Dan Abnett has exclusively held the reins of “Aquaman” for the better part of two years, telling a sprawling tale of the rise and fall of the King of Atlantis. Abnett clearly has a strong vision for where he wants to take Arthur Curry as a character, but that vision is not what ends up in this annual. We’re offered instead a story that has nothing to do with Abnett’s saga, but don’t let that stop you from picking this issue up. Phillip Kennedy Johnson and Max Fiumara get the space to work out an unrelated one-off story that challenges our notions of what we want out of corporate comics, and it results in one of the finest single issues of the year.
Written by Phillip Kennedy Johnson
Illustrated by Max Fiumara
Colored by Dave Stewart
Lettered by Deron Bennett
Aquaman’s dream of unity between surface and sea has come true! A utopia of human and Atlantean ingenuity, and a symbol of harmony between the two cultures, the city of Crownspire is Arthur Curry’s greatest achievement. There Aquaman, Mera, and Tom Curry live in content. But who built Crownspire? Where is Murk? And what exactly is Tom Curry?
Something is very wrong with Aquaman’s world, and if he doesn’t find out soon he may never live to see another day.
The issue opens with a prologue: Arthur taking Mera to an open, undeveloped area of Atlantis, verbally painting for her a picture of his vision for the future of their city. Arthur suggests that Atlantis could finally be on the global stage alongside the people of the surface, recognized as equals, and they could build a family that moves seamlessly between the two worlds. It’s immediately clear that Johnson is toying with the fundamental unresolved conflict that defines Aquaman as a character: he’s torn between land and sea. Will Aquaman ever strike this balance? Perhaps, this time, things will be different.
The next chapter begins with the other members of the Justice League showing up to the ribbon-cutting ceremony for “Crownspire,” the result of Arthur’s vision, a massive modern city that physically blends Atlantis with the surface world. Fiumara and colorist Dave Stewart shine here, making good on years of practice they’ve had drawing otherworldly subsurface landscapes in the Mignolaverse. Several years have passed to make Crownspire a reality, and Fiumara gets to present each member of the league at a more advanced age. Wonder Woman retains her youth, Fiumara keeps her looking like a Cliff Chiang-meets-Darwyn Cooke amalgam: in other words, utterly perfect. The rest of the league has acquired wrinkles and scars, applying Fiumara’s uncanny ability to draw craggy and world-weary characters. They’ve seen some shit, and their reunion with Arthur really feels like a catharsis. A rare moment in their history where these characters have achieved an advancement of their vision for the world versus a constant defensive set of circumstances against unrelenting evil. We also meet “Tom Curry,” the impish son of Arthur and Mera, and another positive affirmation of the league’s hopes for the future and for themselves. Finally, Arthur and Mera are achieving the life they’ve been looking for. The life they’ve been denied in decades of comics.
Of course, no superhero story is without conflict, and nothing is perfect for very long. Of course, there are invaders. Of course, the Justice League must get involved. Johnson writes a perfectly exciting straightforward superhero story at this point, weaving the Justice League members in and out, playing nicely to each of their character traits. Batman, in particular, plays an interesting and fitting role. Fiumara does some stunning work here, making the Justice League feel like an experienced group that instantly falls back into their old roles. But the physical conflict is less interesting than the metatextual one about whether these characters lives are their own. This is less a criticism of the issue itself than another aspect, a necessity, of superhero comics that Johnson and Fiumara are forced to confront. Once it’s over, all that’s left is to deal with what this latest fantastical cape comic conflict means for our characters on this subtextual level, and it involves a little bit of backstory:Continued below
For almost as long as superhero comics have been around, comic readers have disagreed on what they’ve wanted out of their hobby. Read the letters sections of “Wonder Woman” comics from the Golden Age and you’ll find letters from readers ripping their hair out over “childish & unrealistic” plot resolutions. When those same comics begin to change creative directions, you start to see letters from readers wanting the Golden Age back because the new developments aren’t satisfactory, while others want the change in comics to push even further. This is a fundamental divide that Marvel and DC have been trying to tease out the perfect approach to for as long as they’ve bee around. When the publishers experience significant peaks and valleys in financial success, they try to figure out what it is that readers are responding to. “The New 52” was a response to the perception that DC Comics had gone too far, allowing complicated character backstories and lineages to alienate readers. Suddenly, no heroes could be married or have kids anymore. Several legacy characters disappeared to make things “simpler” for new readers. For a while, it worked, and the market saw a boom. The perception is that Marvel Comics decidedly went in the opposite direction, replacing popular characters with analogues and legacy versions, and while they reclaimed their #1 sales status over DC in short order, both companies were led to the conclusion that readers wanted the old stuff back. Enter “DC Rebirth” and “Marvel Legacy.” If you’re reading this review, you probably know all this already. But “Aquaman Annual” #1 takes on new layers of meaning when you’ve observed how corporate comics have operated over the last few decades.
At the 2013 Baltimore Comic Con, DC Co-publisher Dan Didio famously told his audience that Aquaman and Mera would not be married in the New 52, that heroes should not be married, and that they have to make sacrifices to their personal lives. Throughout their history, Aquaman and Mera have been married, unmarried, re-engaged, and even some Facebook “It’s Complicated”-type statuses in between. As far as DC Comics is concerned, there is no better pair for the type of thesis that “Aquaman Annual” presents than these two star-crossed lovers. As readers, what do we value about corporate comics? Is it the idea that things don’t change? That, in leaving behind the tumult in our own lives for a little while, we’ll return to characters who are just as we remember them? Or do we want change, because change is scary and exciting? Do we want the circumstances to be all-new and all-different? “Aquaman Annual” presses the question further. Do the characters have any say in it? Do they deserve to grow, and change, and to find happiness? Does it matter what they want?
I won’t spoil the conclusion that Johnson & Fiumara come to, but I’ll tell you that there is one, at least from this reader’s point of view. And it’s quite audacious, if you buy into the meta-text. It is a truly masterful ending, in its stark honesty and its ability to instill a bit of hope where there doesn’t seem to be any. It takes the reality of corporate comics and suggests that there’s life beyond our plans for these characters. The story we just saw may be a shell game, but maybe comics don’t have to be this way. Aquaman and Mera’s lives are not their own, but maybe we can do right by them anyway.
Final Verdict: 9.0 – Johnson & Fiumara’s “Aquaman Annual” is a self-contained wonder of a comic, tucking a commentary on a very relevant issue with superhero comics inside an engaging and gorgeous adventure.