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Year of the Villain: Ocean Master #1 Review

An impossible choice, but someone must make it.

Orm has always been a character defined by his conviction. Atlantis was his to rule, and nothing would or could stand in his way.  It didn’t matter who his parents were or what powers he had.  All that mattered was the throne of Atlantis and taking down Arthur Curry.  Lately, however, these convictions have become less grounded.  Somewhere along the way, Orm lost a lot of motivation and nuance to blind rage.  The throne was his, and that’s all there was to it, but that wasn’t enough for most readers.  Orm needed more and found it not through rage but through love.  He found a family and a life on the surface world that made him happy, but when the oceans called, he abandoned them and the throne was all that mattered again.  Here was a man torn form one world to another all while being the villain.  Most readers do not know the feeling of trying to claim something that is rightfully theirs.  Orm’s conviction for the throne is not as universal as his love for his family.  How could he have given up such a thing?  There’s so much more to this story, and Dan Watters, Miguel Mendonça, Ivan Plascencia, and Wes Abbott are here to fill in some of those blanks.

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From the beginning of the issue, one can already feel the added nuance this team is bringing to the character.  Orm has always felt dragged along by the plot or Aquaman’s needs.  Never has he felt truly in control of his own actions, but that changes here.  In Ocean Master #1, Orm’s character defines his actions.  When he confronts Erin, the woman he loves, he is ashamed.  He can’t even look at her.  Back turned, head down, and phenomenal shadowing from Mendonça, you get the sense that not even Orm feels like he deserves to speak to her; not until Erin demands Orm look at her.

One of the best parts of the issue is that Orm does not have the agency here, or he doesn’t start with it at least.  Erin is driving the narrative because Orm is crawling back to her.  Orm abandoned love, a life, and a family for a manufactured sense of duty and allegiance to a throne he hasn’t sat on for over a decade.  Then he failed.  That’s powerful.  For the first time I can remember, Orm admits his failure.  Perhaps abandoning his family was, indeed, a mistake.  Vying for a throne that is rightfully yours, and devoting your life in service to a kingdom that belongs to you is not a universal feeling, and for many, that’s what makes Orm feel so out of reach.  But devoting your life  and sacrificing everything in service to a cause that ultimately rejects you?  That’s as universal as it gets, and the entire weight of those feelings collapses upon the reader as Watters writes, “The kingdom seemed to have had no need of me.”  All the while, Miguel Mendonça and Ivan Plascencia paint a beautiful picture of a lavish, prosperous kingdom covered in a majestic blue palette.  A kingdom that doesn’t want its wannabe ruler.

And so Orm is forced to live as a beggar in his own kingdom.  He talks about living on the streets next to vagrants and the homeless and laments about the madness that often plagues kings, but the story begins to get lost in the weeds ever slow slightly.  The density of the pages increases, the direction of the story seems to turn, and you wonder, “Oh no, is this story going off the rails?”  That is, until Erin pulls Orm back.  That’s right, it was all intentional so that the reader’s feelings would match Erin’s.  This doesn’t matter.  Orm left.  He abandoned his family.  His miraculous escape is really of no consequence to those he left behind and who never expected to see him again.  He just wants to see his son again, and Erin doesn’t let him.  She still has the agency.  She, as the listener, is still controlling this narrative.  Orm’s story continues because she allows it.  He was going to return to his family.  Orm was on his way back, until he saw an Atlantean getting kidnapped.  On one hand, Orm could have felt the obligation to do what was right.  On the other hand, amidst the circumstances, it just feels like an excuse.  This page is brilliantly designed with turbulent panels rocking back and forth and red gutters signaling an alarming moment around one panel.  This creative team is using all of the skills at their disposal.

Once we get to the Marine Marauder’s rig, the book turns into something else entirely.  Evoking Silver Age elements, the book becomes a classic showdown with bright, flashy colors, a classic explanation of the villain’s plans, corny banter, ever-changing layouts, and plenty of explosions.  It’s almost an interlude, and it’s pulled off well.  An interlude, however, implies a transition between two parts of the story, so what would they be?  In my opinion, it is here where Watters transitions from the superhero fanfare of the DCU to the murky and mysterious depths of myth and legend.  The majestic city of Atlantis filled with noble guards in uniform and a cheesy supervillain give way to the myth of Dagon and the call of a large, unknown sea creature.  This transition is evoked further in three expertly executed vertical panels, separated by ornate and runic glyphs, that show the depths to which Orm is diving. As he gets deeper, the crevice gets narrower and the colors get darker.  The only light at the bottom illuminates from a small girl abandoned for centuries.  Her name is Lernaea, which is fascinating on its own.  When hearing Lernaea, one might think of the fish parasite or the Hydra from the myth of Hercules, but something tells me that Watters is diving a bit deeper than that.  He seems to be going back to the original Greek lake of Lerna, whose waters were considered to be healing and that served as the entrance to the underworld.  This is very fitting to Lernaea, as whenever Atlanteans or other sea creature would here her call and try to rescue her, they would die from the intense pressure while diving down to reach her.

Orm and Lernaea rise up and take vengeance for those that the Marine Marauder had changed and harmed.  Then he founded a new underwater city for those who had been cast out or mutated and named it the city of Dagon.  The name for this city carries immense meaning from multiple sources, and Watters seems to pull from all of them.  The original Dagon was a sea deity in Mesopotamia.  Kelly Sue DeConnick has been doing a lot with sea deities from all over the world in her main Aquaman run, so it makes a lot of sense to use this as a connection to the main book.  Dagon was a powerful and militaristic ruler, and Orm seems to share a lot of his more aggressive traits with the sea king.

More important, however, might be the Lovecraftian influence on this issue.  Orm’s journey bares some similarities to Lovecraft’s short story “Dagon”.  Both characters are haunted by past events.  Orm is haunted by his failures to both save and rule Atlantis during Drowned Earth, while the narrator in “Dagon” is haunted by images of the horrifying creature he saw and his fears of humanity descending into chaos and madness.  Additionally, both experience a deep dive through a “seemingly immeasurable pit or canyon” to an underwater chasm.  There are also plenty of similarities to The Shadow over Innsmouth,  which explores a humans to transform into grotesque sea creatures known as the Deep Ones and are cast out to live together as a society in a number of underwater cities similar to the new city of Dagon in this issue.

Recounting this story and Orm’s vengeance was his way of trying to convince Erin to hate him, but it will not work.  There are no excuses for Orm’s failings to his family and Erin wastes no time pointing that out. There is always something below the surface more important than his family above, and it is Erin’s words that cut the deepest. After all of this, however, Erin still loves Orm, so she asks “What do you want?”  Through a flashback with Apex Lex, we learn that Orm set Lernaea free by crushing the stone that binds her and declared that he needs not gift or help from Lex Luthor.  A triumphant moment that marks the beginning of his rule as king of Dagon, but it’s undercut by his answer to Erin:  He wants nothing.  In reality, he wants his family to come with him, but that could never be.  It make be a stretch, but there do seem to be additional similarities to Samson Agonistes, a play from John Milton.  The entire play is focused on men and their superiority.  Samson and other men have all of the agency in this society until Samson grows to realize his wife’s actions did not mark a betrayal out of malice but of loyalty to her people over her husband.  Dalila is a reminder of Samson’s failings to God, to others, and to his own ego.  Watters flips a lot of the roles and conclusions here, but the foundation is still recognizable.  In this instance, Erin has the agency, and it is Orm betraying the family, not out of malice, but out of a sense of duty to his people.  Erin will forever be a reminder of Orm’s sacrifice of love for country and kingdom, but it is a choice he made and stands by.  Like Samson, Orm did fail, at love and family in particular, but these are failing he acknowledges as he sits on his throne ruling over Dagon.

As Orm leaves to take his throne at the city of Dagon, his upcoming role in Aquaman becomes clearer through .  Dagon is a place for outcasts and homeless Atlanteans.  Atlantis is currently a city in unrest with Mera as an unseasoned ruler.  As Aquaman eventually returns, it will be interesting to see how these worlds collide.  For now, however, Dan Watters, Miguel Mendonça, Ivan Plascencia, and Wes Abbott have woven a great tragedy of a man who, once again, has built a foundation behind his convictions.

Is it good?
Ocean Master #1 is an enchanting character study that is sure to please Aquaman experts and first-time readers. It's inspired, beautiful, heartbreaking just as any mythic tale should be.
Watters, Mendonca, Plascencia and Abbott use every tool in their arsenal to craft an epic strategy.
Orm has felt more grounded here than he has in years
The mythical elements added to the world of Aquaman are glorious
The team does a great job making Erin an important character in this story as well.
The middle drags a bit due to how dense it is.
9.5
Great
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