lördag 15 mars 2014

Aquaman: Death of a Prince

There is a certain plot structure in superhero comics that can be taken as a pretty certain indicator that you're reading hack work. …All right, there are several, but the one I'm thinking of right now is this one: The hero has a confrontation with a villain, and loses. Basically having the hero at his mercy, the villain then retreats, shouting a threat – something like "you stopped me this time, but next time I'll finally succeed in killing you!". Subsequently, the hero searches out the villain and defeats him. The end.

There's plenty of that in Aquaman: Death of a Prince. To be honest, the whole collection sort of sucks.

Plenty of creators worked on the stories in this collection – mainly Mike Grell, Jim Aparo and Don Newton & Dave Hunt on the art and Steve Skeates, Paul Levitz, Paul Kupperberg and David Micheliene on the writing. The Grell part seems to be very early in his career and the figure drawing and inking fell a bit awkward IMHO; the Don Newton chapters suffer from him not being really suited to action stories, he was far better at mood, and the Dave Hunt inking doesn't convey the elegance of Newton's shading that I've seen in some of his Batman stories; and the Jim Aparo chapters (the main part of the book) are gorgeous, and practically the one redeeming feature of this collection.

The writing, as hinted at above, is pretty terrible. Apart from the villain-has-hero-at-his-mercy-and-flees scenario, there's also plenty of that perennial favorite, the-supposedly-inescapable-trap-that-the-villain-leaves-the-hero-in-and-leaves-because-he-has-"better"-things-to-do. Finally, the writers also kill off Aquaman's son in more or less a throwaway story arc, which ticks me off in more ways than one.

First of all, I think it's a sign of lack of respect towards one's characters to casually throw enormous tragedies their way. They're not real people, I'm well aware of that, but just using them as playthings still rubs me the wrong way. If you don't have any respect for your characters, why should the reader? Second, if you do subject them to horrible tragedies, you owe it to the reader to explore the consequences of that. Here, Aquaman looks sad for a couple of panels, then goes back to fighting bad guys with just occasional thoughts about how sad it is to have lost his child and occasional stereotypically depicted outbursts of anger. The deep grief displayed on the (Jim Aparo) cover? Well, that's the sort of characterization writers like Michelinie or Kupperberg are really capable of; they're better at glib dialogue and stock plots. (Yeah, that's kinda harsh, but that is basically all they deliver here, as in most other stories I've read by them.)

Oh, and I don't like the depiction of Mera, Aquaman's super-powered wife, either; she's way too much of the stereotypical, wide-eyed, near-helpless girl. (Until her son is killed and she starts hating Aquaman in a sort of crazy manner, of course, but that's not really an improvement.)

So is this a terrible book? No, not entirely, and that is all thanks to one man: Jim Aparo. His very clear, very strong and muscular (I almost typed "virile", which still wouldn't have been wrong) artwork saves this from being a total disaster. He can't save it from being bad, but he can actually make it worth your while to suffer through the bad writing, just to marvel at the power and clarity of his art. This is Aparo at the top of his game. Much like another old pro, Joe Kubert, he could make bad stories – well, not good, but let's call it aesthetically enjoyable. And plenty of today's comics artists could learn a thing or two from guys like Aparo on how to combine power, excitement and clarity of storytelling in one fine package.

So, not recommended. This is not good comics. But if you want to enjoy some very good comics artwork, you can get this one just for Jim Bloody Amazing Aparo.

(Second opinion: A far more positive review than mine can be found here.)

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