In "Aquaman" #18, Geoff Johns and Paul Pelletier begin a new story arc in the direct aftermath of the events of the "Throne of Atlantis" crossover. In the ominously titled "Death of a King," Aquaman returns uneasily to reign in Atlantis. Unbeknownst to Arthur, he faces threats from at least three different directions.
Johns begins with an ominous horror movie-like sequence in Antarctica, in which two men in a lonely outpost are assaulted by someone with finned appendages but who remains largely off-camera. From there, Johns catches up with Arthur as he interacts with his Atlantean subjects, before jumping to a quick catch-up scene with Mera. Mera's scene is very brief but well-done, especially in the touch of humor that Johns always gives these scenes.
In the last page of "Aquaman" #18, the original assailant from the opening scene returns unexpectedly, revealing his face and intentions but not his name or former whereabouts. I appreciated Johns' swinging back to the original scene. Although it's a classic move, Johns' and Pelletier's storytelling skills pull it off nicely, giving the last page cliffhanger the desired kick of drama and surprise.
"Aquaman" #18 reads smoothly, but it also is subject to the pitfalls of being an issue of exposition and set-up. After Arthur took the throne semi-forcibly from Orm, he faces what all incoming kings must deal with – rejection of his sovereignty. As heavily foreshadowed last issue, Murk is more loyal to the former king, Orm, than to Arthur. This plotline about factions during a throne transition lacks some dramatic tension due to its predictability, but Johns' dialogue and certain small plot twists within the larger plot structure keep the court drama from feeling stale. In particular, I enjoyed the re-introduction of Tula, Orm's sister, better known as Aquagirl, and her unusual reception of Arthur.
John's makes Tula commander of her own Atlantean army unit, The Drift, and in this New 52 introduction, he emphasizes her grace, generosity and leadership. Over the course of "Throne of Atlantis," I was taken with Johns' interpretation of Orm as Ocean Master, making him a sympathetic villain, and I'm already favorably impressed with Tula, Orm's half-sister. Pelletier's costume design, facial expressions and body language are excellent. Tula looks regal in purple and silver armor. Her straight, proud posture and the measured way she receives Arthur's news about Orm show her poise and capability. Reis' colors for these royal corridors and buildings are beautiful and liquid-looking, particularly in how he renders the play of light across underwater stone. His work also wonderfully highlights Pelletier's attention to background detail.
Johns also continues to tackle the consequences from his "Throne of Atlantis" storyline, including the fate of Vulko and Orm. While he doesn't immediately resolve either of these twin complications for Arthur, it is gratifying that he keeps these two in the picture as a vital part of Arthur's transition. With the same kind of thoughtfulness about details, Johns also creates another new plotline involving misplaced Atlantean weapons. It's a realistic touch (usually the detritus and artifacts of warfare are forgotten, unless they are associated with the hero), and it give Johns an opening to resurrect yet another old "Aquaman" character. This particular villian is more two-dimensional and boring than Tula in "Aquaman" #18, but it's early on in the storyline. Over his career, and most recently with both Orm and Vulko, Johns has proved that he is remarkably talented at fleshing out villains, and it will be interesting to see what kind of tack he takes with this one.
Overall, "Aquaman" #18 is a strong set-up issue, setting up several new stages of conflict for Arthur while dropping none of the existing characters in play or plot threads.