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That Fish Guy – Sword of Atlantis

Sword of AtlantisWell, it was bound to happen sooner or later.  Shag’s doing a post on “Aquaman“.  <<insert lame “talking to fish” joke here>> Now that you’ve got that out of your system, let’s get down to it.  Wanting to write this VERY lengthy post is what actually fueled my drive to create ONCE UPON A GEEK.  I wanted a place where I could post something this insanely long without feeling like I had overstepped my posting boundaries.

I wanted to stand up for one of the most under-rated periods of Aquaman’s 67 year publishing history.  Specifically, the “Aquaman, Sword of Atlantis” run.  Initially, I was a very vocal opponent of this run.  However, in all fairness, I had only read the first issue or so.  And honestly, I didn’t really “get” what they were trying to accomplish.  So like everyone else, I bad-mouthed the book.  I recently took the time to read the entire “Sword of Atlantis” run, issues #40-57.  I was shocked at how much I enjoyed this book… well, at least the first half of the run.  We’ll get into the second half in just a second.

To give you some background…

Sub Diego yearsAquaman has certainly gone through a lot of bad periods.  However, one of the worst in my opinion had to be from 2003 – 2004.  This would be the period by Rick Veitch who sought to take Aquaman in a more mystical direction.  While an interesting idea, it really wasn’t received well by the fans.  Surprisingly, in 2004 things turned around dramatically when writer Will Pfeifer came on board (and later John Arcudi).  They really took Aquaman back to basics.  Gone were the mysticism, the scruffy half-naked look, and the over-the-top anger.  What remained was a solid superhero comic that just happened to take place underwater.  It was somewhat reminiscent of the popular and enjoyable 1960’s Aquaman series, but with modern day sensibilities and storytelling.

During this run (issues #15-39), a portion of San Diego plunged into the Pacific Ocean.  Through a series of circumstances, the residents in those portions of San Diego survived and adapted to water-breathing.  This underwater city was re-named “Sub Diego“.  This setting created a really interesting backdrop for Aquaman’s adventures as he essentially became the hero of this town.  Also during this run, Aquaman acquired a new sidekick, Aquagirl.  Finally, Aquaman’s long-estranged wife Mera also returned to the series.  All-in-all, this was the best the Aquaman comic had been since the departure of Peter David.

Apparently the whole “Sub Diego” storyline didn’t drive sales of the book high enough for DC’s liking.  So in 2006, DC was on the verge of cancelling the monthly Aquaman title.  That was until Kurt Busiek came forward with a proposal for Aquaman.  If you don’t know Kurt Busiek, he is a well-respected comic writer with some great credits to his name: Marvels, Astro City, Thunderbolts, Avengers, Iron Man, Untold Tales of Spider-Man, JLA/Avengers, Superman, and Conan (for Dark Horse), just to name a few.

Kurt had this original idea to turn the Aquaman series into a sword & sorcery book.  Let me be fair and mention that traditionally, I loathe sword & sorcery stuff.  I just have no interest in fantasy (yes, even Lord of the Rings).  Now Kurt had some experience in this genre writing the very popular Conan series for Dark Horse.  DC decided to let Kurt go forward with this concept, thus saving the Aquaman series from cancellation.  It was conveniently timed with the “One Year Later” storyline DC was putting together.  In this storyline, all their mainstream superhero comics shifted forward one year, leaving the reader to wonder what happened during that missing year.  In the case of Aquaman, Kurt’s plan was to follow a new character rather than the original character of Aquaman (a.k.a. Arthur Curry or Orin).

Enough background.  On with Shag’s initial thoughts on “Sword of Atlantis”…

Aquaman 40So in early 2006, the first issue of the “Sword of Atlantis” run (issue #40) hits the stands as part of the “One Year Later” storyline.   It was a tremendous flop.  There was an angry outcry from Aquaman fans, and the non-Aquaman fans just didn’t care enough to pick it up.  During the issue we’re introduced to a young water-breathing man coincidentally named Arthur Curry (for the sake of distinction, we’ll just call him “Arthur” going forward).  This Arthur is not the original Aquaman (for the sake of distinction, we’ll just call the original Aquaman … well “Aquaman” going forward) that we saw just published last month in issue #39 which actually took place a year earlier.  This Arthur Curry is younger, looks slightly different, doesn’t go by the name Aquaman, and has an entirely different background.  Well… entirely different background as compared to the Post-Crisis Aquaman origin.  In fact, this new Arthur’s background is very reminiscent of the Golden Age Aquaman’s origin, as well as the origin of the Golden Age hero Neptune Perkins.  Nothing really to read into here, just a nice nod to the Golden Age.

By the end of this first “Sword of Atlantis” issue, Arthur is wearing a fantasy-based version of Aquaman’s costume and carrying a sword made from coral.  Umm… okay, I guess.   We’re also introduced to a new supporting cast, including the Dweller of the Depths (a Pirates of the Caribbean Davy Jones-looking character) and King Shark (an old Superboy villain).  It’s also worth mentioning that the art in this issue was provided by Butch Guice and colors by Dan Brown.  Upon first glance to me, the art and coloring just looked really muddy and indistinct.

To sum up for the listeners at home… My opinion at first is that this brand-spanking new direction for Aquaman features: a new lead character (that just looks to be a bad mimeograph copy of the original), a Pirates of the Caribbean knock-off, a talking half-man/half-shark (whose name is NOT Cobra McPunch), really messy art, and a shift from superheroics to sword & sorcery.  Hmmm… sounds like a formula for suckage to me at this point.

I really didn’t like this issue the first time I read it.  In fact, I was one of the fanboys yelling how crappy the comic was (regardless of how good Kurt Busiek had been in the past on other books).  I had a really hard time with the dramatic changes after really enjoying the Sub Diego period as much as I did.  I continued to buy the comic (because I will always support an Aquaman book).  However, I was so underwhelmed, these issues just sat there unread for about two years.  In fact, by the time I finally got around to reading them the series had already been cancelled at issue #57.

Shag’s opinion after re-reading the first issue ….

After the dust had collected almost too thick to see through, I finally got up the nerve to sit down and read these issues.  I will be the first to admit that my first impressions were wrong.  Boy was I wrong.  Kurt Busiek’s run on Aquaman was really great!  This time I “got” it.  I had to let go of my preconceived superhero comic notions; let go of the Aquaman I had always known; and give sword & sorcery a try.  As I mentioned before, I’ve never really been a big fan of sword & sorcery, but it really worked for me here.  I think I just had to look at this book differently.  There is a fine history between sword & sorcery and comic books; such as Conan, Red Sonja, Claw the Unconquered, and Tor.  Kurt Busiek had recreated that flavor here in Aquaman, one of the most unlikely places.

From Wikipedia:

Sword and sorcery is a fantasy subgenre generally characterized by swashbuckling heroes engaged in exciting and violent conflicts. An element of romance is often present, as is an element of magic and the supernatural. Unlike works of high fantasy, the tales, though dramatic, focus mainly on personal battles rather than world-endangering matters.

That is a great description for this series.  Here was the sword-wielding Arthur battling creatures and mer-people, all the while being the reluctant hero.  Women pass into and out of his life.  And the Dweller of the Depths is his magical mentor, while Arthur’s partner is the human/shark hybrid King Shark (son of The God of All Sharks).  Also, the majority of the plot was driven by quests and small personal stories (like searching for Arthur’s father, learning from the Dweller of the Depths, and talking with the ghost of Vulko).

Remember how I said I thought the art and coloring looked muddy and indistinct?  I was an idiot.  Admittedly, the colors are of a darker palate, but that’s on purpose.  This is the bottom of the ocean and sunlight doesn’t really reach this far down.  Murky is actually the perfect word to describe the bottom of the ocean and the excellent color choices for this book.  And the art.  THE ART!  Brilliant!  I was a fool, why didn’t I see it before?  The art style of this book was purposefully emulating the old sword & sorcery comics.  This was Joe Kubert’s Tor art style reincarnated, with a tip of the hat to Barry Windsor-Smith’s Conan style.  Without the perspective of the past, I think it’s very hard to appreciate Butch Guice’s art on this series.

Overall, I felt Kurt Busiek and Butch Guice created a great sword & sorcery comic.  They also threw in some DC Universe continuity items without really breaking the sword & sorcery mold.  Issues #40 – 49 contained some really great things like: the rag-tag survivors of Atlantis led by Mera, great sword fights, the Windward Home (an enormous gothic-looking house floating on the ocean that housed the Sea Devils, the aged Golden Age hero Red Torpedo, the widow of the Silver Age hero Prince Ra-Man, and the ghost of Vulko), Ocean Master, a flashback story featuring the original Aquaman, a cool reinterpretation of the Fisherman, and the eventual realization that the Dweller of the Depths is actually the original Aquaman horribly transformed.

You can get issues #40-45 in the trade paperback “Aquaman: Sword of Atlantis“.  If you are interested, your local comic shop should be able to order it for you.

Issues #50 – 57 of Aquaman: Sword of Atlantis…

Unfortunately, I can not speak as favorably about the following issues of the “Sword of Atlantis” run.  These were written by Tad Williams and drawn by Shawn McManus.  While Tad is an accomplished fantasy writer, I feel this run really never found its legs. To me it seemed confused as to whether it was a superhero comic or a sword & sorcery comic.  Obviously Tad did his research because there were many nods to various eras of Aquaman.  In Tad’s run we saw the return of: Tempest, the denizens of Sub Diego, Cal Durham (a supporting character that hadn’t been unused for 25 years), a reimagined Topo the Octopus, Koryak (Aquaman’s illegitimate son), Aquagirl, and Black Manta.  We also got some new developments, such as the Deep Church of Dyss, the Clownfish, and the fact that a piece of Aquaman’s soul resides in Arthur.  Again, even with some interesting ideas, the comics never really came together for me.

In my opinion, Shawn McManus’ art on this run was not his best work either.  I’m a HUGE fan of his and think his Doctor Fate series is one of the best drawn comics of the late 80’s/early 90’s.  Unfortunately, I just wasn’t feeling it here.

After the cancellation…

Aquaman after cancellationSince the cancellation of the Aquaman book, the new Arthur has appeared in a few places.  He was in a Batman & the Outsiders mini-series, as well as an issue of Superman/Batman.  In both cases, he remained the sword & sorcery character and was handled well.  Rumor is that DC has plans for Aquaman in the near future, so my hope is they find a way to make the sword & sorcery Arthur a viable character (rather than just re-writing him and returning him to the “classic” Aquaman).

In conclusion…

I feel like I owe Kurt Busiek and Butch Guice an apology for my initial reaction to their “Sword of Atlantis” run.  This really was a great comic and I’d recommend it to anyone willing to take a chance on a sword and sorcery comic.

Thanks for your time.

6 thoughts on “That Fish Guy – Sword of Atlantis

  1. Yes, yes you were a fool. Like man long time comic fans, I really think that fanboyism is what is really killing comics. New ideas and ignored. People stick to the characters they know and love and avoid new ones or changes. And if an old character is changed or wrote differently, people get mad and leave. Nevermind whether the book is still entertaining.

    I know it would never work, but I wish more comics would do what the Hellboy universe has done. BPRD is not a continuing story. It goes backwards and forwards in continuity. And the issue numbers are not consecutive. They are “1 of 6”. Once six comes a new story comes out. That simple. You still get characters you love, but the story lines are encapsulated. It feels more about the individual stories. If a story doesn’t grab me, I could just wait till it was done. And I know when it is done without having to read Previews. It says right there on the cover how many issues this arc will have.

    Glad you liked it though. S&S is fun stuff. And Busiek is one of my favorite writers currently.

  2. Glad you liked it, sir — even if it took a while!

    And I’ll note that we were showing the Dweller design online a couple of weeks before the PIRATES trailer with Davy Jones appeared, so we get credit for being first with it!

    Not that they could have swiped it from us, what with movie lead times. But we couldn’t’ve nicked it from them, either.


  3. Kurt – Thanks for reading my thoughts. Since you’re here, let me make it official…

    I sincerely apologize for my initial reaction to the “Sword of Atlantis” run you and Butch Guice did together. It was truly fantastic.

    Also, definite kudos to you on the Dweller of the Depths. What you and Butch came up with together, took an entire team of designers at Disney. 🙂 Sorry if any of my other information above may have been off.

    Thanks again for stopping by. While you may not be able to tell from my blog, I’m a huge fan of your work. Your work on Astro City, Avengers, Power Company, Thunderbolts, Untold Tales of Spider-Man, and Marvels are some of my particular favorites.

    Thanks again,
    The Irredeemable Shag

  4. The Busiek stuff was by no means bad but at the same time it just wasn’t for me.

    Glad you liked it though. I have much respect for your Aquaman love.

  5. I think I’ve read that page before, either first run or through a link. I did my second and last reading of the Busiek issues for this blog. Beyond hating the evisceration of the Aquaman supporting cast to lay the foundation for Sword, I just find it terribly boring. Artie Joe was a wimp and a jerk, the Dweller babbled on, and only King Shark offered any amusement. I personally found the art to be the worst of Butch Guice’s career.

    So far, I’m getting a kick out of Williams’ issues in rerun. Topo’s a little annoying when read across a batch of issues, but Artie Joe as his teasing “big brother” was at least mildly endearing. I love the supporting cast and the dorky gratuitous weirdness of this take. Williams seemed to want more super-heroics and the return of Orin, but editorial straightjacketed him with Artie Joe and quasi-fantasy. I think they knew the volume was doomed, and just let him play out the run before letting the property go on ice.

    I’ve only skimmed the Pfeiffer issues, but John Arcudi’s run was possibly my favorite on Aquaman ever. I hope those hold up when I get back to them.

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