Truthfully, you'd probably need to go back to Hemingway to encounter any adventure stories that were as vivid or as vital or as important as Aquaman…
Aquaman #8Publisher: DC
Length: 22 pages
Writer: Geoff Johns, Ivan Reis
Publication Date: 2012-06
Among my very favorite Geoff Johns' are his incursion stories. The one I recall most vividly is "Wanted: Hal Jordan", a storyarc from reasonably early on in the Johns-helmed fourth volume of Green Lantern. This was the volume just before the New 52 reboot, the volume that would see "The Sinestro Corps War" and eventually wind its way into "Blackest Night" and "War of the Green Lanterns".
"Wanted: Hal Jordan" played out during the "One Year Later" event around 2006/2007. It was the event that would play out in the wake of the now mythic 52, a maxi-series that would focus of a year's worth of storytelling centered around DC B-listers. The primary heroes, like Flash, Green Lantern, and particularly the hyper-visible troika of Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman would be benched for this year's worth of storytelling. "Wanted: Hal Jordan" explained why Earth's prime Green Lantern (actually Sector 2814's prime Lantern) had had so little involvement in the events of 52. It's also a story that intersects the personal life of Hal Jordan with his duties as Green Lantern.
The story goes something like this. Arrogant as ever, look-before-you-leap as ever, Hal Jordan (recently reinstated as Captain in the USAF) had undertaken a dangerous Air Force mission without his ring. The mission got into trouble and Jordan and wingmen, Shane Sellers and Jillian Pearlman, had been taken hostage. By some plot mechanism (can't quite remember the details, but the originals are probably worth a reread), Jordan and Sellers escape, believing Pearlman dead. Evidence turns up suggesting that Pearlman, even one year on, may yet still be alive. When the Air Force Brass refuse to greenlight a rescue op, Jordan dons his ring and mounts a lone wolf, super-powered rescue. It's at this point that the Global Guardians, the Rocket Reds, the Justice League and a slew of alien bounty hunters are drawn into bringing down the "renegade" Green Lantern.
It's a flawlessly told GL story. But also a beautiful one in that it weaves in elements of a traditional "pilot down" kind of story. There's something very Cold War-gauche about this story. Some that reminds me about the very best Airwolves, those in Season Three. It's a commonly held belief that Airwolf's third season was really its worst (well, there was that atrocious Season Four, produced by Alliance/Atlantis, but that wasn't original continuity). That belief however, is also wildly incorrect. While it's true that audiences did see far less of the helicopter in the third season (budgetary constraints meant a greater reliance on stock footage), we did also get to see far more of the personal price paid by these Cold Warriors, String and Dom. And we got to see the deep psychic scars left them by operating an ultra-tech combat helicopter against the kinds of threats that couldn't possibly be simply shot down by a well-placed copperhead missile.
But if Geoff crafts out that incursionary tale in such a way as to explore the steep psychic price paid by Green Lantern, now some five years ago, he exceeds himself in "The Others", the current backstory-arc in Aquaman. In a sense, "Wanted: Hal Jordan" was simply overture, was Geoff playing chords or practicing fencing strokes. "The Others", is the stuff of it.
When we spoke about Aquaman, Geoff Johns impressed on me that this was an older, more tempered, more mellow Aquaman. In a certain sense, that familiar rage and that all-too-understandable railing against a world perceived as inferior was gone. Aquaman had "matured". Well maybe matured is too judgmental in its tone. But Aquaman had certainly reached a point where he understood that simply demanding more of the world wasn't enough to elicit more from the world. And as a result of this realization, he'd withdrawn from his "adversarial" tension with the world at large, and withdrawn from his inner rage.
This Aquaman, is an Aquaman of seclusion, of repose, or hermitage. Images like the lonely lighthouse keeper, like the weathered New England fisherman who lives in a cabin overlooking the bay certainly spring readily to mind. It's in this regard, that the incursionary genre that Geoff pioneered in stories like "Wanted: Hal Jordan" really brings a craftspersons touch to this new Aquaman. In this issue we see a flashback that explains Aquaman's time with The Others, a superhuman team dedicated to tracking down artifacts from sunken Atlantis. The flashback itself, is the incursionary tale, where led by Aquaman, The Others ingress into the Russian wilderness to track down the vicious Black Manta.
While this incursion story is every bit as vivid as "Wanted: Hal Jordan" or those original Airwolves, it's the use that Geoff makes of this mode of incursionary storytelling that easily passes this new Aquaman into the realm of genius. Just as Aquaman leads the others into an incursion on Russian soil, the past now incurs on Aquaman's safe, placid life he's begun to build. This is a vicious past, filled with old ghosts, and angry. A past that will, if left unchecked, easily consume the warm safe happiness of Aquaman and Mera living in their lighthouse by the sea.
In telling this story, Geoff overcomes the Silver Age style of storytelling that still predominates the comics industry, even today. It was a standard mode, during the Silver Age, to conceive of a comics narrative as relying on captions and dialog to move the story forward, and for this kind of plotting to be divorced from the artwork of action sequences. But for Geoff, Aquaman is moved forward as much visually as it is by its prose. The scene where Ya'wara (an Other) holds Aquaman's hand to teleport him to the Manta's most recent crime scene, deeply emphasizes the threat Aquaman's past is to his present. The point is only driven home, vividly and in the kind of way that wounds us, when during the flashback incursion, Kahina the Seer foresees Aquaman's future (his now present) happiness.
But the true art of this story lies in not only Aquaman's personal past, but the broader sense of the past that Aquaman must brace himself against, in the sense that we must perhaps all brace ourselves against. This shift goes around the profoundly newly apprehension of Atlantis that Geoff brings out in Aquaman. Geoff's Atlantis isn't simply a fairytale kingdom, not simply some far, far away, that we could conceive of visiting, even at some great expense to ourselves. Just as Atlantis is for us, the Atlantis of Aquaman is a sunken, mythic place, lost to the world, and segregated from any and everything on the surface of the planet. Its treasures are deadly, and mysterious, and have filtered into our world like nukes or mafiya from a post-Glasnost Russia.
Retrieving Atlantis as a mythic place, and refuting it as just another exotic locale, has got to be one of the finest moments in the genre of adventure stories over the last century. Truthfully, you'd probably need to go back to Hemingway to encounter any adventure stories that were as vivid or as vital or as important as Aquaman.