The Old 52: On Jeff Parker/Paul Pelletier’s Aquaman

I’d never thought of Aquaman as anything less than cool.

Hell, I remember the first time I encountered the idea that he was boring and uncool (it was in high school) and being baffled.

What?

How was this guy anything except the most slick superhero?! I was truly, properly, confused by the notion.

Then again, I was raised in a different bubble, one which did not include jokes or digs at Aquaman being uncool, which is why, when I witnessed those who hadn’t, it didn’t really make sense.

What I saw was a man who sailed the seas, a man who could hear the whispers of Kaiju, who could speak the tongue of whales, whose list of pals included Sharks. A spiritual guardian of the oceans who rode sea-horses, who held odd ancient magicks and sci-fi technology and a trident akin to Shiva. And wrapped amidst all that was also this Arthurian undercurrent, a hero named after the mythic King, marked by his mighty trident instead of Excalibur and part of a contemporary Knights Of The Roundtable in the form of The Justice League. His partner Mera was cool, as was his trusty sidekick, Aqualad. And rounding out this odd Aqua-Family was Aqua-Baby, alongside his super-cool octopus pet Topo.

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This dude was part of a striking visual world, with designs like Black Manta and Oceanmaster. This was a figure who was a part of Ramona Fradon’s legacy. Here was an odd hero, who was Superhero-As-King. Here was a Romantic Hero. Here was the man who knew the deepest secrets, the strangest corners, that we couldn’t even dare to imagine. Nothing less than a space-faring explorer. Here was a vehicle to do everything from grand romantic epics of old to sprawling fantasy and sci-fi world-building to prescient environmental tales or great horror comics or sweet Slice Of Life stuff.

‘King Arthur of Atlantis,’ what a charged idea full of possibility and potential. That is what I saw. Which is to say, I never saw anything to be embarrassed about. I thought of him akin to just about any other character and assessed him as such. So it was a real surprise then to encounter those who were so completely unable to, who desperately had to apologize for this dude. The people who were immediately and automatically on the defensive, constantly reacting to an assumption on the character and marking their feelings with an asterisk, or worse, trying to pitch Aquaman as an exaggerated ‘badass’ to be taken seriously, akin to other figures who meant Serious Business. All were desperate bids to apologize for the thing itself or position and frame it in such a way that it would appease an already poor, bad-faith assumption or idea.

It’s the nerd equivalent of re-doing your room from what it actually is into something you think the person arriving will respect.

All of which is a long winded way of saying, I am very glad to have come across Jeff Parker and Paul Pelletier’s Aquaman, after suffering through ages of endless tiresome rhetoric like ‘Peter David made Aquaman cool! He gave him a hook hand! Bruce Timm and the DCAU made Aquaman cool! They gave him a hook hand! Geoff Johns and Ivan Reis made Aquaman cool! He doesn’t talk to fish, he MINDCONTROLS THEM!!’.

While so many nervously obsessed over Aquaman’s perception and being seen as ‘cool’ (especially given if he wasn’t, how it might reflect on them for enjoying stuff he was in), Parker and Pelletier’s work, to me, brought a refreshing sense of unapologetic, uncompromising cool confidence. Gone was the air of ‘Be cool. Be cool. Be badass. We need folks to think this rules’ like a bunch of kids in an ’80’s movie, replaced at last with a secure sense of storytelling and vision that replaced the nerd-panic with a soft grin.

That in the first arc alone, Parker and Pelletier open an issue by having Arthur Curry, The Aquaman, say this outloud should be telling:

Quoting the catchphrase from the most blatantly goofy, silly, campy, ridiculous and unapologetic iteration of the character to ever exist in the form of John DiMaggio’s glorious Aquaman from Brave and The Bold should give you a hint as to where this team’s mind is.

Geoff Johns’ Aquaman run (which is what Jeff Parker is following up, teaming-up with Pelletier who is coming off collaborating with Johns), is a curious beast. It is often the run credited with making Aquaman ‘cool’ and ‘credible’ again. Certainly it isn’t bad comics, but they are very, very Geoff Johns comics. Which is to say, you observe what Johns is doing, and it is very much him on autopilot, recreating a story-setup, structure, and formula he’s almost gotten down to a T at this point. You have The Seven Seas/Lands/Corps, each with its own signature representative; you have The Dark Mirror; you have The Vendetta Villain, and the whole enterprise is Johns using his bag of tools to sell you The World Of Aquaman. He’s trying to lay down a story engine and mechanics for this book, he’s trying to make it a viable ‘franchise’ in Hollywood terms, which can be easily adapted into Films, TV Shows, and Video Games. He’s leaning on Lore, and trying to pitch and sell you on why Aquaman is a hot new IP now.

Opening on people’s open mockery of the idea of Aquaman, Johns’ run is plagued with the notion of Aquaman being ‘not worth it’ or perhaps something shameful. And repeatedly he is assured that isn’t the case. From the kid in the first arc, who in refutation of ‘Aquaman is no one’s favorite superhero’ says Aquaman is his favorite, to Mera much later, it’s all about how Aquaman is cool, Aquaman matters. Aquaman is important. Johns’ Aquaman is the silent badass, a man with infinite riches, who women drool over, who is plagued by the weight of The Hard Decisions he must make. He’s the guy who summons sharks to devour monsters or calls upon Kaiju in battle.

All of which is to say, Johns’ Aquaman is about scope and scale. It is an attempt at a sprawling birds-eye view and vision of the character. Johns gives the world of Arthur a ‘structure’ and lays a ‘foundation’ that’s a ‘Hey, here’s what you can find and get in this book!’ Even its character dynamics are a lot of that. Johns plays with very familiar elements, both to his own work and just at large, riffing on them to present a very ‘saleable’ vision of this enterprise. From Arthur’s guilt of murdering Black Manta’s further, which forever locks him in a cycle of hatred with his arch-nemesis, to his dynamic with Orm/Oceanmaster, The Dark Mirror, essentially the morally ambiguous sibling this sort of fantasy endeavor almost begs for, Johns’ take is operating in grand gestures and strokes. This is his Thor. This is him going ‘Isn’t this whole construction super badass and awesome?’

And maybe it is, maybe it isn’t, but never at any point did I come away caring about this construction and the figure at the heart of it, that Johns wanted me to so desperately care about. This is a  reluctant king, a man forced to do that which never wanted to, who is conflicted and sad, tearing up on his throne, until his partner shows up. He felt like a stock figure and archetype of this sort of enterprise that Johns was, once again writing on auto-pilot. Johns is a deeply commercial writer, one whose sensibilities are deeply attuned to, and are almost actively aiming for, ‘What will do well?’, which is why he’s done so well. And that sensibility is perhaps why this relaunch landed so well. But I fail to have any reason to care about it all, with the only character of interest and note being Orm, who feels like a somewhat interesting take on his archetype.

It’s a machine that lacks a heart and soul, at least for me, for all its sweeping motions and armies at war with one-another, which is a kind of comics that Johns has mastered. Being the J.J Abrams of American Comics, he has tightly maintained the ability to do a certain type of ‘competent’ blockbuster comic that is sure to never fail. The Eternal Hit-Maker.

It’s also why following up Johns work is often a daunting task for many. And here’s where Jeff Parker comes in:

Having grown up near the North Carolina coast and always enjoyed ‘beach stuff’ as he once put it to USAToday, Parker’s long been a fan of the character. And it shows.

While obviously the book never veers into full on Brave and the Bold lunacy, given this is still The New 52, and this is following up Geoff Johns, and trying to maintain the audience cultivated from what came before, Parker strikes a different sensibility. And it is immediately apparent, as Pelletier is the consistent figure between both runs, and you get to actually see the differences in writer vision and approach, as aesthetic consistency is maintained for the most part.

Parker’s Aquaman was less the sprawling superhero, and more of a pulpy sea-faring adventurer. Here was a guy beating up Hercules, weird Greek monsters, punching Kaijus, and dealing with all manner of strange inter-dimensional puzzles, prisons, and portals.


Here was a slick dude, who’d play dumb, and then grin, and then punch, while proudly declaring himself AQUAMAN!

The sense of comfort and ease which is prevalent throughout the run is striking to me, as there is no amount of try-hard attempts to cover up a deeper shame or desire for acceptance. The comic doesn’t care. It knows what it is; it’s cool about it. What you make of it is your problem. It’s a comic birthed and nurtured under the care of sincerity, one that does not apologize, one that isn’t ashamed, one that isn’t loud of obnoxious. It’s an airy, smart adventure comic stripped of all the weird baggage that many of these ventures, particularly in this period, come with. This isn’t a book making a case for itself or offering self-justification. It is genuine, considered character-work and character-driven storytelling.

Perhaps the best expression of this sentiment is in #28, an issue that really struck me when I first read the run years ago. I’d seen superheroes brawl with Darkseid. I’d seen them do the impossible. I’d seen these mighty, titanic icons, the ones you grow up with the iconography and names of as a kid, do all manner of brave and bold things. I’d seen them be gritty; I’d seen them be goofy, but what this book offered a young teenage reader was something I at that point had not yet seen. Here was Aquaman, this pillar, this icon, this oceanic demigod, who ruled The Seven Seas, who could do so much, whose powers and resources knew no bounds, who lived on this titanic scale. And this man, this larger-than-life figure…was genuinely scared of going to a school reunion. It was something that genuinely surprised me and struck me, as an ‘Oh! These stories can do this! Whoa!’ Nut beyond that, it was an illustration of the kind of comic Parker was writing, and a kind of story you wouldn’t get in Johns’ tenure.

It was an expression of a run that was genuinely, truly interested in Aquaman, Arthur Curry, as a person, as an individual, beyond just the superhero structure, the mechanisms, the lore and mythos. It was an investment in asking ‘Okay, who is this person? Where is he at emotionally?’ and examining that beyond just his grand title and superheroics.

It’s a work so at ease with itself, that has no issue making pointed mockery and jokes about try-hard ‘badass’ images of Aquaman:


The entire bit here is how patently ridiculous that whole Badass Serious Guy stuff is, as it asks, ultimately, above all:

What if Aquaman was just…a dude?

It gives him emotional meat that feels very tangible and real, and you get this guy. You care about him.

It’s why the run even opens on an arc wherein a newcomer to Aquaman’s hometown is snooping around for details on Arthur… and yet not one person is willing to give him up. It presents Aquaman as not just an abstract super-figure, but also as a connected, human figure who means something to the community he inhabits. He’s a community hero everyone went to school with, and he’s just…a guy. A guy that happens to be The King Of The Seas and on The Justice League and all that, but ultimately…just a person, like any of us. A dude who’d grab a drink with you and chat with you. Parker and Pelletier, to me, gave the character a soul, beyond all the constructions he inhabited. If Johns spent his entire tenure insisting Aquaman’s importance, Parker casually gets you in conversation with this affable dude who you end up really liking by the end.

But even beyond that, even when Parker delves into the big construction of it all, the mechanics and wide, sweeping ideas that underpin the ‘mythos’ as it were, he asks powerful, interesting questions Johns never dared to ask. Johns has Arthur’s mother be almost a footnote in an origin, who is killed off and taken off the board, with his father following suit, leaving Arthur with no parents. Johns is, if nothing else, a lover of tradition and clichés. And as the tradition goes in cliched origins, to quote Batman from The Lego Movie: DARKNESS! NO PARENTS!

Parker, however, dares to ask: Well, why is that? Why is Atlanna, Arthur’s mum, just a damn footnote? What’s her story? What’s her perspective on all this? On what was done to her? Because that’s really it, isn’t it? This entire story builds from her having to leave her husband and son and return to marry a man she never loved and have a child with him, all due to obligation. And then she’s dead?! Really? Is that really the best we can do here? Parker’s run dares to ask ‘Hey, what if we didn’t do that?’ It posits ‘What if we actually gave Atlanna some interiority and didn’t just make her a footnote for the motivation of these men?’

And thus we get this glorious visual:


Parker and Pelletier’s run posits that Atlanna didn’t die. She in fact, instead, orchestrated an event that made it seem like she was, in order to escape, in order to flee and, finally, be free, to have a life of her own, beyond all her obligations which have plagued and destroyed her soul. And thus you get what is, in effect, a sort of Underwater King Conan-esque figure here, as Parker and Pelletier ask ‘There’s a lot of Super-Mythic Fathers, like Odin, Jor-El, and more, how about some Super-Mythic Mothers?’.

And in the end, the whole story revolves around acceptance, particularly self-acceptance, tied up with the very essence of Atlantis. Arthur cannot be king, he cannot rule, until he has attained some manner of emotional closure or an answer to a question which has plagued him his whole life.

What happened to my mum?

This is a boy who has lived with the horrible fact of his mother leaving him, and that hurts. That isn’t easy. To sit upon the seat that which belonged to her and not have closure? It’s hard to accept. Emotionally, it’s a lot, and it’s very difficult. And that is the fundamental pursuit of Parker’s run: An emotional truth, an emotional arc and journey, that is honest, that is sincere, and lets a person come to terms with who they are and how their life went.

In the end, the mother and child do not get long together, and it is decidedly not the reunion either of them would have wished for. But none of this is easy, none of this is simple. Seeing Arthur reminds Atlanna of all the failings and horrors of her own past and the traditions that destroyed her, and seeing his mother raises great pain in Arthur, for what was lost, what he never had, but perhaps could’ve. By the conclusion, there isn’t a simple, easy reconciliation, but there is acceptance, an understanding, of what it is exactly that happened, and an expression of relief on both ends, that Arthur is happy and is in a loving, happy relationship, one that breaks past the traditions of Atlanna’s past, and that Atlanna is okay, that she lived, she didn’t die. She got to be free, in the end, and be her own woman, her own person, which was denied to her for so long.

And acceptance, a calm, honest, sincere emotional acceptance is perhaps the best illustration of the fundamental truth that Parker and Pelletier’s run seeks to capture.

Arthur and Mera look ahead, holding each other close, smiling. That is the nature of Parker and Pelletier’s run. It’s a run constantly looking ahead, emotionally honest without shame. What’s begun here, with Arthur’s acceptance, is a process which requires both him and his mother to adjust and grow after accepting the truth of what they’ve just learnt. If they are ready, things can perhaps change and progress from there. There’s a lot of emotionally rich and messy stuff in this run, and to me, it brings the heart and soul to this entire damn enterprise.

Jeff Parker made me care about Arthur Curry as a person. He made me care about all of his characters as people, imbuing them with a deep humanity that rings right. It resonates. It is perhaps why the James Wan movie, for all that it involves Geoff Johns and takes so much from Johns’ spectacle, his mythos and lore, all his sweeping gestures, is also fundamentally built around the emotional core, the heart and soul, of Atlanna’s story. She’s alive, and the conclusion of her story with her son is the fundamental emotional meat and core of the movie. It is the thing without which the film just would not work. It’s a film that is a blatant reversal of Johns ‘Darkness, No Parents’ shtick, with BOTH parents alive and, by the end, finding love, getting the happy ending Johns’ circumstances made impossible for Parker to write.

Geoff Johns tells you there are Seven Things that are super-important, but Jeff Parker makes you tear up. It’s why upon watching the film, qualitative judgements aside, my immediate thought was this:

Did Jeff Parker and Paul Pelletier get paid properly for this?

The movie’s entire emotional climax and heart is Parker subversion of Johns material and the richness that Parker imbued the book and character with. It is drawn from his sincerity and consideration.

I hope they did, but I also know this industry enough to know Parker likely got nothing, and maybe if he did, it was peanuts.

Nevertheless, his work, particularly here, deserves appreciation and consideration. It is lovely. It is great fun. It is heartfelt. But above all, it is outrageous.

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