Hi, and welcome to Comics You Should Own, a semi-regular series about comics I think you should own. I began writing these a little over fifteen years ago, and I’m still doing it, because I dig writing long-form essays about comics. I republished my early posts, which I originally wrote on my personal blog, at Comics Should Be Good about ten years ago, but since their redesign, most of the images have been lost, so I figured it was about time I published these a third time, here on our new blog. I plan on keeping them exactly the same, which is why my references might be a bit out of date and, early on, I don’t write about art as much as I do now. But I hope you enjoy these, and if you’ve never read them before, I hope they give you something to read that you might have missed. I’m planning on doing these once a week until I have all the old ones here at the blog. Today I take a look at Peter David’s history of Atlantis, which led, after a bit of a long and winding road, to his ongoing Aquaman series. This was originally published on 9 April 2005. I don’t think there are any SPOILERS ahead, but you never know, so tread carefully. Enjoy!
Published by DC, 7 issues (#1-7, cover dated March – September 1990).
Peter David is an extremely good comics writer. Some people may not like his stuff, but that doesn’t change the fact that he knows how to tell a story, he knows when to ramp up the action, he can be very funny, he knows how to tell single-issue stories and use cliffhangers, and he has an excellent grasp of comic book history. All of these attributes are shown in this seven-issue series that acts as a prelude to David’s 1990s run on Aquaman, the only time I’ve ever been remotely interested in the character (sorry, Laura). Aquaman shows up in this comic, on the last few pages and only as a small child, but his history is laid out here, and if you know anything about DC’s aquatic history, this series is a treat for you.
What David does is present Atlantian history as seen through the eyes of the official chroniclers. The Chronicles are started by King Orin, who is ruling Atlantis centuries after Arion left and devastated the countryside – his Atlantis remains sunk, but the Atlantians have risen again, and Orin feels that a history needs to be written of Poseidonis, Atlantis’s greatest city. Each issue is a section of the Chronicles written by a different historian, a device that allows David to show us that history does indeed change depending on who’s doing the writing of it. The first 4+ issues are the saga of Orin and his brother Shalako and Shalako’s son Dardanus and grandson Kordax and the civil war that almost tore Atlantis apart. The last few issues deal with the Atlantians’ attempts to conquer the world, which they thought had been destroyed when Atlantis sunk. Finally, we are brought up to the present day (sort of – like I said, Aquaman’s a baby when the series ends) and see how Aquaman was conceived and why he’s so important.
This is epic storytelling, helped by Maroto’s beautiful art. I’m unfamiliar with him (but the Internet obviously isn’t), and I think this may have been one of his few ventures into mainstream comics (correct me if I’m wrong). It’s wonderful to behold – undersea art is weird and creepy, and the coloring (by Eric Kachelhofer) really puts us into this world – it’s full of blues and greens and bright underwater wildlife. Maroto and Kachelhofer help propel the story along, but since I’m not an art critic, I want to look at what David is doing with the story.
There’s a lot going on here above and beyond simply creating an epic for the Atlantian people. I don’t know if David knew at this point that he’d be writing an Aquaman ongoing, but I have to assume he did. I also don’t know how much stomping on DC history he did in this series, but if he did, good for him! It all fits in well with his series, and it also fits in with the little I know about this section of DC history – like good old Lori Lemaris and why she doesn’t look like Aquaman. Some DC history buff can enlighten me – I’m just looking at this one series.
David uses the Chronicles to bring up a lot of issues that are not only relevant in history, but also today. In fact, Haumond’s argument with his father Honsu in issue #6 is weirdly prescient – Honsu thinks the Atlantians should attack the newly-discovered surface world because they might attack Atlantis some day, and Haumond says, “Are you saying we should go to war with them on the chance that, in some far-flung future, they might attack us?” Honsu (George Bush?) says, “This will not be a war, boy! This will be a slaughter.” Hmmm …
There’s more than that, however. Orin is shown as the devotee of science, while his brother Shalako is the high priest of Suula, the sky goddess. Shalako thinks Orin’s plans to dome the city are an affront to the gods, while Orin thinks it’s just common sense to protect the city from the barbarian invasions. When the dome is completed, it either saves the city from the meteor that crashes into the ocean near Poseidonis, sinking it, or it was the cause of the meteor, depending on whose version of the events you believe. Shalako, who in the first issue is presented as a decent man trying to sway his weak brother (because the chronicler is his follower) is shown as completely insane by the second issue, when the chronicler is squarely in Orin’s camp. David should have done this more, but the point is made – history is just as distorted as anything, and, as Orin puts it, it’s up to future generations to decide.
The story shows the classic tragedy of family – brother against brother, and after Shalako is killed, nephew against uncle and cousin against cousin. It’s very Shakespearean, and David is careful to show every consequence of every action. No one escapes unscathed, either – yes, Kordax is a horribly cruel monster and his father, Dardanus, raped Orin’s daughter Cora to create him, but Cora did abandon Kordax when he was born, and lied about it to the people of the city. Orin admits that he made mistakes with Shalako. These are complex characters, and not everything they do leads to good outcomes, even if they have good intentions.
The family tragedy theme is played out throughout the book. Centuries later, when Honsu goes to conquer the surface world, his one son Kraken is enthusiastically on his side while his other son Haumond thinks he’s insane. His third son, Atlan, thinks it’s all very amusing – he’s an adventurer, not a warrior, and is the only one, for instance, who knows about the bends. Haumond and Kraken eventually battle to the death, because they must. Not only is it Shakespearean, it’s all very Greek tragedy too. The themes are familiar, yes, but David is tapping into a rich tradition, and he ties it so neatly into world history as well as DC history that we don’t mind. If you’re going to go for an epic, you have to use epic themes, damnit!
Finally, we come to Atlanna and Trevis the Weak, the last king of Atlantis before Aquaman. This is when David ties everything together and sets up his ongoing title. Atlan, who has become a powerful sorcerer and has also lived a remarkably long time, comes to Atlanna in the night and has crazy sex with her because her husband’s too much of a wuss to get her pregnant. The sex scene isn’t as good as Alec Holland and Abby Arcane, but it’s not embarrassing either, so that’s okay. Atlan explains that he will get another woman pregnant, and the two sons will battle for the future of Atlantis, because that’s the way it’s always been. He’s as trapped by the past as anyone else, despite his power. Atlanna gives birth to a blond baby, and since Kordax was blond, all blond babies are considered evil and left to die, hence Aquaman’s origin. Because he’s descended from Kordax, Orin (Aquaman’s real name) has mental dominion over sea creatures. He also has a dark side. Oooh, scary!
This is pretty complex myth-making for a comic book mini-series. David wants this to be the founding myth of Atlantis, like the Aeneid is for Rome, and he succeeds admirably. While the story is good, it’s what David does to tie this book into regular DC history and also how he uses it to mirror historical writing throughout the centuries that make this book special. David returned to these themes often during his run on Aquaman (some of which you should own; I’ll get to them soon), and they make his saga of Aquaman much more interesting than any other presentation I’ve read (granted, I’m not a huge fan, so I haven’t read that much, but still). These issues aren’t collected in trade paperback (DC can’t even get the latest collection of 100 Bullets out in a timely manner, you think they’ll collect this?), but they’re pretty cheap in the back-issue bins. Seek them out!
[Of course I didn’t write much about Maroto’s gorgeous art, but it’s amazing, as you can see from the samples I provided. I’ve also learned a lot more about Maroto in the intervening years, so that statement no longer applies. DC did finally release a nice collection of this, which you can find at the link below, but it’s kind of pricey, so maybe it is still easier to find the single issues! Laura, the internet’s biggest Aquaman fan, is still blogging, which is nice. Obviously, I’ve already re-posted my thoughts about Aquaman, so there’s that. David, obviously, wasn’t referring to George Bush or our invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, as he was writing in 1989/1990, but this kind of rhetoric is common from politicians throughout history, so of course it applies to the then-recent quagmire in the Middle East which, sadly, is still a quagmire. Anyway, this is a cool comic. Thanks for reading!]