Reviews of AQUAMAN VOL. 1: THE TRENCH and TEEN TITANS VOL. 1: IT’S OUR RIGHT TO FIGHT
The New 52 marches on with the release of two new revamped series. First, the long-mocked defender of the deep and King of Atlantis faces a horde of sharp-toothed wrenches from the briny depths. Then, N.O.W.H.E.R.E.’s hunting down teenage metahumans. Why? None can say, but Red Robin and his comrades rise to the occasion and the superpowered teenyboppers fight back.
Aquaman Vol. 1: The Trench
Between reviving Hal Jordan and Barry Allen, two characters who, while not originating their roles, certainly dominate public consciousness when anyone thinks Flash or Green Lantern, Johns has fallen into a slump of writing for your archetypal straightlaced male, whiter than the driven snow with the most blasé or typical of backstories. So it seems a natural move for Johns to write Arthur Curry, alias Aquaman, the half-Atlantean king of Atlantis. He’s blonde, he’s white, he’s blander than mayonnaise on white bread, and, hey! he even has daddy issues! After all, Johns has created some fantastic storylines using characters that initially died more or less because readers’ interest in their bland as paste personalities bottomed out. He takes the bland and makes it interesting. The same seemed to be coming true for Aquaman, so Johns seems a perfect match to pull Arty out of his slump and build an epic storyline for one of DC’s most underrated and underappreciated of heroes.
Of course, that wasn’t always the case. Indeed, many writers made the most of Aquaman’s badass potential, epitomized in the be-mulleted, hook-handed era of the character which ultimately made it to the Justice League animated series. This is a guy who can command great white goddamn sharks, krakens, and orcas for pity’s sake! Not to mention he’s the king of an entire underwater kingdom and has one of the greatest archenemies ever in Black Manta.
But, sad as it may be, Aquaman will never live down the legacy of Super Friends, the Hanna-Barbera produced cartoon which brought the Justice League of America to life and singlehanded proved Aquaman is the most useless superhero ever. Riding around on a giant seahorse, talking to fish through concentric circles, completely useless if separated from the sea and ocean life.
New 52 Aquaman operates under the assumption that both readers and the fictional public in-universe are only familiar with Aquaman via the Super Friends television series or, in fictional context, a reputation that amounts to such. In the first issue, Johns sets about dispelling several myths about the character. No, he doesn’t “talk” to fish, he commands them. Call him weak, he’ll flip an armored car over his head. No one’s “favorite superhero”? Since when have adulations meant anything to a true hero? Indeed, Johns goes out of his way to demonstrate how and why Aquaman is such a badass, leading one to wonder how he gained such a lackluster reputation in the New 52 universe if his actual actions in no way reflect his real life Super Friends reputation. But that bit of inconsistently swiftly gets shoved away as terrors emerge from the deep to combat Aquaman…
The book opens strongly with Aquaman thwarting a robbery in a small east coast town, surprising robbers and police alike with his unexpected feats of strength. We learn that this is Arthur Curry’s hometown, the place where his father raised him, long before he discovered his Atlantean roots and superpowers. Seeking to reconnect with his roots, Arthur takes up residence at the town’s lighthouse with his Atlantean bride Mera (their child and the majority of their history seemingly retconned out of existence). Meanwhile, strange humanoid creatures emerge from a deep water trench, their alien language speaking only of hunger and food. They fall upon a fishing vessel before, devouring its crew while marking others with bile, soon setting their sights on the sleepy seaside village where Aquaman has made his home.
Sound interesting? I would think so, too, but, sadly, the book is undone by its greatest weakness: Aquaman himself.
While Johns manages a few jokes at the expense of Aquaman’s Super Friends rep in the first issue, subsequent issues fail to establish any sort of personality for the guy. We get frequent flashbacks to his father — and a rather forced dream sequence of his father’s ghost taunting him about his origins and duty (the dialogue here causing physical pain) — but, beyond that, there’s dangerously little character belying the king of Atlantis. He’s supposed to be torn between his landed humanity and his Atlantean side beneath the sea, but we never see this struggle. Aquaman at one point seeks out the assistance of a man who once tried to kill him but, again, we never see this conflict. Rather, it’s told to us in dialogue and narration and the events that follow barely reflect these dramatic circumstances.
Moreover, Arthur’s interactions with people — police, local townspeople, etc. — feel stilted and awkward and it’s not quite clear how much of that awkwardness is intentional and how much of it is Johns’ inability to correctly convey stoicism. This doesn’t feel like the same character from Justice League. This doesn’t feel like the guy who summoned a horde of sharks to devour parademons mid air just to put Green Lantern in his place. This feels like some socially awkward weirdo (with an inexplicably hot girlfriend) found Aquaman’s costume and trident.
I use the phrase “generic white guy” to describe him and by that I don’t mean to say that non-white characters are inherently more interesting or more identifiable than white characters, only that Johns’ Aquaman falls into an archetype that has haunted comic books since Superman’s debut. Tall, straight-laced white males who, by whatever means, receive superpowers and become heroes while simultaneously maintaining a complete lack of personality or individual character. Typically, they have jobs which are inherently interesting — Hal Jordan’s test pilot background or, going further back in Lantern history, Alan Scott’s engineering background — but ultimately these professions serve to supplement a personality that simply isn’t there. Aquaman falls victim to this trap, focusing on the character’s external attributes — his history, his power, his reputation, his place in the DC universe — at the expense of the internal conflicts which drive the character, which motivate, which build a special relationship with the reader as they identify and grow alongside the character.
Fundamentally, the book’s emotional core is barren. If you don’t care about Aquaman, you don’t care whether he succeeds or fails. There’s no tension, no intrigue, no commitment. By no means is he actively reprehensible, but by no means is he interesting either which, in this case, is just as bad.
But it’s Aquaman’s longtime love interest, Mera, Queen of Atlantis, who gets the greatest disservice here. Reduced to little more than a soundboard for Arthur’s own struggles (what little of substance there is), she exhibits the same lack of personality while at the same time rests what few character traits she does have on Aquaman. Early on, when Aquaman abandons his duties as king of Atlantis (we never even get to see Atlantis) in favor of reconnecting with humanity, Mera, native Atlantean, alien amongst land dwelling humans, accepts this and joins him with no argument. Seems a bit convenient, wouldn’t you say? Her entire character is defined by her relationship to Aquaman and little else.
And, to add insult to injury, that relationship goes horribly underdeveloped. When did they meet? Why are they together? How did they fall in love? What do they adore about each other? What keeps them together despite coming from two very different societies? Johns refuses to give the reader any insight into how these two work as a couple or why Mera would give up her life in Atlantis for a life above the sea with the man she “loves”.
To give some credit, she does display a great deal of strength, at least physically, and can seemingly hold her own without Aquaman, fighting alongside him against the trench monsters. A recurring joke even has people constantly referring to Mera as “Aquawoman,” which annoys both Arthur and Mera, implying that Mera is defined by more than just her relationship to Aquaman (never mind that her other actions undermine that at every turn) and is no mere sidekick.
Of course, this is undone when Johns gives Mera her own issue in the latter half of the volume, a whole adventure amidst the alien human world that surrounds her. But while Aquaman gets to battle monstrous sea beasts from the abyss, Mera battles — what else? — sexism! Beginning with Mera’s sexual assault at the hands of a supermarket manager, she goes on to combat a wife killer holding his daughter hostage. Mera stops short of calling any male a “sperm bank” (thanks, Frank Miller’s Wonder Woman!) but the intentions here are obvious and no less insulting.
Because, as ever, some writers just can’t get it out of their head that female characters don’t always have to combat “women’s issues.” While Aquaman’s lack of personality leads only to boredom and disinterest, this reduction of Mera’s character is outright offensive, especially given the rank caricature of the sexual offender (honestly, even for a comic book, this guy’s behavior is way too transparent and sleazy) and the dramatic convenience of the wife killer. Just a bad day to be a woman in a sleepy seaside town, I guess. (A sleepy seaside town…which regularly encounters armored car heists and hostage situations…huh. Where the hell do these people live!?)
The only saving grace here is Ivan Reis’ artwork which depicts the trench monsters with terrifying detail and visual personality. Action scenes ring with force and panache, although his background characters leave something to be desired. It’s just a shame that penciling this good is propping up characters this flimsy and poorly developed.
It’s sad to see that something like this deserves a hardcover release in DC’s eyes while Swamp Thing can only be found in paperback. Worse, it’s sad to see DC’s chief creative officer’s talents waning so obviously. Johns has had his ups and downs before but between this and Batman: Earth One, he’s clearly running out of ideas. And the lack of interesting, high concept ideas leaves Johns’ typically weak, uninspired, and workmanlike dialogue fully exposed. Of all the Justice League member books yet published, this is the most forgettable and easily overlooked.
Teen Titans Vol. 1: It’s Our Right to Fight
Between Superboy and Red Hood and the Outlaws Scott Lobdell has demonstrated why he isn’t the best fit for these characters. He has no or little respect for their legacy and no grasp on the clashing ethos between DC’s stable of teenage heroes and the wunderkinds Lobdell wrote over at Marvel during his Generation X days. So, it should come as no surprise that Lobdell’s Teen Titans are composed of characters that could easily pass for Marvel archetypes. Almost all of them are runaways, one of them is a time traveler, one a mutating monster, and another a thief. Throw in an alien for good measure and you have the latest Marvel team-up.
Perhaps that’s an unfair comparison. After all, the DC universe isn’t bare of aliens, mutants, and heroes physically scarred by their superpowers, much less any previous Teen Titans incarnation. But then there’s also things like tone and character to consider. And from a tonal perspective, this book doesn’t feel like a Teen Titans book. The characterization doesn’t feel like DC characterization. Like Lobdell’s Superboy, we again have people goaded into heroism rather than pursuing it of their own volition, the defining trait of most every DC hero including the Titans.
But…is that so bad?
Again, we have the reboot to consider, the goal at the heart of it, to inject new life and new perspective into old characters and old teams. To do away with the stale and the bygone and substitute the new and the fresh.
In that regard…we have a bit of a mixed bag.
It’s Our Right to Fight chronicles the assembly and creation of the first Teen Titans team (something that will clash with the continuity of Lobdell’s own Red Hood and the Outlaws but we’ll get there). Of course, these aren’t the teens we’ve known for so many years, seen as an impetuous Kid Flash causes a backdraft in a burning building, endangering himself as well as the firefighters as arrogance overrides scientific brilliance. Meanwhile, Tim Drake, alias Red Robin, monitors not only Kid Flash but several other teen heroes, all of whom he believes stalked by the secret organization N.O.W.H.E.R.E. (which you may remember from Superboy). Soon enough, N.O.W.H.E.R.E. agents track down Drake and force him out of hiding. Now on the shortlist, Red Robin embarks on a search for fellow teen heroes to unite and combat N.O.W.H.E.R.E. and their mysterious backers. These heroes include the returning Wonder Girl/Cassie Sandsmark and Solstice/Kiran Singh, as well as new characters Skitter and Bunker/Miguel Barragan.
Compared to Lobdell’s previous outing with Superboy, Teen Titans succeeds more often than it fails. Whereas Superboy remained insular and rarely interacted meaningfully with supporting characters around him, remaining suspicious and dissocial, Teen Titans focuses much more on the interpersonal relationships building between our team members. Each Titan has a well defined personality and we get a fair number of bonding moments between them throughout the book, though not as many as one would like for a new team just getting to know each other. In particular, Bunker barely rises about a caricature, flamboyant and sassy as any poorly written gay Hispanic male. (Try not rolling your eyes when Bunk exclaims “Fabuloso!” without a tinge of irony.) Nevertheless, Kid Flash’s veneer of arrogance eventually drops, Solstice displays a caring, nurturing side, Wonder Girl holds some typical thief-with-a-heart-of-gold traits but pulls through for the team when the time comes, and Tim Drake feels like Tim Drake, leading the team ably though with a cold edge, something he will no doubt combat and settle in following volumes.
The Titans’ conflict with N.O.W.H.E.R.E. earns some suitably action heavy moments, such as Superboy’s battle with Wonder Girl and the Titans’ assault on N.O.W.H.E.R.E.’s base. N.O.W.H.E.R.E. leaves something to be desired as a villain, however. They’re certainly no Trigon, but as their ulterior motives become more apparent with Lobdell’s coming Culling crossover event, they may have a few tricks to pull yet. In fact, that’s another thing Teen Titans has in its favor that many New 52 books seem to be missing: narrative direction and focus. This story feels like it’s going somewhere, building to something, whereas too many books hopscotch between one-off stories and incomplete narratives hinting at future plotlines without any forward momentum regarding character or plot development (see Resurrection Man…on second thought, don’t see Resurrection Man – it sucks).
What this book lacks is heroism. The Titans spend more time combating N.O.W.H.E.R.E. and its agents than fighting crime (albeit, most superheroes nowadays make their living battling clandestine organizations with vaguely evil motives than street-level crime). And, granted, N.O.W.H.E.R.E. isn’t the most benevolent of organizations but it would have been nice to see the Titans save a life or two that wasn’t their own. Again, this feels like an X-title: mutants protecting mutants — or meta-teens protecting meta-teens in this case. Little in the way of do-gooding, more in the way of self-preservation. Would it kill someone to rescue a kitten from a tree!?
Overall, the book has a very light and fun feel with none of the heavy-handed angst teen books easily fall into. There’s nothing overly offensive or moronic but the book doesn’t measure up to previous Titans runs and under Lobdell’s guiding hand, it likely won’t rise above the Generation X-lite status it earns in this volume.
For any longtime Teen Titans fan I can’t recommend this book; Lobdell either changes the personalities of established characters too radically (Superboy) or reverts them to points readers had long since past (Bart Allen/Kid Flash). The book doesn’t evoke any of the spirit or character that earned previous series their fanbases. Though that isn’t to say it lacks spirit or character and, for any new readers, particularly anyone making the jump from Marvel to DC, there’s still plenty to enjoy here — lighthearted action, fun characters, and a well-plotted narrative.
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