“From the darkness it came, into the darkness it shall return…until it is summoned again.”
A gigantic, cosmic horror spoken of only in fictitious accounts. One drawn to a singular lighthouse. Drawn to its light like a moth to a flame. Its luminous nature invites the dangers of the dark, the monsters of unspeakable terror. That’s an interesting metaphor for Aquaman, and a curiously deliberate choice to make with the character. And thus we open on furious action.
There’s a real sense of calmness to this book, which feels odd to say given this is one of the more action-packed issues full of instantaneous violence in the series. But despite that — or perhaps through that — there’s a strange restraint to the title, where in the action is merely another character beat or moment rather than just being there for the hell of it. That’s not to say there isn’t any spectacle or an attempt to scale down — it’s rather the opposite. But the action doesn’t happen just for the sake of it, as it all too often does in many other comics. Violence occurs when desperate attempts at peace are futile and every choice the characters make in those tense moments say something about who they are, clearly. And the action does leave ramifications.
Arthur’s most fundamental power is communication. And so he basically pleads loudly so that he may get through and save lives. When that fails and a life is in immediate, active danger, alongside many more others, he leaps into action. The Gods are more detached observers, taking no action unless they really, desperately have to. Jackson Hyde, the Aqualad, leaps into action and quips throughout to overcome the tension he’s under. Meanwhile, Callie aids anyone and everyone she can. If Arthur’s first instinct is to communicate and change his foe, to avoid conflict, Jackson’s is to do no such thing. There’s life at stake, there’s no time and so action it is. And given how the issue progresses, this is interesting. Jackson manages to ‘win’ and ‘save’ the victim, Ralph. Only it’s too late, it’s not enough. He did his best, he did all he could and did it without losing a second and yet it didn’t matter. The man still died. That’s a new experience for this rookie hero. It’s his first time experiencing that and so we see the shock in his eyes and the look of helplessness and futility written across his expressions.
And that’s the power of monsters, isn’t it? To make us feel helpless, futile and small. Reduced to our inability, as we gaze upon them in their immensity and power. And that’s what the Lovecraftian monster represents. Boasting a skull head, an onslaught of tentacles and an inexplicable body, it’s an impossible creature. And it arrives due to that light. It arrives like no mortal, but like a law of nature, a terror of existence. It’s all the dread, fear and horror we feel about the ocean, all the unknowable and impossible to understand rendered into one form. It’s our inability to compromise, to listen, to understand in Robson Rocha, Daniel Henriques and Sunny Gho-style. It’s the precise opposite to the sea gods we’ve seen across the rule to date, who are all, of course, inevitably molded by the perception of those they represent.
There’s a sense of creeping dread throughout the entire course of the issue, but not really in a way that has you scared as much as intrigued. You wanna find out more. You wanna learn. And that’s achieved mostly through the narration in the captions, which maintain a sense of dread but also great thrills and almost an odd poetic quality. They are what manage to (pardon the pun) anchor the tone while giving the book a clear voice — the voice of the author itself. They’re the musings of a writer, which is something worth noting. But past that, getting back to the monster itself, it’s one that only exists in the light of the lighthouse. Once put out, it simply vanishes. And that’s the price of light. That’s what shining the light on the unknown can lead to, and facing that head-on is what Arthur Curry is all about.
The other end of the issue delves into Black Manta and Mecha Manta, allowing us to further mirror the lead protagonist and antagonist. The perverse relationship Manta has and maintains with his father is virtually the only relationship he currently has. While Arthur makes no command of anyone or controls them, which is vital to DeConnick’s take, Manta rewrites the very remains of his father into calling him his “Captain” over “son.” He’s cold, detached and completely toxic beyond belief. Given this is a fantasy book, he’s very much the mad pirate with the wild glint in his eye, which does suit the character. He’s every crazy, cranky pirate caption you’ve read. Arthur then, in that context, via contrast and opposition becomes a mythic and fairy tale-esque hero. Arthur looks at this fantastical world and sees potential, radiance, life, connection and wonder. Manta looks at it and sees only horror. He sees risks, darkness, death, detachment and fear. Everything is a tool or a weapon to him, an object to be acquired, bid on or sold for profit in some manner.
Perhaps nothing better reflects this than the moment where he, alongside Mecha Manta, his father-facsimile, arrives in an ancient civilization predating Atlantis itself. His first response upon seeing this untarnished and undisturbed piece of rich, intricate, living history and culture is…throwing a weapon at it. An explosive laser weapon to raze the entire landmark to the ground. And as this place is tarnished, Manta grins with that same mad glint. That’s what he does. This is who he is, deep down. He craves violence and cannot be without it. He’s desperate for validation and approval from his father, which he’ll never truly get. He’s the purely selfish, plundering and amoral cruelty of humanity, which only really serves to illuminate how larger than life and special Arthur is.
But all this comes through because the team really manages to build a cohesive book that espouses great storytelling clarity. Rocha’s dynamic art style brimming with detail, Henriques’ effective inks, Gho’s atmospheric colors which really lend the book the mood it has acquired by now and Cowles’ lettering, which is able to perfectly punctuate key moments. Whether it’s a neon glow SFX to accompany gleaming water-saber constructs or dripping red SFX to indicate a giant bleeding, there’s a sense of cohesion present here which is genuinely appreciated.
Throughout, DeConnick’s writing manages to imbue the book a sort of serenity, a larger-than-life quietness of sorts, even through its action, which makes the reading experience interesting. It’s fitting, really. To make a comparison, if a book like Morrison and Sharp’s The Green Lantern is a bright flame, moving at a rapid rate, instantaneous and ever-shifting, befitting its hero of Promethean possibility, Aquaman is like the ocean itself, calmer, more restrained and flowing in a more methodical fashion.
And it’s why even the ending, with the arrival of the writer of the fictions that have proven to be real thus far in the narrative, can excite. It’s a new character and one you’ve never seen before, but the arrival and implications are genuinely thrilling. It’s set up enough for that stinger to mean something. The idea of a writer of mythology in a book about mythology, trapped in the narrative he’s written down, is a neat as hell idea. It’s true to the book’s identity and it’s also why it can portray monsters of both the oceans and land itself, in both the creature and in the man that is Manta and prove effective. It maintains a careful foothold in both the ethereal and the accessible and that’s a serious strength.
Aquaman #52 continues this run of an exciting superhero book that feels distinctive enough from a great number of others coming out. It’s ethereal and mythic but never alienating, and it walks the careful tightrope of balancing a great many expectations and interpretations fairly well while bringing its own vision to the table.
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