fantasy and science fiction book reviewsAquaman (Vol. 4): Death of a King (The New 52) by Geoff Johns

AQUAMAN DEATH OF A KINGGeoff Johns, perhaps best known for his incredible nine-year run on Green Lantern, has written another winner with Aquaman: Death of a King. The company-wide reboot of all DC titles is known as the New 52, and it’s had a lukewarm reception, to put it mildly. Post-reboot, only a handful of titles have been considered exceptional, including two by Geoff Johns: His start to Aquaman and his conclusion to Green Lantern (which ended in volume three of the Green Lantern New 52 trade collections).

Geoff Johns really surprised many people by making Aquaman a success. I remember the first few issues as they came out on a monthly basis. The buzz was a combination of two feelings: Who cares about Aquaman, and can even the masterful Geoff Johns make this title worth reading? After a handful of issues, both questions were answered: All of a sudden MANY fans cared about Aquaman, including me, and YES, Geoff Johns rose to the challenge of writing a gripping story about a character that had historically appealed primarily to kids.

The new Aquaman still can be enjoyed by kids; however, it now appeals to adults as well. It’s a well-written and beautifully illustrated work that just gets better and better with each issue. I liked the first trade collection a lot, but I love this final collection of Johns’ run in volume four (Please read all four volumes. I’m reviewing volume four first because I received a digital review copy, and in case you’re interested, those copies have built-in expiration dates).

AquamanAquaman is a compelling character because he’s a man with divided loyalties and a ruler of a kingdom consisting of subjects with divided loyalties. He both wants to rule Atlantis fairly and wants to treat the surface dwellers with kindness. Since the two frequently come in conflict, he is doomed to a lifelong struggle consisting of negotiations, comprises, and temporary reconciliations.

Volume Four, Death of a King, deals with the aftermath of attacks by Atlantis on the U.S. and the U.S. on Atlantis. Some humans side with Arthur and his wife Mera, but others do not. Some Atlanteans are loyal to Arthur, but others are loyal to the previous King, now imprisoned on land. And Arthur’s most loyal Atlantean is sitting in a Jail undersea, imprisonend by Arthur, for crimes against land dwellers.

To me, these characters add a richness and complexity to the story that makes for a mature look at why any of us do the things we do: Those land dwellers who hate Atlanteans can justify those feeling, just as those Atlanteans who reciprocate that feeling have good reasons for doing so. And the Atlanteans who want to overthrow King Arthur, Aquaman, aren’t that bad either: They are being loyal to their former king because he is still alive and imprisoned by non-Atlanteans. They want to free him and place him back on the throne. King Arthur’s followers would do the same for him if he were imprisoned on land, wouldn’t they? And we would cheer for them in their success if they freed him, too.

I won’t go into too much detail, but there are other divided loyalties as well: Mera, we find out, was betrothed to another before Arthur, and the man she betrayed is a King of another realm of the sea. Surely he has a right to be angry, vindicative, and eager to find a reason to go after Aquaman. That reason is soon supplied by the rise of yet another King, the King alluded to in the title of this trade collection. So far, then, we have four kings who have a right to the throne, or at least various thrones, depending on whether one thinks the various realms should be kept separated or united under one King’s rule.

This final, fourth King is a very important one in understanding Aquaman’s lineage and his role in Atlantis. Johns takes the time to tell us about this mysterious King. He takes us back in time and shows us how he ruled and what Atlantis was like before it sank. Most importantly, Johns shows us why Atlantis sank, how it sank, and who was responsible. The answers to those questions are not as simple as one might think, and we come to understand that this King is yet another complex character in the story of Aquaman. In other words, all four of the Kings have a mixture of motivations, some of which we should be able to empathize with. There are good reasons why Aquaman’s rule as King of Atlantis is contestable.

This book is a grand tale and shows that Geoff Johns — whether writing about a Policeman in space or a King underwater — knows how to build a rich mythological backstory that gives greater meaning to the events in the present of a story he is telling. He makes his narratives seem larger by giving great back stories, and I find his comics incredibly difficult to put down.

Don’t let my discussion of all these Kings convince you the story’s complexity makes it hard to follow at the plot level: Only when summarizing it do I realize how intricate his tale is. When one is immersed in the story, everything makes sense and is easy to follow. The story has an enjoyable, organic flow to it. Geoff Johns makes what he does seem easy, as all the greatest bards have always done. Do yourself a favor and pick up all four volumes of Aquaman (and then go back and start reading his Green Lantern comics, even if you didn’t like the barely entertaining, mediocre movie which pales in comparison to the literary and artistic achievement of the comics).


  • Brad Hawley

    BRAD HAWLEY, who's been with us since April 2012, earned his PhD in English from the University of Oregon with areas of specialty in the ethics of literature and rhetoric. Since 1993, he has taught courses on The Beat Generation, 20th-Century Poetry, 20th-Century British Novel, Introduction to Literature, Shakespeare, and Public Speaking, as well as various survey courses in British, American, and World Literature. He currently teaches Crime Fiction, Comics, and academic writing at Oxford College of Emory University where his wife, Dr. Adriane Ivey, also teaches English. They live with their two young children outside of Atlanta, Georgia.