As a character, Aquaman is kind of ridiculous. This is a dude who talks to fish and wears a bad mermaid costume, for goodness’ sake. How do you take that guy seriously? Writer Dan Abnett has the answer: you remind everyone that Aquaman is more nuanced than that. In Abnett’s hands, Arthur Curry isn’t just a half-human, half-Atlantean king of the sea, he’s a metaphor for America.
See if you can find some similarities. Atlantis has been isolationist for much of its history, a decision largely motivated by xenophobia directed at land dwellers. However, two-thirds of the earth falls under its jurisdiction and Aquaman feels that the best way to protect his people is to work with the land dwellers. A terrorist group called The Deluge disagrees. Made up of Atlantean society’s lowest class, they liken themselves to the bottom-feeder species that keep the oceans clean and in this case, the “pollution” they want to get rid of is everyone on land. Aquaman, with his mixed heritage, is an equal recipient of their rage, the embodiment of the Otherness they so fear. The land dwellers aren’t his biggest fans either, inherently mistrusting a man whose commitment to them will always be compromised by his obligations to his own kingdom. Convinced yet?
It’s a clever bit of allegory, but this is still a comic book and the genre demands certain things. One of those things is, of course, a supervillain. A mysterious narrator gives the reader background and context for Arthur Curry and his world throughout the issue and while the “Rebirth” in the title dangles the threat that it could be a Watchmen character, it’s actually Aquaman’s old foe Black Manta. Last we saw, Manta had finally stopped blaming Aquaman for his father’s murder, but if Rebirth has taught us anything, it’s that all continuity matters except the one created by The New 52. It’s frustrating to see it ignored here in favor of a big reveal and a nice splash page. Add to that Manta’s threat to (figuratively) stuff Aquaman’s girlfriend Mera into a refrigerator and it’s easy to forget how strong the rest of the issue is—and that would be unfair.
Abnett does a lot of smart, nuanced work in Aquaman Rebrith #1 that shouldn’t be faulted for how uninventive the ending. Speaking of nuance, by the way, it’s important to point out that Aquaman doesn’t actually talk to fish. As Abnett notes early on, fish are too stupid to carry on a conversation. So, what Arthur actually does is control fish through a telepathic connection to them. The distinction is, perhaps, a small one, but if the issue strives to convey anything, it’s that Aquaman is a good guy even if he’s misunderstood. He deserves a little more respect.