In Deep: Peter David’s Aquaman (Part 4 of 5)
By Josh Dean
August 8, 2011 - 19:54
Publisher(s): DC Comics
Writer(s): Peter David
Penciller(s): Jim Calafiore, Martin Egeland
Aquaman #25 to 36
We left our aquatic champion in issue 24 of his ongoing series with a small army of the DCU’s water-based heroes and a mission to put down an alien invasion. Issue 25 wraps things up very well with a showdown between Aquaman and Kordax as well as the final repulsion of the alien invasion. This is grand-scale comic book action in the best tradition.
It leaves the overall story in a new place with Aquaman as the new king of the unified cities of Atlantis. Personally, I think this is probably the best year of the run and the issues with the strongest thematic impact. Throughout the run, David had been naming individual issues after books of the Bible. At first, I assumed this was due to epic feel of the storyline and the clever play on words that David likes to employ. However, when reading these issues consecutively and in close, temporal proximity, some other readings emerge.
For a universe where Greek Gods (including Poseidon in this very series) hold lots of sway, David leaves a few offhand remarks by Aquaman that imply that his personal faith is of the Judeo-Christian variety. As this entire series seems to be about a character ascending to the heights of power, I began looking for Biblical parallels. King David most immediately springs to mind. Aquaman must face down a giant in the form of the alien invasion (including the literally giant monster Tiamat- the first of four giant monsters the hero must face throughout David’s run). He is crowned King and then sets about abusing his power. He even has a son who rebels against him and has aspirations for the throne (in Koryak). While one could argue that he has amazing powers and returned from the realm of the dead (around the time of Underworld Unleashed) David never really paints Aquaman as a savior so much as a leader, so Jesus parallels feel strained at best.
It could be that the Biblical reading is all in my mind but the third year of David’s run seems to clearly have the darkening of the character as a central theme. Aquaman is granted access to the ability to control the minds of other men just as he does fish. He almost immediately begins abusing this power (during run-ins with a mutated Black Manta, The Shark and a cyborgified version of the dolphin hunter he and Lobo jacked up back in issue 4). Aquaman’s dolphin mother (seen in Time and Tide number 2) is killed and, even with a guest appearance by Martian Manhunter, Aquaman almost crosses some lines. The Final Night crossover and Aquaman’s battle with Black Manta literally drive him further into darkness than he has ever gone as a character.
I can’t help but read this storyline as David’s explicit rebuke of the grim and gritty 90s. Aquaman begins turning scaled and green like Kordax the more he abuses his power. Also, of some importance is the stacking of an Animal Man and a Swamp Thing guest appearance very close in this run. These were both Vertigo characters at the time and seemed to represent the more “adult” form of storytelling that DC was trying to pursue. David, in these issues, seems to be making a point that any hero can be used to express issues of psychological complexity as well as action/fun.
If anything, this entire arc seems to be drawing a line in the sand saying that heroic deeds and character depth are not mutually exclusive. Just as King David had to come to grips with his power, so too does Aquaman. The big difference is that one of them ends up in a fight with (and seemingly kills) the son of a god.
I think this third year of Aquaman was a pretty bold experiment on David’s part in regards to sneaking meta-criticism and pathos into a mainstream superhero book. You can still read individual issues and arcs for pure entertainment but, when taken together, you can’t help but see some deeper ideas at work.
Next time, the really strong run loses some steam and kind of peters out (no pun intended) as Genesis and the Millennium Giants overtake the narrative. In fact, the last issue with David’s name on the cover isn’t even written by him.
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