Comic Book Review – Aquaman by Geoff Johns Omnibus

Aquaman by Geoff Johns Omnibus (2017)
Reprints Aquaman #0-19, 21-25, 23.1, 23.2 & Justice League #15-17
Written by Geoff Johns
Art by Ivan Reis and Paul Pelletier

In 2011, DC Comics took a bold move by relaunching its entire comics line under the banner of the New 52. Geoff Johns was already one of the people creatively at the company’s helm, so he could keep his Green Lantern run going pretty much intact. In addition, he was given the prized title of Justice League to revamp and then took it upon himself to also try and reignite enthusiasm over Aquaman. Over the preceding decade or more, Aquaman had been relegated to a joke character. In shows like Family Guy or Adult Swim’s Robot Chicken, if the character was referenced, it would be to state how useless his power set was compared to the more “impressive” heroes in DC’s catalog.

This take ignored a lot of work that had been done by various creators since the Crisis on Infinite Earths to figure out how to make Aquaman work in a “grittier, darker” landscape that had come out of the 1980s. Peter David had done an impressive run in the 1990s that saw Aquaman get one of his hands eaten by piranhas and replaced with a specialized hook that behaved like a lost appendage of the T-1000. That seemed to be the trend for the character in the runs that followed, each writer trying to show the audience why Aquaman was actually a very edgy, tough guy. 

I have to give it to Johns for presenting the character as he is and not trying to radically redesign his appearance. Instead, he gives Arthur Curry the same green pants and orange scale metal shirt we all know. Johns tried to “fix” the character by building up the mythology around his roots in Atlantis while expanding the cast to include new characters and subplots for Aquaman’s life. The results were mixed. It was a reasonable effort, but ultimately, as it always is with comics, only a few things stuck. It should not surprise you that, in his role as the creative engine for DC’s movies, Johns used many of these elements in James Wan’s Aquaman movie. 

The Johns run consists of four key arcs. The first is reintroducing the character to the audience and introducing a new enemy. The second was to introduce a brand new aspect of the character’s history that attempts to build out his world to match figures like Batman or Superman. The third was a small event crossing over with the Justice League title, and the final arc tried to tie together the plotlines regarding Arthur’s role as the ruler of Atlantis.

With the New 52, Justice League’s opening arc took place five years before most of the other titles, so with Aquaman #1 (2011), we got our first glimpse of the character before his appearance in that book a couple months into the League run. Immediately, Johns has a chip on his shoulder and spends most of the first issue pushing back on the myriad jokes & critiques of the hero. It is very heavy-handed and does not get the book off to a great start. Nothing really happens in this story that will make an impression on longtime readers or newcomers, a fairly standard arc about Aquaman fighting an ocean-based enemy alongside his partner, Mera. 

It’s the dynamic between these two characters that will keep readers hooked more than any of the plot shenanigans. They have personalities that are fun to watch bounce back & forth, though hardly the most compelling relationship in the DC Universe at this time. Johns plays up Aquaman’s status as a person between two worlds: not entirely accepted by the surface and seen as a traitor by the Atlanteans for protecting the surface dwellers. This version of Aquaman once sat on the throne but now has a very tense relationship with his people. Johns needed to do more with this aspect though it plays into the crossover with the Justice League significantly.

The second arc of the run is a little more exciting and involves the introduction of The Others. This is a group of heroes connected through fragments of an ancient artifact. Through exposition & flashbacks, we learn that Aquaman became a part of the Others prior to joining the Justice League, but circumstances drove the team apart. Then one of them is brutally murdered, and The Others must reunite to face their shared foe of Black Manta. This rogue is one of Aquaman’s mainstays and, along with Ocean Master, are the only two Aquaman villains most people could probably name. 

While The Others are an interesting idea that ended up getting its own spin-off, my biggest annoyance is with Black Manta and how the New 52 handled long-running characters. There is no effort here to explain who Black Manta is to new readers. An important backstory shows Manta being responsible for the death of Tom Curry, Aquaman’s father. Additionally, Aquaman appears to have accidentally killed Manta’s dad. Okay. But who is Black Manta? In the context of the New 52, I need to find out who this is. Yes, I know about the Black Manta who existed before the reboot, but I have no idea how much of that history has been carried over, and Johns doesn’t really do much to remedy that.

The same issue exists for The Others. They consist of Kahina, a psychic; YaWara, an Amazonian warrior; The Prisoner, a former POW haunted by his dead friends’ ghosts; The Operative, a Cold War era superspy; and Vostok, a Russian with a jetpack who seeks to be away from people. How did The Others become a team, or how did each of these people begin their respective super-hero-ing careers? Well, this story will certainly not answer any of those questions. This era of Geoff Johns reeked of this problem, throwing things at the wall with the sense that he would come back to them and then either rushing through an explanation when a run was coming to an end or just never addressing it. 

The third major story arc is The Throne of Atlantis, Aquaman’s crossover with the Justice League, which results in him resigning from the team. We get some background on what is happening between the hero and Atlantis. It turns out he had been the king of Atlantis a few years prior. During that time, Aquaman planned with his brother Orm (Ocean Master) to invade the surface world and claim it, prodded on by the excessive pollution done by those people. Things have changed since then, and now Arthur Curry defends the people he once vowed to destroy. Orm has decided to go ahead and execute those plans; thus, we have our story.

There are a lot of good things in this story. Fun large-scale action set pieces that bring in all your favorite DC heroes. Aquaman ends up in a terrible position as he must fight against Atlantis but then be revealed as an author of these same tactics to destroy the surface. Though Johns does not write every Leaguer well, I still am trying to figure out what he thinks of Batman, a character he has never gotten correct in his attempts at writing him. I was genuinely surprised by the reveal of the real villain that spurred all this on, a twist that breathes some new life into an Aquaman supporting cast mainstay. I did not expect that turn, and I wish the story had made a bigger deal rather than revealing it and then letting the plot deflate around the revelation. At every turn with Johns, I kept thinking, “You just introduced something really interesting to explore, so let’s…oh, we’re not going any further with it? Well, okay then.”

Everything comes to its big conclusion in the fourth and final arc, “Death of a King.” Weirdly, this is the best story in the collection, and it’s a shame because Johns departed the book at this point. Included are a couple one-offs that spotlight Black Manta and Ocean Master as part of the Forever Evil event. They give some great insight into these characters, and I found Ocean Master’s to be excellent. But, as stated before, Johns only sometimes delivers a payoff for what he sets up. In the main story, Johns chooses to reboot Scavenger, a slightly more obscure member of the hero’s rogues gallery. 

Scavenger is Peter Mortimer, a man using advanced technology to discover Atlantis and plunder its many treasures. To accomplish this task, Scavenger and his crew commandeer several Russian submarines and retrofit them with Atlantean technology stolen in the wake of the invasion. He manages to capture some Atlanteans and tag them with a tracking device which proves to be the fatal mistake. When Scavenger arrives in the hidden city, he makes it clear he will annihilate these people to take what they have. But this is not the story’s central villain; that enemy is someone whose name & role in history had a profound connection to Aquaman.

The real enemy is Atlan, the first king of Atlantis, who should be long dead. Instead, he has been sitting on a frozen throne secreted away and was awakened due to the attack on the surface world. Now he wants to reclaim his city, his namesake, and unleash a horrible power. The Trench creatures from the opening story return again, and Aquaman is put to his greatest test throughout the story arc. Johns presents us with characters who aren’t morally black & white, a spectrum of motivations. The culprit behind the invasion gets a satisfying conclusion (though still more could have been explored with that character). For the first time in Johns’ Aquaman run, the book feels like it is telling a story in a fully-realized world, and then he is gone.

I recommend reading through this run as an introduction to the character. I don’t think I could point to another place where jumping on would be easy, and this isn’t the worst thing Johns has ever written (*cough* The Three Jokers *cough*). However, it doesn’t come close to arguably his best works which are, in my opinion, Justice Society and The Flash. If you still think all Aquaman can do is talk to fish, then picking up this single volume or the four smaller collections it reprints would be worth it to find out just what the King of the Seven Seas can do.


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