Geoff Johns always starts strong, and “Throne of Atlantis” is no exception. The only two New 52 books DC Comics put out this week were the first two parts of this crossover, in the 15th issues of Justice League and Aquaman. That suggests something significant, so they dare not disappoint.
Ivan Reis and Joe Prado take over JL’s art with this issue, while Paul Pelletier and Art Thibert (with an inking assist from Karl Kesel) start on Aquaman. I’ve liked Pelletier’s work for years, but his characters aren’t as lean as Reis’s, and I wondered how well the styles would mesh. In fact, here they mesh pretty well, since Pelletier and company seem to have adapted to blend more seamlessly with Reis and Prado. Giving a big assist is colorist Rod Reis, who handles both books with the same basic blue-green palette.
I mention the art upfront because these two issues combine to establish “Throne of Atlantis” as a big crossover, both in terms of its implications and its threat level. While the plot so far is pretty straightforward, Johns and company hang on it a few impressive set-pieces, and a couple of nice bits of characterization. It’s the kind of high-stakes story I expect from the Justice League, and I hope it bodes well for the book’s future.
So without further ado, SPOILERS FOLLOW:
Essentially, the collective plot of these two issues involves a sneak attack on Atlantis using hijacked missiles from a Navy warship. Naturally, this provokes the Atlanteans (led by Ocean Master, aka Aquaman’s brother Orm) into attacking the East Coast with tidal waves. They swamp Metropolis, Boston and Gotham City before heading north to Maine, and Aquaman’s confidant Dr. Shin. Moreover, they’re designed specifically to a) wear down population centers so the Atlantean forces can conquer the surface more easily, and b) take out certain surface-dwellers, including key members of the Justice League. Aquaman knows all this because ... (gasp!) he drew up the plans!!!
Now, admittedly, this sounds like the plot of “Tower of Babel,” Mark Waid’s first arc as regular JLA writer from about 12 years ago, in which Rā’s al Ghūl steals Batman’s JLA-gone-bad contingency plans. (The late Dwayne McDuffie adapted “Babel” into Justice League: Doom, an animated direct-to-video feature currently, and serendipitously, streaming on Netflix, where I watched it over the weekend.) That adds a layer of irony to the scenes with Batman where Aquaman reveals his indirect role in the attacks. However, the similarities stop there. In “Babel” (which, of course, is no longer in continuity), Batman’s “JLA protocols” were designed to thwart otherwise-corrupted Leaguers. Here, when Aquaman says he was “in a different frame of mind” when he and Orm drew up these tactics, it sounds like he was coming from a less forgiving place than the Dark Knight who just wanted to immobilize his wayward colleagues.
Naturally, this fits into Johns’ overarching vision of Aquaman as More Dangerous Than You Think, which (so far) seems to have peaked in the shoutier portions of the Sea King’s “Others” arc. However, it’s more subtle -- if trying to drown three major cities can be called “subtle” -- because it comes at a point where Aquaman’s not trying to prove himself. Indeed, he reminds Batman they’ve been discussing how best to lead the Justice League, whereupon Batman reminds him of the cleansing power of sunlight (or words to that effect). These two issues reminded me of the Sub-Mariner’s reintroduction waaay back in Fantastic Four #4 (and, for that matter, of his epic Golden Age battle with the original Human Torch), not least because Atlantis itself is threatened -- but here, as haughty as he may be, Aquaman doesn’t have Namor’s aloof attitude. He wants to work with his colleagues, not browbeat them; and (echoes of Flashpoint’s “Emperor Aquaman” aside) it helps mitigate all the quien es mas macho? attempts.
Another effective character-building sequence involves Superman teaching Wonder Woman the value of a pair of glasses. Starting in the old Kent home in Smallville and ending at a Metropolis seafood restaurant, it too is more subtle than the couple’s first kiss back in Issue 12. In fact, because it feels more like the pair’s pre-relaunch friendship, it helps lay a foundation for whatever they end up becoming. If the looming “Trinity War” ends up separating them somehow, this sequence will most likely figure into that as well.
It helps that Ivan Reis’ style is fairly naturalistic, and his storytelling is flexible enough to accommodate large and small scales, sometimes both on the same page. The Smallville page (helpfully included at the bottom of CBR’s Geoff Johns interview) opens with an establishing shot of the Kent farm, then a tier of panels showing “Clark” getting into character, a medium shot of Clark extending a pair of glasses to Diana, and a reverse angle showing her through one lens of those glasses. It’s efficient and intimate at the same time. Later, as Superman and Wonder Woman try to keep Metropolis safe, Reis does essentially the same thing, with a row of character-focused panels running along the bottom of a nifty two-page spread, alternating among folks needing rescue, Superman, and Wonder Woman.
All this plays out against the spectacle of those tidal waves. The aforementioned spread (in JL #15) features Superman and Wonder Woman catching an aircraft carrier which has been tossed by the sea into the wrecked skyscrapers of Metropolis. Aquaman #15 begins with haunting silent panels of James Gordon and Harvey Bullock engulfed in waters lit only by the sinking Bat-Signal. Unseen except for a couple of pages, but nevertheless influencing the action, are Orm’s Atlantean forces and the deep-sea-dwelling Trench creatures. Ivan Reis has done his share of crowds, from Rann-Thanagar War to “Sinestro Corps” and Blackest Night, and I suspect we’ll see more big-army action as the story goes on.
“Throne of Atlantis” will run for two more months in Justice League and Aquaman. Afterward, presumably readers will have a better idea of Aquaman’s place in both the League and the larger DC Universe (although I’m not sure why Johns is still calling Aquaman a “scrub book,” even jokingly). Even before “Throne” ends, though, the new Justice League of America, Vibe, and Katana titles will debut, bringing another aspect to the New 52 League(s). Johns told CBR “now I’m just getting to the stuff I wanted to start [the series] with. And I think Justice League #15 feels like a different book.” I would agree with that. Since its central conflict comes from choices a Leaguer made long ago, “Throne” is not the kind of story Justice League can do too often. There are only so many dark secrets lurking in each character’s past, and only so many times a teammate can have such a secret revealed. Also included in these two issues are nice little bits for Cyborg (opting not to install Undersea Service Pack 1.1), Harvey Bullock (believing Atlantis is about as real as the Mad Hatter’s Wonderland), and especially Mera, whose heroics make a good argument for her own League membership. In fact, generally these two issues show the Justice League acting like you’d expect the League to act, saving lives and trying to apprehend wrongdoers. With an appropriately-large threat, and sufficiently engaging characters, Justice League is finally starting to feel like its predecessors.
That said, Geoff Johns always starts strongly. I could very well come back in February muttering about missed opportunities, convenient plotting, etc. Still, for now I choose to keep hope alive. Johns and Reis did pretty well with Green Lantern and Aquaman, so maybe the streak can continue with Justice League.