Aquaman: Rebirth reads a little like a treatise on Arthur Curry and what makes him who he is. Couched in a careful, thoughtful narration, the issue sees Aquaman once again struggling to maintain peace between Atlantis and the mainland. It’s certainly a natural continuation of the monarch’s New 52 adventures, but it makes a point of clarifying a couple of ideas that are tweaked or will see greater prominence in this latest run.
It is perhaps wise to start with such a straightforward look at what Aquaman means. Among the founding members of the Justice League he is likely the one who has seen the most stops and starts, changing his focus and his nature more frequently than even Wonder Woman! This interpretation highlights Arthur’s will, the force of character it takes to claim responsibility for an entire nation, as well as the Earth’s oceans.
There are, inevitably, references to Aquaman’s perceived ‘lameness’ mixed in along worries about Atlantis’ antagonism towards the surface world and the threat of the King of Atlantis wearing himself down.
Of course by covering this much ground the story risks over generalizing. One of the greatest faults of this issue is that it’s very stiff. The narrator is pleasantly exact in his diction, but so is Mera, and so is Arthur, and their subordinates, and not all of them feel as intentional or as necessary. It seems possible that this was an attempt to build in a sense of Otherness in the Atlantean culture, especially as Arthur seems the most likely to challenge this, but it has a serious negative effect on the energy of the issue.
I also must say that I’m not certain about Mera’s portrayal. Mera is very consciously reframed as an Atlantean isolationist tempering her instinct out of love and respect for her husband. It introduces an interesting conflict but it kind of feels beneath this relationship, which has been handled so well in recent years and was just blessed with the return of marriage to DC. I can’t put my finger on why it bothers me so, but it feels dismissive of Mera. It actually kind of reminds me of the elements I didn’t like about the animated Starfire, turning Mera into an interesting character to observe rather than one to relate to.
Like Wonder Woman, Aquaman is both a hero and a diplomat and, especially in his case, those two roles are not always in line with one another. Though it may seem like the less interesting of Arthur’s twin duties, the political side of Aquaman is very much on display in this issue.
Dan Abnett is clearly thinking about the specific intricacies of Atlantean politics. The brief monologue about Hadalin is one of the best ideas in the issue and, while radical xenophobes riding nuclear mosasaurs is pretty rad, it’s clear that the Deluge is less a physical threat than an expression of the Atlantean political spectrum. Aquaman’s disgust for these Atlantean supremacists is in conflict with the need to respect and obey the will of his people and that political game is promising.
It’s hard to say how much of this will transfer to the proper Aquaman series, but the element I’m most excited to see in the ongoing is Spindrift Station. Politics, in theory, is simple. You vote or you decree and a decision is reached, but in any constitutional system, it’s never that basic. Initiatives are often only the spear point of a policy push and ‘successful’ political moves can easily become ongoing battlegrounds for larger, or sometimes much smaller, issues. By externalizing Arthur’s desire to connect the land and sea, to make a world that reflects the unity that he himself proves is possible, Abnett introduces a way to easily monitor the state of the Aquaman administration.
It is somewhat worrisome that Aquaman is not only solicited without art on its first two issues, but that issues #2 and 3 were solicited at the same time. Aquaman #3 is set to be drawn by Philippe Briones, but, Aquaman: Rebirth comes to us from two different artists, Scot Eaton and Oscar Jiménez.
Jiménez was the artist originally announced for this issue and he opens and sees off the story. He brings an staggering eye for detail to the book, giving us a lovely title splash page and an intense close up at issue’s end. However, around these two unambiguously impressive panels, there is much that doesn’t live up to their pedigree. Jiménez’s art frequently runs up against the uncanny valley, with staunch determination being the only emotion that feels natural. Figures at rest lack shape as well as narrative purpose.
It’s clear that something went wrong with the deadlines here, with new artists being brought on after solicitation and flagrant reuse of images. I wonder if given whatever he lacked, whether it be time or support or whatever it may have been, Jiménez could have delivered a stronger issue than his work here implies. He’s certainly gifted when it comes to working with water.
Scot Eaton handles the majority of the issue and, while Jiménez claims some of the most striking moments, I find Eaton’s contributions to be the stronger ones. Eaton and inker Mark Morales have a pleasant, traditional style that enjoys bold lines and straightforward composition. It actually reminds me quite a bit of Aquaman vol. 6, a mixture of Yvel Guichet’s “Waterbearer” arc and Patrick Gleason’s later look on the title. The weight of the lines is really quite nice to look at, however, faces are still hit or miss.
It’s not that I don’t like Eaton’s work, there are a lot of good moments, but his consistency is lacking. Instead it seems like Eaton was chosen, or at least should have been chosen, to draw the Deluge’s weaponized marine reptiles. Eaton is great at conveying the mass of these creatures and they give the story some much needed visual appeal.
It doesn’t help that I’m not a huge fan of Aquaman’s tweaked costume. It’s certainly no ‘aquatic camouflage suit’, but the changes to the New 52 design are noticeable and they are both questionable and apparently taxing on the artists. Aquaman was actually one of the heroes I thought looked good with the Nehru collar, but the new suit lowers his neckline significantly, highlighting some wonky neck anatomy and raising questions about practicality in an underwater environment. The ‘smoothed pebble’ look for his armor is an intriguing concept, but kind of just looks weird in practice.
Ironically, Aquaman: Rebirth is kind of dry. There are plenty of little morsels to pique interest, but overall it feels stiff and unspectacular. Artistic and editorial issues seriously weighed the book down and Abnett’s attempts to demonstrate the breadth of Aquaman’s appeal end up feeling more like a rehash than a rebirth. The issue does succeed in starting to define Atlantean culture and politics and those interested in seeing Aquaman as a political thriller may do well to return for issue #1, but this prologue lacks the excitement or joy to buoy it and it sinks, pulled down by the weight of its ambitions.