Grumpy Old Fan | This and that about ‘Aquaman and The Others’

DC Comics' current publishing pattern seems to center around growing various franchises, like Batman, Superman, Green Lantern and the Justice League. Aquaman is one of the publisher's more familiar faces, he’s rooted pretty deeply in the superhero line, and he’s even had a good bit of multimedia exposure. However, when the April solicitations came out at the end of January, I wasn’t sure the world had been clamoring for another Aquaman title.

After reading the first issue of Aquaman and the Others -- written by Dan Jurgens, penciled by Lan Medina, inked by Allen Martinez and colored by Matt Milla -- I’m still not entirely convinced. AATO #1 is a solid first issue, dealing largely in traditional superhero matters, but its last-minute attempt to tie into the larger DC Universe comes from out of left field, and threatens to hijack the main narrative. Otherwise, it’s a fine reintroduction which gives newcomers a good glimpse at characters who are still pretty obscure.  Still, those good fundamentals will have to overcome the why-should-I-care factor.

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Part of the irony surrounding a second Aquaman book is the notion that Aquaman should be a bigger deal. If DC’s other A-listers represent particular genres -- think Batman and the pulps, Wonder Woman and mythology, or Green Lantern and space opera -- an Atlantean ruler who can command the world’s marine life falls squarely within the realm of fantasy. Indeed, that setup presents a wide range of stories. There are political angles, arising out of everything from palace intrigue to international relations (including some overlap with Wonder Woman’s diplomatic duties). The ocean itself suggests environmental issues, where Aquaman could square off against supervillains, corporations, governments or simply nature unleashed. Similarly, the sea is deep enough to contain all kinds of weird creatures, and wide enough to encompass lesser-known civilizations. Some creative teams have picked up on Aquaman being a king named Arthur, and overlaid knight-quest tropes onto his adventures.  Intentionally or not, the various Others could each facilitate those various stories, just as Aquaman-the-king naturally suggests Aquaman leading a super-team.

However, for most of the past 40 years (if not longer), Aquaman has acquired a decidedly “uncool” reputation. Part of that goes to his reliance on water, which necessarily limited his adventures. Case in point: During a three-issue 1977 run of Justice League of America, while most of the League was in deep space fighting the Manhunters, writer Steve Englehart and artists Dick Dillin and Frank McLaughlin had Aquaman, the Elongated Man and the Atom help the mysterious “Willow” fulfill her destiny. Englehart wanted to show that the three “second-tier” characters could be just as heroic and useful as the bigger names.  Likewise, in 1984, writer Gerry Conway used Aquaman to disband the League and re-form it around a smaller, more dedicated group. Although Aquaman was a founding Leaguer, and fairly prominent within the DCU, he (ostensibly) didn’t have the conflicting responsibilities -- or, more to the point, the solo series -- of a Superman, Wonder Woman or Green Lantern.

After leaving the League (and having his “founder with nothing else to do” role taken over by Martian Manhunter), Aquaman bounced around for a while. The late ‘80s and early ‘90s saw various Aquaman miniseries, specials and even a short-lived ongoing series, but the next big Aqua-push came with 1990's The Atlantis Chronicles, written by Peter David and drawn by Esteban Maroto.  It spanned the centuries from Atlantis’ sinking to Aquaman’s birth, and was followed a few years later by David’s early-adventures miniseries Aquaman: Time and Tide (written by David, penciled by Kirk Jarvinen, and inked by Brad Vancata). That, in turn, led to David writing an ongoing Aquaman series (penciled largely by Martin Egeland and Jim Calafiore), which David left after Issue 46. The book ran for 30 more issues under various creative teams, including extended runs from writer Erik Larsen and penciler Eric Battle, and writer Dan Jurgens and penciler Steve Epting, and was canceled in 2001.

By that time, though, Grant Morrison and Howard Porter had also established Aquaman pretty firmly as an important part of the revamped JLA. They raised his profile by featuring him in the post-apocalyptic “Rock of Ages” and setting him against the aquatic Star Conqueror; by comparing him with Wonder Woman and contrasting him with the Flash and Orion; and even by using him (along with fellow founders Superman and Batman) to reorganize the League a la Conway. Another ongoing series soon followed (2003-07), but it ended up featuring a new Aquaman and the death of the original. Fortunately, this made the original eligible for revival via the events of Blackest Night (2009-10), which led to Geoff Johns and Ivan Reis relaunching Aquaman in the Brightest Day miniseries (2010-11), and from there the current New 52 series.

After dropping some pretty heavy anvils on Aquaman’s “lameness” early on, Johns and Reis created The Others, a sort-of super-team who were friends with Aquaman before he hit the big time with the Justice League. They appeared in issues 7-13, helping Aquaman stop Black Manta from acquiring ancient Atlantean artifacts. I remember it as a fairly violent arc, revolving around Aquaman having killed Manta’s father and Manta goading Aquaman about killing him (Manta, that is). It also introduced, and then promptly killed off, an Iranian superhero named Kahina the Seer. This prompted Dara Naraghi, an Iranian-American cartoonist, to write an open letter to Johns and DC expressing his disappointment at such a missed opportunity for diversity.  Accordingly, The Others may be best remembered for this controversy, and not for their merits as characters.

The Others next appeared in July 2013's issue #20 (written by John Ostrander, pencilled by Manuel Garcia, and inked by committee), which introduced a new Other; and then in December 2013's Aquaman Annual #1 (written by Ostrander, penciled by Geraldo Borges and Netho Diaz, and inked by committee) as part of a standalone story involving Morgaine Le Fay.

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At long last, that brings us to Aquaman and The Others #1. SPOILERS FOLLOW, of course.

I was largely unfamiliar with the work of penciler Lan Medina, but it turns out I have not been reading Fables, Punisher, New Mutants or much of his other assignments for Marvel and Vertigo. The style of his simple-but-weighty figures reminds me of current Aquaman penciler Paul Pelletier, particularly on AATO’s first-page flashback to ancient Atlantis. I found his layouts fairly easy to follow, and his choreography was direct and effective. The book opens with a series of action sequences, as The Others are targeted by generic masked hit squads, and only in one case (a character’s super-transformation between pages 2 and 3) was I a little confused. Medina doesn’t try to be spectacular in this book, and it pays off.

More problematic, though, is Dan Jurgens’ script. In my experience, Jurgens has a tendency to try a little too hard with dialogue, and he ends up overwriting. While I don’t want to say “Jurgens doesn’t try too hard here,” I don’t think this issue is particularly overwritten. The biggest offender in that regard is a clunky, but well-meaning, speech on Page 2 about the plight of homeless veterans. (Speaking of which, somebody misspelled “veterans” on a background sign, but I’m not sure who.) Jurgens also has two characters utter the phrase “have to do this the hard way” in successive situations, two pages apart, and I don’t know if it was a mistake or he wanted the second one to sound ironic.

Given the background of the series, there’s exposition throughout, but I thought it came across as naturally as it could. To put it another way, the exposition could have sounded a lot worse. Towards the end of the issue there’s a bit introducing a supporting character that I had to read twice (because the character pretty much pops up out of nowhere so that somebody can talk to him), but that was the most glaring example. Although I’ve been reading the New 52 Aquaman series since the beginning, I haven’t re-read “The Others” or the Annual after they first came out, so I appreciated the reminders. Moreover, I was glad that Jurgens and Medina wanted to show, not tell, with regard to the Others’ powers. Jurgens doesn’t use any narrative captions or internal monologues, which makes the dialogue work harder but helps the issue move along.

Still, the overarching problem with this first issue is that the Others are a (deliberately?) strange group. Prisoner of War, aka P.O.W., wields a pair of Atlantean gauntlets capable of delivering a powerful shockwave-slash-forcefield, and is also accompanied by the spirits of dead soldiers. The Operative is an older gentleman who lives on an airplane (before Clark Gregg made it cool) with his grandson and carries out various spy-type missions. Ya’Wara protects the Brazilian rainforest with her panther and the Atlantean artifact that lets her teleport anywhere in the world. Sky Alchesay (the newest Other) is a Native American woman who can send herself and others through a weird dimension called the Ghost Lands; and her artifact, the Seal of Clarity, used to belong to Kahina. Finally, another Other -- sorry, there’s no good way to say that -- a cosmonaut called Vostok-X, who died during the introductory storyline.

I appreciate that all of these characters come from unusual backgrounds and have fairly different powers, but at the same time they risk being both somewhat hard to relate to, and somewhat generic. For now they are largely scowly and terse, albeit in different ways: P.O.W. is bitter; Ya’Wara is still dealing with some old feelings for Aquaman; and apart from his age, the Operative is a collection of spy beats. This leaves the ebullient Sky as the most lively Other, and the one I think Jurgens and Medina handled best.

All that said, their introductory scenes in AATO #1 are straightforward, and they give the issue an appropriately simple structure. Each Other is attacked by the generic hit squad, and each finds that his or her artifact fails just when it’s needed. (Admittedly, not showing their main powers might not be the best way to hook new readers, but maybe that just builds anticipation.) This brings them back together with Aquaman, who supposes that since the artifacts have been out of contact with something Atlantean, they’re each starting to lose their mojo. However, while they’re theorizing aboard the Operative’s plane, it’s attacked and one of its wings explodes. Meanwhile, Kahina’s widower sees his sister-in-law raving about machines taking over the world (i.e., OMAC’ed versions of familiar superheroes) and abducted by the hit squad which has been after The Others. To Be Continued, both in this series and in Futures End -- although it seems pretty likely that Kahina’s sister will end up as an Other, thereby giving DC another chance at an Iranian superhero.

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Ultimately, I was pleasantly surprised by Aquaman and The Others.  In their previous appearances, I felt like I was walking in on a very old conversation; but this issue kept things pretty simple. While there’s obviously more to explain, the issue hit the highlights quickly and efficiently, and set up a good pair of cliffhangers.

Besides, there’s always a place for unusual superheroes. In the New 52 context, we might see The Others as similar to The Kingdom, the African super-group featured in Judd Winick and Ben Oliver’s initial Batwing run; or the Great Ten, China’s government-sponsored team created by Grant Morrison for 52. Each was intended initially to add context and diversity to their series, but there’s no reason not to explore any of these teams in more detail.

In that respect, AATO deserves a shot -- not because of the team’s Johns/Reis pedigree or its association with Aquaman, but because DC shouldn’t automatically discount series that aren’t big-league spinoffs. Sometimes DC publishes a title like Pandora that ties directly into shared-universe marketing and ends up eventually having to justify its own existence once the marketing element has passed. Sometimes it publishes something like Ravagers or Team 7, each of which tried to bring together disparate pre-existing characters in a New 52-style setting, only to find that the readership just wasn’t interested in the results. Even hedging its bets with a Futures End tease, I don’t think AATO falls into either category. Although it’s a spinoff, it’s not a sure thing, which means that somebody at DC thinks it’s worth pursuing on its own merits.

For Jurgens, Medina, and company, the challenge now becomes keeping readers invested. When Jurgens wrote the New 52's Justice League International, he could rely on readers’ familiarity with a team of established characters. With this series, Jurgens isn’t starting from scratch (maybe from square two or three) but for all practical purposes, these characters are pretty unknown, and he and Medina have an opportunity to get readers in on the ground floor. Again, the problem will be convincing readers they want to know more about The Others. The Kingdom was part of a Bat-book, and the Great Ten could trade on Grant Morrison’s popularity. Being part of Aquaman’s past isn’t quite the same thing.

Still, I enjoyed Aquaman and The Others almost more than I expected to. It did what a first issue was supposed to do: explained the premise, introduced the characters, and offer readers a reason to come back. The plot isn’t complicated, and the characters aren’t all fully-formed, but that’s what second issues are for. Like its parent series, AATO has a good bit of potential, so here’s hoping it can be realized.

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