So far, Kelly Sue DeConnick’s Aquaman run has been a distinctive and suitably grand interpretation of the character, but it hasn’t quite clicked. A large part of that comes down to the fact that the Aquaman has largely been a static character surrounded by a swirling whirlpool of strange and interesting ideas. He hasn’t been a draw, in fact he hasn’t really felt like Aquaman! But that makes perfect sense because, until this moment, he really hasn’t been Aquaman.
With Aquaman #49 that finally changes, as Arthur is let in on who he is and how he got here. This presents our first chance to see DeConnick write not only a wild oceanic legandarium, but two of DC’s greatest heroes.
While he’s only started to find his place in the mainstream nerd culture recently, Aquaman’s influences and history have presented him as one of the most constant and well-characterized heroes of his stature. Aquaman is all about nobility but Arthur Curry is comics’ great introvert, a grim, awkward man who shifts uncomfortably under the weight of society’s expectations of him but comes alive when surrounded by the family he’s chosen for himself. It’s hard to say how fully DeConnick’s rendition captures all of that in a single issue that’s largely made up of two long scenes, but I have to say that the initial presentation is strong.
As much as is possible in the issue’s brief snapshot of time, DeConnick captures the gravitas of Aquaman (lesser) and what makes him drop that heroic facade, makes him happy and comfortable (majorly). One could argue that her interpretation of Arthur as seen in the past is too funny, too broad, or too malleable, but, while I acknowledge that Arthur gains some popular leading man qualities to tie into the story that DeConnick has laid out for him, it rings true for me. In many ways, this is Arthur at his happiest and most optimistic; he has everything that he wants. He has peace for his kingdom; friends in the Justice League; freedom from the obligations of his crown; and, most importantly, Mera, who is finally recognized and celebrated for her talents and gives Arthur a feeling of trust in the leadership of Atlantis. This is the calm before the storm, the pride before the fall, and it shows us what Aquaman wants the most. In this, there can be no denying that DeConnick has a strong grasp of the character.
It’s also not entirely surprising that DeConnick would connect with a powerful redhead deeply in love with her famous husband. Mera occupies a strange place in this issue because, to a large degree, she’s the main character. The flashback solves the problem of Arthur being a static lead by transferring that role, temporarily, to Mera, who takes to it, like the crown, with aplomb. However, it is only temporary. The scene reaches the height of its drama when it becomes about how the two characters play off of each other, but this book is still called Aquaman and that means Mera is kind of secondary. To that end (and, if we’re being honest, also because her societal expectations and biology put very different pressures on her) Mera ultimately has to play a familiar part. What works despite this is that DeConnick does center Mera and her experience, putting a ring of truth into the rote scenario. It provides both what is needed and what we would prefer, but the tension between these forces is why I call her position strange. Still, the takeaway is that DeConnick writes Mera as well as one would expect and that she’s obviously utilizing Aquaman’s strongest supporting character in a suitably engaging way. Ultimately I think this is a boon for both characters, in this issue and as the series continues.
Mera’s role is soaked in tragedy. It’s laid out very clearly for the reader, perhaps even limitingly so, and DeConnick shows her work, highlighting the history of both characters to remind you why each barb stings. There’s a power and a predictability that are familiar to any reader of classical tragedy, with DeConnick even namedropping Medea to leave no question of how she sees this issue’s story. It’s extremely effective, but I do regret how that structure pushes Mera into something of a gendered trap, where her emotions are presented as a detriment to her as a queen and hero while Arthur’s own inability to look past his feelings does not have consequences in itself. I think you can feel DeConnick struggling against the elements of this reading that she can’t ignore and reclaiming those she finds unfair, but it is still there.
One criticism I do make unambiguously is that this issue introduces one of the most quietly tedious staples of big run comics: the event exit ramp loop. In short, many big runs, especially those that might be controversial or with a character that hasn’t met their full potential, are (quite sensibly) built up by a larger event which hopes to connect the readers it picked up from hype with the more stable purchase of a monthly series. The problem occurs when the writer doesn’t want their readers to have to have read the event or wants to target the themes of the event to the details of their story leading to a repeat of the event’s critical moment in a different form. Just as with “Batman R.I.P.” and Final Crisis, it seems that Aquaman died twice between Drowned Earth and “Unspoken Water”.
It shouldn’t really affect the enjoyability of this story, especially since I think this is a much more interesting story for Arthur, but I still find it incredibly tedious. It certainly doesn’t help that DeConnick papers over this choice with a brief mention that Arthur “almost died” recently, making things both underwhelming and very convenient. In fairness, I think it would have been hard to tell this story without acknowledging to the reader that Aquaman had died from the start, but this juggling act doesn’t feel like the way to solve that discrepancy.
I’m definitely looking forward to seeing DeConnick fuse her mythological take on the ocean with the more traditional science-fantasy Atlantean themes of Aquaman. What was a little too strong in previous arcs seems like it will be perfectly diluted when returned to the living ocean and DeConnick continues to throw awesome ideas around like they’re a thing to do. Mother Shark remains one of the coolest additions of this run and her power and majesty are plain to see. There’s a line near the end of the book about how well represented Mera is in the coral of the sea dead:
Though we have never met, Mera, there is much of you in my garden.
Your mother, your father… so many lives you touched have left your memory with me…
It’s a beautiful and interesting little note and one that does a great job of establishing and keeping the focus on Mera’s power and importance while acknowledging how hard her life has been.
I also have to praise Clayton Cowles, whose lettering really adds something to the vastness and beauty of Mother Shark. Without overplaying his hand, he gives Mother Shark’s balloons a gentle kelp-like flow that works with the color of the balloons just right to possibly imply just a hint of three dimensional. It really is a pretty simple trick, but it’s wonderfully effective.
Speaking of the visuals, this remains a notably attractive run of comics. In my opinion, Aquaman should never be much less than visually stunning. It’s a title that demands some additional skills, but there’s just so much that’s beautiful about its iconography, from the setting to its tools and items to its main characters. Viktor Bogdanovic gets to be the one to show us our first glimpse of traditional Aquaman on this run and, though there isn’t enough of a sense of being underwater, he’s hardly the first to fall into that trap. Indeed, even though the script’s limited settings don’t really permit a huge amount of visual splendor, Bogdanovic certainly communicates the scope of the title.
Bogdanovic also pulls double duty as an inker, but he’s hardly alone in that. Jonathan Glapion, Daniel Henriques, and Ryan Winn are all also credited as additional inkers on the issue. It’s usually not a good sign to see that many different inkers on an issue, but, to their credit, it doesn’t really distract. In fact, while you might eventually notice the changeover, it’s rather noninvasive.
Bogdanovic is at his best when he’s able to use varied line weight to his advantage. His general work is on the bold side, but features very fine detailing that allows him impressive control of the moment without becoming too fussy. It actually recalls Greg Capullo at times, though one suspects that at least part of that is the common denominator of Glapion’s inks. The gorgeous double spread of Arthur before Mother Shark also demonstrates a very different style of art, all the while juxtaposed against Bogdanovic’s usual fare in the insets.
Detail gets wisely crushed down as panels and characters get smaller, but I’d be lying if I didn’t say that it sometimes becomes a slight detriment to the book. The most notable instances are when characters get ‘Batman eyes’, but there are scattered moments all throughout that just don’t look right and this is generally why. There are also a number of very broad expressions throughout the issue. On a couple of occasions characters suffer from some very acute ‘Disney face’ and certain moods have a caricatured extremity to them.
Perhaps the best way to summarize this side of Bogdanovic’s art is to say that he excels in conveying emotion. You’ll never want for clarity in what a character is feeling in this issue and part of that is because of the almost cartoonish excess that Bogdanovic can imbue his characters with, but it extends much farther than that and it isn’t a bad thing either. This issue is a romance and Bodganovic really captures that. The chemistry and body language between Arthur and Mera is very strong and, despite what I said about some of his expression work in individual faces, Bogdanovic keeps things feeling real and the affection between his two leads on simmer, even as they pull towards comedy and drama, respectively. Yes, if you look you’ll find imperfections and excess, but you won’t really want to as he draws you on with his storytelling. And that forward momentum will inexorably lead you towards one of his gorgeous moments.
All of this is given an impressive warmth by colorist Sunny Gho. Gho’s been working on Aquaman for a good while now and he’s obviously very comfortable with the palette. All the classic Aquaman colors are here and Gho knows just how to play them off of one another. And given that those colors tend to be either blues and greens or reds and oranges, the interplay of hot and cool colors is a strength. Gho’s attention to lighting is really nice and often is a big part of what reminds you that you’re dealing with an aquatic story. Shine on faces and subtle shadows do a lot to bring this story together, not to mention the use of glow effects throughout.
Aquaman #49 brings DeConnick’s run so far full circle and gives readers a chance to see this creative team work with some more traditional Aquaman storytelling. Though its obedience to tragic convention limits it a bit, this is a strong issue that succeeds in a nontraditional way. Though the content is somewhat familiar when stripped of its surprise, the emotion and grandeur of the issue pulls it through and, above all, this issue reminds us that, even seven issues in, there’s real reason to be excited about the prospect of a DeConnick Aquaman run. With beautiful art, big ideas, and a classical view of both tragedy and Arthur Curry, Aquaman #49 delivers.
Aquaman #49 is currently available in comic shops from DC Comics.