The city of San Diego sunk into the ocean with issue #15 of the Aquaman series that ran from 2003 to 2006 after what one would assume was a rather demoralizing SDCC for series editor Peter J. Tomasi and series writer Will Pfeifer. The convention center along with the Gaslamp Quarter and even the zoo were devastated by a massive earthquake that broke a large portion of the city off into the ocean where it sank and thousands of fictional people died while the survivors started breathing salt water. Having lived in San Diego at various points in my life, I’d consider that a marked improvement after trying to get around town during convention season.
The storyline where this event occurred and the repercussions of it were explored was published as “American Tidal” but has recently been republished for the first time in a trade paperback as “Sub-Diego,” a much better title. This collection contains that six issue “American Tidal” arc along with a two issue follow-up called “With the Fishes” by the same creative team of writer Will Pfeifer (who would depart the book afterwards) and artist Patrick Gleason (who would continue providing pencils for several issues).
I read this comic on a plane as I abandoned the West Coast and any fears I may have once had of the “big one” finally coming to do me and that city in. The premise is great, providing Aquaman with his own sunken Metropolis that doesn’t carry as much baggage as Atlantis and can simulate a sense of reality even as it resides comfortably in the fantastic. Will Pfeifer executes this premise quite well, splitting time between the characters working with their new status quo while seeding the conspiracy behind it all and indulging in some superhero action. The real draw though is Patrick Gleason, an artist I became quite fond of with his run on Batman and Robin, as he creates beautiful and dynamic panels that portray the grandiosity of superhero comics in a manner that just feels right to me as a longtime fan of the genre. He puts on a clinic in this book, particularly the first issue, on how to create tone, setting, character, and story without needing a single word of narration or dialogue.
The first issue in this collection opens with a single page composed of three panels that zoom in on an object floating in the water (as a small school of fish swim up to it) until it is revealed to be a drowned panda.
An upsetting image, sure, but it sets up a mystery about just how it got there that encourages the reader to turn the page. What follows is a great page turn. I’d call this cinematic but, while they definitely have zooms, I don’t think movies have anything quite like page turns (although changing aspect ratios isn’t entirely dissimilar in achieving the same effect as the one here). I wish I hadn’t read this on a Kindle because of this page turn. I wish I had read it in single issues, unaware that it would one day be collected under the name “Sub-Diego,” so that I could be surprised by the gut-punch of the two-page splash that follows that first page turn.
It’s jarring. The stillness of the panda on the first page as the fish swim towards it is oddly serene while everything following it is just chaos and human misery on a grand scale. The panda is still there but the reader can now see what it was “looking” at. A sunken city with cars, buildings, and people strewn about underwater. The bodies, there are over twenty of them pictured, are lifeless with some trapped between debris and others just floating around as Aquaman swims into the tableau of death. Credit to colorist Nathan Eyring for making Aquaman stand-out with his bright orange shirt and green pants as he swims into the more subdued environment with its dull colors. This sounds trite but I really did get the sense of a god stepping in to survey a cataclysm.
This is striking storytelling that has the power to immediately grip a new reader as they try to reconcile this scene with the location caption on the first page that told them that this was San Diego, California. For six pages, Aquaman silently swims through the wreckage in search of any sign of life amid the sea of corpses. Pages four and five feature a severely disfigured corpse that initially appeared to be a living person losing air before investigation reveals that to merely be an effect of the fish chewing on the body’s face.
Aquaman reaches a breaking point and the misery reaches its height as he finds a rag doll floating to the surface. He and the book stop for a couple panels to observe it, inviting thought of the little girl that carried it who is now beneath the surface of the water.
Patrick Gleason would go onto illustrate a heartbreaking silent issue of Batman and Robin written by Peter J. Tomasi (Gleason’s editor on these issues of Aquaman) that explored Bruce Wayne’s grief after the death of his son Damian and I can see the seeds of that in these six pages in which Pfeifer gives him a showcase for his phenomenal character acting and sense of pacing.
The page with the rag doll works better than the pages with the dead bodies. As the movie Man of Steel demonstrated, you don’t exactly have to show a whole bunch of corpses to make scenes of a city’s destruction incredibly disturbing. The scene with the doll works on implication as the reader is able to gather its significance from its placement and the character’s reaction to it. The corpses are certainly shocking, achieving what I believe to be the desired effect, but I found them to be quite inappropriate for a superhero comic that Comixology rated for ages 12 and up. You can do a lot through implication and I’m not saying that implying the deaths of thousands is better than showing it, merely that I found the display to be gross and somewhat exploitative. I know “comics aren’t just for kids anymore!” but they could at least be a little more appropriate for them.
The silence is broken as Aquaman surfaces on page seven to a scene of a city in response mode as emergency services move among the rubble to help those in what is left of San Diego’s surface. Aquaman walks up to a news crew reporting on the incident and we get another page-turn to a splash of him holding the rag doll and solemnly pronouncing, “They’re all dead.” Another page later and without saying another word, he drops the doll and walks back into the ocean like a skulking Godzilla.
I enjoyed “Sub Diego” quite a bit, it earned a lot of investment from me with its masterful (if somewhat crass) opening. There’s a lot going on in the other 150+ pages of the book with an unraveling conspiracy responsible for sinking San Diego, the newly water-breathing inhabitants adjusting to their new lives, and a pretty fun partner for Aquaman making her debut. The downside is that the rest of the “Sub-Diego” story, continued by writers and Johns Ostrander and Arcudi, remains uncollected which leaves this available collection as a tantalizing premise left sitting untapped.
Cursed with immortal youth and crowned King Baby by his legion of adoring fans, Mark Stack’s only comfort is that he loves comics more than anything. Heck, all of his English teachers have known it too, whether it was from him writing an analysis of dystopian themes in media using V for Vendetta or drawing a comparison in class from the serialized works of Charles Dickens to the comic book. Mark, desperate to stop a future where San Diego has sunk beneath the Pacific Ocean due to some King Baby prophecy, has fled to the more humid climes of South Carolina. You can read his work at Comics Bulletin, Eat.Geek.Play and more. He’s on Twitter at @MarkOStack