Friday, June 29

Library-Bound Comics Review – Aquaman: The Atlantis Chronicles (DC 1990-1994)

Bound by Herring and Robinson
Book Binders, 2012
Written by Peter David, originally published by DC Comics as two miniseries: The Atlantis Chronicles (1990) and Aquaman: Time and Tide (1993-1994)

This is part of that most recent order of library-bound comics that I got back from the bindery in the past few weeks. I've mentioned my early love of the character of Aquaman several times in this blog, most notably here I believe, as well as my decades-long disappointment with how the character was treated – basically from the mid-late 1970s until very recently. Among the most distasteful developments, for me at least, were those presided over by Peter David in the 1990s resulting in what I called a “character … quite unrecognizable to me – angry, long-haired, bearded, half-naked, sporting a harpoon instead of one of his hands” – and started with the two mini-series that I have now bound for my personal library. Whyever would I do such a thing?

Well, as I briefly explained in the first previous post referenced above, “although I did not like what little I knew [from his guest appearances in other comics and so forth] about where … David would ultimately take [Aquaman] in the 1990s, I had heard nothing but good things about [these] two miniseries … with which he began his several years' association with the character. Most specifically, the podcasters at Comic Geek Speak recommended them in their “Spotlight on Aquaman” episode (#840, 5 May 2010). In my recent … renewed enthusiasm for the character, I decided to acquire the issues and bind them....” And over the past couple of weeks I've read them. Here are my thoughts.

The Atlantis Chronicles

This hefty seven-issue miniseries – each issue is double the length of a standard comic –, drawn by Esteban Marato, purports to be a comic-book adaptation of newly-discovered historical writings from the lost civilization of Atlantis … after it sank beneath the waves thousands of years ago.

#1 (Mar 1990), “Chapter One: The Deluge,” begins the story of Orin and Shalako, brothers, king and priest, embodying a conflict between science and religion in the advanced continental civilization of Atlantis. His ruling city of Poseidonis being constantly assaulted by barbarians, Orin oversees the construction of a protective dome. Shalako predicts that this will bring the wrath of the sky-goddess Suula – which seems fulfilled when an asteroid seeming to bear the visage of a death's-head strikes the ocean, sending the waters to overwhelm Atlantis.

A text page consists of a memo between members of DC Comics' editorial regarding the adaptation of the newly-discovered writings, which the discoverer Prof. R. K. Simpson has been unable to get published by a scholarly press. After various “big-name” writers reject the job, Peter David gets it largely by default: “O.K. If he's the best you can do – Dick [Giordano]” ROFL!

#2 (Apr 1990), “Chapter Two: The Vanished Sun,” takes up months later, when life in the darkness of the ocean's depths is slowly driving the people of Poseidonis insane, although they had survived the disaster because of the protective dome and manufactured air. In the midst of this, Shalako leads his followers away from Poseidonis to the ruins of the city of Tritonis, where he constructs a hard-water dome by concluding a murderous pact with “the dark gods” to whom he now gives his allegiance.

Sometimes the issues have more than one chapter – “Chapter Three: Transfigurations.” Expeditions he sent out to determine if any land remains above the waves having vanished, Orin's scientists devise a way to mutate the Poseidonians into amphibious air-/water-breathers, freeing them from their imprisonment within the dome. Orin offers the same serum to the new Tritonians – who take it against the will of Shalako. Their prophet curses them for it – and their mutation continues such that they are fish-scaled from the waist down. The Tritonians rise up and kill Shalako and his family – all but his son Dardanus who disappeared into the city's catacombs.

#3 (May 1990), “Chapter Four: The Flowering of Youth, the Rightful Sinking of Age.” Fifteen years on, intense prejudices have developed between the Poseidonians and the Tritonians. Shalako's son Dardanus comes out of hiding, pretty obviously as insane as his father had become, stirring up the hatred. At court in Poseidonis, Dardanus attacks Bazil, the fiancé of Orin's daughter Cora, and is banished. But he returns to rape her on the eve of her wedding, fathering a fully-scaled humanoid monster named Kordax – but we don't find that out until later. The Poseidonians themselves continue to mutate, although not so radically as the Tritonians had. They are getting more dependent on constant hydration (up until now they had retained an air-breathing environment inside the dome, moving back and forth into the water at will), and developing fins on the backs of their calves. Orin begins considering the practicalities of flooding the dome.

Text pages resume with this issue, from here on out: Here is the first of two parts dealing with religion in ancient Atlantis and its worldwide impact, embodying a clever mix of reality and fiction even in its faux bibliography.

#4 (June 1990), “Chapter 5: Full Scale War,” focusses more on Cora and Bazil's daughter Fiona and the current Chronicler, Regin, who are lovers. Regin writes on the eve of battle, tracing the history of how the Poseidonians and Tritonians eventually came to war. Although it was perceived that the Atlanteans' lives are also extended greatly by the serum, dehydration was increasingly a problem. But the Tritonians had it worse, because their second generation were born with fully fused fish-tails rather than scaled legs, making them a merpeople absolutely unfit for an air-environment. Dardanus blamed Orin, who orders the flooding of both the domes, which are retained to keep larger predatory sea-creatures out of the cities. Cora's life-long torment is exposed when the Tritonians discover Kordax, who had been exposed as an infant and presumed dead – a fully-scaled blond-haired mutant who can mentally control sea-creatures. Orin abdicates kingship to make Cora queen – but when Dardanus demands Kordax be recognized as her heir instead of Fiona, and threatens war, Cora happily obliges. A cliffhanger ending has a mysterious giant sea monster attacking the Poseidonians at Kordax's command.

#5 (July 1990) contains two chapters. The first, “Chapter 6: The Stuff of Legends,” recounts the climax of the family feud between Orin and Shalako, told in mythic terms that it's strongly hinted may be the Chronicler Regin's molding mundane events to give the Atlanteans new beliefs that unify the peoples. There is an extensive exchange between Regin and Fiona, years later, that bears quotation:

Regin: “I tell them the origins of our beliefs. I tell them what happened, how it happened, and why.”

Fiona: “And that's all you have ever done, Regin? Merely reported what you saw?”

Regin: “Well, of course. What else? … I am not sure I understand your implications.”

Fiona: “You understand perfectly.”

Regin: “We're not going to discuss this again, are we? … I saw what I saw. And the people of Atlantis believed because ...”

Fiona: “Because they wanted to believe. … For many years I have refrained from discussing this with you, beloved Regin. … I was there too, remember. And while you spun your very convincing tale of epic struggles between godly messengers … I found small pieces of rock caught in Dardanus' armor. Rock that could have been the remains of several large boulders you, in your anger, pushed down upon Dardanus after he killed Orin. … And then you could have moved Dardanus' body away from the landslide, so that you could claim the wrath of Shalako had crushed him. … There are rational explanations for all things, if one allows oneself to look.”

Regin: “Fiona … I do not create history. I report it. What you suggest … it would be inappropriate. … Although...”

Fiona: “Although...?”

Regin: “Just at the battle's eve … Orin spoke of how Atlanteans no longer believed in the gods since we sank. Nor even believed in ourselves! … And how we would consume ourselves if that did not change. … The people wanted something to believe in. … Certainly there are rational explanations. There always are. But sometimes, to survive, people need to cling to the irrational. … To think of matters greater than themselves. … And if I had taken a cowardly, backstabbing assault on Orin … and a subsequent rockslide … and used it to weave a tapestry of belief … Not that I did … But if I had … I would like to think … that Orin would have approved of being the stuff … of which legends are born.”

The need to believe. It reminds me of these words of wisdom from Secondhand Lions

Hub McCann (Robert Duvall): “Sometimes the things that may or may not be true are the things a man needs to believe in the most. That people are basically good; that honor, courage, and virtue mean everything; that power and money, money and power mean nothing; that good always triumphs over evil; and I want you to remember this, that love … true love never dies. You remember that, boy. You remember that. Doesn't matter if it's true or not. You see, a man should believe in those things, because those are the things worth believing in.”

Chapter 7: First Encounter.” Generations later, the blond Atlan brings back evidence of the now-legendary surface world to Atlantis.

Text page: Focusses on Atlan's mother Lorelei, a mysterious figure of whom much more is made of her mystery in the text page than in the story itself. Makes me wonder if this was originally meant to be a longer miniseries and if editorial decisions gutted it.... Or perhaps David followed up on it in the ongoing series that started four years later...?

#6 (Aug 1990) “Chapter 8: Devil and the Deep Blue Sea” begins a story told by an old Egyptian priest to the Greek Solon in more detail than Plato would later relate. Because here, the framing story impinges on history. Solon was, of course, the great Greek lawgiver ca. 600 BC who, according to the philosopher Platothe historical ur-source for legends of Atlantis – writing over 200 years later, brought back the tales to Athens as he heard them in Egypt. Anyway, the Atlanteans attack the surface world, coming from the North, bringing up the question of Where was Atlantis? More comments later.... The attack is led by King Honsu and his and Lorelei's warrior eldest son Kraken; Atlan is the second son, generally in self-exile from Atlantis because of his blond hair, ever since Kordax considered an ill omen; the third, peace-loving son, is Haumond – who ends up captured by the proto-Egyptians. Haumond meets the ancient survivor of one of Orin's exploratory expeditions, now worshipped as a god in Egypt.

Text page: An interview with the professor who discovered the Atlantis Chronicles.

#7 (Sep 1990) “Chapter 9: Death and Life.” Okay, I'm getting a little more confused. The Atlanteans are the “North Sea Peoples” to the Egyptians, which could simply mean they come from the Mediterranean to the north of Egypt. But then they go through Egypt to get to Athens? …?  … Anyway, Kraken challenges the Athenians to a single combat with their champion to decide the war – and is killed … by the Athenian champion Haumond, his brother. Haumond foresakes Atlantis and the sea. A little predictably (at least, I predicted it) Haumond turns out to be the aged priest relating the story to Solon centuries or millennia later, visited on his death bed by Atlan, who is still youthful. Atlan returns his brother's body to the sea.

Chapter 10: Tails of the Sea” is a short interlude about sailors with Christopher Columbus in 1492 spying mermaids.

Chapter 11: Birthrite” begins with three Atlantean children including King Trevis' brother and heir Uri finding what is obviously a drum of surface waste, opening it – and Uri is killed by the toxic contents. By now, the power of the Monarchy has devolved to a council that seems rather dominated by a Shalakan zealot doomsayer Kalandro, but this still causes a crisis because Trevis and his queen Atlanna are childless. Then Atlanna has a dream or vision of Atlan impregnating her and bringing about the union of Orin and Shalako's lines. Atlan furthermore prophesies:

“[Your son] will know joy and sorrow, … darkness and light, for the blood of Orin and Shalako will run through him. … From Orin's line he will have wisdom and leadership. He will be a great warrior. … From Shalako's line, he inherits dominion over the sea creatures. … He will leave Atlantis and return. He will produce a child with a woman from the world of the Dark Gods … and they will both leave him. … He will battle the inner uncertainty caused by his mixed heritage. And he will battle … his half-brother whom I shall also sire, with a woman of the surface. For two brothers must always struggle for Atlantis. That is fate. … The brothers will meet and battle – the surface brother Orm and your son, whom you shall name Orin. They will battle many times. … And when they battle for the final time, the outcome will determine the ultimte destiny of Atlantis … Either it will rejoin the surface world … … or be forever … destroyed.”

As Atlanna swells with her pregnancy, fish revere her … but when it comes it is a breech birth, and the blond baby boy must be delivered by Cesarian. Blond – the sign of Kordax. Trevis takes the ill-omened babe to be exposed at low tide, then suicides. The last scene is the child being raised by dolphins.

And the issue ends with a genealogical chart from the brothers Orin and Shalako through the generations to Orm … and Aquaman.

Despite its somewhat dated style, both in writing and art – and the fact that I'm not a huge fan of Peter David – I really enjoyed this tale. It is a marvelous work accomplished on a broad historical/generational canvas drawing in a lot of real world lore and legend, giving it all a twist in an attempt to transform Aquaman's story into a mythological, almost Biblical epic. Esteban Marato's art is good, while limited by pre-millennial printing and not helped by the rather garish colors that resulted. It is a shame that DC has never seen fit to reprint this miniseries as a collection. Were they to do so, recoloring it with modern technology could result in a work of real visual beauty that would better convey the sense that most of this epic takes place in the ocean's depths.

One thing to bear in mind. Although it was not marked as such, it is definitely an adult story. There is bloody violence, yes, but also quite a bit of sex including nudity, particularly in the last issue. But even earlier, Dardanus' rape of Cora is depicted quite brutally.

Aquaman: Time and Tide

Four years later, David would return to Aquaman, this time to stay for about seven years. A new ongoing series was kicked off by this four-issue miniseries – four standard-length issues, so it reads very quickly compared to the tome that it belatedly picks up from.

#1 (Dec 1993), “Flash Back,” begins with Aquaman alone in his cave reading the Atlantis Chronicles, specifically the ending written by his mother Atlanna, whom he believes to have been delusional in her tales of ancient gods and prophecies. He starts adding his own remembrances, beginning with the first time he was called a “hero” after getting caught up in a confrontation between Barry Allen Flash and the Trickster. This is basically Aquaman's introduction to the modern surface world. (Barry's the one who dubs him that.)

More so than the Atlantis Chronicles, it's immediately apparent that here Peter David indulges in a bit more of his trademark offbeat humor. Although it's an aspect of his writing that I don't really care for, I must admit that there is a hilarious bit with Aquaman talking to sharks, playing on the lack of short-term memory that fish apparently have.

#2 (Jan 1994), “Fish Tales,” continues Aquaman's attempts at writing his own history, mainly telling how he was raised by dolphins after surviving exposure as a newborn on “Mercy Reef,” up to his learning a cruel lesson of the reality of the “circle of life” under the sea. His first encounter with humans results in his dolphin “brother” being accidentally caught in a ship's screws, mortally wounded, and necessarily being left to be eaten by sharks.

#3 (Feb 1994), “Snowball in Hell.” Between issues #2 and #3 we know from his inner'logue that as a teenager he took up with Arthur Curry the lighthouse-keeper – who then abandoned him. He wandered north to Alaska, where he saves an Eskimo girl named Kako's life from a polar bear – evidently pissing off some kind of goddess who curses him that those who love him are doomed. He and Kako fall in love, so of course Kako is the first victim – being attacked and left for dead by her cousin Orm, the bastard son of her aunt (if I understand correctly). Young Aquaman has a vision in which he contends with the northern goddess and manages to save Kako's life again – but when he tells the tale of what he thought was just a dream, the shock of the implications in his defying the goddess Nuliajuk kills Kako's grandfather who had grudgingly taken him in. The family drives him away; when he returns after a time, their home is abandoned.

#4 (Mar 1994), “King of the Sea.” Years later, when Aquaman is king of Atlantis, on the day of Arthur Jr.'s birth, Orm returns as the Ocean Master and challenges him for kingship of the sea. Not knowing who he is – he never encountered him before – Aquaman ridicules him and drives him away. But Ocean Master returns with a huge submarine to attack Atlantis. He captures Aquaman and Aqualad, then subjects them to the stereotypical villain's boasting – whereupon Aquaman realizes the truth of who Ocean Master is and what he had done to Kako. Meanwhile, Mera's interference in effecting a rescue inadvertently keeps Aquaman from killing Orm right then and there – and Ocean Master escapes, obviously to beleaguer our hero again in the future. … And ruminating on these events, Aquaman realizes perhaps his mother was not insane. Or perhaps he is.

As much as I liked the Atlantis Chronicles, and even enjoyed Time and Tide on its own terms, I prefer the more traditional origin – of an Atlantean princess-in-exile taking up with Tom Curry the lighthouse-keeper and bearing him a son – which has more or less been “retro-retconned” back into play by Geoff Johns over the past couple of years. I'm sure there's a way most elements of the Atlantis Chronicles could still be made to work with that origin, but I don't know if that's the way things will play out.

As to Time and Tide itself, along with the somewhat satirical tone that I don't care for (a personal shortcoming, I know... ;-) ), I find the art 'way too cartoony, much more dated than AC. And it ain't helped overall by the “present-day” Aquaman's mullet, which looks laughable in itself.

Oddly enough, however, I did enjoy reading it. I won't be in a hurry to reread it though. Atlantis Chronicles, on the other hand, may well be reread sooner rather than later.

And, given that I now know, after looking at ComicbookDB.com, that Peter David's subsequent monthly series which launched out of this within six months with the long-haired, bearded Aquaman, has by issue #2 already had piranhas chew off his hand and replaced it with a harpoon – to me the visual symbol of an “Aquaman” who is in no way “mine” – I don't think I'll bother continuing down this road. The current series by Geoff Johns is too good to sully with that image. And there are the three Showcase Presents volumes that I largely haven't read, bringing his adventures in the Silver Age up to the point where I was reading in 1968, where I have two years (1968-1969) similarly library-bound. In fact, with 2011's publication of the collection, Aquaman: Death of a Prince, they have left only a couple of years' gap in reprinting his Silver and Bronze Age adventures up to the event that, for me, started transforming a beloved character into something I no longer cared to read. I haven't counted pages, but it seems to me that at least another Showcase Presents volume is warranted. Better yet, a couple of color reprint volumes to precede Death of a Prince …. – Hello? – DC? – Anybody listening...?

Cheers!, and Thanks for reading!
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Note:  This is the first of my library-bound comics volumes that I have blogged about as if it were a "real" book.  I'm not sure I'm going to go into such intensive detail in future (he says in vain).  At eleven comics, this one is relatively thin.  More typically, my bound volumes contain upwards of twenty, once even as many as forty, issues.  But if you've been reading this blog for any length of time, you know how I can blather on....

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