Aquaman and the War on Oceans: 
Comics Activism and Ecological Allegories in the Anthropocene

Author: Ryan Poll

Editor’s note: This announcement is a bit belated. Ryan signed the contract back in late April, but for reasons too tedious and probably familiar to get in to here, it has had to wait. That does not make this news any less big or Ryan’s being first contributor to Encapsulations any less exciting! Welcome aboard Ryan! We’re excited to help you get this argument off the ground (no pun intended).

In the final decades of the twentieth and into the twenty-first century, Aquaman had become a perennial punchline in popular culture. This trope is exemplified in myriad cultural texts, including Family Guy, Robot Chicken, South Park, The Big Bang Theory, Entourage, and SpongeBob SquarePants.

Geoff Johns’s complex and layered three-year run as the sole writer of The New 52 Aquaman (2011-2014) can be understood as a concerted effort to counter this dismissive discourse, and conversely, to narrate how and why Aquaman matters. He matters because the oceans matter.

Aquaman and the War on Oceans argues that Aquaman, under the direction of Johns, becomes a salient figure for charting the environmental violences endemic to global capitalism and a prominent icon for developing a progressive ecological imagination. And as this book argues, by closely reading and contextualizing Johns’s narrative run, an ecological imagination is inextricable from structures of class, race, and gender.

This book—the first academic study of Aquaman—analyzes the interlocking ecological allegories that unfold both verbally and visually in The New 52 Aquaman, and how these allegories function as an important form of comics activism.

As the comics series foregrounds, the global oceans constitute one of the most important geographies to see and study in order to understand the entangled violences of the Anthropocene. Although oceans are largely unseen and illegible in the dominant knowledge regimes of modernity, The New 52 Aquaman challenges this normative paradigm by visualizing and narrating how a capitalist modernity is transforming the oceans into a vast and deep graveyard.

While the dominant culture projects the ocean as an alien geography, The New 52 Aquaman helps make visible how the oceans are an all-too-human space, a geography inextricable from the histories and structures of capitalism, genderism, and racism. Therefore, in conjunction with following the allegorical narrative of Aquaman across Johns’s run, Aquaman and the War on Oceans also follows the narrative of Mera, a figure read in the book as an allegory of emerging ecofeminism, and of Black Manta, one of the few African American villains in DC Comics. As Poll argues, Black Manta allegorizes the progressive promise of the oceans, and conversely, how racism structures all geographies, including the underwater kingdom of Atlantis.

While Johns receives substantial credit and publicity for his modern re-imagining of Aquaman, this book highlights how the series’ ecological allegories are a collaborative effort. Ivan Reis (penciler), Paul Pelletier (penciler), Joe Prado (inker), and Rod Reis (colorist) are also recognized and analyzed for their central contributions to this collective activist project.


Ryan Poll teaches in the English Department at Northeastern Illinois University where his research focuses on the intersection of popular culture, aesthetics, and politics. His first book, Main Street and Empire: The Fictional Small Town in the Age of Globalization (Rutgers UP), examines how the fictional small town is used to frame and stage normative US narratives throughout the 19th-, 20th- and into the 21st century. Other publications include essays on Get Out, Bruce Springsteen, and detective fiction. He is also a staff writer at PopMatters. Feel free to contact him at r-poll@neiu.edu.

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