O Say Can You See: The Greatest Patriotic Super Heroes of All-Time
Is this my most controversial selection ever for these posts? It just might be …
(I’ll point out that I posted this originally in May 2005, as I’ve been pointing out all along with these “flashbacks.” Blame 2005 Burgas if you don’t like these comics! Also, some of this has been edited, as I mentioned the “current” Aquaman series, which of course no longer exists. But the essence of the original post is still here!)
Aquaman by Peter David (writer), Martin Egelund (penciller, issues #0-4, 6-8, 11-14, 16, 18-20, 22-23, 25), Jim Calafiore (penciller, issues #5, 10, 15, 17, 21, 24), Gene Gonzalez (penciller, issue #3), Casey Jones (penciller, issue #8), Joe St. Pierre (penciller, issue #9), Alan Caldwell (penciller, issue #20), Derec Aucon (penciller, issue #23), Brad Vancata (inker, issues #0-2), Howard Shum (inker, issues #0, 3-9, 11-14, 16, 18-20, 22-23, 25), Craig Gilmore (inker, issue #8), Rodney Ramos (inker, issue #9), Peter Palmiotti (inker, issues #10, 17, 21, 24), Mark McKenna (inker, issue #15), Charles Barnett (inker, issue #15), Tom McCraw (colorist), Dan Nakrosis (letterer, issues #0-22), Kevin Cunningham (letterer, issue #4), and Albert de Guzman (letterer, issues #23-25).
DC, 26 issues (0-25; the zero issue comes after #2), cover dated August 1994-October 1996.
In the last flashback installment, I told you that you really ought to go out and buy Atlantis Chronicles, Peter David’s history of Atlantis. As a continuation, I now give you Peter David’s Aquaman, the only Aquaman series I really like. Bill Reed will tell you that the good Aquaman series is the McLaughlin/Hooper/Dvorak run of 13 issues from December 1991 to January 1993, and he blames DC for shoving that out of the way so they could get David. Well, that might be true, but Atlantis Chronicles finished in September 1990, and David’s first Aquaman story, Time And Tide, didn’t come out until December 1993, many months after McLaughlin’s run got cancelled, so I don’t know what the machinations at DC were like in the early- to mid-1990s. However, McLaughlin’s run, though decent enough, isn’t really that good. Making Arthur the ambassador to the UN is a neat idea, and issue #8, with the disciple of the NKVDemon from the Batman books, is a very good issue, but overall – meh. Even David’s “Year One” story, the aforementioned Time And Tide, isn’t that good, largely because David goes way too far with the clever humor he enjoys. He’s good at it, but a little goes a long way, Mr. David. When he took over the Aquaman ongoing (with yet another issue #1), he really hit his stride, and the first 26 issues of his run form a coherent and fascinating story.
You don’t really need to read Atlantis Chronicles to enjoy Aquaman, but it wouldn’t hurt. That’s why I looked at that one first, even though I do these comics in alphabetical order (I’m anal – sue me). David continues the themes he laid out in the Chronicles book – mainly brother fighting brother for the future of Atlantis, but also the idea of curses and never escaping the past. As I mentioned in my review of Atlantis Chronicles, this is all very Shakespearean and Greek tragedy-esque, and if that’s the kind of stuff you like, this is a good read. I do like it, so this is right up my alley.
The most famous thing David did, of course, was chop off Arthur’s hand. This event may have been a “let’s make Aquaman mean” marketing ploy, but in the hands of a good writer like David, it becomes a symbol of both sides of Arthur’s nature – his underwater and land side, a duality that all writers of Aquaman ought to bring up, since it’s such an interesting part of his personality. Arthur uses the hook to spear shrimp in one scene, and he spears a person in another, and wonders at the implications of it. The fact that hunters use similar harpoons to spear dolphins in issue #4 (guest-starring Lobo!) is a subtle reminder that Arthur is both an Atlantean and a surface-dweller, even though David has changed his ancestry so that he’s not descended from a light-house keeper anymore.
After getting rid of Arthur’s hand (though the machinations of a global terrorist named Charybdis, who only lasts two issues but is extremely creepy – and has apparently come back from being eaten by piranhas, a nifty trick), David slowly introduces the plot elements that will form his grand narrative. It’s all about uniting the seven lost cities of Atlantis, of which Poseidonis is only the capital. It’s also about the real reason for humanity’s presence on Earth, as slaves for intergalactic scavengers who are returning to reap their harvest. Only Aquaman can save us!!!! It’s not the greatest plot, but plots are a dime a dozen – what matters is how David pulls it off, and his narrative is full of realpolitik, and stands as an interesting take on what it means to be more than a hero, which, after all, Arthur is. He’s not necessarily always the “good guy,” because he is doing things for the greater good and doesn’t have time for legal niceties. David puts it in our minds that maybe Arthur is insane, or maybe he has lost touch with reality, or maybe he’s just not that nice a guy. When Garth goes missing (we think he’s dead, but he’s not), Arthur doesn’t go and look for him, believing that Garth is an adult and can look after himself. Arthur is often petulant and confused, not like a hero at all, and, especially in the early issues, we find ourselves wondering why anyone cares about this guy, especially Dolphin, who is a major player in the title and gets busy with Arthur about halfway through the run. This crankiness might put off Aquaman purists, but for someone whose only experience with him was from the SuperFriends and some of the stuff from the ’40s, I liked what David was doing – he was humanizing Arthur, and making him less a heroic figure and more of a man who wants to do the right thing but can’t always figure out how because of his stubbornness. These kinds of people are much more interesting than people who always do the right thing.
Arthur finds out he has a son, and the Atlantis Chronicles theme begins again. You may think that David isn’t being terribly subtle, but he is: he doesn’t beat us over the head with the fact that Arthur, like his own father (Atlan the wizard) is an aloof, mythical figure to Koryak (his son). We’re allowed to see how poorly Arthur relates to Koryak, even though he tries, and how Koryak rejects him not because of who he is, but because of who Koryak thinks he is. Arthur’s poor parenting skills are evident when he confronts Arthur Jr., who has been living in Thanatos’s dimension with Mera. He tells him, “Pray you’re not my son. Because if you are, you’re caught up in a prophecy that will doom you to a life of conflict.” (To which Mera replies, “Thank you, dear. Very inspiring.”) The point is – Arthur tells the kid the truth, but he’s not terribly nice. This sort of thing makes his growth throughout the title, to where he can reach out to Garth and try to make amends with Koryak, nice to see and more believable. He’s learning how to be a father, and he’s also learning how to be a son (in his interactions with Atlan, when he shows up). He’s trying to break the Atlantean curse the only way he knows how.
Koryak, of course, gets caught up in the curse, when he allows King Thesily to die and leads the Poseidonisians (?) out of the city after it’s shaken by earthquakes (all part of the old prophecies about Atlantis rejoining the surface world – see how David ties everything together?), eventually breaking Tritonis’s law about the tunnels between the cities and meeting Kordax, the blond scaly monster dude from Atlantis Chronicles. Kordax uses his mental powers to enslave the refugees, and this leads to a fight between Koryak and Garth, a battle between Arthur’s “sons.” The twists and turns that the story takes to get all the principals in one spot are what make reading a long David run so fulfilling – individually, the issues have action and humor and fun stuff, but over the long haul, it all fits into a longer story, even if you didn’t see it coming. By the final few issues of the run, Arthur has united the various cities of Atlantis (and again made some hard choices about his loyalties), recruited many of DC’s underwater heroes, including the Sea Devils and Power Girl (she’s related to Atlan somehow), and fought off the Justice League, Lobo, Green Lantern alone, lost to Thanatos (!), and finally, thwarted an alien invasion not by using his fists (although there’s a lot o’ fighting) but by using his brains and his political skills.
There’s plenty of David humor, as I mentioned, and the best issue of the run might be #14, the Underworld Unleashed crossover with the new and improved Major Disaster. This issue is dripping with irony, and it has one of the better “butterfly effect” stories I’ve seen. It’s really neat to see all the elements come together, especially because you’re not totally sure where it will lead. Arthur fights plenty of powerful monsters and bad guys, and although Manta doesn’t show up, Thanatos and Ocean Master do. It’s action-adventure on the grand scale, and coupled with the humor, makes it a fun read despite the dark undercurrents. Even the most gruesome scenes (when Arthur loses his hand, for instance) are laced with dark humor.
Many people might get caught up on the art. I happen to like Egelund and Calafiore, but Egelund especially typifies mid-1990s “Image” art. His women are petite except for the gigantic breasts, and occasionally border on the grotesque (check out Wonder Woman on the cover to issue #16). His style flows well, however, and despite some of the contortions he puts the characters through, it’s never that distracting, like some artists – *coughLiefeldcough* – I could name. Calafiore’s underwater scenes are wonderful, and he has a real talent for drawing sea life – a must in a comic like this. As I am not an art critic, most of the time I can live with unspectacular art if the story is good, and although the art on Aquaman hasn’t aged well, it’s still pleasant to look at.
David wrote Aquaman for another 20+ issues, but the remainder of his run wasn’t as strong as these issues are. His run also ended sloppily, as he had a falling-out with DC. This incarnation of the title lasted until issue #75, and the character was given yet another series that didn’t last too long (and Arthur is currently dead, if I’m remembering correctly). The aforementioned Mr. Reed said that he reads Aquaman as an Arthurian hero, which is not a bad way to put it. That being said, I’m not sure what his objection with David’s run is, especially these issues, which seem to me to be the epitome of an Arthurian Grail Quest. David’s Aquaman is a powerful story that gives us many facets of Arthur’s personality and also examines what it means to be a king even when you’re not ruling anything. None of the run has been collected in trades, but I can’t imagine the issues are that high-priced. Check them out next time you’re browsing!
And here are the archives! Aren’t they cute?
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