It’s easy to know what you should be feeling as Aquaman plunges into unknown depths in the conclusion to “The Trench”. We’ve all known for some time now. This is that familiar feeling of freedom that we’ve been waiting for. This is the world making sense, once more. Over the past three issues, the surface world has taken its toll—Aquaman has been marginalized and maligned in the ways he usually is. Sure, there’s been an internal shift in the character’s psyche, Aquaman is cooler, more meditative, no longer overwrought about being recognized as king (think back to that excellently crafted restaurant scene in issue one, or the superbly human interaction with Deputy Wilson in issue two). But that’s just an internal shift. There’re the gung-ho SWAT guys who see Aquaman as a nuisance, there’s the obnoxious blogger who just wouldn’t take no for an answer, there’s the disgraced marine biologist who sees Aquaman as a means to restoring his credibility.
The surface world takes a heavy toll. There’s a certain unerring logic to Ivan Reis’ artistic preference for close-ups, for tight shots, for panoramic shots that fail to show the full vistas of beautiful landscapes, a preference instead panoramas that show very small slices of human life and enterprise (that dock can’t be more than 40 feet, yet it’s a double-page splash in Ivan’s hands). The surface world is small and petty and Ivan’s artwork shows that movingly. Now finally, with Aquaman and Mera launching underwater, into the open sea to confront a never-before-encountered threat, you’d expect to encounter That Moment. It’s that singular yield of freedom, that sense that Jack Kerouac writes about so evocatively in Lonesome Traveler when he muses, “…you cross the little wire gate and you’re in Mexico, you feel like you just sneaked out of school…”. And you do encounter That Moment, just briefly though, in the closing pages of the previous issue when Aquaman and Mera launch into the sea. But then the plunge begins…
Instead of that panoramic freedom we were all expecting, Ivan conducts us down exactly the same visual path. It’s surprising how small and in-tight and close-up the vastness of the ocean depths can seem. Of course this framing is purely psychologically motivated. It’s to prepare us for the darker choice coming at the end of this issue. It’s to demonstrate that while the surface world is difficult to navigate, it is the surface world that inform Aquaman’s psyche, even beneath the waves. It’s to illustrate, visually, that Geoff Johns is perhaps the first in a long line of writers to find a truly honest emotional core to the character.
Throughout the issue, Aquaman avoids taking the easy horror/scifi out of simply escaping and then detonating the nameless creatures that rise from the Trench. Because Geoff isn’t exercising the genre conventions of horror/scifi. This isn’t Ridley Scott’s Alien, this isn’t John Carpenter’s The Thing, this isn’t Renny Harlan’s Deep Blue Sea. This is Heart of Darkness, Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. By the end of the issue, the cooler, more centered Aquaman we’ve encountered so far in the pages of his own book is forced away by circumstance from exercising the moral choice he had hoped to make. This is a deep and abiding character drama that pushes a calmer, more-together Aquaman up against a world in which he cannot act on the impulses of his better angels. The darker drama here is that despite his internal growth as a character, Aquaman is still at odds with the world.
And for no other reason, that puts Aquaman very near the top of, not the must-get, but the must-have list. In the incredibly capable hands of Geoff and Ivan, Aquaman surpasses the casual conceits of the superhero genre and instead offers the Shakespearean. This is Hamlet, this is The Scottish Play. This is Chris Nolan’s The Dark Knight where Batman won a victory when that prisoner tossed the trigger overboard. This is Neil Gaiman’s Sandman in every collection from Brief Lives and beyond, when Dream found himself at war with the very world he helped configure. This is Miyamoto Musashi, the Saint of the Sword, who on the day he slew his lifelong rival gave up the sword and retreated to a buddhist monastery to pen The Book of Five Rings. This is the story about a character who, despite the world not being enough, finds himself stymied when trying to fix things. There’s no reason to simply get these books and read them and reread them. These stories are library editions, books to be read, to be savored, to be added to your collection, to be left for when your sons and daughters will be ready for them. These stories are the birth of a literary tradition, in as strange a place so a superhero comicbook.