For most of my life, I had the same perception of Aquaman as most others did for a long time. He was the punchline of the Justice League and the least formidable or interesting superhero in the DC Comics lineup that I could think of. When shows like The Big Bang Theory, Family Guy and Robot Chicken constantly made fun of him, I laughed at pretty much all of the jokes.
Then I saw the Aquaman film and my perspective on Arthur Curry changed forever. No more punchlines thanks to Jason Momoa and James Wan at least on screen, but I wanted more of the comic lore to absorb than just the first 25 issues of Aquaman Rebirth that I had read, which I did enjoy.
That’s where this Aquaman Omnibus, a collection of New 52 stories written by Geoff Johns comes into play. Given graciously to me as a birthday gift from my podcast brothers in the Suicide Squadcast Network, it took me a bit to read but I finally blasted through it and I will seriously never think of Aquaman the same way again.
To be clear, it didn’t take me a while to read because I wasn’t interested. On the contrary, it’s a VERY good book with strong storytelling and development by Johns and some stunningly epic artwork by Ivan Reis. It’s just a HUGE book. Seriously, well over 700 pages. It’s by far the largest comic publication I have ever read in one sitting.
It was well worth it, though. For several reasons.
To begin with, it’s clear from the beginning that Johns was dead set on making Aquaman a badass. He hits you with all of the pop culture clichés right from the beginning. The way the public treats Aquaman when they see him, not taking him seriously, thinking him delusional for considering Atlantis a real place and openly disrespecting him when he’s just trying to have lunch.
Part of me felt guilty because this is how the world really saw Arthur Curry through the Superfriends era of cartoons and all the way up to New 52 when these stories were first published, and even then, he was only just gaining respect in the comics. It likely still took casting Khal Drogo from Game of Thrones for the movie for the general public to truly start respecting the character and his abilities.
Make no mistake, Johns was on a mission with this one and he accomplished it brilliantly, first giving you the background on Arthur’s new responsibilities and threats to face, especially the ravenous Trench who were introduced in this collection, and then digging further into Arthur’s past with his own team of friends with abilities, The Others, and his arch-nemesis Black Manta. There’s great development in that whole part of the story regarding Arthur’s past and his being torn between the surface world and Atlantis.
Then you get to the heart of the matter, the plot that plunged Atlantis into a brief but devastating conflict with the surface world, which served as mankind’s official introduction to a place and a people they thought mythical this whole time. It’s brutal, bombastic and very emotional at times, with great stakes and heavy prices being paid by many on every page, but the real prize of this story is how Johns makes it “real.” Some of the most powerful moments in his writing here are scenes where characters are observing and reacting to what is happening around them.
When Arthur is further questioned as to whose side he is on after Orm’s vicious attack, when all Aquaman is trying to do is keep the peace and bridge the gulf between humans and Atlanteans, or when soldiers of Atlantis make commentary on mankind’s follies like using fossil fuels as propulsion despite pollution or fighting amongst themselves. These are the moments that might seem preachy to some but are indicative of real-world observations and stakes at hand within a wholly fictional premise.
I’ll admit, one of my favorite moments is during the battles when Aquaman and Batman are together, and Arthur admits that his war plans he designed with Orm back in the day included putting Batman on his hit list, well before he knew Bruce Wayne or any of the rest of the League. “I’m flattered” was the perfect Batman response. Warmed my heart to read that.
That’s some of the strongest points of this whole story as well, when Arthur finds himself in conflict with the League over how to deal with the Atlanteans. He is fully committed to being king of his people and leading them to a peaceable solution, despite them being branded terrorists and monsters not only by the League, but by mankind itself. Without question, Aquaman is in conflict with both sides for nearly this entire story until you get to the final arc in the collection, Death of a King, the story that reveals the truth about King Atlan’s vengeance against the city that turned against him and his family when he returns again to claim the throne.
That was the part of the book that really felt like it inspired a lot of the movie, though there are certainly marked differences between the two without question. Vulko, Murk and the outright divergence of Nereus being Mera’s betrothed in Xebel as opposed to her father in the movie, were just a few of the definitive differences from comic to screen that always happen when these stories are adapted. Though it is abundantly clear that on some level, Reis’ artwork in this book was used as storyboards for how the film was shot. There are certain shots in the movie that are nearly identical to panels in the book and that was great to see.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t talk about Mera, the unsung hero of this book. Her strength, tenacity and grace are on full display here and her devotion to Arthur even in the face of all that is happening to and around them is just awesome. She also served as the perfect Atlantean viewpoint to peaceably process how the surface world works while trying to understand its customs. It definitely helps me further understand her characterization in the Aquaman Rebirth issues I have read to this point.
Between Aquaman Omnibus and Flashpoint, the writing of Geoff Johns is batting 1.000 with me so far, and I’m eager to read more of his work, which at this point will likely be his Green Lantern run. Stay tuned for that review down the road.