Wednesday, July 6, 2016

FULL REVIEW: Aquaman, No. 1 (2016)

Aquaman #1, August 2016 — Cover by
Brad Walker (p), Andrew Hennessey (i),
and Gabe Eltaab (c). ©DC Comics
Publisher: DC Comics
Brand: DC Universe Rebirth
Cover date: August 2016
On-sale: June 22, 2016
Cover price: $2.99
Pages: 36 (including cover)
Content: Editorial-61.1%, Advertising-38.9%
Format: Standard, saddle-stiched, glossy paper

“The Drowning, Part One: The End of Fear” (20 pages)
Writer: Dan Abnett
Penciller: Brad Walker
Inker: Andrew Hennessey
Colorist: Gabe Eltaeb
Letterer: Pat Brosseau
Editors: Brian Cunningham and Amedeo Turturro

Other features: Cover (1 pg); "DC All Access" promo page (1 pg)


THE BOTTOM LINE (UP TOP): Nothing new here, but if every Aquaman No. 1 is somebody's first, it's as strong a start as any, with generally good art and compelling characterizations. **RECOMMENDED**

STORY SYNOPSIS: Aquaman attempts to unite his two words by opening the Atlantean dry land embassy, Spindrift Station, to public tours, but the festivities are interrupted by a revenge-minded Black Mantis, who gains entry disguised as a Daily Planet reporter.

Roll Call:
Aquaman, Mera, Black Mantis, Daily Planet reporter Ray Delane (killed), British Navy Lt. Joanna Stubbs (1st app.), Sark (2nd app.)

COVER (5.50):
As with the cover to Wonder Woman No. 1, also out this day, its a static pose clutching weaponry, surrounded by supporting players, half of whom don't appear in this issue. It's not a bad cover. It'd actually make a pretty good poster. But comic book covers are not just poster-worthy drawings. They have to grab the casual reader and all but demand he or she pick up the book so see what's inside, because getting the book in the buyer's hands is 90 percent of the sale. This cover does not scream to me, "You MUST know what this story is all about." It simply says, "Aquaman." So, if I'm not already an Aquaman fan, meh.

Oddly enough, the alternate cover by Joshua Middleton, although more of a portrait than a pose, is a bit more compelling. With that cover, someone might still pick up the book, if only to answer the burning question, "Why is this man staring at me through a fish tank?"

PLOT (8.00): 
It's pretty basic as plots go, and ends in the middle of the action. But at least with the introduction and revealed death of Daily Planet reporter Ray Delane, we get some sense of a story arc within the confines of this one issue, and not a feeling that we've dropped three bucks on just one puzzle piece of the complete yarn.

The issue has a nice set up of the book's overarching theme and lays out the characters of Arthur Curry and Mera pretty well for any new readers. The middle section is all about the introduction of Lt. Joanna Stubbs, who will serve as reader identification for this series, marveling at the many wonders of Atlantean culture, as we well might, given the same circumstances. Instead of a fish out of water, she's a monkey IN water, and her instant rapport with Sark (who seems a little too reasonable to be an Atlantean soldier) promises a future unlikely-lovers subplot. Interestingly, the middle of the book belongs mostly to the supporting players and Mera, who comes off a bit like an Edith Wilson, screening matters of state before going to her less capable husband.

It's the third act (and yes, this issue has three acts, so, YAY for Abnett and fully-formed plots!) where things fall down a bit. Black Mantis sheds his Delane disguise and thrashes around with Aquaman, presumably stabbing him in the heart and leaving our hero for dead. The problem is, those pages play too quickly, focusing too much on the central players, with spartan dialogue that only serves to tell anyone who's ever read a comic featuring Black Mantis everything they already know. As I noted, every comic is someone's first, even these says, and, so, covering familiar ground is no sin. Still, I think I would have preferred to set aside the knock-down-drag out between Aquaman and Black Mantis in favor of Aquaman focusing first on saving the civilians, maybe even defying Mera's order to go tackle Mantis first in doing so. A few panels of Black Mantis shooting tourists out from under Aquaman, and he then turning instead to face Mantis, realizing that by trying to save people he's only putting them in danger, would serve to show just how ruthless our villain truly is.

And make no mistake, Black Mantis is ruthless. He's also no genius. For that reason, his full frontal attack once he gains entry to Spindrift Station makes sense. However, there are a few questions that come to mind as a result of everything he does before getting all stabby.

For one, in order to impersonate Delane as well as he does, Mantis must have staked him out for a fair bit before the encounter. That makes sense, as we see Manty similarly peeping on the Curry's morning constitutional. But to do this, he must have somehow known Delane would get assigned to the embassy opening story. But Delane, at least the way Black Mantis plays him, really strikes me as the kind of reporter who works the lobster shift, drawing the stories nobody else in the newsroom wants and doing just enough with them to submit something printable three seconds before deadline. So, I'm not convinced even Delane knew he was going to Spindrift Station when he got up that morning.

The only other possibility is that whatever holographic projector Mantis used, which we see shut off when he no longer has use for a disguise, was somehow able to instantly scan in and mimic Delane's wardrobe and features. But where does Mantis get access to technology like that? He's no genius. And, being a fisherman's son, he ain't rich. 

And, of course, in realizing the Delane get-up was just a hologram of some kind, we also realize he must have actually had his costume (including that giant damn helmet!) on the entire time. So, how did he eat that elokway, anyway? And how did he even get through the security gate? Surely, the Atlantean metal detectors would have gone off at the first hint of his equipment, regardless of what it looked like.

Now, this issue had three full-page splash panels, and seven pages with only three panels. At least one and maybe two of the splashers could have gone, with more meat added to the minimalist pages, too, giving us room to show Black Mantis actually jumping Delane in the parking lot, or elsewhere. Then, instead of the big reveal that shows Delane not being who we thought, we, as readers, would have been in it the whole time. Sure, we wouldn't get the "surprise," but we saw Mantis on Page 3, so how big a shock was it, anyway? We kinda knew he'd be back anyway. But being hip to the disguise would have increased suspense for the reader I think, especially if given panels with a near reveal at the security gate, and almost getting caught only pretending to eat the elokway, or when he finally gets in close to the sea king, wondering at each turn,  if this wold be the moment of the attack — kind of like watching a horror flick and knowing the knife is coming, just not when. High tension!

And, of course, knowing all along Delane was Mantis would have served to not only answer the questions above, but solve a script problem below.

SCRIPT (7.75):  
Aquaman #1, August 2016 — Page 10 by
Brad Walker (p), Andrew Hennessey (i),
and Gabe Eltaab (c). ©DC Comics

So, here's the thing. As we've already discussed, Black Mantis is no Einstein. And yet, it takes a fair amount of smarts to be a convincing actor. When Delane appeared, I thought Abnett crafted a pretty convincing character. He possessed all the hallmarks of a lackadaisical reporter (I know, I've been one for 13+ years), seemed to know a bit about the lingo and how assignments like this generally went down, and even had an interesting verbal tick suggesting a deep insecurity, as he turned most sentences into questions, ending them with, "right?" 

Now, that could have been our clue that Mantis, was, in fact, a bit insecure in the role he was playing. But that's backpeddling for meta-tracks, really. In the end, Delane was written too well to be someone Mantis was just pretending to be. 

Again, I think it would have been better to know Mantis was Delane from the state. Let him bungle the acting a little bit, and invite the reader to scream at the other characters, "How can you NOT tell?!" Then, when Mantis gets close to Aquaman (which in the book is played out like Mantis genuinely wants to conduct an actual interview) the tension would have been palpable, with the reader certain THIS was it, here comes the knife, only to have the tension cut with the call for lunch.

Beyond that, however, I thought the script was done well enough. It would have been real easy for the prologue to come off as over-exposition, but it was quite readable. My only quibble is that when Aquaman says the Drift intercepted a Chinese sub, he was probably, for the benefit of the reader, telling Mera something she already knew. That would have been easy enough to solve with one extra line, such as, "I haven't told you yet — I didn't want to wake you when I got in last night, and thought I'd let you sleep in this morning — but . . ." 

Of course, THAT would have helped to reinforce Mera's later revelation to Stubbs that she's boned up on a lot of things most might not expect of the pretty mermaid consort, if we'd gleaned from her conversations with Sark or Stubbs that she, in fact, know all about the sub. That would have set up some marital tension later in the series when Mera finally has to admit to Aquaman she knows more, and is controlling more, than she lets on, leaving him to wonder why — and which of them is the one, true king of the seven seas.

One bit that seemed weird to me was the page where Mera uses her powers to hold back the advancing deluge, telling Stubbs, "I don't know how long I can hold this." 

Why? Well, because in the very next panel, she tells Aquaman, "I can hold this."

Now, this might have made more sense if we had realized by some visual clue that Mera didn't know Aquaman was nearby — that for the sake of clearing the innocent she was willing to admit, or, at least feign, helplessness, but in front he her king she felt the need to be strong even though, as we soon saw, she could not "hold this." I think the page could have used one more panel, maybe two,  showing Aquaman leaping into action from where he had been standing on the raised platform, and maybe then a closer shot of him grabbing a couple of people as he notices the strain of effort on Mera's face. At the very least, as we see Aquaman running by Mera's position, her dialogue should have been amended to both indicate her desire to appear strong in her husband's eyes, and to avoid the weird juxtaposition with the previous panel. A simple fix might have been to change:

"I can hold this. Find the culprint." 

 to, "No! I-I can . . .  I will hold this! Go! Find the culprit!"

Oh, also, I thought of one more thing. There were a few places in the Aquaman: Rebirth issue where I felt the script fell down on the world-building aspect of its job, and we have another example here. At one point, Sark exclains, "Neptune below!" To my mind, that doesn't make a lot of sense as Sark also lives below the waves. He'd be more likely to say something like, "Neptune all around us!" And, keep in mind, there was talk in the Rebirth issue of the the lowest cast of Atlantean culture, the hadalin, who also live literally at the lowest level of the depths. "Hadalin," we were told, translates roughly to "bottom-feeders." So, for an Atlantean to refer to Neptune as something being below the level on which they reside, essentially equates to calling the sea god a hadalin.  Of course, we were also told that being called a hadalin is not a slur, as bottom-feeders are viewed in Atlantean culture as a noble working class. Still, the phrase "Neptune below!" seems like something a sailor would say, not a sub-mariner.

It's also worth noting there are quite a few funny lines in this issue, mostly involving cheese sticks. LOL.

LAYOUT (9.25):  
I really don't have any complaints about the layout at all. The panels flow well and serve to tell the story, as they should, with high and low shots that are appropriate, and panel boarders that are angled when and where they should be to indicate movement and emotional trauma. I thought Pages 2 and 3, which could have been a mash of talking heads with a lesser artist, were particularly well done. 

I also think it was a very wise and thoughtful decision on Brad Walker's part (or on Abnett's, if it was a script directions) to do away with the panel borders during the water fight scene. Doing so enhances the sense of Aquaman and Black Mantis splashing around in an open body of water, while encasing Lt. Stubbs and Mera in the lone panel border on one fight page highlights their isolation from the nearby ferocity.

I will say, however, that the water fight should have gone on longer. That doesn't necessarily mean more pages. The illusion of a greater passage of time can be achieved with more panels on one page, and, while that would have been difficult to pull off with the panel-less layout I've already complimented, I think more panels, with a greater variation of the waist-up shots we saw, would have heightened the sense of our two combatants really splashing around trying to kill each other.

About the only page I did not love was the one with the buffet table, mainly because most such tables don't come up a person's navel, not unless "Joanna Stubbs" is British for "Al Pratt." I think I would have liked a bit more of an expansive layout for that page, to really give us a sense of the spread Aquaman had his people put on, maybe with some folks in addition to Delane looking dubious.

ART (8.50):
I liked the art pretty well. The lighthouse breakfast-talk pages I mentioned earlier had a real nice look — good composition, nice line weight. There, and at places throughout, I got a sense of Carmine Infantino, at the height of he prowess, inked by Al Williamson. 

However, there were a few snafus, I thought. As great as the panel of Stubbs, Delane, and associated tourists was, just before Aquaman and Mera enter, the next page splash where they introduce themselves to the crowd just looked weird. Aquaman has a strange kind of block head and his arms are too short. I'm also not wild about the scale mesh of his tunic looking more like an orange turtle shell. Meanwhile, Mera's profile on the following page is as ugly as she is beautifully rendered in most other panels. 

Still, the book looked really excellent. My only other quibble might be to have had a bit more horizontal splashing of water to better separate the two panels at the top tier of the last page.

EDITING (4.50):
Aquaman #1, August 2016 — Page 1 by
Brad Walker (p), Andrew Hennessey (i),
and Gabe Eltaab (c). ©DC Comics
Not much to say here, that I haven't already said above, except to point out that most of my critiques are things that editing should have caught and resolved at some point during the process.

I did however, take a full point off for moving Amnesty Bay from Maine to Massachusetts. I'm not sure if that was a mistake or not. I mean, I'm sure now that DC is out on the left coast, its editorial pool thinks with a shrug, "Maine . . . Massachusetts . . . eh, it's all the same." And, it's true enough that we Maine natives increasingly refer to the southern part of the state, up though the mid-coast area, where Geoff Johns probably meant to place Amnesty Bay, as "Northern Massachusetts." But, still . . . 

Pretty good. I do like the new trade dress, and love the skinnier UPC box. The current Aquaman logo is not my favorite of all time, but I don't hate it. It does seem that DC is using a slightly less glossy paper stock, which is good, as its comics are no longer impossible to read under a light.

The colors were generally good. I like that Gabe Eltaeb resisted the temptation to go crazy with photoshop effects on the water, especially in the final fight scene. I did, however, think he put a little too much red in the skin tones, especially for the Atlanteans. It seems to me those who live at the ocean's bottom, far from direct sunlight, would be exceedingly pale, almost albino, or even blue-tinged. In fact, I'd think Aquaman, as a human half-breed would look as different from his average subject as Prince Namor does from the horde of blue-skinned Atlanteans in the Marvel universe.

DOLLAR VALUE (5.75):  
This was okay, I guess. At just over nine minutes, it was still a quick read in my book. But at $2.99, far better comparatively than the average Marvel or independent book at $1 more and the same, if less, reading time. 

So, it's a #1. That's always collectible. I don't know that the alternate cover will be any more sought after than the regular one, years down the road. Still, I am more likely, I think, to want this in my collection years from now than I am a lot of past Aquaman first issues. Beyond that, I don't see anything that will make this issue break out as a hot commodity, not unless Lt. Stubbs is featured in the upcoming Aquaman movie, or if she should someday replace Mera as Queen of Atlantis.

GOSH-WOW (6.50):
I was entertained. I was completely captivated by the look of the first few pages! Enjoyed the whole bit with Delane, even if the reveal ultimately diminished his non-character in my eyes and made me question the story. I also liked Mera'a mechinations and thought both Stubbs and Sark were worthy supporting players. Still, I did think the final battle was a bit anti-climactic and the issue, as a whole, while enjoyable, did not set my inner 12 year old to thinking, "Oh, man, I have GOT to tell me friends about this at school tomorrow!"

PARTING THOUGHTS (a.ka. The Wist List):
I'm inclined to close with a simple, keep up the good work. But I think my list of demands would boil down to,
• Move Amnesty Bay back to Maine,
• Let's see more of Mera as a prime minister of sorts, while Aquaman acts as beloved figurehead, and see where that tension takes us.
• Let's hope Sark is not dead, and that Subbs does not become a Daphne,
• More world building would be good. And not just Atlantis. The ocean is a BIG place, there must be all kinds of cultures and life forms we pitiful surface folk know nothing about. Maybe even actual mermaids!
• On the world-building line, ditch the traditional rogues asap and give us some nemeses only Aquaman could have.
• And finally, at some point it might be interesting to have Superman, or the new Superwoman, stop by Spindrift Station looking for their missing colleague.

Aquaman #1, August 2016 — Alternate
cover by Joshua Middleton. ©DC Comics

Pages: 36
Story pages: 20
Other editorial pages: 2
Circulation: TBD

Panels: 67 (3.35 per page)
1,293 (64.65 per page)
Story read time: 9:30
All content read time: 10:25

Story cost (cover price/story pages): 14.95¢ per page.
Content cost (cover price/all editorial pages): 14.24¢ per page.
Entertainment cost (cover price/story reading time): 31.47¢ per page.
Total entertainment cost (cover price/all material read time): 28.69¢ per page.

Additional material: (2 pages)
• cover ( edition had one freely orderable variant) (1 page)
• “DC All Access” — promo page. (a bit by Paul Dini mentioning the personal experience that led him to write the new graphic novel,
Dark Night: A True Batman Story. (1 page)

All advertising: 14 pages (38.9 percent of the total package) 

Revenue ads: 8 pages (22.2 percent) 
• Schick Hydro razor (inside front cover)
• discount on DC Comics — subscription service (full page) — subscription service/back issue comics (full page)
• — collecting database app (full page)
• Steve Jackson Games’ Simon’s Cat card game (full page)
• El Rey Network Ultima Lucha Dos: Part 1 season finale (full page)
• Blizzard Entertainment Overwatch [video game] (inside back cover)
• TNT network new series “Animal Kingdom” (outside back cover) 

House ads: 6 pages (6 percent)
Batgirl and the Birds of Prey, No. 1 (full page)
Hal Jordan and the Green Lantern Corps, No. 1 (full page)
Red Hood and the Outlaws, No. 1 (full page)
• Nightwing,
No. 1 (full page)
• Titans,
No. 1 (full page)
• New Super-Man,
No. 1 (full page)

That leaves just eight pages of actual revenue-producing ads, or a paltry percent of the book. Really, you want your ad percentage to by up around 40 percent, at least. My newspaper runs 55 percent. Honestly, I wonder how DC is able to move these books profitably at $2.99 per. I I had to guess, I’d say we’re likely to see $3.99 cover prices creeping back in by next summer.
For the record, the paid ads include the following, the first of which says a lot about the current comics fanbase — never would have seen an ad for that in a comic book when I was a kid!

Characters (in order of appearance):
AQUAMAN (cover/26 panels/305 words)
• MERA (cover/29/323)
• Aquadog (1/0)
• unnamed U.N. guards (3/0)
• unnamed Atlantean guards (3/0)
• dozens of unnamed tourists (13/3)
• British Navy Lt. JOANNA STUBBS (27/151)
• "RAY DELANE" [Black Mantis in disguise] (19/116)
• SARK (19/232)
• BLACK MANTIS (12/112)
• Ocean Master (cover only)
• Garth (cover only)
• Tula (cover only)

• Murk (?) (cover only)

• Amnesty Bay (located in Massachusetts)  
     • Curry Lighthouse
• Spindrift Station (Atlantean Dry Land  Embassy)
     • (located in Massachusetts)
• Atlantis (mention only)

Tech, gadgets and cool stuff:
Elokway — an Altantean finger food, sea slugs seasoned with sea salt and barnacle juice
• Aquaman's trident

Key quotes and catchphrases:
"I am betrothed to the King of Atlantis, Arthur. I don't get nervous." ~ Mera, p.2
• "Crikey." ~ Lt. Joanna Stubbs, p.4 and 7
• "Helluva place. Add a little lens flare and we could be in a J.J. Abrams movie, right?" ~ Black Mantis (as Ray Delane), p.5

Sound effects central:

Reboot reference kit:
• Amnesty Bary —
Although Aquaman was since the golden age been the son of a human lighthouse keeper, it was Geoff Johns in the first New 52 issue who established that lighthouse as being in Amnesty Bay, which he placed in Maine. It moves here to Massachusetts.
• Spindrift Station — A relatively new addition to the mythos, first appearing in Aquaman No. 50 (May 2016). However, the same name was first used in Marvel's Star Wars No. 60 (June 1982) as the name of a Imperial base on the planet Spindrift attacked by rebel forces.
• The conflict between Aquaman and Black Mantis is essentially as Geoff Johns laid it out in his New 52 run.

• Elokway — It doesn't google. So, apparently not a real thing
• Mera — So, she and Aquaman are married again. For much of the latter part of the most recent series, it seemed as though that was not the case.


Collector Keys:
• First issue of DC Comics' Rebirth era, making this series Aquaman, Vol. 9, following:
     • Series One (No. 1, Jan. 1962 — No. 56, March 1971)
     • Series Two (No. 57, Sept. 1977 — No. 63, Sept. 1978)

           •[note: most sources count this as a continuation of Series One)
     • Series Three (No. 1, Feb. 1986 — No. 4, May 1986)
     • Series Four (No. 1, June 1989 — No. 5, Oct. 1989)    
     • Series Five (No. 1, Dec. 1991 — No. 13, Dec. 1992)

     • Series Six (No. 1, Oct. 1994 — No. 75, Jan. 2001)
     • Series Seven (No. 1, Feb. 2003 — No. 39, April 2006)
     • Series Eight (No. 1, Nov. 2011 — No. 52, July 2016)  
• For the record, counting all previous issues, including zero, million, and 23-point numberings, would make this issue Aquaman No, 256.
• First appearance of Lt. Joanna Stubbs (cameo).
• First appearance/death of Daily Planet reporter Ray Delane.
• Second appearance of Sark.

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