Epic fantasy, in general, is so thoroughly embedded in the collective consciousness that it takes a dedicated creator and a unique world to really stand out. In comics, works like “Scott Pilgrim” and the recent “North World” have reinvigorated the tried-and-true heroes journey by changing the setting (quasi-medieval Europe is replaced by modern Toronto, for instance) if not the actual core plot (callow youth becomes a man through his transformational experiences,) but it’s still fairly rare to see a comic actually do something that stands out from the “Lord of the Rings” and “Conan” schtick that has dominated film and prose for the last half-century or so.
This willingness to tear down what’s come before and rebuild from a core is why the first volume of “Aqua Leung” is a welcome addition to the bookshelf, even if it’s yet another tale of Atlantis. Creators Mark Andrew Smith and Paul Maybury have done their work and it’s obvious on every page, as this book itself starts off as one thing: a quirky, genial tale about an loner on land and rapidly becomes a slightly-depraved, frequently very violent fable that tells the story of one boy’s destiny that manages nods to multiple genres while maintaining its own tone throughout.
Smith’s script is bombastic and frequently very funny with a genuine sense of wonder. It’s easy to see how his work on “The Amazing Joy Buzzards” helped paved the way. He’s progressed from mystical Mexican wrestlers and Donovan the Devil Mummy Hipster, to enormous talking sea turtles and skies filled with arrows. There are moments when things get a tiny bit awkward – the script works a bit too hard in a few places to sell the legend and the Moses metaphor is too obvious, but these are forgivable, not least for Smith’s willingness to let the art tell the story for long stretches.
The art from Maybury, whose “Party Bear” was one of the highlights from the ACT-I-VATE online collective’s third wave, does more than just provide basic storytelling. It imparts a sense of scale to the material with page compositions that remain readable even when they break conventions. His thick outlines and cartoonish faces combine beautifully with Russ Lowery’s pop-influenced palette, creating a phantasmagorical tone that keep the reader interested in what they’re going to see next.
In many ways, the first volume of “Aqua Leung” is the story of Namor’s youth that you’ve always wanted to read, but free of the restrictions of a shared universe. It’s big, bold, and should appeal to a broad audience: smart enough for adult comic readers, fast-paced and immersive for the (older) kids, and easily the best comic of its type since Jeff Smith’s “Bone” wrapped up.