I have been waiting for this for months.
I love Aquaman. I know that he has immense potential, but that potential only ever seems to be realized for issues, years at best, at a time. Like the waves, he crests and falls.
Do you know how many Aquaman series there have been? This is the eighth. And that doesn’t count Aquaman: Time and Tide, Aquaman and the Others, or years of appearances in More Fun and Adventure Comics. Like Wonder Woman, Aquaman is no stranger to “Bold New Directions™” so, while I consider myself a staunch fan of the character, I often don’t buy Aquaman comics. Dan Abnett’s latest attempt to give the character his due has intrigued me multiple times since Rebirth began, but nothing I’ve seen or heard has ever quite gotten me to jump back on. Until today.
Say what you want about “moving the needle”, Stjepan Sejic was absolutely what I needed to gleefully pick up Aquaman again. And it felt like a big deal. Perhaps due to the time intensive nature of Sejic’s paintings, this has been a light on the horizon for what feels like ages. Sejic has been giving glimpses of what looks like a pitch perfect Aquaman and Mera on social media for months and it’s been working to get me excited.
So for those like me or who I’ve successfully kindled interest in, let me begin by clearing up a misconception, or at least clarifying a bit. This is not another “Bold New Direction™”.
No, while there’s quite a bit more nuance to it, this is still very much a continuation of the work that Abnett has been doing on the title for the past twenty-four issues. It is not a reboot or even necessarily the start of a ‘new season’, it’s just the beginning of a new arc. And that may surprise. It surprised me, at least. But while this isn’t the ideal jumping on point, I don’t want anyone to think that the issue is unfriendly to new readers, even if the first few pages lean that way a bit harder than what is to follow.
Despite being steeped in Abnett’s previous work — itself reminiscent of Jeff Parker’s recent take, itself built on Geoff Johns’ foundation — this issue also serves as a reintroduction and reinvention of the character. Stripped of his kingship and believed dead by his people, Aquaman goes into hiding among the disenfranchised of Atlantis, becoming an avenging specter as his nation descends into totalitarianism. It’s an effective set up, if not a sustainable one, and it really allows Arthur to show off his power as well as his intelligence, a quality that many attempts to finally kill the image of the useless Aquaman fail to call upon.
There’s plenty of Batman inspiration here, culminating in an explicit shout out that channels Batman: Year One beautifully. Thankfully Abnett doesn’t seem to be trying to force Arthur into the Batman mold. One of the things that really works is that, while Batman’s totemism projects a certain invulnerability that Arthur seeks to replicate here, Aquaman has a power and a nobility that helps frame this as a battle of wills between two kings of Atlantis.
Speaking of which, Corum Rath, as an antagonist, is a mixed bag. On one hand, Rath is simple and blunt. He hates the surface world and any implication of imperfection with his Atlantis, but no amount of Shatnerian pauses can disguise his textbook totalitarianism. No, what keeps him interesting is his interactions with others. Though his goals are basic as they come, Rath proves effective at balancing and introducing the various power systems of his court. He gives out praise, but is ready to yank it back and regift it to whoever best supports him in that moment. He surrounds himself with fanatics who he can ‘moderate’ when it suits his purpose. He lets others fumble to guess at his thoughts, welcoming their “advice” when they’re right and lecturing them when they’re wrong. And in this he makes for a compelling villain.
It also points to something that Abnett has been striving towards that proves effective here, building up Atlantis. With the Silent School, the Widowhood, the Hadalin, the Elders, the Drift, and more, Aquaman has what any good political drama requires: constituencies. The push and pull of these various factions around the new king give Abnett’s Atlantis a vibrancy that’s needed to pull of this story. Unfortunately, new readers, especially those picking up an Aquaman comic for the first time, will not find much to explain who these varied interests are. Additional context clues are included for the reader’s benefit, however they are not enough to make plain the workings of the court and, once a reader moves past any confusion, they can leave scenes feeling performative.
It’s an odd mixture, being at once opaquely complex and excessively expository. Characters tend to say exactly what they think and to lay out their motivations plainly, yet somehow it still feels like Abnett is using a gentle brush to paint his characters, and there’s fun in ‘reading the room’, deciphering who everyone is and how they work together despite knowing exactly what they want.
For any simplicity of expression, however, I must say that Abnett seems to have a strong grasp on his characters. Arthur holds himself with just the right balance of empathy, nobility, and questionable people skills that have defined him since the Bronze Age, while I don’t know that I’ve seen a better summary of the Post-Flashpoint Vulko than this well-meaning, politically inflexible, loudmouth. I can’t say that I like Mera falling to pieces without Arthur, but fans of the queen need not worry in the long run.
As interesting as Abnett’s writing is, Stjepan Sejic was always bound to overshadow him and there is no upset in that regard.
This book is gorgeous. Everything Sejic touches is gorgeous, obviously, but this really is something else. Every page and panel is rich with detail and thought and the colors are practically worth the price of admission alone.
I almost don’t know how Sejic hasn’t been drawing Aquaman for years. The series plays to all of his strengths, encouraging him to draw ornate, semi-organic armors; fantastic animal men; gorgeous redheads; and more. It goes even deeper than that though. Sejic’s set design is wonderful and the vast emptiness of the ocean not only allows him to sometimes leave the background out of focus when it would otherwise distract or take up time but encourages it, conveying a sense of scale and allowing a showcase for his skill with lighting effects.
Especially in political moments, the characters benefit from an emotive ability that is almost entirely separate from the dialogue. That bodes especially well for a story that seems to feature a mute character, but it really does help to balance the delicate information vs. exposition equation I mentioned earlier.
Sejic also does a phenomenal job at structuring his pages. It’s easy to get lost in the sheer beauty of the art, but don’t forget for the minute that Stjepan Sejic is an immensely talented storyteller, and this issue is a incredible reminder of that fact. Stylishly unusual panel shapes and dramatic, integrated location captions set the stage and clear, legible motion throughout each page gives the book a distinctly cinematic flair.
One of the most fascinating elements of Sejic’s artwork is panel size. Especially towards the end of the issue you start to find pages that feature six, seven, ten panels and still feature big, widescreen moments. It’s against conventional wisdom to include such tiny insets, but it actually really works well. The sense of pace is strong and the purpose and action of each panel remains startlingly clear. It would have been a bold move no matter what, but to do so in an extra-sized, twenty-eight page story is quite something and the fact that Sejic pulls it off with such effortlessness should tell you something about what else he may well do before this run is over.
As Arthur Curry finds himself deposed, a new king rises in Atlantis; one named Stjepan Sejic. This single issue puts Sejic in the running to be the definitive Aquaman artist for years to come and he comes aboard at a particularly strong moment in Dan Abnett’s run with the character. Though it suffers slightly for its expository dialogue and some unexplained plot points, this issue gives life and depth to Atlantis and those who inhabit it.
This is not an Aquaman #1 in disguise, nor is it even really the start of a new story. Instead this is a watershed moment in an ongoing story, but its such a fascinating and breathtakingly beautiful one as to draw in new and old readers alike. Aquaman #25 makes classic Aquaman feel new, expansive, and intelligent.