It was just before writer Dan Abnett joined the Aquaman franchise that DC Comics last ran an "Aquaman in exile" story, murky and ill-received, so it's a curious moment when Abnett returns to that well with Aquaman Vol. 4: Underworld. The Aquaman of the current era didn't lose much cache in that earlier volume misstep, but in some respects we're at a point where Abnett has built up enough goodwill over his own pre- and post-Rebirth volumes that he can upend the status quo without the same pushback. Certainly the painterly, fantasy-inspired pencils, inks, and colors of artist Stjepan Sejic don't hurt.
But also, inasmuch as this seems like a new direction, it becomes increasingly clear that Aquaman Arthur Curry, Atlantean freedom fighter, is a natural outcropping of the story Abnett has been telling all along. This does suggest, for one, a feint in the story Abnett seemed to be telling to start with; for two, there now seems a different point Abnett's trying to get to in terms of "status quo," and I'm all the more eager now to see what that endpoint is and what kinds of stories Abnett tells from there.
[Review contains spoilers]
Dan Abnett's Aquaman: Rebirth special sees Aquaman face off against Corum Rath, leader of the Atlantean "Deluge" anti-surface terrorist cell. In the end, Rath is defeated, and the story pivots to longtime Aqua-foe Black Manta. The story that follows, in Aquaman Vol. 1: The Drowning, involves Manta and the destruction of the new Atlantean embassy on land, Spindrift Station, and leads to Arthur trying to prevent a war between Atlantis and the U.S. manufactured by Manta. By the end of Aquaman Vol. 2: Black Manta Rising, with Manta defeated, Aquaman triumphant, and a greater relationship between Atlantis and the U.S., it would seem this was where Abnett was headed all along, the emergence -- with some struggle -- of Atlantis on the world stage and the fruition of what began with the Station.
But Abnett's third volume, Aquaman Vol. 3: Crown of Atlantis, was problematic -- whether by design or accidentally -- in that Arthur mostly ignored Atlantis (and had been an absentee king before that), leading to Arthur being deposed and Rath being installed as king. Suddenly in Underworld the book's chief villain becomes Rath, and despite his only having appeared in a scant number of issues to this point, Rath's prominence in the Rebirth special suggests this was Abnett's intention all along. And if this book was always meant to come back to a conflict between Aquaman and Rath, then perhaps it redefines too the overall arc of this book's premise -- not the story of Arthur rising to prominence as the leader of Atlantis as an international power, but rather Arthur becoming, as they say, someone else ... something else.
Indeed, as a shadowy figure known as "the Aquaman" fights roving gangs in Atlantis's shadier neighborhoods, Underworld draws its own vigilante comparisons. And the arc of the story is in part Arthur recognizing himself as having been a bad king (that even if the bent of the superheroic-genre zeitgeist is toward progressivism, Atlantis didn't want it, an interesting turn on Abnett's part) and getting permission to do what he's seemed to want to all along -- just be Aquaman. Abnett has done well in making Arthur neither the smartest nor most self-aware person in the room, and we see here the fruition of what Mera already suggested he do in the last volume -- we seem to be headed for an Arthur who'll be a full-time superhero, though a hero for both Atlantis and the surface world and not just the surface as Mera had suggested.
If we stipulate that Arthur is most likely going to defeat Rath and at some point this book will achieve a modicum of peace, I'm newly curious then what that will look like. Aquaman as "simply" a superhero isn't something we've seen for a while, not since at least the early days of Geoff Johns's New 52 series. It would seem Abnett's done too much world-building, especially of Atlantis's political structure and figures, to abandon those political aspects of the book entirely (and especially because that's been some of Abnett's strongest material). But at the same time, especially of late, Abnett's done some good work showing Arthur navigating his newfound fame as a superhero -- with on again, off again references to there being no reason for Aquaman not to be as well-known as Superman -- that would make it interesting to see Arthur and Mera simply as adventurers on call, policing threats above the surface and below without Arthur necessarily ruling at the same time.
Underworld itself is certainly a fine jumping-on point for new readers, but in comparison to some of the longer volumes this book has had lately, the six-issue story is relatively straightforward -- Arthur returns, he gets in and out of a couple scrapes, he ends up in the end leading a rebellion. The real spectacle of the book, beyond what it suggests for Aquaman's future, is the presence of artist Stjepan Sejic, though only for this volume. Sejic's strange creatures and artful paneling are certainly sights to behold, but I didn't like for instance that suddenly Atlantis includes mutants -- when such have never been seen or mentioned before -- solely to give Sejic an opportunity to draw them.
Though I did like this "the Aquaman" persona for Arthur, perhaps stronger here (not for the first time) are Abnett's supporting characters. Mera shines, as does Abnett's Titan Tempest, nee Garth, whom Abnett finally begins to give an origin (confusing as it is, positing Garth as Arthur's pre-Flashpoint Aqualad ward when a variety of things, including the very continuity that Abnett inherited, contradict that). Also Tula and Murk, whom it seems increasingly did not betray Arthur after all; there's also a hilarious sequence across two issues where Arthur's former confidant Vulko does some ghost-busting. Abnett also brings back classic character Dolphin, though I hope he doesn't pursue this suggestion of Dolphin as being a romantic obstacle between Arthur and Mera, which would only be a poor reflection on Arthur and surely lead to melodrama.
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With Aquaman Vol. 4: Underworld, Dan Abnett moves the Aquaman title in an unexpected direction. I'm pleased to see this title so full of possibilities; it does seem to be taking a while for this title to settle into something "regular," but at the same time we're only just now at the end of the book's first year with the double-shipping, so what we actually have is a lot packed into a short amount of time. Abnett's got me looking forward to the next volume, and the one after that.
[Includes original and variant covers]
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