Arthur Curry has journeyed past the isle of the gods, he’s met the spirit of the underwaters, Mother Shark and now he seeks answers: Who is Mera? And how did he die? The first many already know the answer to, but Arthur has to find out, while the second is something all of us are in the dark about. But all the answers are here, buried in the depths of the ocean corals. And we finally get to witness what transpired.
The pain of characters is always an interesting thing. Almost always, it’s a defining, key aspect of the character and one used to examine them, their fears, their hopes and what makes them tick. From Peter Parker and Uncle Ben to Bruce Wayne and The Waynes, it’s usually almost always the loss of family. The loss of family and friends and how it shapes us is a recurrent element of all fiction, but especially so in superhero fiction, where in everything is amped up to 11 and heightened beyond the possible. Aquaman’s long had similar pain, although it hasn’t been investigated as much as you’d expect, given how his origin kept changing radically over the years. Basic ideas of who he was beyond The King Of Atlantis couldn’t be agreed upon, as variations from Golden Age, Silver Age, The Dark Age all crept up into a mess of contradictions. But once Geoff Johns and Ivan Reis returned the character to the classic Ramona Fradon Silver Age origin from Adventure Comics, the origin has stayed consistent, allowing writers to effectively build for once.
Jeff Parker was among the first to do so, succeeding Johns’ tenure and exploring the pain of Arthur’s mother leaving him and his need for her acceptance, love and care. That came to a conclusion when his tenure ended and the 2018 Aquaman film would go onto borrow wholesale from Parker (and Paul Pelletier)’s run, using his work with Arthur and Atlanna, his mother, as the emotional heart and spine of the entire project. But apart from that, it’s relatively untouched territory and ripe for exploration, much the same way innumerable scribes have explored Peter Parker and his pain or Bruce Wayne’s pain. Arthur is a character full of rich emotional burdens and it’s worth unpacking all his struggles to cut to the man within. He deserves that same level of treatment, that care and such a dive into character. And that’s what Kelly Sue DeConnick’s era’s been all about. Get deep and underneath the man who is The King Of The Seven Seas and The Defender Of The Deep.
Coming off last issue’s revelation that Mera is the one who killed Arthur, this issue backs up a bit to slowly explain how that even came about. Although some might’ve jumped the gun to take the notion at face value from a mere cliffhanger, there’s a lot more at play here, as is usually the case. We witness that Arthur didn’t die during the events of Drowned Earth but has been hiding in secret to be free of his burdens for once, all the pressures that come with superheroics, from Black Mantas hunting you to to your own people building agendas around you and more. Spending his time with Mera in flashbacks, colored wonderfully by Gho, the book reveals an Arthur who’s somewhat happy. But the happiness doesn’t last, as is to be expected, as an argument breaks out.
DeConnick and Bogdanovic carefully maneuver the reader through a couple’s discussion which really ends up being a huge emotional roller coaster. There’s a level of comfort in play here, but also tension, a fear, something that reaches a crescendo as the issue progresses. Most of all what’s impressive is the honesty with which DeConnick writes it, giving it the weight it needs. The decision to play the couple as almost a forbidden romance in the eyes of an Atlantis that holds disdain for Arthur is interesting and makes a lot of sense. It’s a context that has great parallels to the character’s own origin, with an Atlantean Queen who loved a man of the surface who she was not meant to be with. That cyclical element is fun, although not the source of the conflict, because Mera and Arthur are quite comfortable with one another, all things considered. Bogdanovic’s art, which has consistently wonderful rhythm, working off DeConnick’s script, really works here. As the pair discuss their relationship, the moments are framed in panels over one large splash, which remains pitch black save for the dark volcanic power at the bottom. Gho’s fiery oranges convey the underlying tension of the sequences, while Bogdanovic’s choice, which also matches the coral setting, communicates escalation and tension as things shift ever so slightly, building to something.
And what it’s building to? It’s big. Mera’s pregnant.
It’s a huge revelation and it pierces through everything and re-contextualizes everything. It’s scary, terrifying, wonderful and so much more. And Arthur feels that, all of that. He tells Mera he loves her and their child-to-be, because he does, but the reveal catches him so off-guard, much like the reader, that he’s out of sorts. A lot of Big Two works tend to aim for surprises, but few ever manage it. This issue? It does it. The surprise is a genuine one and it works. And the reaction it elicits from Arthur Curry is a moment of profound truth. All his deep-rooted insecurities, fears and general anxiety take hold, as his greatest fear repeats itself over and over in his head: What if he might to be his child what his mum was to him?
It’s a terrifying, terrifying notion and one that hits from a life time of pain caused by the absence of a parent. And caught in this forbidden romance and a dangerous life, Arthur’s instinctual response is fear, for the world that the child is coming into, what it may do to him or more importantly, what he may do to him, being put in the role his mother and father were. It’s not a responsibility he’d considered truly up until this moment so the shock is real. Letter Clayton Cowles really excels here, showcasing his storytelling skills by capturing those feelings on the page. The mythic, wavy, uneven captions of Mother Shark, which read like prophetic proclamations up to this point, shift to serve a different purpose. In this context, they capture Arthur’s deepest anxieties and insecurities, as the font and balloon size shifts to convey the weight of each beat in a panel and deliver the terror of every succeeding thought that hits Arthur. It’s chilling, it’s real and it’s powerful. DeConnick’s voice for Arthur portrays him as a calm, cool swashbuckling hero but also as a man you can relate you emotionally, as his fears get the best of him.
Arthur is under too much pressure to handle the moment right and the scene progresses in an unintended way, as Mera’s emotional response of frustration triggers a huge accident in the room, ultimately leading to Arthur’s death. While the presentation is a wee bit awkward, it makes sense. In the superhero world, arguments and ‘blowups’ can be quite literal and connecting a character’s power deeply with their emotions is a natural choice, especially when they’re under such incredible pressure, as Queen, as an outsider, as a hero, as a lover of an outcast and now a would-be mother. Mythic parallels are drawn, as are differences, as the tragedy was unintended and Mera lies unconscious at the end of it all, making the fate of the baby uncertain.
There’s two directions the story could take from here, Arthur and Mera potentially dealing with a miscarriage and Arthur and Mera dealing with the pregnancy and eventual birth of their child. The first is clearly a lot more tragic and there is a lot to be mined and explored there, especially from a female perspective. The latter could also turn out intriguing, considering the history of ‘Aquababy’ in the past. Arthur and Mera’s son has historically never lived long, thanks to Black Manta, which was part of what led to the destruction of their marriage, as well. Everyone remembers the infamous and now meme-tic page of Black Manta yelling in regards to all this:
It’s the height of pettiness, asking that in pure venomous hate to hurt your foe. And that’s just the kind of man Manta is. This is all worth mentioning because the next issue is, you guessed it, a Black Manta one! He’s back and it’s a big issue for not only Aquaman as #50 arrives, but the big bad Terrorist Of The Seven Seas, too. And him arriving in such fashion, especially after the revelation of a potential Aquababy is clearly ominious. You’re meant to be afraid and uncertain. You don’t know where this is going to go. Will there be a miscarriage? Has there been already? If not and the child is born, then what’s in store? Arthur is, once more, entering unexpected shores here, as history promises tragedy and the present remains uncertain, with the future yet unmarked.
Aquaman #49 is another solid installment in a run that has really found a niche for itself and is mining the character in a way that feels classical yet fresh, with the Aquababy revelation being a great example of that. Emotions run high, the humanity of the characters is revealed and the future promises to be one of possibility, as Manta arrives to hurt and a reborn Arthur arrives to mend. If you want a run that feels like it’s actively building on the narratives prior, from Johns’ superhero, to Parker’s adventurer king to Abnett’s politican and folk hero, this is it. The mythic hero facing the responsibility of fatherhood and moving forward, that’s the future. There is momentum here that isn’t to be missed.