The King of the Seven Seas swims again in a super-size special paying tribute to the many eras of his publishing history.
Well, almost. There’s no nod here to his beginnings in the Golden Age, or the whimsical Fifties stories. Nope, the pages that could have gone to them are used to push a couple of upcoming mini-series. But we’ll get to that.
The issue opens with a story by one of my favourite – because he’s one of the best – Aquaman writers of the last several years, Jeff Parker. The Foxtail has Arthur trying to separate a Russian military submarine from a… Volcano Squid. When he was writing the Aquaman series Parker brought back the Fire Trolls from the Sixties, so why not a Volcano Squid? As things get, let’s say, rather intense, a memory helps Arthur find a solution. Parker’s sharp script is brought to joyous life by artist Evan ‘Doc’ Shaner, and while his modern, beardy, tattooed Aquaman is impressive, it’s Arthur in flashback that will stay with me.
The new Aqualad, Jackson Hyde, gets the next slot for his usual story, the one about coming to terms with being the son of Black Manta. The angle writer Geoff Johns and artist Paul Pelletier take is interesting – they meet every Father’s Day and Jackson tries to persuade dad David to turn himself in – but as ever, no progress is made. Apparently Aqualad keeps it from Arthur and Mera that his dad is their enemy, which seems weird given they both have villainous siblings. Plus, Arthur has some measure of person-to-person telepathy, fish are known to talk and, er, same surname – he knows. The only novelty is Black Manta’s winter wear cape, very swish.
The original Aqualad, Garth, shares an adventure with Arthur as they meet a rather insistent Lady of the Lake. It’s refreshing that Aquaman and Tempest aren’t at one another’s throats as they have been too many times in recent years. I think the Arthurian link may be a nod to Aquaman’s time as ‘the Waterbearer’. Whatever the case, it’s a fun tale from writer Michael Moreci, artist Pop Mhan and pals.
There’s no doubt that the next story is referencing Neal Pozner and Craig Hamilton’s classic Aquaman mini-series, with Arthur in his tidal camouflage suit and the mysterious Queen Nuada around. It’s a time travel trip as Arthur finally meets his forebear as king of Atlantis, the mage Arion. Writer Stephanie Phillips does well by both heroes, and Hendry Prasetya’s art is so good that I’ll forgive the lack of Arion’s signature spellcasting symbol.
There’s a real blast from the past as one-hit wonder Aquabeast returns after more than 50 years to interrupt a family picnic. He’s spent the intervening time – or the comic book equivalent thereof – climbing out of the horror-filled pit where his misguided efforts to win Mera’s heart left him at the end of 1967’s Aquaman #34. He ends up back there and Arthur is very cool with that, which is the only off-note in Shawn Aldridge and Tom Derenick’s rather nifty tale… in the earlier Bob Haney and Nick Cardy story Arthur saw Aquabeast as misguided, and wanted to transform him back into obnoxious playboy Peter Dudley. Maybe in 2071.
There’s a surprise visit to the world of Bombshells, which I gave up on when the Forties pin-up versions of DC’s fighting females began singing songs all the time. Writer Marguerite Bennett is back with an ode to love involving nymphs and a magic lyre, while Trung Le Nguyen provides the romantic visuals. If you’ve ever wondered how Aquaman would look in a Jean Paul Gaultier perfume ad, this is the story for you.
The next story, annoyingly, stops on a cliffhanger, but before that we get a clever, dramatic short involving a Trench native on the rampage. It’s good work from writer Cavan Scott, penciller Scot Eaton and inker Norm Rapmund. It certainly contains the best action moment of the issue. As for the ending, it’s easy to extrapolate what will happen, but self-contained shorts are what I want in an anthology special.
One of my pet peeves in comics is Superman and Batman stories told via them thinking about one another, like lovesick teens. Jeph Loeb started it, everyone else followed and it’s become very tired. Well, that technique is used for a story in which Aquaman reaches out to half-brother Ocean Master, and it works well… mostly. Author Dan Watters convinces me that Arthur and Orm reckon they have the measure of one another (‘My brother thinks he is a storm. He is so endlessly dramatic.’), while penciller Miguel Mendonça and inker Daniel Henriques supply gloriously intense visuals. There’s one spread in which the freewheeling images and duelling narrations don’t allow for smooth storytelling, but overall I like this a lot. And Mendonça’s addition of buckled straps to Arthur’s forearms is very effective.
Another old Aquaman creative team, Dan Jurgens and Steve Epting, revisit their Nineties storyline in which Atlantis was in conflict with the DCU exclusive kingdom of Cernia. Aquaman is more imperious than usual in this one, but the stakes are high. It’s sharply written, beautifully drawn and a reminder of an unjustly neglected run.
The final two stories are extended plugs for upcoming mini-series and given that both characters are featured earlier in the issue, are pretty unnecessary. When there’s nothing saluting Aquaman’s early years, nothing looking to the incredibly influential Peter David run, there’s no justification for Black Manta and the new Aqualad to get separate strips.
The Black Manta tale looks to be a prologue to his book, setting up a story about magical stones or something. Manta is his usual deluded self, insistent that he’s not a bad guy. I’m more interested in his associate, a smart, capable woman called… Gallous the Goat. Chuck Brown’s script intrigued me, while Valentine de Landro’s art is always worth a look
Aqualad babysits Princess Andy in the final strip and his kindness and concern as he protects her from daft, but dangerous, baddie the Scavenger are adorable. Given there’s a question left hanging – what does Mera want to show Arthur in the jungle? – perhaps this is linked to the story in the upcoming Aquaman Becoming. Or maybe Mera was just feeling randy. Either way, writer Brandon Thomas, penciller Diego Olortegui and inker Wade Von Grawbadger do a great job of injecting real heart into the special.
The really annoying thing about these two cuckoos in the celebration nest is that I enjoyed both of them and now plan on trying both mini-series.
Dotted through the book are pin-ups of prominent Aqua-folk. It’s a shame there’s no room for the excellent, and apparently forgotten, second Aquagirl, Lorena Marquez, but there’s some truly lovely art by the likes of Artgerm, Ryan Sook and Francesco Mattina.
This issue has variant covers by the likes of Walt Simonson, José Luis García-López and – a round of applause – Silver Age Aquaman artist/goddess Ramona Fradon (below), but ComiXology no longer throws them in as an extra. But I’ve seen pics and they’re pretty darn lovely. The digital copy comes with Ivan Reis, Joe Prado and Alex Sinclair’s update on Arthur and that old seahorse of his. It’s good, but would fit pretty much any issue of the last decade – I’d rather have something that screamed ‘spectacular!’
This being, inevitably, a pretty darn long review (reading time: ‘What, you’re still awake?’), I’ve passed over mentioning the many colourists and letterers… but they’re all ruddy great! As are our editors and production people.
As a comic marking a hero’s lifetime, this doesn’t hit all the marks I’d like, but what could? It’s a bright, breezy read with oodles of excellent art – if you like Aquaman, you’ll likely find a lot to like here.
Happy 80th, Arthur!