If We Shadows Have Offended…A Review Of Aquaman Annual #1

by Noah Sharma

To be honest there are a lot of reasons why someone might not give this issue a shot. Aquaman has never been the sales draw that I wish he were and, even though the release of Justice League has put him into the public consciousness like never before, this is a very different Aquaman than appeared in that film. Annuals are expensive and often supplemental at best. And, perhaps most of all, the entire creative team of the current, particularly strong, Aquaman run are absent from this issue. That last one actually almost deterred me, but, having read Aquaman Annual #1, I’m happy I overcame that impulse.

Many years into the future, Arthur Curry’s greatest and latest dream has come true: Crownspire, a new capital for Atlantis, spanning from the ocean floor up above the surface and housing citizens from every elevation in-between. In their old age, Arthur and Mera have retired from the Justice League to lead Atlantis and raise their son, Tom. But, as Tom’s coming of age ceremony approaches and Arthur’s old friends arrive to celebrate with him, the king of Atlantis discovers a sinister conspiracy within his dream turned city.

“Crownspire” is a story that stands on texture of its setting and the force of its surprises. Details like the Greek influence on Atlantean language or Hal’s missing arm make Crownspire a place that’s fascinating to explore, while Aquaman’s potent reactions to the unfurling mystery around him draw readers farther into the intrigue.

Phillip Kennedy Johnson writes an affecting and literary interlude for the king of the seas. It’s not hard to see why DC tapped the writer of Warlords of Appalachia to pen an Aquaman story, the air of a tense political thriller and a wealth of minute details suffuse both comics. At its worst, the dialogue is merely workmanlike, demonstrating a thoughtful practicality that buoys each scene from intriguing idea to intriguing idea, but it’s never long before Johnson throws a line or a concept at the reader that’s sure to tickle their brain or stick in their heart.

But, without spoiling too much, I think it’s fair to say that Aquaman Annual #1’s greatest weakness is the significant degree that it is indebted to past stories. Indeed, some will certainly say that this issue is merely a rehash of one particularly well-beloved tale. Though I would find that much too harsh, it is not an accusation without some merit. “Crownspire” is, without a doubt, built on a very familiar skeleton and it does not truly do enough to differentiate itself.

But while I understand that this is a problem with the story, it kind of doesn’t matter because the issue is that effective. Sure, you could say that it’s effective because it borrows the same emotional beats as a classic of the genre, but Johnson’s writing is rich with emotion and it draws you in and makes the familiar premise feel new again. Especially if you haven’t read the story “Crownspire” is based on, you could easily tear up while reading the ending.

One of the most interesting elements of this story is the portrayal of Aquaman. Arthur is very much his classic self, down to a variant of the kingly attire he frequently wore in the 90s, but Johnson grants him a force of personality, warmth, and accountability that makes it hard not to respect him, especially during interactions with his son and in one scene in a secret room. What’s more, there are subtle choices that really make this Aquaman stand out.

On first glance you could easily question how much agency Arthur has in this story. Right up until the end, it’s other characters that are actually getting things done. However, a closer look reveals the degree to which the Aquaman plays a part in nearly all of the issue’s events. The story structure encourages readers to cycle their attention between threads, allowing anomalies to slip through and reinforcing the dream-like quality of the script. Johnson seems to peg Arthur Curry’s real superpowers in this story: his nobility, the support of his subjects, and his force of will.

These traits are perhaps best displayed in Arthur’s showdown with Batman. Johnson’s dialogue is particularly snappy here and he does a great job of using that to build the story’s stakes.

On the other hand, a minor complaint for me is how limited the issue’s use of Mera is. The Queen of Atlantis does very little in this issue and generally ends up playing host and mother for most of the story. Even the name Tom, taken from Arthur’s late father, kind of erases her from the story and paints her as an extension of her husband. In fairness, Mera’s limited role was likely influenced by the restrictions of the page count and traditional rules of writing, however it seems a waste of an increasingly valuable character to the mythos as well as an opportunity to differentiate “Crownspire” from its source material.

The art is fascinating. As you pick up the book it’s entirely likely that you’ll be put off by Max Fiumara’s very distinctive style. Defined by fish-eye proportions and dramatic shapes and crags, Fiumara’s work is hardly what you’d expect from a Big Two superhero series and more than once veers into the uncanny valley. However, as time goes on, I imagine many readers will warm to the artwork somewhat, not only because later scenes jibe better with Fiumara’s aesthetic, but because his intentions for the book start to become clearer.

Fiumara excels at bringing out the grand and stately elements of dark fantasy within the Aquaman mythos, as well as going one step further and explicitly calling upon the grotesque and horrific. There’s a strange mix of Lane Smith and classical woodcuts in the artwork and, when the art suits the theme, it can be quite evocative. However, there are also moments when the style is too bizarre and it just looks off-putting.

Prince Tom is a particularly awkward subject for Fiumara. Though one senses that there’s an intentionality about the strange, alien proportions given to the boy, it isn’t always enough to make up for how unappealing it all looks. There’s also some rather unclear storytelling during a few of the fight scenes; at one point it’s actually unclear what planet Wonder Woman is on!

Fiumara’s art is sure to be one of the most controversial aspects of this issue, and with good reason. However, I think the vast majority of readers will admit that the ending shines for his involvement. A particularly strong Batman foreshadows the turn of the tide, and suddenly, as the conspiracy comes crashing down, Fiumara fully taps the horror and tragedy of the situation.

This is an odd little comic. Not only is it utterly unrelated to what Dan Abnett is doing in his run, but it actually contradicts it slightly. It seems as though this was a pitch for a two part story that someone in DC editorial couldn’t bear to let go of. Though the art will likely be a divisive issue and the story draws heavily from DC’s past successes, I have to say that I’m glad that whoever fought for this story did so.

Aquaman Annual #1 is a finely written and artistically striking story that packs quite an emotional wallop. Its eerie atmosphere and textured setting more than pull it through the intentionally uneven art and unoriginal premise, even if they can’t dismiss those complaints. It’s a fine showcase for the character and the creative team, delivering exactly what an annual should, and it’s one that will likely stick in your mind and your heart for a long time to come. Though its oddities are many, it’s well worth the price of admission. If you’re looking for more Aquaman after Justice League or between Abnett issues or if you’re looking for a complete and affecting short story in your DC Comics, this is definitely one that deserves a look.

Aquaman Annual #1 is currently available in shops from DC Comics.