On the Departure of the Scribe to the King of the Seven Seas, or, Geoff Johns’ Aquaman: A Retrospective

There’s a brief summary of the first 25 issues of Aquaman below. So spoilers I guess.

75% of the Earth’s surface is water. So maybe it’s no coincidence that 75% of superhero jokes are lobbed at Aquaman.

Three years ago I doubt much of anyone would have suspected Aquaman would become one of DC Comic’s finest titles. But last week, with Aquaman #25, Geoff Johns ended one of the best runs to come out of DC’s New 52 reboot. And in 25 issues Johns was able to take the underwater underdog of underdogs and turn him into a brilliant orange champion.

All of the shine.

All of the shine.

With Johns as scribe, Arthur Curry became more than a laughably wayward mermaid who could talk to fish. As Superman is a champion of social justice and Batman a crusader against corruption, Aquaman has truly come into his own as an ecological agent, a force for stability and balance in every ecosystem he inhabits.

The Trench, the first of Johns’ Aquaman arcs and easily one of the New 52’s greatest hits, put Aquaman in the midst of a straightforward, biological ecosystem. Ever the people-pleaser, Aquaman worked to find a balance between horrified beach-goers and horrifying, awesome angler fish monster people that eat beach-goers. Struggles ensued, but by the end of the arc a determined Arthur stabilized the situation.

Aquaman then found himself thrown into a complex interpersonal ecosystem when he reunited with his C-list superhero friends, The Others. After that he carried the burden of stabilizing a fractured geopolitical ecosystem when Atlantis attacked the east coast of the United States. Death of the King, Johns’ final arc which culminated in Aquaman #25, had Aquaman returning to the ocean and fighting to bring balance to both the famously-turbulent realm of Atlantean politics and his own marriage.

But biological, international and marital habitats aside, the one ecosystem Aquaman struggled with the most throughout Johns’ run was internal. The son of the Queen of Atlantis and some guy that owned a lighthouse, Aquaman is a child of two worlds, born into two identities that are continually thrown out of balance by one another. It’s a compelling conflict that defines Arthur Curry and makes a guy wearing green tights and orange fish scales seem a little less ridiculous and a little more relatable.

Look at all the conflict!

Look at all the conflict!

It’s telling that in last month’s Justice League of American #9 Aquaman’s personal hell is depicted as a desolated ocean. He kneels in a moist desert of whale carcasses, utterly broken at an ecosystem thrown entirely out of equilibrium – the perfect failure of a hero defined by the pursuit of harmony.

But Johns not only highlighted Aquaman’s quest for balance, he also emphasized just how much of an underdog the character is. Not only do people in the real world make fun of Aquaman, people within the very pages of the comic book, the same fictional bystanders he fights to protect, make fun of him. Whether he’s at a diner, on the beach, in Atlantis or at the Justice League’s headquarters, Aquaman is always within arms-reach of ridicule. The guy can’t win.

And yet he always does.

Geoff Johns brought a staggering amount of substance to a character that not so long ago was more a punch line than a protagonist. But he didn’t stop there. Much as he did with Sinestro and Black Hand in Green Lantern, Johns let Aquaman’s villains shine.

Black Manta is a lethal killer with an amazing helmet, which is enough to make a badass out of anyone, but he is also a demon of Aquaman’s own creation with a thirst for revenge after being legitimately wronged by Aquaman. It’s cool that Black Manta is a talented murderer. It’s compelling that he wants to slaughter Aquaman’s family because Aquaman killed Black Manta’s dad, thinking it was Black Manta, because Black Manta attacked Aquaman’s dad and scared him into a lethal heart attack.

BLACK MANTA ATTACK

BLACK MANTA ATTACK

Equally compelling was Orm the Ocean Master, simultaneously the owner of the world’s dumbest name and coolest title. When the U.S. military attacked Atlantis, Orm retaliated in kind, using the full might of his mermaid people to sink Boston into the ocean. Unfortunately, it turns out the U.S. was tricked into attacking Atlantis, which makes Ocean Master a bit of a dick. But at the end of the day while Orm is certainly treacherous, all he really did was wear a cool helmet and overreact in the defense of his home.

Black Manta and Ocean Master are villains, yes, but they’re also victims of circumstance. Even the fish monsters of The Trench came to the surface to feast on human flesh in desperation, having exhausted the food available in the depths.

Ocean Master mastering oceans.

Ocean Master mastering oceans.

And then there was that old guy that Aquaman fought in Death of a King. Boy was he old.

Taking the time to flesh out The Trench, Black Manta, Ocean Master and the old fellow made them interesting, memorable characters and greatly elevated the excitement of Aquaman’s battles with them.

Over the course of nearly ten years Geoff Johns left an irreversible mark on the Green Lantern universe. He’s managed to do the same with Aquaman over the course of 25 issues.

With Johns departing the series I had every intention of dropping Aquaman from my monthly pull list when I began writing this post. But going back over 25 issues and four story arcs reminded me of just how much I’ve grown to enjoy the character, his supporting cast and his world. And though Johns is gone, I’m not ready to leave them behind.

Unless the next issues sucks. Them I’m out.

The Trench, The Others, Throne of Atlantis and Death of a King weren’t just victories for Geoff Johns, they were victories for a character who against all odds became awesome.

In summation:

I never wanted to be Aquaman before he was cool.  I want to be Aquaman because Geoff Johns made him cool.

 

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