Exploring duty and desire in "Mera: Queen of Atlantis" and "Aquaman"
Before Rebirth, I'd never really gotten into Aquaman comics. While I like the character just fine, especially the "grumpy regal" dynamic he brought to the JLA when Grant Morrison wrote the title, I'd never taken the time to read many of his solo adventures. The first issue of the New 52 relaunch was plenty fun, and I caught some tie-ins to big events here and there, but... that was pretty much the extent of my Aquaman reading.
Then Rebirth hit, and I decided to give his solo book a shot. Written by Dan Abnett, the first year or so of stories wove in political intrigue with some standard superhero fare. It was an enjoyable book, oftentimes near the top of my "to-read" pile, and as someone who never got into an Aquaman series that was certainly a surprise. Even so, it was still a good, solid comic book, yet it never rose above that.
And then, suddenly, it did. The series shifted its focus with last June's issue #25, going back to a monthly shipping schedule and moving the narrative ahead with a time jump. Where the series began with a focus on Atlantis' relationship with the surface, now Abnett turned his gaze entirely upon the underwater kingdom. Appropriately enough, Aquaman has leaned heavily into Arthurian lore over the past year, with mutiny and subterfuge, false claims to the throne, and no shortage of magic ever present. While I enjoy a good fight between superheroes and supervillains as much as anyone, Aquaman has been driven by story and, more than that, characters. It's about people, what they want, what they need, and what happens to them.
Also: very creative nautical swears. Those are delightful.
I've said it before about books like Mister Miracle and Doomsday Clock: the best comics are about something. Having a monthly title that is consistently entertaining is great on its own, for why would you want to continually return to something that wasn't worthwhile? To have a series be labeled as "entertaining" is no faint praise or slight, nor should it be. Why do we consume entertainment if not to be entertained?
Yet there are times when a story becomes more than an entertainment, when it chooses to explore character and themes alongside fights between heroes and villains. If a story can challenge you or make you think and feel, it's almost guaranteed to stick with you for years to come. Aquaman sees Arthur Curry rising up against Corum Rath, a king ill-fit for his duties, and Mera: Queen of Atlantis follows Mera as she rallies forces on her own. In a twist, though, Mera has been appointed as the next in line for the throne once Rath is overthrown. Arthur accepts this, as he doesn't want the throne for himself, yet other characters are predictably perplexed and even opposed to the decision. Her series' fourth issue came out this past week, and it hits on some themes that have provided a pretty steady undercurrent (no pun int... actually, yeah, I meant that) for this miniseries and Aquaman as well. Namely, the conflict between duty and desire.
To me, Arthur Curry is the most nebulous character in this story, as the line between his wants and needs aren't as clear as Mera's. This is by design, I believe, as they reflect his roots: he's both an Atlantean and a human, in two worlds but not fully part of either. To reconcile the two halves of his heritage, he needs to embrace them both. The fact that he's grown a righteous beard in the interim is just a bonus, really.
Due to some magical shenanigans, Mera has lost her powers, so she's had to bide her time on the surface until she's able to return to the water. Like the Aquaman title, her self-titled series began as a fairly straightforward superhero affair, with action and intrigue to spare. Mera herself is a capable lead, strong, stalwart, and smart, driven by her love for Arthur but not defined by it. True, she wants to sit on the throne of Atlantis partially for Arthur's benefit, but more than that she wants to prove that she isn't a product of her past. There may have been a time when she was conditioned to kill Arthur, but she shunned that to follow her own path.
Oddly enough, it's Orm the Ocean Master who may have the most complex arc in either series. Where Arthur's desires and duties are fairly intertwined, and Mera's are separate but not mutually exclusive, Orm is in a position where he truly needs to choose one life over another. After having forsaken his Atlantean heritage, Orm has found love with a woman named Erin. Together, and with her young son Tommy, they live a peaceful life away from the bloodshed that once defined Orm. By necessity, he is drawn back into his former life when Mera comes asking for help, and he is visibly and obviously torn. His half-sister Tula recognizes this, as she tells Erin "you're the life he needs, not the life he was told to live. He just has to remember that."
Under the pen of Dan Abnett, it's been fascinating getting swept up in the battle for Atlantis. Both Aquaman and Mera: Queen of Atlantis are comics that are simultaneously epic and intimate in their scope, telling big stories that are first and foremost about their characters. While the fate of an entire nation is at stake, resting upon the choices made by individual people, it's those individuals that make it all worth reading. Gone are the days when Aquaman was a hero who "just talks to fish," Mera was "just an assassin," and Orm was "just a bad guy." They're three-dimensional characters with wants, needs, and desires, which makes them sympathetic and, even more importantly, relatable.