Aquaman has been my favourite DC superhero since I was a little kid. Growing up watching shows like Justice League and especially Batman: The Brave and the Bold made me fall totally in love with the character. The aesthetic of the whole world is what sucked me in, but what kept me around was Arthur himself. An adventurer, a family man, and a king under the sea respected by his peers. So it was weird to me to enter into reading comics where I learned people didn’t seem to think he was cool, because to me he always was.
Well now everyone seems to be more or less on the same page as we celebrate 80 years of the character. DC this week released the 80th-anniversary special with a great deal of amazing creators on board. It’s heralded as a celebration of the character and his long legacy. So let’s dive in and see if it stacks up to that goal and if it’s worth a buy.
I’m not going to go in depth into every story, but I’ll go through the good, the bad and the ugly of this special. Or in this case, the stellar, the average and the baffling!
The special started off really strong with a story called ‘Foxtail’ by two of my top creators, Jeff Parker and Doc Shaner. The story concerns Aquaman saving a great creature of the deep from a naval submarine. Parker wrote one of my favourite runs on the character back in the New 52, so it was a joy to see him back on the character. He gives Arthur such a warmth and humanity which is just so perfect for him. Shaner perfectly matches that warmth with his adventurous and friendly Arthur. It’s a depiction of the character that I feel like would give really good hugs but could also call on the wrath of the seven seas. Shaner should be drawing this character forever. Overall this was an incredible little story that nailed why I love Arthur Curry. His empathy and compassion is on full display here, essential aspects of the character.
Marguerite Bennett wrote a gorgeous story with Trung Le Nygen on art titled ‘The Rhine Maidens.’ This story really stood out, thanks in no small part to the great Jordie Bellaire on colours. This story follows the Bombshell versions of both Arthur and Mera as they evade some sirens. I’m not at all familiar with DC’s Bombshells continuity but this gorgeous little story really gets to the heart of Arthur and Mera’s relationship.
Dan Watters did a really interesting story with Miguel Mendonça on pencils. It focused on Arthur’s relationship with his brother Orm, the villainous Ocean Master. Arthur plans to meet with his brother and talk peacefully before he is swept up in a clashing storm, driving the two brothers into battle. It’s an interesting way to visualise the two characters’ conflict and asks if they can ever truly resolve their differences.
The issue ends with two vignettes setting up the upcoming miniseries’ following Black Manta and Aqualad respectively. The first by Chuck Brown and Valentine de Landro feels a bit more like setup. It establishes Manta’s conflict and mission, as well as his relationship with a supporting character. It looks gorgeous and I am very excited to read this book but this doesn’t stand on its own as a story.
The story by Brandon Thomas and Diego Olortegui however does feel like its own adventure. Aqualad must protect little baby Andy (Arthur and Mera’s daughter) from the Scavengers. It’s a really fun little adventure with great characterization and a charming tone. Thomas has a great voice for these characters and Olortegui has a really expressive style that suits it perfectly. These are two wonderful preludes to bigger and hopefully even better things
Similar to the Thomas story, we get another fun tale of the Aquafamily hanging out on a beach. This story by Shawn Aldridge and Tom Derenick is a great little throwback to the old Silver Age Aquaman. An era of simple stories and conflicts. It even brings back a classic Nick Cardy character, Aquabeast. Being a huge Aquafan I really appreciated it, but it may not be to everyone’s tastes. It harkens back to the simpler days of Aquaman when Arthur would just hang with his fam and trouble would eventually disrupt the peace. Nice and wholesome.
Those are the stories that I loved and wholeheartedly recommend. I would recommend reading the special just to get a look at any one of these stories. The art by the likes of Shaner and Nygen especially is worth checking out.
The following are the stories that I thought were decent or okay. Ones that have strong ideas or concepts but left me wanting in execution. Which is a shame because there are some incredible creators here. Sadly sometimes things just don’t pan out and these stories just didn’t work for me.
For example, Michael Moreci and Pop Mhan did a story featuring Garth and Arthur. Instead of examining the relationship between the two and how it’s changed, it follows Arthur fighting the Lady of the Lake and rejecting Excalibur. It feels unfocused and fairly flat. It’s a standard beat the villain light show, lacking any nuance or heart. Out of everything in this special, this felt the most like an afterthought sadly.
We also got to take a trip back in time to the 80s with Stephanie Phillips and Hendry Prasetya’s ‘Multitudes.’ This story functions as a throwback to the Aquaman miniseries by Neil Pozner and Craig Hamilton from the 80s. That’s a great little mini that leaned more into the mysticism of Atlantis and it’s the story that suited Arthur up in his blue camouflage gear. This tries to go for that as well with Arthur in that blue suit again and teaming up with Arion, an ancient king of Atlantis. It tries to alleviate Arthur’s stress about being King but it feels a bit rushed. Its message doesn’t really land. It functions well enough as a team-up between Arthur and Arion but with a special like this, I was wanting a little more.
Unfortunately, Geoff Johns returned for this special. Of course, Johns is an influential creator in Aquaman’s history but with the allegations against him, it feels incredibly tone-deaf to bring him back. It wasn’t even worth it, considering this is my least favourite of the collection. The story here follows Aqualad as he battles his father, Black Manta which they apparently do every year. It feels rushed and the characters don’t speak like real people. It just feels forced and stilted and sadly not even the art team can save it. Paul Pelletier who I usually love puts in some decent enough work but feels less defined and more rushed than his usual high standard.
These last two stories just confused me more than anything. Again they aren’t awful, they just left me a bit baffled. The first is ‘Between Two Shores’ by Cavan Scott and Scott Eaton. This follows Arthur and Mera as they protect a Trench creature that has been raised by an Atlantean. Just a bizarre concept for a story with odd stereotypical characters. I get what they were trying to accomplish here with Arthur sticking up for those caught between two worlds. But this could have worked better with say a character from the Ninth Tride introduced in Abnett’s run. I can see this working better with more time but the lack of pages available left this feeling incomplete.
Another odd addition was a story by Dan Jurgens and Steve Epting. These two are a returning creative team from a small run in the late 90s. This takes place around the time of that run. If you’re asking yourself if Jurgens really did a run in the 90s you would be forgiven. DC has never reprinted it and it’s almost never talked about. I can appreciate an overlooked run being given the spotlight but this was a bizarre inclusion. Especially since this is so beholden to characters and concepts that most won’t even be familiar with. It doesn’t help that the story also isn’t all that compelling. I can’t see this wanting to draw in new readers to that old material, especially since the same concepts have been executed far better in other work.
I think the feeling of confusion really sums up my thoughts on this special. I just have so many questions. For something that claims to celebrate 80 years of Aquaman it sure does very little to show it. Most of these stories had Arthur in his shirtless look from the run by Kelly Sue Deconnick, with a few exceptions. I love that run but he didn’t even keep that look by the end of the run? It feels more like it’s cashing in on Momoa’s Aquaman with the tattoos, rather than paying homage to the character.
I liked how some stories focused on specific eras of the character, like the work of Nick Cardy but why wasn’t there more of that? Why is nothing done to reflect on the work in the 70s by Steve Skeates and Jim Aparo? The work that Ramona Fradon did seems to be completely ignored, same with the stories in the 2000s like Sub Diego and Sword of Atlantis. Harpoon-hand Aquaman from the 90s is controversial but that look is incredibly iconic. That was Aquaman for the better part of a decade, why isn’t that here at all?
Where are characters like Dolphin, Tula, and Vulko? Even fish characters like Topo the Octopus and Storm the seahorse would have been great to see. Where are creators like Dan Abnett, Stjepan Šejić, Brad Walker, or Ivan Reis? Artists who have defined the look of modern Aquaman. Oddly I think the great selection of variant covers honours the legacy of the character better than the actual issue did. There are covers that acknowledge important touchstones of the character’s history, with odes to the golden age, 70s, and 90s.
The best stories inside all reveal different aspects of the character. Parker and Shaner focus on his relationship with his finny friends and Bennett and Ngyeun focus on his relationship with Mera. Why wasn’t there more of that? Another one of my favourite characters got that in spades earlier this year, Green Arrow. That issue brought in characters and creative teams from across the character’s history in a way that truly celebrated that character, how he’s changed and what he means. If you were a fan of Green Arrow you got a wonderful celebration of his history and evolution. But it was also an issue that was approachable and easily recommendable. If you were new you could instantly understand why people loved that character.
I don’t know if you would get that from this, despite some very strong stories. I can’t say I’m all that surprised. So much of the older Aquaman comics are out of print and unavailable. Ramona Fradon worked on the character longer than any other creator. Can you find her work anywhere? No, not in trade and not on Comixology or DC Universe Infinite. A few issues are there but nothing close to the extensive catalogue of work she did.
When I put down this issue I struggled to think that I could really give this to someone and say “THIS IS AQUAMAN.” I think that’s what these issues should do, celebrate the character and what makes them so special. Outside of a few stories I didn’t really get that. Instead, this felt quite rushed and scattered, with creative teams chosen supposedly at random. Each story taken on its own, there is more here that I would say is good than bad. But something celebrating 8 decades of a character should be better than that. It’s not all bad though. I’m very excited for the future, what Thomas and Brown are doing is really exciting. It seems the future is in safe hands, it would just be great if the past could be appreciated as well.
GIVE ME MY RAMONA FRADON AND NICK CARDY OMNIBUSES DC DAMMIT!