Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Aquaman #1: No One's Favorite Superhero Returns.

What would you do if your existence was reduced to a walking punchline? You'd live as easy target, butt of many jokes, everyone knows you, no one likes you save close friends and family. This is the existence for a lot of D-List Celebrities, as you can't be a universal comedy punching bag without being famous. Now, imagine the same scenario only bullets bounce off you, you can jump over your neighbor's house, lift thousands of pounds without breaking a sweat and mentally influence millions of animals. You'd be Aquaman. He gets a bad rap for being a lame superhero, mostly from people who have never read an issue of one of his comics. In addition to the powers I've mentioned, he, of course, wields an ancient trident of great power and is the ruler of most of the planet, considering that the majority of the surface of the earth is covered in water. When DC Comics relaunched its entire line in the "New 52," Aquaman #1 was on the list for a reboot. What do you do with a character whose name inspires cheap laughs?

I never thought I'd say it, but Aquaman is awesome.

Aquaman has, since his introduction in 1941, partially earned the scorn and derision of comic book fans over the years. He's had more than a few lame villains, including one of his archenemies, The Fisherman, and by the Silver Age of comics, he was saddled with a crippling weakness (touch water once per hour or die.) Over the years, the character has been re-interpreted and rebooted, from aquatic training and science, through half-atlantean powers and a retcon in the late 1980s to combine all of his origin stories. In the mid-1990s, the character was given a "dark and gritty" makeover with gladiator-style armor and a retractable harpoon hand, as well as a violent and tortured temperment. No matter how many times his style and origins changed, the snarky comments from casual comic book fans and people who haven't picked up an issue in years persisted.

Instead of ignoring the scorn heaped on the one time leader of the JLA, in Aquaman #1, written by Geoff Johns, it is embraced. Aquaman seems to have returned to his Silver Age roots in terms of origin stories as an atlantean prince and heir with a human father. Police, criminals and the average person on the street sneer at the powerful and noble figure, laughing in his face and making cracks about "talking to fish" and asking if he needs a glass of water. He's torn between the surface world and the sea, and despite his reputation as a laughingstock, he defends the surface world that mocks and scorns him. We get to see his powers in action, brief flashbacks to his time with his father, and his origin story is woven in subtly and mostly shown to us, not told in hamfisted expository fashion. We even get a partial answer to the question that is begged: If people laugh at you on the surface, why stay up there?

Aquaman vs. Hipster. Oh god, "The Hipster" is a terrible idea  for a villain.

I've read, mostly out of curiosity, a handful of DC's New 52, and of the titles I've made it through so far, Aquaman #1 is by far my favorite of the bunch. The writing is superb, artwork is in line with the best DC can bring to A-List titles and the pacing through the panel layout it just about perfect. By acknowledging the character's reputation for being lame and demonstrating why it is an undeserved label, the audience instantly sides with Aquaman and develops an attachment to the character, mentally defending him against the slurs of the ignorant. I will go so far as to make an extremely controversial statment, in a series of words I never thought I'd type. If all I was considering was the strength of their respective first issues in the DC reboot, completely ignoring decades of character history and associated mythology and art, I'd look at Aquaman and Batman. Then I'd say "Aquaman is better than Batman." Something in my stomach lurched at typing those words in that order, but there it is.

The setup, as far as I can see it, may face a problem that Aquaman has always faced, and the criticism is worth mentioning. Aquaman has mostly pretty lame villains. In the first issue, the foes presented are generic criminals and a preview of stock undersea beasties gearing up for a showdown to come. With the possible exception of Black Manta, the new Aquaman doesn't really have anyone to fight who can make him continue to earn his newfound status as a cool superhero. I have faith in the writing at this point, and we'll see if new foes or new interpretations of old villains can step up to the challenge of inclusion in the bold new direction for a classic character. With one issue that isn't really focused on defeating bad guys (though there is some action in the pages) it is far too early to call out the series for a lack of cool villains, that is just a lingering concern.

Bulletproof? Not 100%, the one that hit him in the head
 made him bleed a little, and pissed him off.

With the streamlined version of a Silver Age Origin cleaning up the murky waters of Arthur Curry's origin and solid writing, this title has serious potential to be a standout success story in the mixed reviews from the New 52. We've got a character that is badass with a new direction that fans are likely to accept, because it doesn't discard or ignore what came before, we're just shown it in a new light. This is in stark contrast to the misogyny disguised as female empowerment in Catwoman #1, gaining headlines through strip clubs and casual sex with Batman in-costume, and other missteps in DC's move to remain relevant in years to come. For years, Aquaman may have been the target of bad jokes, but this first issue is showing who is getting the last laugh.
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Jay said...

all i can say is, "lol, aquaman!" ;)

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