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Waiting for the Trade - Aquaman

Waiting for the Trade

By Bill Miller

Aquaman Sword of Atlantis: Once and Future
by Kurt Busiek and Butch Guice
Collects Aquaman Sword of Atlantis 40-45.

Why I bought this: I don’t recall whether I was looking up Aquaman or Kurt Busiek when I came across this—either is equally probable as Aquaman is my favorite of DC’s top tier heroes but I own little of his stuff as I own little DC relatively speaking; while Busiek is in my view the finest Avengers writer ever and thus I’d like to read more of his stuff. Regardless when I discovered there was an Aquaman series written by Busiek my interest was piqued. That it has a name straight out pulp serials like “Sword of Atlantis” attached to it only intrigued me more. And once I saw the name of the first volume was an Arthurian reference I knew had to own it as there a few things in the world that fascinate me more than Arthurian literature. A quick trip to Amazon later and it was mine.

The Plot: So apparently after another of DC’s aptly named Infinite Crises they yet again restarted their continuity-timeline. God only knows which one or why, I stopped keeping track after Zero Hour. But from the standpoint of a trade like this it actually makes things easier since hey it’s a whole new beginning so it doesn’t matter if you don’t know what came before. Anyway spoilers ahead.

Chapter 1 – A storm destroys what looks to be an oil-drilling platform knocking someone who looks an awful lot like Aquaman into the ocean, where he can breathe and is contacted telepathically by a mysterious voice. The voice leads him to a battle between King Shark (a humanoid shark, I’ve actually seen this character before as he was a villain in Superboy’s book post Reign of the Supermen) and a group of green-skinned Creature from the Black Lagoon-looking people called the Aurati. The voice directs our hero to aid King Shark and he does so and together the follow the voice to a squid-headed dude who looks like the villain in Pirates of the Caribbean 2. Squid-head dresses the young hero in Aquaman’s garb and tells him that is who he is. nu-Aquaman, whose name is Arthur Joseph Curry (traditional Aquaman’s name is Arthur Orin Curry and that is brought up), gives his version of his origin: that he was born premature on a sea lab away from medical help so his dad injected with an experimental drug that enabled him to breath underwater but now he can’t breathe air for more than an hour and has lived his life in an aquarium tank on the sea lab (called Avalon Cay) until the storm knocked him into the ocean. Squid-beard (who comes to be known as the Dweller or Depths so lets call him that from now on) gives a prophecy that gives us the traditional Aquaman origin including his marriage to Mera and death of his son at the hands of his brother Ocean Master until ultimately making a deal with dark-powers to save his people that will leave him transformed. Arthur doesn’t believe that he’s Aquaman and swims off, while King Shark notes most of the Dweller’s prophecy already happened years ago. Dweller finds the differences between this Arthur and traditional Aquaman odd; and as he muses on how well he remembers what he prophesized we get a close up on his hand which is made of water—which is meant to signal that the Dweller himself is the original Aquaman.
 (Don’t ask me why he has a water hand other than I know Peter David had Aquaman lose a hand and replace it with a harpoon in the early 90s, so at some point he replaced the harpoon with magic water I assume).

Chapter 2 – We begin with Arthur on the losing end of a sword fight with a green-skinned warrior (not an Aurati) as narration tells us three days have passed since chapter 1. We then flashback to Arthur and King Shark searching the sea lab wreckage for survivors and finding none, although Arthur’s father is not among the bodies they find. King Shark decides to go his own way, while Dweller agrees to accompany Arthur to Maine where he hopes his uncle will have heard from the missing father. Enroute they meet one of Mera’s warriors who requests their assistance in dealing with the Aurati. Dweller agrees for Arthur but when he learns Mera is there he bails so she doesn’t see him. Mera is looking over Atlantean refugees as Atlantis was destroyed in the latest Crisis crossover, and could use assistance although she questions why Arthur is dressed as her ex-husband. This leads to him offending one of her warriors and a challenge of honor and thus we return to the swordfight that opened the chapter. Arthur loses a lot before pulling the Hulk Hogan comeback and is debating whether to strike the killing blow when King Shark returns.

Chapter 3 - King Shark takes Arthur to a dive bar where he flashes around some gold Mera gave him to pay for drinks. This leads to some disreputable types trying to rob him and we get a demonstration of Arthur’s level of super-strength in a rather one-sided fight. King Shark and Arthur have a heart to heart about their upbringings, and we learn King Shark is the son of the God of Sharks. Arthur feels a buzzing in his head, which leads him and Shark to Windward Home: another sea lab of scientists with an adventure team (The Sea Devils) who I gather were supporting characters in prior Aquaman stories. They explain they were trying to summon Aquaman via mystic-telepathy (hence Arthur’s buzzing) because the ghost of Vulko (royal advisor to the king of Atlantis) is now residing on their lab.

Chapter 4 – Arthur and Vulko compare notes on Aquaman with Arthur saying he only knew him from the 60s cartoon show (which I own on DVD and is quite fun btw) and was never impressed with Aquaman compared to the other Justice Leaguers as Arthur has all of Aquaman’s powers except talking to fish which he doesn’t care to do. Anyway Vulko is a ghost now because of something Spectre did in whatever Crisis reset this reality and after comparing notes with Arthur, Vulko wants to meet the Dweller to discuss his prophecy. Meanwhile the sea lab people get word that Arthur’s father is indeed dead, it just took awhile to identify the body because of sharks; however they also note a lot of high-level types seem to be interested in what happened to Avalon Cay. Arthur is mourning his dad with King Shark and Vulko attempting to comfort him when Arthur receives a massive telepathic summons from the Dweller that Mera and her refugees are under attack by the Aurati.

Chapter 5 – Arthur, King Shark and the Sea Devils race to the rescue. They meet up with the Dweller and capture an Aurati scout, learning from him the Aurati are being forced to participate in these raids by surface men in armored dive suits who have taken their women and children hostage. The villains also have a female humanoid shark-crocodile hybrid working for them, who King Shark finds attractive. They sneak into the villain’s fort and rescue Mera and her guards. Despite the squid-face she recognizes the Dweller as her ex-husband. Then as they begin to mount their attack they discover the head villain is Ocean Master. Dweller warns Arthur not engage but he ignores him and is quickly out-fought by Ocean Master and stabbed in the stomach.

Chapter 6 – Ocean Master guts Arthur. Mera uses her full-power (she can create “hard water”-- in this case she makes an explosive force field type effect) to allow the heroes to escape. Dweller uses his full mystic powers to heal Arthur, and in the process fully reveals himself (he’s been wearing Merlin-Obi Wan type robes all story) and we see half his body is made of water. Meanwhile the heroes’ army is losing badly to the villains’ army so Arthur comes up with a plan to lead the villains into a trench where the Sea Devils can blow it up and collapse it on them. However Ocean Master takes out the Sea Devil with the detonator. All seems to be lost when the trench collapses anyway and we learn from witnesses a pod of whales aided the heroes. It is implied Arthur summoned them and not Aquaman/Dweller whose powers were drained from the healing. Mera vows to investigate mystic sources as to whether Dweller’s condition of being half-water is potentially fatal (since it used to be just his hand was water and it’s spreading) and/or reversible. Dweller meanwhile knights Arthur and dubs him the new Aquaman. Finally we get a pair of reveals as the trade ends. First we see a flashback of why King Shark came back to Arthur’s side when he left in chapter 2; and it is because the God of Sharks senses Arthur has a great destiny and wants King Shark to stay close until the right moment when he will be tasked to kill him. Then we see Arthur’s father is alive and being held prisoner by a shadowy evil corporation.

Critical Thoughts: I liked this a lot. I can see how someone who is a longtime Aquaman fan could hate this story since it’s a new character barely out of his teens parading as Aquaman, while the original is both horribly mutated and mentally confused about his memories/identity. But taken in a vacuum its an interesting story, and clearly did no long-term damage to the character since DC reset their continuity again in the new 52 and while I haven’t read it yet I’m fairly the sure the original Aquaman is back to his status quo in that reality. For my first Aquaman trade (though in the 90s I did read some of the Peter David run plus I of course know from the various animated series over the years) it’s good jumping on point to his world and the different supporting characters in it as we see them all through Arthur’s fresh eyes.

The art is for the most part quite good. It doesn’t have that “wow” pin-up flare of a Jim Lee or Rob Liefeld, but it conveys the mood and action of the story well and that’s the primary job of comic art. Many of the underwater scenes have an interesting look to them, which again helps with the mood of the story since the whole underwater world is new to Arthur. When splash pages are used such as Arthur donning the Aquaman costume or King Shark’s father appearing they have the desired dramatic effect.

I enjoyed the parallels to Camelot with Arthur as King Arthur, and Aquaman/Dweller as Merlin. They’re not overdone (well the Avalon Cay name is a little obvious): meaning it’s not just a retelling of Arthurian myth underwater, which admittedly would still be kind of cool but other than the change of scene what would be the point? Instead the parallels are there, so that if you know Arthurian myth it provides a secondary level to enjoy the story on and it gives Arthur’s journey of self-discovery a more mythic quality that it probably wouldn’t have on its own. Busiek is clearly a big fan of the Arthurian legend as his very first Avengers story had them face Morgan Le Fay and travel to a Camelot-style alternate reality, while his first Aquaman tale is this story (and I keep being tempted by a Superman trade entitled “Camelot Falls” at my local comic store by him too).

My one criticism is the scene where Arthur mocks the 60s cartoon show/Aquaman’s powers to Vulko. I get there is this whole Comedy Central inspired riff on Aquaman having lame powers currently out there in pop culture; but if you’re reading an Aquaman comic you probably don’t feel that way about the character so why incorporate that into the story? Because it comes off as DC telling the reader they’re wasting their time and money reading books about this character. I like Aquaman best of DC’s heroes precisely because his powers and setting are so different than any other character. There are scores of characters in comics who can fly and throw cars, or shoot laser beams, or stop bank robberies. There’s only one who talks to fish and maybe it’s because I live within walking distance of the ocean but I think Aquaman’s power would be damn interesting to have in real life: more-so than 99-percent of the other comic characters out there. And from a potential plot perspective how many heroes can breathe underwater? Marvel has Namor, Sting Ray and Triton (who are B, C and D-list respectively) and DC has Aquaman’s supporting cast (like Aqualad). Thus Aquaman is the only A-list character who has the ocean to play with--which means he has a whole unique setting for stories that a good writer can exploit and tell creative stories that literally can’t be told with any other character. And his ability to talk to fish means you can occasionally allow some truly unique narration (as Peter David proved in his run) that even Aquaman’s undersea contemporaries like Namor will never offer. Throw in that you can use his ties to Atlantis to explore larger mythic themes or his link to the ocean to tell environmentally conscious stories and I just don’t see the need to belittle the protagonist when he has such a variety of unique story potential.

Grade: A-. Busiek is one of the finest writers in comics and he shows it again here. While this isn’t an Aquaman story in the traditional sense, when you have a character with a 70-year history it’s okay to break up the status quo once in awhile. Sure, Arthur’s tale does not vary too far from the usual heroic coming of age story, but it is written in an engaging way with a colorful supporting cast—King Shark in particular comes across as a much more nuanced character than the one I remember in Superboy. I’d be happy to read more of this run to see King Shark’s eventual heel turn on Arthur but alas it seems DC never printed any follow-up trades to this.


  1. Check out The Atlantis Chronicles, which served as a revamping of Aquaman's origins. Peter David wrote it, it came out...somewhere between 1988-91. Excellent, excellent maxiseries that established some truly rich mythology...which was promptly ignored by DC. The only caveat is that Arthur barely appears. 

  2. Aquaman is my favorite of DC’s top tier heroesAquaman paid you to say that, right?  B/c NOBODY likes Aquaman! :P

  3. Did it play off the stuff mentioned in Wolfman/Perez's The History of the DC Universe? I was really intrigued by the stuff mentioned in it, as I recently read it for the first time.

  4. Wish I could tell you. When it came to comics, I tended to follow writers from title to title rather than artists or characters. The only character I really had any loyalty to was John Constantine.

    Basically, it starts with Atlantis bracing for a meteorite that will ultimately sink it and it's sister city, Poseidonis. And it follows the lineage of Aquaman from that point on, starting with King Orin. It sets up the themes that P. David carried through his run, such as the idea that The Throne will always be contested by two brothers. (This plays out even in the setting, Atlantis vs. Poseidonis) It was really great, very rich mythology and excellent pathos. Considering you never see MOST of these characters ever again, it is remarkable how much you care for them.

    In ONE OF DC's canon's The Atlantis Chronicles is a diary that is passed down from generation to generation in Atlantis. The mini that led to P. David's series ("Aquaman: Time & Tide" - also quite good.) begins and ends with Aquaman reading his origin from the Chronicles.

    I can't recommend it enough, though it's gonna be really hard to find these days. Was never collected in trade. But it's easily in my top 5 comic stories.

  5. When is astro city coming back?

  6. We've got a lot in the drawer already, and when I'm healthy enough to produce it steadily, we'll be back.

  7. Mr. Busiek,

    I just want to thank you for taking the time to respond to my humble little review column; especially since I've only been writing it for two months. As I mentioned in my opening paragraph I'm a great admirer of your work. I guess the Net really does make the world smaller.

    As to your explanation to the one scene I criticized, I'm certainly willing to accept the philosophy of putting the reader in Arthur's shoes if its in the service of a payoff down the line that dispels those doubts. I certainly understand how planting seeds for future plot points ia key part of writing serialized fiction. Obviously reviewing this trade I don't have the payoff available to me, so that's what my review is based on.

  8. It's unreal to find you posting here, Mr. Busiek. I'm a big fan of yours, particularly of Astro City.

    I was really digging this run, and disappointed when it ended so quickly. Was the plan always for just the 10 issues? I guess I assumed that since DC allowed you to make such dramatic changes to Aquaman, there was a long term plan in place. And if there was, what was it? I couldn't imagine that it was what played out after you left.

  9. Wow, mind blown today.  Guess this means I should get back to the comic reviews again, then.  If Dan Slott is reading, too, I LOVE Amazing Spider-Man!  

  10. Love this. And Busiek is here. Class! 

  11. Add me to the list of people who just had their mind blown by Busiek posting at the blog. I’ve
    never had the chance to read the aforementioned Aquaman stories, but I just
    wanted to share how much I love Superman: Secret Identity and Marvels. Thanks for sharing
    your thoughts, Kurt.

  12. >>  Is torrenting still illegal and therefore "wrong" if the item in question is no longer in publication, will likely never be again in publication and is frankly not even relevant to the story they're trying to tell anymore?>>

    To give you a technical answer: Copyright law isn't affected by whether something's in continuity, of course, so it's just as illegal as it would be if it was central to a big crossover. But on the flipside, "not in publication" isn't the same thing as "unavailable." has the whole run for under $15 (it'd be a lot less, but that last issue is expensive for some reason), has most of them for cheap, eBay's got a mess of 'em, and that's just 5 minutes of looking. A decent convention crawl would probably turn up a bunch of sets, too. A comic shop with a decent selection of back issues, too.

    Used to be, buying back issues was the only way to get older comics at all, and hunting stuff down is still fun. I've recently more-or-less run out of back issues to hunt for, but it took me about 35 years.

    In any case, if you want to read ATLANTIS CHRONICLES, you can probably buy the whole run for cheaper than it's cost if published as 7 new comics today, or even a TPB collection. So it's not really a question of "torrent or go without."

  13. I had very, very longterm plans, but they wanted me on TRINITY, and TRINITY was a hellacious amount of work. First I had to leave AQUAMAN to start working on it (after which they delayed it a year, so I didn't _really_ need to leave that soon, but we didn't know that) and then I had to leave SUPERMAN, too.

    Eventually, I'll use a bunch of those plans in a different way -- I've worked out a way to tell the story (or a similar one) without needing any DC trademark characters. So I'll do it in some way, either as comics or as a novel.

  14. Heck, not all the payoffs made it into print...

  15. Of course I wish Peter Davids Aquaman run should be collected as well, that was the best Aquaman ever in my mind.  And I think the real question here is what does Mr. Kurt Busiek sir think of Cena, the Invasion, and Montreal Screwjob.

  16. Totally jealous of you Bill, congrats on getting your post read by an actual comic writing legend! Hope I can get mine to that status someday as well. 

  17. Well, I look forward to reading it. And thanks for replying. As a kid who wanted to write comics, finding out that you were a fellow native Bostonian was a big deal. Here was someone who'd come from the same place as me, writing comics at the highest level. My life didn't break that way (yet?), but the inspiration was nonetheless important. Don't be a stranger around these parts. I'm sure we'd all love to hear your take, as such an accomplished storyteller, on the narrative shit-show that is WWE. 

  18. If you mean wrestling, I have no take, sorry. Never been a wrestling fan.

  19. I guess that makes sense. As a storyteller, you might spontaneously combust while watching WWE, and nobody wants that.

  20. is probably about to get a bunch of my money.

  21. Oh, great, like Comixology doesn't suck up enough of my money every week, now I've got another place to feed my habit.  At least takes Paypal.  

  22. I've long used for back issues. They have a pretty tremendous selection, and free shipping on orders over $50. Their grading is also pretty accurate (within reason).

  23. I'm kinda disappointed they don't ship their grab bags to Canada.  $8 for 22 random issues of a certain genre is a pretty awesome deal.  

  24. "
    But on the flipside, "not in publication" isn't the same thing as "unavailable."  "

    Which is what it boils down to. And you're right. I was drawing on my experience of trying to hunt it down some 3 years ago in my wasn't fun. But then, I think I'm past the part of my life where it's ever going to be fun again. I really appreciate you posting the two links you did as they are resources I hadn't considered before (also shows just how much thought I put into it anymore, but that's another thing altogether...)

    But it's interesting...much of my new clientele, today, comes from people who sampled my work through torrents, and then come out to the show. They'll download whole albums, but they still come out and pay for more. And the funny part? After the show, when I'm selling CDs and DVDs in the lobby...they'll even buy stuff they already "own" because a) I think people are inherently decent with some sense of responsibility. By and large. b) maybe I'm a good salesman. I don't know.

    But it doesn't work that way in comics anymore, does it? Is there an incentive to owning the material after you've read it? (TPBs suggest there are...) I honestly have no idea what the attitude these days are towards signed copies of books. (Are they still cool/sought after?) 

    But it's interesting: torrents have had a tangible benefit to my business. I can completely see how it hurts yours...wasn't trying to hurt yours.

  25. >> I really appreciate you posting the two links you did >>On that score, I should note that I got one of them wrong. It's actually

    >> But it doesn't work that way in comics anymore, does it?>>

    I don't really know, one way or the other.

    >> But it's interesting: torrents have had a tangible benefit to my business. I can completely see how it hurts yours...wasn't trying to hurt yours.>>

    My feeling on torrents pretty much boils down to: There's clearly promotional value in giving stuff away for free, and there are also dangers. And everyone should get to decide for themselves whether they want to take advantage of them. For a long time, I had ASTRO CITY #1/2 online for free, because I think it's an excellent sample to hook readers with. But the key thing there is "giving stuff away for free," not "taking stuff for free."

    I think it should be voluntary. If it's a boost to business, then people will choose to offer stuff for free. If someone decides that's not a strategy they want to pursue, then people shouldn't just take their stuff and say they're doing them a promotional favor. It should be up to the rights holder.

    When ASTRO CITY is made available digitally, I've told DC that I'd like the first issue of each TPB to be offered for free. I think that's a good way to let people sample the material. But also, that's voluntary -- it's promotion, not piracy.

    I'm a big believer in promotion. And nothing promotes comics like putting comics in front of people's faces.

    But I'm a big believer in choice, too. And if someone doesn't choose to make their stuff available for free, I don't think that choice should be taken away from them.

  26. I can agree with that.

    Also think there's a way to monetize torrents, but that's neither here nor there.


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