Review: AQUAMAN #44

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AQUAMAN #44
Written by Cullen Bunn
Art by Alec Morgan, Art Thibert, Jesus Merino, and Guy Major
Published by DC Comics
Release Date: September 30, 2015

Sigh.

Before I start, I should warn readers that spoilers follow pretty aggressively. There would be no real way to dissect the problems inherent in this issue without revealing all the plot details, so if you haven’t read the issue, you have two choices: either stop reading my review until such a time as you’ve consumed the issue in question, or just never read the comic.

Because honestly, I almost wish I had chosen the latter. But too late for that. And there’s little sense in pretending this issue doesn’t exist.

For a little context, Aquaman has left Atlantis and become an enemy of the state, ostensibly for his defense of a shadow city looking to destroy his ancestral home. The throne has been passed to Mera, who has been fierce in her defense of Atlantis against its former king. In the dead of night, the couple reunites to talk, for Arthur to explain his motivations and the reality behind what he’s trying to do for Atlantis.

And then the terribleness happens.

To be fair, this issue wasn’t firing on all cylinders before the offending incident. Bunn’s dialogue for Aquaman seems oddly immature and tonally off-kilter compared to that from all of the Sea King’s previous writers in the New 52. There are odd moments throughout (“Wow. Thanks for your honest opinion… I guess. But… wow.”) that seem more apt for a member of the Teen Titans than the King of the Seven Seas of late.

And with yet another fill-in artist in only 4 short issues, Alec Morgan cannot live up to the promise this series had with Trevor McCarthy at the helm. Two inkers with very obvious stylistic differences in rendering detail cover Morgan’s layouts, and while there are a few panels here and there of close-up facial expressions that are quite emotive, the overall effect of the issue is that of rushed, uneven delivery. Backgrounds are relegated to swirly bubbles (even underwater architectural structures have details or texture, presumably) and bodies vary wildly in their detail and proportion. At times, Arthur’s torso seems oddly compressed, but by the end of the issue, all I can see is wild-eyed pinpoint pupils — and not just on the crazed villain.

But the real problem of this issue is that: the villain. Siren has returned, masquerading as her sister Mera, all the way through sexual congress with her common law brother-in-law.

Take a deep breath, because we’re taking a deep dive.

I don’t know that I have the answer about what it means for Arthur to have consented to sex with Mera, only to discover afterward that it was, in fact, with Siren. I have had a long discussion with the very generous J.A. Micheline about whether this constitutes rape, because Arthur did not consent to sex with Siren, specifically. I don’t know that I agree, although the argument is certainly complicated enough that I can see that point of view.

Ultimately, in this case, it’s a tad academic, given the supernatural elements of the scenario. And discussions around rape are never easy to make purely academic. This is a real life occurrence that happens to a large proportion of women and men in a variety of ways. There is no black and white answer. But here’s what I can say. It definitely lit a light in my head that said, “This is not OK.”

Rape or not, I’ve watched a sexual assault of some sort appear on the page of a comic rated T for Teen — the second from Bunn in just two months. Last month, in Lobo #9 (rated T+ for Teen Plus), the main man was raped by the female villain, to his near complete titillation. Lack of consent was fully acknowledged. And everyone just moved right along.

In this case, we don’t see much of an aftermath besides Siren cackling her delight in the reveal post-coitus, a brief fight that leads to injury, and Arthur teleporting himself away to a random locale. So, is it possible that the ramifications of the assault will play out for Arthur and we’ll see how rape or sexual assault impacts his decisions moving forward? It’s possible. But judging by last month’s Lobo, I’m not holding my breath.

But where this scenario has also led us is to a demonization of Siren’s character, a far cry from the woman Geoff Johns reintroduced pre-New 52 in Brightest Day. Re-envisioned as a first class warrior and leader of the Xebel army, Siren was a force to be reckoned with, who fought with intelligence and self-respect and formidable physical prowess. What we’ve received in Aquaman #44 is a far cry from that representation.

Now, rendered like a literal siren using trickery and sexual prowess to mock and control her enemy, we have the classic trope of Woman as Evil Demon Seductress, in terms eloquently described by Anita Sarkeesian:

The harmful, misogynist myth that this trope reinforces is that women primarily use their so-called sexual power as a way to manipulate, trick, and control men. This fallacy is widespread and pervasive. And some men even claim that women hold more power in society based on this absurd myth.

This is a de-evolution of character, and a damaging one, at best. And what’s worse, it’s the second in a pattern developing across Bunn’s DC titles that leads to a lot of questions, and each one more frustrating to engage than the one before:

  • What effect, if any, will sexual assault have as part of the plot? If none, why is it there?
  • Why is sexuality being wielded as a weapon by the women of these stories while the men are free to engage in more traditional hero/villain modes of battle? Why is there still this narrative double standard?
  • Why devolve a female villain who had been built to such a respectful degree by previous creators to this type of trope, one that characterizes women as sexual tricksters? Whose purpose does that serve?
  • Are we to accept that Siren being a “villain” makes this narrative reasonable (perhaps watch the linked video for the answer to that)? Or that because she’s a woman, not a man, sexual assault is a fair turnabout?

I say these questions are frustrating, because some of them I have answers for, and some of them I still can’t conceive of. Some I will never understand. I’m not thankful to Aquaman #44 for raising these issues, because clearly, we’re still always engaging in them. Today. Last month. For years and years and years. And sadly, I suspect it will be years and years more yet. We didn’t need this here. It smacks of disrespect for women, and perpetrates the idea that consent is negligible — at least if you’re a man. And that’s not OK.

The Verdict: 2.5/10

 

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11 Comments

  1. Keith Callbeck said:

    The “sex with a shape changer/body possession” trope is common enough that it bares a good analysis by someone with some credentials. There was a lot of talk when BC spread the ugly rumor that it was going to happen in Superior Spider-man.

    It happens all over fiction, to greater or lesser degrees, from Tom Hanks’ Big to Johnny Storm’s skrull wife in F4.
    Either it is something we let slide because it doesn’t happen in the real world (and we let a lot slide for that), or it’s not cool any more and should hit the scrap heap.

  2. Matt SantoriGriffith said:

    The trope needs to die. I think that’s my assessment, anyway.

  3. Anon said:

    Just when I was almost about to agree with you about something you’ve written in your review for once, you had to use a quote from Sarkesian’s delusional feminist theory. And worse praise her for it. There are other ways of criticising a poor plot point as opposed to citing gender studies or female studies or whatever, it’s clearly a bad trope without bringing in femi nazi nonsense.

  4. Matt SantoriGriffith said:

    Well, as a student myself of gender and LGBT studies, citing a well-thought out explanation, rather than having to re-explain it all myself, is standard practice.

  5. Joshistory said:

    Yeah, I wasn’t thrilled with the portrayal of “Mera” before this, nor her being a helpless captive after the reveal, and this issue led to me dropping the title after 44 issues. What’s frustrating is, I’ve enjoyed Bunn’s writing on Sinestro and Lost Army. I don’t understand how this story and this particular incident could be such a massive misstep.

  6. Troll_Post_Sorry said:

    It sounds like rape by deception. And it’s not entirely uncommon in fiction where magic and shapeshifting exists. I remember a terrible case in New Teen Titans where Nightwing is tricked into sleeping with a shapeshifter who disguised herself as Starfire, and the only fallout that resulted was Nightwing getting slut-shamed. Here, it’ll depend on how the fallout is dealt with. Either way, Cullen Bunn’s run on Aquaman has been dull and generic

  7. Timoyr said:

    I don’t understand the problem. Why is it bad to have real life occurances in fiction? There’s plenty of horrific murders in these books already, why should rape be a forbiđden subject?
    Also, why is it so bad to have a “siren” character every once in a while? Just like stereotypical character, they are fine if there are good counter characters (like Mera).
    Demonizing characters shouldn’t be a problem either in my opinion. It’s just a different take on a character and we should welcome those.
    Aquaman needs more interesting villains and I think this is an interesting backstory for their conflict.

  8. Matt SantoriGriffith said:

    Well, actually, I was quite careful to not say I think rape should be a forbidden subject. I think it needs to be a carefully handled subject, one treated with full respect to ALL its implications. That rarely happens. It certainly hasn’t in Lobo. I openly question whether it will here. But I do see value in rape as a plot device when handled well and told with agency from the point of view of the victim.

    And it’s bad to have a stereotypical “siren” character because that unfiltered trope is damaging to representations of women, even when other characters (like Mera) are around. It’s also extremely lazy. Tropes are by definition one-dimensional. And it takes nearly nothing for a writer to lay out a one-dimensional character. We deserve better.

  9. M0rg0th said:

    Personally I have no problem with the sex-scene… in theory. Siren having sex with Aquaman while disguising herself is VERY cruel and abusive. After all, there’s no point to doing it besides inflicting emotional damage by revealing afterwards that he had just had sex with Siren. That seems more horrific than anything else. It’s petty and demonstrates how far Siren is willing to go to hurt Aquaman. She’s a villain and sure, it contrasts the characterization from Geoff Johns for example but I have accepted that characters will never receive consistent characterizations in series such as this one where the writer constantly changes. It would be nice if these writers would pay attention to that but I really don’t expect it anymore.

    But that’s only the theory because… and you pointed this out in the review… the writing is horrible! You haven’t mentioned this but another line that made me cringe was Aquaman after having had sex with who he thought was Mera (who had argued with him about various things) said to her: “I just… mean… What are we doing?” and “Mera” is like: “I thought that was FAIRLY OBVIOUS.” To which Aquaman replies “Heh. That’s not what I meant… This was… It was great… But it hasn’t changed anything.”

    Great way to continue the discussion! Being like “This was a mistake, of course… The sex was great, though – but I’m not gonna change my mind.” He just had sex with this lady and THAT’s his takeaway?! What a dick-ish thing to say!

  10. cdm676407 said:

    This shape-shifting-seduction of the hero is an old, old story line. In fact King Arthur (of Camelot) and his sister Morgana played this scene centuries ago so it is not surprising nor is it an inappropriate plot device for a fantasy story. So, while I agree with your overall rating of this book, I think that you are focusing on the wrong problem with this arc.
    First, I can’t believe that the King of Atlantis was chased out of his kingdom like a stray dog, simply because Mera/Siren didn’t agree with his decision to help the people of Thule. Is he the KING or is she??? One: If Aquaman can go toe to toe with the likes of Superman and Wonder Woman, then I am certain he can fight off Mera or her sister. Two: Even if we concede that Siren’s magic is too powerful for Aquaman, are we supposed to believe that not a single loyalist in Atlantis is willing to back the King over his queen, who they don’t really trust or like. Didn’t we just have the last 40 issues develop the idea that no in Atlantis really likes the fact that Arthur choose Mera as his queen? Didn’t we also just see Arthur’s mother give him additional royal artifacts that tie him even more to the throne? Is it the actions of a great king and hero to accept this, humiliating smack-down and go into hiding like some third-rate henchman?
    Next, while I am intrigued with the idea of Arthur interacting with Poseidon the way it came about was a bit ridiculous. He basically just walked up to him and started asking questions and within a few minutes was granted the power of Thor. Am I the only one reading this who feels like this was incredibly farfetched (even in the world of superheroes)? While we may all agree that the end result is interesting, Bunn did a dismal job at story telling. In fact, it seems like he didn’t even give story development more than a few seconds of thought.
    I feel that DC is not giving this character its due. Johns revived Aquaman splendidly. If we want to see Aquaman become a character that can hold a series past #75 (and beyond) then this title needs an A-list artist and committed writers who give it their all.

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