Aquaman: Underworld takes one of DC’s most misunderstood characters in an exciting new direction.
With Atlantis believing him dead, Aquaman hides out in one of the poorest, most obscure corners of the kingdom, trying to anonymously help the outcasts who live there. The terrorist Rath has seized the throne and imposed martial law, with designs to re-ignite hostilities with the surface world. Aquaman and the mute-but-powerful young woman Dolphin run afoul of local crime lord Krush and his minions. Trapped outside Atlantis, Mera enlists the aid of Tempest to gain access to the city, falling into an unexpected predicament in the process. Various factions and free agents circle and maneuver for power, as a populist rebellion begins to rise up against the oppressive Rath. By arc’s end, Aquaman has embraced a new path to serve his people.
For the past several years, DC has harbored ambitions of making its Aquaman series their take on Game of Thrones. Underworld is where that design finally comes together in a meaningful way. Writer Dan Abnett laid the groundwork in earlier Rebirth arcs that brought the story to this point, where he nails the tricky combination of political intrigue and personal drama. Abnett wisely jettisons the vestiges of typical superhero action that had held back earlier tales and sets most of the action beneath the sea. By zeroing in on what makes the book unique, Abnett has given it the voice and dramatic urgency it desperately needs.
Abnett’s handling of the book’s star is quite deft. Arthur’s nobility and grit are on display, but Abnett gives him some realistic self-doubt and uncertainty about his place in the undersea kingdom. Pushing Arthur into uncharted territory, while exploring the oft-ignored strata of Atlantean society, gives this story a fresh, dynamic quality that’s welcome. Abnett looks to be brewing a potential Mera/Aquaman/Dolphin triangle, but one that’s based on both strong women appealing to different parts of Arthur’s personality. Abnett also deploys the large supporting cast, including the insane Rath, the treacherous Vulko and conflicted Murk, quite effectively, while crafting some intriguing new menaces. He uses elements from years of stories that had never really come together before in ways that infuse urgency and unpredictability into the narrative. Abnett is telling a grand saga here and this opening gambit is exactly the start it needs.
Landing Stjepan Sejic as the artist for this arc was nothing short of a coup for DC. From the jump, Sejic brushes aside the more conventional superhero approach of prior arcs and spotlights his fantasy and horror bonafides, making Aquaman one of the most distinct books in DC’s current line-up. Sejic’s design work brings welcome variety to both the characters and settings, incorporating smart biodiversity into the various creatures Aquaman meets, while the backdrops pulse with life and movement, really making the most of the undersea setting. The drama and dynamism veritably sing in these pages, the sense of mood and dark fantasy suffusing the story in ways that enhance the power of the narrative. Sejic also gives a glamorous sheen to the key characters, enhancing the fantasy vibe and bringing the proceedings farther from their typical comic book roots. It’s unfortunate that Sejic seems only to have been onboard for this one arc, but if his successors can follow the template he’s chartered here, the book will remain a visual standout.
Many readers may have been overlooking Aquaman before now. Underworld is an ideal jumping on point that will please long-time fans and possibly change the minds of some Aqua-skeptics.