Review: Aquaman #20

[Editor’s Note: This review may contain spoilers.]

 

“H2.0, Part Two” (20 pgs)

Writer: Dan Abnett
Artist: Philippe Briones

 

Summary
About a decade ago, Aquaman’s book carried a subtitle. It was Aquaman: Sword of Atlantis. This issue, and the one before it,  should also have a subtitle. Call it, Aquaman: Skull Island.

Yes, that Skull Island.

I mean, have you seen the latest Kong movie? If you have, you’ve already read the H2-point-oh storyline. Seriously. the plots of each are uncannily similar. Don’t believe me? Check it:

A hero and a honey hook up with stock military characters and travel to a remote location where others like them have disappeared, in search of a mythical beast that turns out to be all too real when it shows up and starts kicking their asses. As Hero + honey try to come to terms with the beastie, but the soldiers, along with a scientist who paid a high price for a previous encounter, only want it dead.

See? Oh, and sorry there if you have not seen Kong: Skull Island yet. But we did say at the outset there may be spoilers in this review. We just didn’t tell you for what!

Now, I know writer Dan Abnett also had not yet seen Kong when he sat down to plot out this issue. And the fact that this story has played out so much like Kong is not necessarily a bad thing. I mean, hey, I loved the Kong movie — saw it opening day and was thoroughly entertained. But it is drawing some lukewarm reviews. It currently ranks “77 percent fresh” on RottenTomatoes.com and most less-than-glowing reviews burn with indignation that the flick, fun as it is, is pretty much plot-by-numbers.

Now, that, too, is not necessarily a bad thing. I mean, this issue of Aquaman holds no surprises, but, like the Kong movie, that does not stop it from entertaining. Knowing what to expect on each page is not necessarily a bad thing. Not every panel needs to slap you in the face like a wet fish and make you say, “Oh, WOW! I did NOT see that coming!”

In fact, there is a certain amount of comfort in not having to puzzle out the plot, because, after all, the alternative to each step marking perfect, if plodding, sense, is having a story that is utterly nonsensical, and nobody wants that. At the risk of stating the obvious, this is Aquaman, not Seaguy.

So, the synopsis: We open in media res — or in fisticuffs res, as it were — with Aquaman battling Dead Water, who, after killing one of the soldiers last issue and scurrying away, showed up last panel for Round 2.

Having surmised from last issue’s encounter that Dead Water uses water as a kind of teleportation medium — popping from a droplet here to a puddle there — Aquaman has Mera drain all the water from the government research station they’ve been investigating, to find out where all its scientists disappeared to. After Dead Water exits stage right, Peter Mortimer (formerly known as the villains Scavenger), horribly disfigured by Dead Water and brought along by the military for his expertise in dealing with the creature — and by Abnett to add the requisite interpersonal conflict — goes Nusto McScardycat, demanding Dead Water be killed. Meanwhile, with one member dead already, the U.S. Aquamarines — a paramilitary force whose members are able to “shark up” into hybrid man-fish fightin’ furies — decide to bring in the nuclear option, just in case.

The soldier sent to fetch the device gets jumped by Dead Water, because sending two fish-men in case of an attack by the fish monster, while logical, would have ruined the scene. Meanwhile Mortimer and Aquaman, who’s suddenly an electronics genius,  MacGyver a device left unfinished by that station scientists before they disappeared that mimics aqua-telepathic goads used by Atlanteans to control sea beasts. It’s like the invisible fence you can buy to keep your dog in your yard, only for fish. Big Fish. And, in this case, the intent is to keep them out of the yard.

However, as it turns out, the device ends up turning Dead Water back into human form and the soldiers, sensing their opening, open fire, or, as Mera chastises, “You gunned down an unarmed, naked man.”

They decide this dead guy who became Dead Water is not the guy who was the original Dead Water, which they’d already presumed, because that Dead Water died before this dead guy came along.

Aquaman and Mera then decide they need to investigate the underwater sinkhole the research station was set up to study, and don scuba masks since they already know the water there has a special state they can’t breathe. Meanwhile, as they swim by fantastic prehistoric fish and approach a fissure on the sea floor, those left behind discover what happened to the 29 missing scientists who did not become Dead Water, and it ain’t pretty.

 

Positives
So, let’s look at what’s good about this issue. And there’s a lot. I made great sport here with in my review of Issue #18, and I hope that if Mr. Abnett read that, he was not overly offended. But there’s little to snark at this outing. In part, that’s because much of this issue, like Kong: Skull Island, is Plotting 101. However, there’s a reason why basic templates exist — because they work. And just as  I was more than happy to plunk down $6.50 for a matinee viewing of Kong, so, too, was I satisfied with my purchase of Aquaman #20.

[Aside: Of course, here’s where comics fail against other entertainment media. It’s not just that things like movies,  tv, and video games exist, it’s that they represent a better dollar value, and people suss that out instinctively. For example, I paid $6.50 to see the 120-minute Kong movie. But heck, let’s just assume you paid $8. That’s still comes to just 6.7¢ per minute. But I read the latest issue of Aquaman in about nine minutes. With no other editorial content to speak of to occupy my time, that came to 33.2¢ per minute. And imagine of this was a Marvel comic at $3.99 — that would have made it 44.3¢ per minute! For my entertainment dollar, phone sex is a better value. Not that I call sex lines, mind you. I’m just sayin’ is all. So, really, DC needs to start converting some of those 6-7 pages of house ads in each comic book back into advertising that produces actual revenue. When I was a kid, comics cost 35¢. Converting from 1977 dollars means, that comic book cost me the equivalent of $1.41 in 2017 money. So, really, even when accounting for better creator pay, higher cost of paper (can we get back to printing comics on paper again and not clay, please?), and higher corporate overhead, I still really don’t want to pay more than $2.50 for a standard 32-page comic book. End of aside]

I like Briones’ artwork. There are a few oddities here and there — one panel where Aquaman’s head doesn’t sit on his shoulders right, in what looks like a clipped-in patch, another with everyone mulling around the station where some characters are not in proportion to others — but his layouts are clear, his ink line crisp, and his characters generally crackle with emotion.

He also has one panel with sabertooth fish that, by itself, did more to awaken the gosh-wow wide-eyed wonder of my inner 12-year-old that both fight scenes in this issue put together. That’s not to say that scenes are not handled well. And Dead Water is definitely a memorable villain, guaranteed to give nightmares to a lot of young readers, at least in so much as kids read comics at all these days.

I also like that Abnett has both brought Dead Water back and figured out a way to keep him going as a continual adversary. Considering that Aquaman patrols 80 percent of the Earth’s surface, going as far down as the sky goes up — an area that’s a mite bigger than Central City — his Rogues Gallery should be at least on par with that of The Flash. But can you name any Aqua-villains other than Black Manta and Ocean Master? And tell the truth, you probably had to think a moment to come up with Ocean Master, didn’t you?

Given Aquaman’s beat, and how much of it remains unexplored, I also like what Abnett is doing with the area known as H2.0. There should be more mysterious lands and spooky realms. Frankly, the setting in Aquaman should be the book’s primary supporting character. The “Sword of Atlantis” run tried to do that, with writer Kurt Busiek seemingly going for an “Underwater Dungeons & Dragons” feel. The upcoming Jason Momoa movie seems to be aiming for “Underwater Conan.” Somewhere in between those two takes is Aquaman’s sweet spot, I think.

 

Negatives
Well, there really aren’t many not already mentioned. My one critique not stated flatly above, or else implied in the snark, is that Abnett and editor Brian Cunningham would do well, in my ever so humble opinion, to remember that old adage that every issue is somebody’s first. I actually read the last issue and I don’t recall who the two non-military chicks are. So, some refresher this issue would have been appreciated, at least if it could be handled with exposition less clunky that this week’s issue of Nightwing. That sucker made me long for Dead Water to come and razor claw my own brain out.

Also, while the U.S. Aquamarines have been dropping like aqua-flies, it would be nice of Abnett to give is some hint as to the personality of each. This is their third of fourth appearance and we know basically nothing about any of then except, if you can remember their names, that one turns into a whale-man, that one becomes a barracuda-man, etc. One thing Skull Island did right — As opposed to Rogue One, where all the soldiers were nameless cannon fodder — was to make you feel as though you knew each one of the soldiers before they died. That made the deaths mean a little more, and made the final scene with the few survivors of the platoon that much more poignant.

Lastly, I’m not sure I’m entirely on board with Mera being able to drive all the water out of the research station. Her power is to control water and form objects “hard water” objects with it. Granted, that implies some measure of control, and granted she does appear in one panel to be making quite the effort, but does that really extend to being able to drive all water out of an entire research base? Also, in doing that, wouldn’t she necessarily expel all moisture in the air, at least, and from the bodies of those around her, at worst. Although, if she could drive all water from a humanoid body, she could take down Superman, no sweat! (pun intended)

[Aside: I never got Mera’s hard water power as a kid. It makes sense on land, but how does it work underwater? It’s be kind of like making hard air. Although, now that I think about it, maybe that’s exactly what it’s like, making Mera, basically, “Underwater Susan Storm.”]

[Aside 2: Speaking of moisture in the human body, can Dead Water transport though that? Sure, Aquaman had Mera expel all water from the room, but could Dead Water just pop out of his tear duct (assuming Atlanteans, even half-Atlanteans, have tear ducts. Wouldn’t seem they have the need. Still, just as Doctor Who’s catchphrase when fighting the Weeping Angels is, “Don’t blink!” might the rallying call when confronting Dead Water be, “Don’t cry!”]

Oh, one final thought, I guess I’m just now for the first time noticing the credit that reads, “Aquaman created by Paul Norris.” Shouldn’t that read “Mort Weisinger and Paul Norris?” Or does Weisinger not get a creator credit because he was a DC editor at the time?

 

Verdict
Well, just as in my previous Aqua-review, I snark more than I probably should, and write more than you’re likely to read, but that’s just me. Aquaman is actually a fine book at present and I’m happy to support it. And, I’ll continue to do so for the foreseeable future. At least as long as DC holds the line at $2.99.

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Duke Harrington

A newspaper reporter since 2004, Duke Harrington currently writes for the Kennebunk Post and the South Portland Sentry. He lives in Western Maine with one wife, one dog, two cats, and 19,237 comic books.