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Friday, March 11, 2016

Review of 1986's Aquaman v2 mini-series

This mini-series was included in the first collection of comics I inherited from my older cousin when I was in elementary school. To his credit, he collected all four issues of the mini-series, so there was no gaping holes in the story. Prior to this mini-series, the only comic-book exposure I had to Aquaman were his very small appearances in the Justice League comics I owned. I was most familiar with Aquaman as a member of the Super Friends cartoon. I was actually quite fond of Aquaman - his Super Powers Collection action figure came equipped with a trident that was a big as the action figure itself. How could I not be fond of Aquaman? So I didn't really understand what was going on in this mini-series back then, and these comics sat in the bottom of my drawer while I thumbed through issues of Captain Carrot, Spider-Man and G.I. Joe (or whatever else seven year olds are interested in). I also remember not being too keen on the new blue camouflage costume, I was only familiar with the classic silver age orange and green costume - so that's another reason I wouldn't have looked at this mini-series more than twice.

"Young child, buy my toy or I will poke your eye out"

Looking back over this mini-series twenty-something years later, I can understand how a lot of this would've went over my head.

The first thing I'm going to say, when reviewing this mini-series, is that Craig Hamilton's art is absolutely beautiful. And I think, intrinsically, that I recognized this the first time I flipped through these issues when I was younger because a few panels in these issues still resonate with me. All that to say, I probably perused these issues more than I remember if certain scenes bore such a major impression into my memory. His illustrations of underwater life are worth the price of admission alone. Hamilton stated that he used real life friends or celebrities as the basis for his character designs - Aquaman is a cross between Buster Crabbe and GQ model Jeff Aquilon, Nuada is modeled after Glen Closse and Mera was based on Lucille Ball (from her starlet days).

Craig Hamilton art (Aquaman v2 #2)

As much as I enjoy the art, this mini-series is (in)famously known for the introduction of the 'blue camouflage' Aquaman suit. The new costume was explained as a way for Aquaman to stay stealthy while infilitrating enemy territory. In a show of defiance towards the Justice League, he makes a concious effort not to include his JL communicator into his costume (this was a reference to what was previously going on in Gerry Conway's Justice League of America title). In an interview with Rob Kelly on The Aquaman Shrine, it was explained that the new costume was originally designed by the mini-series writer, Neal Pozner, and Hamilton prided himself on being one of the few people who could draw it - due to his classical art training. Hamilton added that the new "Aquaman costume is all tied around anatomy. Every point on it goes to a different reference point on the body, and you have to be able to draw the body moving in a natural way to naturally draw that costume." The blue camo costume was most likely discontinued after the series (Aquaman quickly reverts back to his classic orange and greens in the 1988 Aquaman Special) because it was so difficult to draw. Hamilton admits that even George Perez complained to him about it once! When the guy who single-handily drew Crisis On Infinite Earths (which featured every single DC character that DC owned) is complaining about your costume, it's time to reconsider a few things about your design.

This mini-series also debuted a new Aquaman logo (designed by Pozner, who was a DC staff designer and worked on cover design at the time). Todd Klein goes into greater detail about the history of the Aquaman logo in his blog. The house ad at the top of this page displays the new logo. 

Another thing that is noteworthy is just how much of the Arion, Lord of Atlantis lore (written by Paul Kupperberg) is at play in this mini-series. Images of Arion and Garn appear sporadically throughout the 4 issues, and the letters column of the first issue contains a re-telling of the origin of Atlantis (written by Pozner, I'm assuming). Incorporating Arion's past into the history of Atlantis is a relatively new thing, as it was previously unrecognized - thus effectively combining aspects of Atlantis past and present (yet oddly omitting Warlord's version of Atlantis). The last major fight scene of the mini-series is reminiscent to the Arion/Garn feud. Arion being recognized as an important figure in Atlantean history, as well as Power Girl's grandfather, was one of the major changes in the post-Crisis DCU.

Arion battling Garn (Aquaman v2 #1)
The Ocean Master, Aquaman's step-brother, is the main antagonist of this mini-series. Hamilton draws him as a truly menacing character - even going so far as to give Ocean Master's helmet more long, sharp edges. A central theme here is the (apparently) one-sided sibling rivalry between Aquaman and Ocean Master. Pre-Crisis, the Ocean Master was always more of a non-superpowered 'high-tech pirate' type of villain and this new mini-series re-introduced him as a powerful sorcerer (which ramps his threat-level up a few notches). The 'mystical sorcerer' Ocean Master idea would stick and is still used in the DCU as of this writing.

Ocean Master: menacing (Aquaman v2 #3)

Taking a cue from Arion, magic also plays a major theme in this mini-series. A new race of mystical Atlanteans (Tuatha De Danann) are revealed and one of them, Nuada Silverhand, teams up with Aquaman and becomes a potential love interest. Aquaman was always more of a science/adventure title, so having him dealing with magic is a slightly different direction for him. It was explained by the editors that water is linked to mysticism and, with the addition of the mythic roots of Atlantis, the magical/mythological approach seemed like a natural fit for the story line.

Prior to this mini-series, there has never been a singular, coherent version of Atlantis. In the golden age of DC comics, Atlantis was depicted however a writer needed it to be depicted for the purpose of the story. For example, Lori Lemaris (a mermaid from the Superman story lines) is described as being from Atlantis - but why does she have a half-fish body while the rest of the Atlanteans from the Aquaman books don't? (Things started to get a bit more consistent in the Silver Age.) This mini-series also opened up the idea that there were OTHER undersea cities/tribes/races we weren't aware of living down in Atlantis - this is also something that would be expounded on in great detail by writers to come. There's also the exploration of Atlantis' relationship/disdain with the surface world, but it's kind of happening in the background of everything that's going on. I'm hard-pressed to find ANY major Aquaman story arc where Atlanteans are not in a state of revolt about something. While Atlantean isolationism makes perfect sense given the fictitious city's location and history, the constant state of Atlantean civil unrest is a recurring backdrop among most Aquaman stories.

This series was a post-Crisis attempt at 'redefining' Aquaman*, at least that's how Pozner explained it in the letter column of issue Aquaman v2 #2. Sometime in 1982/1983, when Pozner was DC's Design Director, he was trying to solve the mystery of why Wonder Woman wasn't as popular as Superman or Batman. Pozner essentially wrote up an outline describing the strengths of the Wonder Woman concept and how to best fully explore them to reinvigorate her ongoing series. This outline somehow found it's way to DC head offices and Dick Giordano approached Pozner suggesting he should write and submit a Wonder Woman series proposal. Pozner explained that at the time, Wonder Woman was in very capable hands and another "well-respected" writer was planning on working on the title, so he turned down Giordano's offer because he wanted a real shot at revamping a DC character. Giordano suggested that Pozner pick any other character and submit another proposal. Pozner chose Aquaman.

Pozner explained that he chose Aquaman for several reasons: 1) Aquaman's costume wasn't visually appealing, 2) Aquaman didn't work well in settings where he was on dry land, 3) Aquaman had always been portrayed as a "dislikable, unsympathetic protagonist", and 4) Atlantis was a vague concept that needed some defining. Creating a unified version of the history of the DCU Atlantis was big on Pozner's "to do" list, as was forcing a change in Aquaman's personality (to make him likable again) and introducing a new contemporary costume.

From 1984 to 1986, Aquaman didn't have a solo series and was making regular appearances in Gerry Conway's Justice League of America ongoing series. One of the subplots in Conway's run was that Aquaman was becoming a pushy, critical, quick-tempered jerk (his marital troubles with his wife, Mera, appeared to be the driving factor). Conway was setting up inter-personal conflicts within the book to define the team and create it's own continuity, but never got the chance to resolve any of it because Aquaman abruptly left the league in Justice League of America #243 (1985) only to appear in this mini-series several months later. The extraction of Aquaman from the Justice League was based on a decision from DC's head office. In a 2008 interview with Rob Kelly on the JLA Satellite blog, Conway reveals: "At that point, I was being told what to do. My autonomy on the book--whenever I had any--probably ended around the time I left the book that first time, and after that I was basically trying to manage my way within the DC system. I don't think [Aquaman leaving] would've been my goal, leaving a group he had brought together."

The Aquaman v2 mini-series addresses and resolves Aquaman's anger management issues. Pozner did succeed in writing Aquaman as an interesting/likable character.

Although it was meant as a revamp, Pozner more or less leaves the Silver Age origin of Aquaman intact (i.e. lighthouse keeper meets Atlantean woman, they have a baby, Atlantean woman dies, and lighthouse keeper trains son/Aquaman to fulfill Atlantean woman's dying wish), but places special emphasis on the relationship between Aquaman and his step-brother, Ocean Master, to play up the motivation behind the antagonist's hatred towards the protagonist. Despite being a post-Crisis retelling of Aquaman's history, all the major things from Aquaman's pre-Crisis history remain intact: he still married Mera, he still lost his first son, he still lead Justice League Detroit, and he still mentored a young sidekick named Aqualad.

If we were to examine excerpts found from Amazing Heroes magazine (circa 1985), we'd undoubtedly believe that the Aquaman v2 mini-series received such a good response from DC fandom that a sequel to this mini-series was inevitable. The Justice League Detroit blog has faithfully reprinted these Amazing Heroes magazine excerpts, and here is the stand-out selection:

After the phenomonal response to DC's first Aquaman series, a sequel seemed a foregone conclusion. Well, here it is. The second mini-series will take place minutes after the first one ends, and will deal with the rest of the "Aquaman Family," as well as the star of the book. "Mera, Aqualad, and the rest of Atlantis did not show up much in the first series," notes writer Neal Pozner, "but they're very important to this series. In the first series, we were trying to change and restructure Aqua­man alone. Now we'll see how he's going to react to everybody else. The whole theme of the series is change, and how different people react to it. There have been radical changes in the lives of all the players, and we'll be looking at how those changes manifest themselves, and how each character deals with them. The three main char­acters will be Aquaman, Mera, and Aqualad, but we'll also be focusing on Makaira, Vulko, a new character named Tawna, Ronal, and (from Swamp Thing) the Sunderland Corporation." (Amazing Heroes Preview Special #3 from the Summer of 1986)

Pozner then goes on to describe how, in the proposed sequel: 1) Atlantis is experiencing a "culture shock" thanks to their interactions with the surface world, 2) Aquaman is involved in a love triangle between Mera and Nuada, 3) Aqualad will be mourning Aqua-girl's death and 4) Mera will be getting more attention as a super-heroic character. [Aqua-girl died in Crisis on Infinite Earths, and Pozner wanting to explore this further is a curious choice, in my opinion. I do applaud his decision to explore the idea of Mera being a super-heroic figure on par with Aquaman - she was often ignored in the previous continuity.] It's amusing to note that Pozner also manages to work in a detail about Aquaman reverting back to his old orange-and-green classic costume in the newly proposed sequel: "He realizes that he's going to be on the surface world for a while, and he needs his old suit because it's irrigated. Otherwise, he would pass out after an hour." (Amazing Heroes Preview Special #3 from the Summer of 1986) This would indicate, to me, that the decision for Aquaman to lose the blue camo threads came from higher up the DC food-chain.

The sequel to this mini-series never happened. Instead, we received a one-shot Aquaman Special in 1988 that quickly resolved any dangling plot lines from this mini-series and returned Aquaman to his orange and green costume. Why didn't we see a sequel? Because Hamilton was burned out. From his interview with the Aquaman Shrine in 2007: "It took eight or nine months to do all four issues. Hot on the heels of that first series, they wanted me to come back and do a second one, and two months in, I only had like four or five pages drawn. I was exhausted, I was empty. Great pages--the drawing was so much better, the storytelling was so much better--but I just couldn't pull it out, and they canned it."

While this mini-series was entertaining and beautifully illustrated, nothing really shocking/earth-shattering/ground-breaking occurs (to be fair, DC did retcon everything from this mini out of existence almost 2 years later). In summary, seek out this mini-series for the art, the appearance of the cool blue camo costume and because it brings back fond 80s memories.

If you're a fan of Aquaman, I'm going to strongly recommend you visit Rob Kelly's Aquaman Shrine blog. Such a great resource on all things Aquaman.

*Not too long before this mini-series, a few other 'substantial' DC heroes were getting the mini-series/revival treatment: the Atom (Ray Palmer) was subjected to a 'sword and sorcery' revamp in 1983's The Sword of the Atom mini-series, Hawkman had a 4-issue The Shadow War of Hawkman mini-series on the stands in 1985 (which led to an onoging series for Hawkman), Red Tornado was being re-explored by Kurt Busiek in 1985, and Green Arrow had his own solo 4 issue mini-series in 1983.


  1. Great piece, Justin

    This is such a fun time in DC history to look back at. I'm a bit too young to have experienced it first hand, but I've read a bunch of the stuff listed in your final paragraph.

    The Sword of the Atom series of specials was really quite fun, I was glad to see that it wasn't wiped from continuity for the Power of the Atom ongoing that came a few years after.

    I'm pretty sure that Green Arrow mini was the first book to actually have a "Green Arrow" title ever published which is amazing to consider for a character with so much history. He'd been in back-ups and shared a title with Hal for a bit... but this was the first "Green Arrow" book. The mini was quite fun as well, though a bit silly.

    Shadow War of Hawkman is one that I'm having trouble finding... I've had issue #2 forever... the others just aren't as forthcoming.

  2. Neal Pozner hired Phil Jimenez at DC Comics and the two later became lovers. When Phil wrote his Tempest mini, he took inspiration from this costume for Tempest's new look, after Neal died from complications of HIV.

    I remember being so moved in that Tempest final issue text page.