brought up to the present day (sort of – like I said, Aquaman’s a baby when the series ends) and see how Aquaman was conceived and why he’s so important.
This is epic storytelling, helped by Maroto’s beautiful art. I’m largely unfamiliar with him [Edit: I'm less so these days, but this is still the only comics I own with his art], and I think this may have been one of his few ventures into mainstream American comics (correct me if I’m wrong). It’s wonderful to behold – the undersea art is weird and creepy, and the coloring really puts us into this world – it’s full of blues and greens and bright underwater wildlife. Maroto and Kachelhofer help propel the story along, but since I’m not an art critic, I want to look at what David is doing with the story.
There’s a lot going on here above and beyond simply creating an epic for the Atlantean people. I don’t know if David knew at this point that he’d be writing an Aquaman ongoing, but I have to assume he did [Edit: Apparently he thought he was going to, and then DC launched the McLaughlin/Hooper series, so David had to wait a few years]. I also don’t know how much stomping on DC history he did in this series, but if he did, good for him! It all fits in well with his later ongoing Aquaman series, and it also fits in with the little I know about this section of DC history – like good old Lori Lemaris and why she doesn’t look like Aquaman. Some DC history buff can enlighten me – I’m just looking at this one series.
David uses the Chronicles to bring up a lot of issues that are not only relevant in history, but also today. In fact, Haumond’s argument with his father Honsu in issue #6 is weirdly prescient – Honsu thinks the Atlanteans should attack the newly-discovered surface world because they might attack Atlantis some day, and Haumond says, “Are you saying we should go to war with them on the chance that, in some far-flung future, they might attack us?” Honsu (George Bush?) says, “This will not be a war, boy! This will be a slaughter.” Hmmm …
There’s more than that, however. Orin is shown as the devotee of science, while his brother Shalako is the high priest of Suula, the sky goddess. Shalako thinks Orin’s plans to dome the city are an affront to the gods, while Orin thinks it’s just common sense to protect the city from the barbarian invasions. When the dome is completed, it either saves the city from the meteor that crashes into the ocean near Poseidonis, sinking it, or it was the cause of the meteor, depending on whose version of the events you believe. Shalako, who in the first issue is presented as a decent man trying to sway his weak brother (because the chronicler is his follower) is shown as completely insane by the second issue, when the chronicler is squarely in Orin’s camp. David probably should have done more with this dichotomy based on the chroniclers, but the point is made – history is just as distorted as anything, and, as Orin puts it, it’s up to future generations to decide.
The story shows the classic tragedy of family – brother against brother, and after Shalako is killed, nephew against uncle and cousin against cousin. It’s very Shakespearean, and David is careful to show every consequence of every action. No one escapes unscathed, either – yes, Kordax is a horribly cruel monster and his father, Dardanus, raped Orin’s daughter Cora to create him, but Cora did abandon Kordax when he was born, and lied about it to the people of the city. Orin admits that he made mistakes with Shalako. These are complex characters, and not everything they do leads to good outcomes, even if they have good intentions.
The family tragedy theme is played out throughout the book. Centuries later, when Honsu goes to conquer the surface world, his one son Kraken is enthusiastically on his side while his other son Haumond thinks he’s insane. His third son, Atlan, thinks it’s all very amusing – he’s an adventurer, not a warrior, and is the only one, for instance, who knows about the bends. Haumond and Kraken eventually battle to the death, because they must. Not only is it Shakespearean, it’s all very Greek tragedy too. The themes are familiar, yes, but David is tapping into a rich tradition, and he ties it so neatly into world history as well as DC history that we don’t mind. If you’re going to go for an epic, you have to use epic themes, damnit!
Finally, we come to Atlanna and Trevis the Weak, the last king of Atlantis before Aquaman. This is when David ties everything together and sets up his ongoing title. Atlan, who has become a powerful sorcerer and has also lived a remarkably long time, comes to Atlanna in the night and has crazy sex with her because her husband’s too much of a wuss to get her pregnant. Atlan explains that he will get another woman pregnant, and the two sons will battle for the future of Atlantis, because that’s the way it’s always been. He’s as trapped by the past as anyone else, despite his power. Atlanna gives birth to a blond baby, and since Kordax was blond, all blond babies are considered evil and left to die, hence Aquaman’s origin. Because he’s descended from Kordax, Orin (Aquaman’s real name) has mental dominion over sea creatures. He also has a dark side. Oooh, scary!
This is pretty complex myth-making for a comic book mini-series. David wants this to be the founding myth of Atlantis, like the Aeneid is for Rome, and he succeeds admirably. While the story is good, it’s what David does to tie this book into regular DC history and also how he uses it to mirror historical writing throughout the centuries that make this book special. David returned to these themes often during his run on Aquaman (some of which you should own; I’ll get to them soon), and they make his saga of Aquaman much more interesting than any other presentation I’ve read (granted, I’m not a huge fan, so I haven’t read that much, but still). These issues aren’t collected in trade paperback (given DC’s policy about trade paperbacks, that’s not surprising), but they’re pretty cheap in the back-issue bins. Seek them out!
As always, you can check out the archives if you’re so inclined. Don’t be ashamed!