It seems that Geoff Johns isn’t writing scripts anymore so much as lists. And after the fashion of the unassimilable tourist abroad, who believes that the folks around him will understand what he’s saying if he only says less, talks slower and shouts louder, Mr. Johns seems to feel compelled to repeat his one-note plot-points over and over again in ever more obvious ways. This degeneration of his style, and to the point to which his stories have become hard to differentiate from a blow-by-blow summary of a brief plot proposal, leaves Aquaman feeling far more like a manifesto than a comic book. It’s a political broadcast from the Aquaman-is-Cool-and-Unfairly-Under-Appreciated Party, and nothing so unnecessary as a story, it seems, is going to get between Mr. Johns’s convictions about the matter and the reader’s brain.
Even as Mr. Johns hammers home the litany over and over again, there’s a curious silence in his text where key aspects of the backstory are concerned. Ignoring the doctrine of show for the convenience of tell, we’re suddenly presented in the penultimate scene, for example, with Aquaman’s mysterious lover, with Mera’s role and character beyond cuddling and comforting her man taken almost entirely for granted. And so, while the meaning of the strip isn’t trusted to lie in the sub-text, the text itself is often woefully thin on the kind of material which a new reader really might benefit from knowing. Within all these great clunking set-pieces, the one successful example of restraint and pathos can be found in the single panel representing Arthur Curry’s memories of a precious moment once spent in the company of his father.
Mr. Johns has often proved touchingly able to put to use the absence of much-loved family members into the service of his stories, and here, just for a panel, there’s a moving sense of affection and warmth matched with despair that brings the story to life for just a brief moment.
Yet even before the following panel is permitted to close, Mr. Johns has the inanities of a tactless, heartless blogger — those swine — intrude once again upon Aquaman’s private sorrows. On one level, I can see how arranging things this way seemed attractive when the list of bullet points for this comic’s content was typed out. To have the Sea King’s sense of loss ignored by the ignorant internet commentator does help make the point again, and again and again, that Aquaman isn’t respected by at least one of the cultures he’s served. Yet because the script has been so insultingly obvious and repetitive up until that point, the irritation at the intrusion felt by Arthur Curry isn’t just obvious to the reader, but very possibly shared by them too. There’s a difference, after all, between the reader realising that Aquaman is being aggravated and their feeling aggravated themselves, and it’s the latter experience which predominates here.
It’s wearisome to have this stereotype of an Aspergic obsessive crashing the one moment’s worth of silence and genuine emotion in the comic, and without their character adding anything new to the narrative either. We’ve already had the fat fan chomping down the calories and insisting that he knows more about Aquaman than the Sea King does. Now we’ve the nasty, unshaven, and greasy-haired fan who’s so impossibly subsumed by his own analism that he not only challenges Aquaman, but thoroughly upsets him too. It’s yet one more example of a simple beat of a story being re-emphasized to the point where the story dissolves ito the tub-thumping. Yes, the reader gets the point; Aquaman’s been hard done by, and by the ignorant know-it-all’s of the Rump too.
But in that single panel, in that scene so movingly and economically rendered by Mr. Reis, in the sense of a conflicted and ill-respected man still longing for the security and love of his childhood, Aquaman #1 feels as if it’s a very fine comic book indeed. All the daftness of the presumption which underpins the comic book dissolves into something fundamentally human. Given how absurd the premise upon which the rest of the comic is constructed, this is no little achievement. Because it’s patently ridiculous that a man as powerful and as handsomely blond as Aquaman, who is after all a Justice Leaguer and a ex-King of Atlantis, would ever be held in such utter public disdain.
A degree of unpopularity is always likely for any public figure, and misconceptions about Aquaman’s power-set must surely exist. Yet Mr. Johns seems to want us to believe that folks in the DCU’s America are either quite ignorant or openly uneasy if not contemptuous of Arthur Curry. Indeed, Aquaman’s petulant and ill-tempered responses to the men and women he meets can only be excused if that’s so. For either he really is living in a world where his standing is impossibly and insultingly low, in which case we just might be able to sympathize with his rudeness and his only partially-repressed temper tantrums, or he’s behaving like a great deal of a spoilt brat, which is hardly becoming of a Sea King or a line-leading superhero.
But the police officers who Arthur encounters aren’t rude or disrespectful, and it’s hard to believe that the ignorami in the diner are representative of everyone in this new DCU. But Mr. Johns’s script leaves us no room to believe that anyone thinks positively about Aquaman at all. Indeed, he clearly blames Arthur Curry’s lack of popularity upon just about everyone, and in particular upon those pesky fans and their clearly ill-informed opinions. Yet who can believe in any such a set of overwhelming problems in the first place? From all this protesting too much comes a strong sense that Mr. Johns may just feel that out here in the reality of 2011, both those slandering and ill-informed members of the comics-reading community and the snipers out there in the great pop mainstream have been very unfair to poor Aquaman, and perhaps also to the Great Lister himself. Hand that feeds, meet creator’s bite.
But it wasn’t those fanboys who made such a mess of Aquaman’s public standing on the newstands and then in the comics shops. It was the editors and writers who were in charge of his adventures. Yet here it feels as if everyone else is getting the blame for why Aquaman’s so often been a figure of fun, both in his world and in ours too. Suggesting that most of the audience has been at best lacking in attention, and at the worst cruel and bullying towards a poor innocent and virtuous property of DC Comics, certainly is a unique way of approaching the relaunch of a character. (There’s notably not a single person in the whole comic beyond Mera who doesn’t at best patronise Aquaman or treat him with unease. In the way of Mr. Johns’s lists, there’s no room for nuance here: Aquaman has been hard done by.)
But the very idea that this skyscraper-leaping, bullet-proof and beautifully golden servant of the public’s welfare would be held in even the slightest contempt is so impossibly ludicrous. He carries with him the status of royalty and of a JLA’er. He possess the powers of a God, as well as a great deal of physical beauty. He’s famous, he’s been active for years, and it’s hard to see why he’d be so ill-respected. (In a culture obsessed with celebrity, he’d at the very least be an object of fascination.) Perhaps we’ll discover the reason for this unconvincing alienation in future issues, but for now, it’s a conceit which makes no sense in anything other than cod-dramatic terms.
Worse yet, it’s so self-indulgently meta that it’s hard not to cringe thinking of the author’s priorities. Who’d engage in a debate, and something of a slapdown too, over a character’s public standing when they might actually be telling a tale that’s got something of human substance going for it?
Yet to read the scene in which Aquaman looses his temper when faced with the clearly socially-incompetent fan-boy’s question of ”How’s it feel to be nobody’s favourite super-hero?” is to be faced with a superhero who cares deeply about what the obsessional and dysfunctional of this world believe. And I find this a view of the man with the trident which is entirely impossible to buy into, let alone empathise with. What are we to think of an Aquaman who’s concerned in the slightest about his popularity with the blogging fanboys of the DCU, or who cares because a policeman has tried to be kind in offering to him a glass of water? (Well, how dare that officer not possess an intimate knowledge of ex-King Curry’s physiology? How dare he insult the King of the Seven Seas by trying to be kind to him?) Because if that’s what it takes to truly upset this Sea King, this super-man of such obvious distinction and power, then who could care less about such a shallow and X-Factor-ized Arthur Curry? Are we supposed to truly sympathise with a superhero who’s upset about not being respected enough by the general public, or rather, by a clearly inept and in truth pitiable young man claiming to speak for them. This is a facile framing of Aquaman’s character which suggests that he’s nothing but the spandex’s brigade’s equivilant of a pumped-up one-hit wonder whose recording career isn’t ever taken seriously enough for his own liking. He’s got all this talent, he’s achieved all these great things, and yet folks just won’t take him for the seriously laudable person of stature that he truly is.
Oh, poor pathetic Aquaman. He can’t even sit down for a fish ‘n’ chip supper without being bothered by the public. It’s a tragedy, or at least it would be if he hadn’t chosen to visit a public diner which was full of customers while he’s wearing his full super-hero togs and carrying a really big trident with him. Seriously, what did he expect? If I were to stumble into my local chippie dressed as Arthur Currie’s shown to be in that scene, I’d expect to be interrupted and laughed at, if not far worse, depending on the time of day.
Mr. Johns’s obviously had on his “to-do” list for Aquaman #1 the business of showing how the disrespect for Mr. Curry comes from the inadequate and the ill-informed, if not from those who are both. These people won’t even let him sprinkle vinegar on his chips! Yet what could be more misguided, if not actively arrogant, than turning up in full super-shark-fighting regalia at a crowded Sam’s Seafood in bright daylight and expecting to be left alone? The lister of “The Trench, Part 1″ obviously expected these pages to establish Aquaman as an unfairly put-upon character, while, just perhaps, getting in a few satirical digs at the self-opinionated chubbies and speccies who make up those who rudely criticise their betters from their foxholes in the blogosphere.
And the worst of the groundlings really do deserve sniping at, and perhaps their number includes this piece’s author. It’s certainly easy to see why the often-insulted Mr. Johns would think it both amusing and appropriate to portray the critics of Aquaman in this specific light, and I’ve no objection at all to a few back-of-the-handers being dished out from the Olympian heights of the offices at 1700 Broadway. But it’s surely best not to take such pot-shots when the sketch in which they’re embedded is so knee-deep in whine and bound by nothing but wisps of ill-logic.
Next time, perhaps Arthur will leave the trident on the beach, pull a coat over his costume and a woolen hat over his hair, and, while he’s at it, be respectful enough to bring the appropriate currency too. If he wants to tip in doubloons, that’s all well and good. But it’s a mark of a conceited so-and-so that he would walk into a business and decide that he’ll pay the bill in the currency of his own choosing. ”Keep the change,” he brusquely tells the waitress, without bothering to either place his payment into her hand or explain what it is that he’s left behind him. And then, when she’s forced to come after him in order to discover what it is he’s left for her, he says without smiling that she should ”Put your kids through college,” as if she were a scivy and he dispensing with a frown the King’s largess. It would have been more impressive if he’d have simply said “thank you” to her, but then perhaps the gifting of wealth cancels out the need for politeness and kindness in the reality TV entitlement culture of 2011.
Yet perhaps it’s here that we can perceive in the pages of “The Trench, Part 1″ the lone substantial evolution in the content of the superhero comic which has arrived in any of the titles of the New 52. For we’ve been being presented with decade after decade of superhero books which are concerned with little but other superhero comics, and now we have Aquaman, which is so incestuously self-concerned that it isn’t even about the cape-’n'-chest-insignia brigade any more. Rather than being all shaky-wristed with love for the hyper-people, Aquaman #1 is utterly preoccupied with the fans and their view of superheroes. It’s nothing but a comic concerned with the opinions of the Rump, and with the lack of respect which the general public seems to have for the bloke who talks to squids and dolphins. And that’s such a terrifyingly narcissistic idea that it really doesn’t bear thinking about too much. To have to even consider that the theme of Aquaman #1 is the lack of respect which fanboys in particular feel for Arthur Curry is to sense the strength draining out of a blogger’s typing fingers.
Is this really what the superhero comic has been reduced to? Wouldn’t simply telling better stories about Aquaman make more sense than producing a list of reasons for why so many others have been so unforgivably wrong to regard the character as being uncool?
But when Mr. Johns pushes all that silliness about why Aquaman’s unloved and who’s responsible for that to one side for just a single panel, the basic strength of the character shines through. This is the boy of two worlds who belongs in neither, who grew up with his abandoned father in an isolated lighthouse, and who made friends with the creatures of sea because there was no-one else for him to spend his time with, and nowhere else for him to go.
Like most of Mr. Johns’s lists these days, Aquaman #1 is sprinkled with a few water-cooler moments, a small number of obviously vital messages for the reader to be sure not to miss, and almost twenty pages of piffle which comes to pieces in the reader’s mind like over-saturated tissue when the story’s thought about for anything more than a second or two. In that lone panel of the males of the Curry family eating together, there was the spectre of the best of Mr. Johns’s older work. But that single, silent, charming, touching panel can be processed in a second — and then, oh dear, Mr. Johns starts speaking in that very deliberate and very obvious and almost entirely nonsensical manner while raising his voice once again…
This review originally appeared on Colin Smith’s blog Too Busy Thinking About My Comics.