Aquaman has enjoyed a great renaissance ever since Geoff Johns and Ivan Reis first jumped on-board the title in 2011. Johns and Reis’ tenure really laid out the core framework, cast and world of Arthur Curry and setup the basic themes and established a firm foundation for everyone to work with. Johns and Reis’ Arthur was a reluctant superhero who was forced to be king, a man constantly weighed down by his past no matter the scenario. A man torn between worlds, Johns and Reis (with Paul Pelletier joining on their last arc) explored this torn individual as he faced great lows and had to persist to hold on, lest he be swept away by them all. He was the superhero who did not wish to be king.
Then came Jeff Parker and Paul Pelletier’s era, which carried the baton forward from the previous team. Parker and Pelletier’s Arthur was a man who’d been through all of Johns and Reis’ events and had to find a way to be in a healthier place. In order to begin to do that, Parker and Pelletier re-opened Atlanna, Arthur’s mother’s story and gave her agency and expanded her narrative. Focusing on the people’s champion aspect of Arthur Curry, the team refocused the character as a swashbuckling adventurer of the seas, driven by the desperate need for true acceptance, both from his kingdom and more importantly, his mother. By the end of it all, their Arthur Curry was a man in a healthy and happy place, having accepted his role and place.
Dan Abnett’s follow-up to these two runs, after Cullen Bunn’s short tenure, built off a lot of what had been setup. If Johns laid the foundation and explored the superhero, with Parker playing with the elements, expanding them and exploring the adventurer king, then Abnett would focus on the politician aspect in a way that hadn’t been looked at. Exploring the Sisyphean struggle of trying to balance both these facets, the king and the superhero, Abnett brought the character to the natural extreme of being put in this difficult place. Arthur cannot be both and the divide is too big to fix, thus his throne is no longer his. Recasting Arthur as a mythic folk hero, a legendary protector of the people, Abnett uncovered new facets of the character. With Mera on the throne instead, Abnett, alongside Scott Snyder and James Tynion IV re-contextualized Arthur’s place and role in the larger DC world through Drowned Earth. Positioning him as the great mariner and explorer that unites all, the team brought another great layer to the character.
Now Kelly Sue DeConnick and Robson Rocha have come on board the title, bringing another great layer and lens to the character. Stripping him away from the Atlantis-heavy framework, cast and stories, DeConnick and Rocha have placed an Amnesiac Arthur Curry in a perfect place for re-examination. Here’s a man who’s been king, superhero, outlaw, mariner, lighthouse keeper and so much more and yet he now knows not who he is or ever was. Falling to the shores of the remote island village of Unspoken Water, Arthur Curry now resides alongside a whole host of ancient sea deities who have been cast away by the angry ocean.
We’re introduced to Callie, a lady in red garb, who seemingly performs regular rituals and rites to please the simmering ocean. Callie is the one who discovered Arthur on the banks of Unspoken Water and thus they share a bit of a special connection. Going by ‘Andy’ for the rest of the village, Arthur is in a new place, helping people however he can. He’s the people’s champion and hero, as is to be expected.
Robson Rocha, Daniel Henriques and Sunny Gho really shine throughout the issue, bringing a fluidity and a sense of lovely texture to the book. It’s incredibly fitting for a book about the underwater hero, as Gho moves through a variety of looks, from the dark and dreary nights full of storm to the radiant, warm days of gleaming water. Rocha excels with characters, meticulously capturing every subtle nuance and motion whether it be Callie’s pursed lips to the side as she admits to something or her elegant ritual motions. There’s a reality to them and a great texture to his world, as he clearly distinguishes every element possible with a stylish and free-flowing sensibility. Henriques’ inks expertly enhance the pencil work whilst keeping the fluidity and energy intact, which really is what helps bring out the best in the work. The above page, which features a flashback sequence showcasing Arthur’s discovery, is a perfect example of how well the team functions together. Rendering the gutters of the page as tides, uneven and fluid, is an inspired choice that fits the mood and the story perfectly. This constant sense of movement present throughout the issue is a joy to witness, as the team has a firm grasp of the world and material they’re working with.
DeConnick’s vision, too, is absolutely stunning. Moving away from the Atlantis-centricism of the title to re-examine and analyze Arthur amongst a whole host of other ocean-related beings is a clever decision and a much needed breath of fresh air. There’s a great rhythm to the issue here, from the poetic and mythic narrations to the clever flow of all the beats. Clayton Cowles’ lettering blends in nicely with the rest of the team and helps the elegance of DeConnick’s dialogue and narration really come through. Leading the reader’s eye, Cowles’ spectacularly guides the audience through the kinetic world of Unspoken Water.
The issue also establishes some other key characters and the core mission effectively, teasing a larger story. We meet Loc and Wee, an elderly couple that Arthur helps out. Loc is a fisherman and when he and his peers attempt to capture fish, they only get rotten and dead ones. This is where we’re told of the big antagonist of the story: Namma, the ancient Babylonian ocean goddess. A cast off sea god, much like the rest of the inhabitants of Unspoken Water, she defied the way of things, placing herself above the sea that dared to judge her. The other deities banished her to a nearby isle so she may learn humility, but her wrath is ever present in the form of the dead sea-life. Drawn gorgeously by Rocha, with Henriques’ inks and colored marvelously by Gho, the flashbacks teasing and setting up Namma are breathtaking, to say the least. Gho’s muted palette sets an ominous tone as the blurred portrait-esque depiction of the panels give it a sense of larger than life grandeur that it would otherwise lack. The panels are blurred, with no true borders because they cannot truly contain what is depicted inside.
The issue then goes onto reveal that the villagers of Unspoken Water took Namma’s child from her and that it is Callie. They then grant Arthur (who still goes by Andy) his mission: Return Callie to Namma, her mother and make peace. The reward for the accomplishment? A special drink, the Unspoken Water, which will return his memory. And so the journey begins for our hero once more.
DeConnick and Rocha have moved the hero from super-heroic duels and Atlantean politics to a very mythic high fantasy context. The structure of the story is, in essence, a quest. It’s a classic set-up and what’s impressive is its intimacy despite the great magnitude of the narrative. In that sense, it’s comparable to Morrison and Sharp’s The Green Lantern. The story is very much a fantasy mystery rather than a typical superhero plot and it establishes a clear and effective tone and sensibility to get that across.
In the year of Aquaman’s solo cinematic debut, Aquaman #43 is a fantastic jumping on point that’s not just accessible but immersive in its ideas and world-building. Whether you’re a long-term fan like some or a new reader looking to jump onboard the sea king’s adventures, this is a great place to start. Just dive in.