Relaunches in comics are nothing new. In fact, they might just be all too frequent for a lot of long-time fans. Despite the fact that printing a big, fat number one on a cover of comic will naturally boost sales with casual readers and collectors, it can be somewhat disparaging for fans who have been following storylines for decades. It can feel, at its core, as nothing more than a cheap sales tactic, especially when those first issues don’t act as a fresh starting point.
However, from time to time, we do see a nice change of pace when a well-established title hits a reset button without having to revert to a new number one. New creative teams can slide into a series and revitalize a book with the same effectiveness as a complete relaunch. For example, Alan Moore, John Totleben and Steve Bissette did so when they took over on Saga of Swamp Thing and leaned into existential dread in lieu of the character’s classic monster and mayhem roots. It’s these small pivots (usually with a touch of retcon) that can make all the difference in the world.
Writer Kelly Sue DeConnick and the art team of Robson Rocha, Daniel Henriques and Sunny Cho may have just accomplished something similar in the pages Aquaman #43. While the end result isn’t necessarily a wholly unique vision from a narrative standpoint, what this team has presented takes the character into a new direction, where both old and new readers have a chance to watch Arthur Curry’s hero's journey. Doing so may sounds like an impossible task, since Aquaman has been around for decades. We’ve seen Arthur find his relevance in the world and embrace and/or reject his regency, but after the events of “Drowned Earth,” DeConnick and Co. have been given a clean slate to work with in the form of amnesia.
We catch up with Arthur, who is living on a small island populated with oddball characters. Our hero has no memory of who he is, nor of the immense power he possesses, but quickly finds himself deeply entangled with the lore of the island. Despite the premise's familiarity, it gives readers the chance to see a more introspective side of the titular character. We get to see Aquaman’s humanity (for both good and ill) through his interactions with the island natives, as he tavern the pitfalls of his own fractured memory. These moments may not give us any real insight to his Atlantean origins, but they do illustrate how Arthur, the man, ticks.
Kelly Sue DeConnick's writing is often fierce, compassionate and fearless, which makes her one of the best in the business. She is great at holding back details without making a story obtuse for the sake of being obtuse. She respects her readers' intelligence, and often lets supporting characters help fill in the blanks subtly instead of employing a deluge of expository dialogue or omnipotent narration, especially in her work in the superhero genre. This is probably the biggest reason why Aquaman #43 works as well as it does, and feels like a natural soft relaunch. You don't have to know why Arthur can't remember who he is, since it's all incidental or secondary to the story DeConnick is trying to tell. There's also a wonderful dash of ethereal mysticism that is somewhat reminiscent of her work on Pretty Deadly, which is also great for naturalistic world building. The lovely dash of weirdness DeConnick adds to the mix only spices up the dish, and boy howdy, it's tasty.
Rocha and Henriques' art helps elevate the otherworldly feeling in their sketchy pencil work and lighter inks, respectively. While the page layout may not be kinetic or action-packed (it's not supposed to be), each panel is framed wonderfully, and the character designs are solid and compelling. Just because people aren't getting kicked in the face page after page doesn't mean there isn't anything going on. The emotional weight can be felt in the art, and it's brilliant. Sunny Cho's colors are intentionally muted, helping to paint a dire picture for the majority of the island inhabitants, but there are vibrant pops of color for some key characters, which acts as wonderful visual indicators.
With a big budget live action solo film hitting theaters, there will probably be a huge boost in casual fans finding a new or renewed interest in Aquaman. For those people who are inclined to walk out of the theater and immediately flock to their local comic book store, Aquaman #43 could be a great entry point to the character in current comics. Sure there are better starting points, historically speaking, but jumping on board here is great for folks who want to be hip to the now.