No Man Is An Island, But One Might Be The Ocean In Aquaman #43
by Noah Sharma
On the heels of “Drowned Earth” and just ahead of his first feature film, Arthur Curry, the Aquaman, finally gets another triple A push from DC. This time that means stripping away all the barnacles of history and complication and handing the series over to Kelly Sue DeConnick.
Aquaman is dead. Or so his comrades believe. The truth is a little harder to suss out. For now, it seems, Aquaman is dead, but Arthur Curry isn’t, or perhaps its the other way around. Regardless, Arthur has no memory of himself and no knowledge of his power, only the the “guttural “c’ha”” (read: A) on his belt and a connection to the sea to tie him to the life he used to live. Island life agrees with Andy, the name by which most of his new neighbors refer to him, but there’s something strange about this little fishing town.
Put simply, this is not an issue that likely would have been allowed if it wasn’t a bold new take on the character from an established talent. There’s no powers, no fighting, and only the declaration of villainy afoot. Instead, DeConnick spends this issue introducing us to the people and culture of “the village of unspoken water”.
It’s a bold move and one that depends entirely on stoking your curiosity, but, for the most part, that’s a surprisingly good bet. I won’t say that it’s an exceptionally subtle mystery or one that does something completely new with the character or genre, but DeConnick does nail that feeling of entering into a community where some things are just taken for granted. That tension between the assumptions of the villagers and the evidence we and Andy are given is enough to propel you through one issue and to begin to see what DeConnick has in store.
The major theme of the issue is the ocean as a character. The villagers are all survivors, washed ashore here without any hope of return to the world they knew and they believe that they live, that is present and past tense, by the ocean’s mercy alone. They’re not wrong, but Andy takes issue with how literal they are about it.
The representatives of the village community are Loc and Wee, an old, snaggletoothed fisherman and the kindly woman who keeps him fed and keeps him from alienating everyone around him. If Andy has need of understanding or the reader need of exposition, you can count on them. Still, there’s genuine warmth and joy in them, enough to give the amnesiac Andy something solid to play off of.
The other major player is Callie. Though she shares the rest of the villager’s beliefs, she’s much more active in her reverence. She exists on the fringes of the community, but not for a reason that’s apparent until nearly the end of the issue. She makes for an intriguing wrinkle in the village’s mystery from afar and, up close, she proves one of the issue’s strongest and best defined personalities. At worst it can be said that Callie has many of the staples of a manic pixie dream girl, but there’s a flighty, delightful, exceptionally defined energy about her that gives her more of a Luna Lovegood flavor. Even if she’s likely not the type you’ve met in real life, she feels real, or at least believable, whenever she gets a chance to speak.
And that’s perhaps the biggest strength of this opening chapter, there are just a huge number of moments that feel right. Loc’s celebration in the water, Wee’s sharp but loving rebukes of Loc, Callie’s insistence about ‘Andy’s’ name, Andy’s wise but incorrect approach to rescuing a drowning man, and more all click in a way that briefly brings these moments to life.
Still, for all the craft in much of the issue, I can’t say that it’s incredibly written or something utterly new. This is a slow start, not only for the arc but, I think, for DeConnick as well. This is an issue that seeks to tell its story brilliantly rather than tell a brilliant story and I think it’s ok with that. As I said, I doubt that DC would have been ok with that if it hadn’t been DeConnick at the helm, but she was, they were, and there are who knows how many months of this story to build to the payoff that convinced them this was the right way to begin. Some readers will resist this superhero comic’s non-traditional approach while others will get a kick out of its abundant tone and strange setting, but, whichever camp you fall into, you will have a better time with it if you acknowledge that this is merely the beginning.
The word intrigue really does seem best, this issue wants to intrigue readers and it’s rather good at that.
As a direct follow up to “Drowned Earth”, Aquaman #43 is a surprisingly accessible comic. Readers hoping on board after the event, the series’ continuing audience, and complete newcomers will all find the issue similarly welcoming. Admittedly those who didn’t read “Drowned Earth” might wonder why Aquaman is on this island, but the amount of insight that the crossover provided is minimal. That said, the sharp-eyed and the well read may notice some clever foreshadowing that seems destined to connect the dots between this run and “Drowned Earth” in time.
I can’t say that I’m especially excited to see another amnesiac hero in a mysterious town story, but, like the fish that sustain the village, the hints DeConnick is laying and the connection between characters keeps me on the hook and willing to come back for more.
The art is well suited to this issue, as beautiful as Aquaman deserves, but in a way appropriate to the far off fishing village of this setting. There’s none of the fantastic spires or sumptuous sea life of Aquaman’s typical fare here, there’s honestly only one or two panels that actually take place under the water. Nevertheless, Robson Rocha, Daniel Henriques, and Sunny Gho lean into the beauty of water, whether in the crashing waves around the island or the heavy drops that fall in a deluge upon it. Even through Henriques’ inks, Rocha’s lines are notably thin and the issue leans into this. Wisps of fabrics, crags of rock, and the fluffy definition of Andy’s hair become key images for this issue and the overall effect is to create a clear but somewhat distinct visual language for this unknown but archetypal fishing town.
At times the narrowness of the linework can make things look a little overdrawn, but, in general it’s beautiful. Rocha plays a huge part in those dramatic, cinematic moments I mentioned earlier. There’s a splash panel of Callie that should be fairly standard but just reads so powerfully thanks to the art. There’s real beauty in this book, of a type that wisely positions it closer to an Image series about a mysterious town where gods reside than a superhero title.
I also need to mention how expressive the villagers are. Loc, Wee, and especially Callie emote forcefully and wonderfully throughout the issue. Andy sometimes gets lost in his beard, keeping him from that list, but his quarrels with Callie come alive thanks to her expressive visual character.
The colors are not overwhelming or even an immediate draw, but it quickly becomes clear that this is solely because they depict a dreary, Northern European-inspired island existence. Once that becomes apparent, the distinctive beauty of that setting comes bounding out of the pages. The grey-blue of the water, the rich browns of rope and leather, and the brilliant light of the sun over the ocean make strong impressions.
This is an unusual opening to this new age for Aquaman. Kelly Sue DeConnick’s opening salvo is very much dependent on what comes next and piquing the reader’s interest enough to find out. If you’re looking for action you might walk away disappointed and, to be honest, it won’t suddenly make Aquaman your favorite character either. In some sense he’s not even in the issue! But DeConnick’s forceful character work and the beauty of the art serve as assurances that there are steady hands at the helm, even if context is still needed to truly evaluate this issue. It’s an interesting start to this new run that’s definitely trying some different things, but, being so entirely dependent on what comes next, I understand the cautious waiting for the next issue before making a choice.
Aquaman #43 is currently available in comic shops from DC Comics.