When I opened my copy of the new Shazam comic a week or so ago, I was almost punched in the face by a double-page spread promoting the new Aquaman movie, directed by James Wan. I had already seen the movie by then at an early screening, but I still took my time with the ad because of what it was trying to do. It was giving me a recommended reading list of Aquaman comics that DC seems to think can augment the movie experience.
The books recommended in the ad were Aquaman: War of the Throne, Justice League: Origin and Aquaman: The Trench from their New 52 relaunch, as well as the first volume of the recent Aquaman reboot from DC’s Rebirth initiative, titled The Drowning.
I had read all of them already. They were mostly written by Geoff Johns, except for the Aquaman Rebirth book, which was written by Dan Abnett and drawn by Scot Eaton, Brad Walker, and Philippe Briones. Still, it got me thinking as to whether these were the right books eager movie-goers should read beforehand to get familiarized with the character.
For instance, none of the books feature an Aquaman that looks even remotely close to Jason Momoa’s Aquaman and their stories tended to sprawl into larger character-driven dramas about love, power, and royal politics in Atlantis. The movie tries to do this, but it does not dive deep enough into these elements to reflect the comics it draws inspiration from (although it does get the classic Arthurian feel of the comic books).
I don’t say this in a bad way. The movie is one hell of a ride with impressive CGI world building and good overall performances that resulted in a pretty decent, but not mind-blowing, superhero movie. And I don’t mind Momoa not looking like the comic book Aquaman if it doesn’t take you out of the story. It didn’t bother me and it made me appreciate Momoa a bit more in the role.
With that in mind, I started trying to connect the dots between the comics in the ad and the movie. Aquaman: the Drowned struck a particular chord, mostly because it feels so different from the movie while also feeling like it would be a great setup for a sequel.
The first volume of The Drowned is all about the politics and responsibilities a powerful leader is always in conflict with. Atlantis has opened an embassy that unites the surface world with the aquatic world, a symbol of unity that tries to smooth over the surface’s distrust of Atlantis. Aquaman and Mera try to present Atlantis as a natural ally that is just as invested in global security as those countries on dry land.
Of course, attempts at peace are always thwarted by supervillains, and The Drowned is no exception. Black Manta seeks to create a bad PR problem for Atlantis by blowing up the embassy and setting diplomatic relations back a decade or two. What the creative team does so well with the characters is that they organically update the politics surrounding them by stepping away from Arthurian legend and more into contemporary problems.
I won’t say much about Black Manta so as not to spoil anything, but the book does a good job of justifying the character’s continued presence in Aquaman’s story. It actually makes him even more of a threat by tweaking certain elements of his revenge mission, especially in terms of his endgame and what could come after if he succeeds in avenging his father.
There’s a scene in the book where Aquaman and Mera must contend with the possible deterioration of diplomacy, and alliance, between the US and Atlantis in favor of investigating and bringing to justice those responsible for an attack on an American battleship, which happens shortly after and is linked to Black Manta’s embassy attack. Atlantis’ army stands its ground against American soldiers, underwater, in a crucial moment that could spark a war between the sea and the surface. The story plays out like a military thriller with a frustrated king in the middle of it, trying to maintain the peace while also displaying his power as a leader that will not allow his nation to become a military puppet of the United States. Aquaman is a ruler with something to prove, which is something the movie picks up on if only briefly, but it could be something a movie sequel could explore as the movie Aquaman definitely struggle and even resists the title of king.
The Drowned‘s creative team shows us an Aquaman that is both insecure and fed up with being the Justice League’s black sheep. His insistence on keeping the peace without being perceived as a weak ruler stands as a smart contemplation on the character’s own presence in pop culture. The creative team reminds readers that Aquaman is known as the guy that speaks to fish, only to set up a counterargument that elevates the character into a position of supreme power by presenting him as the most important national leader in the entire planet. To control the sea is to control the world, the creative team suggests through Aquaman.
This is especially evident in a scene where Superman intervenes and tries to reason with Aquaman to see the situation from the United States’ perspective. Aquaman refuses to comply and confronts Superman on his arrogance and his insistence on maintaining the Trinity’s commanding rank (that of Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman) over the other heroes. Superman comes off as an over-privileged and overtly conservative leader that needs a lesson or two in fair leadership. Aquaman makes a strong case against the Trinity in a scene where the whole of Atlantis stands ready to initiate a war against the United States. Atlantis waits for Aquaman’s word on whether to attack or stand down. He decides to defuse the situation and stop the war in its tracks. By doing this, Aquaman reminds the Man of Steel that he’s the team’s most formidable superhero. And it’s most dangerous.
This is all great material for an Aquaman movie sequel. It can insert the world of Atlantis into the larger DC movie-verse to start developing a more coherent shared universe. Up to this point, neither Man of Steel, BvS, Suicide Squad, or Justice League have managed to create a gigantic free-flowing space for superheroes to destroy and rebuild in their adventures. Nor has it set a solid foundation for its characters’ complex relationships, something DC does well in its comics.
In this regard, Wonder Woman does a bit more with Themyscira in her movie, but the whole point of said location is that it is invisible to the world of men and therefore not a place one can revisit in movies as easily as one could with, say, Asgard in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Not that this isn’t something a good script could rework. It’s just something to think about when crafting the next Justice League movie, which will happen eventually.
Aquaman’s Atlantis, in this sense, reminded me more of Wakanda. It can become a more immediate political presence in the DC movie universe in that it its framed as a place that is needed to bring the world closer together, which also stands as a threat to planetary stability if treated carelessly, a thing both comics and movies have touched upon with the Black Panther character.
Aquaman: The Drowning is great for this type of story as it has the necessary elements to allow for the King of Atlantis to evolve and become an even more integral part of the DC movie-verse. James Wan’s Aquaman does a great job of building Atlantis and its people, even its culture. Aquaman: the Drowned could serve as the next big step in helping Aquaman bring the sea and the surface together in the movie world, should it be adapted. Fights, explosions, and destruction will follow accordingly.
Bottom line: give Aquaman: The Drowning a read. It might be better to read it after you’ve seen the movie for added flavor, but it is accessible enough to be enjoyed at any point.
Ricardo Serrano is a Social Studies teacher with a Master’s Degree in Comic Books from the University of Dundee in Scotland. He’s also the co-creator of Se Habla Comics, a Puerto Rican podcast geared towards Spanish-speaking comic book readers.