Atlantis Chronicles – Peter David’s Forgotten Masterpiece

 

In 1990, Peter David would have just been hitting his stride on “The Incredible Hulk” at Marvel Comics, having come into writing after spending years in the company’s direct sales department.  That same year, he wrote “The Atlantis Chronicles” for DC Comics.  Art for the series was provided by Esteban Maroto.

In the many years since that time, fans still make reference what would become David’s legendary run on “The Incredible Hulk.”  In contrast, it would be rare to hear references to “The Atlantis Chronicles” from comics readers outside of hardcore fans of David’s work.

Rather, one could argue that “The Atlantis Chronicles” was not only forgotten by most longtime comics fans, but not many readers paid it much attention when it originally debuted.  At a $2.95 cover price, it was a hefty gamble for fans in an era where $1.00 could still buy an issue of the most popular comics.  As a result, most comics readers didn’t realize then nor do they realize now that “The Atlantis Chronicles” was an early epic story by David that still ranks amongst his best work.

In an era where so much older material has been lovingly collected into either trade paperback or hardcover collections, it seems inexplicable that this maxi-series was never collected.  Curious fans might take heart in the fact that the he original issues can be easily found at inexpensive prices.

The structure of the series was unusual, in that it felt like the stories had originally been intended for a 12 issue maxi-series, a length that would have not been outside of the norm in that era for such ‘event’ comics.  Instead, the higher cover price provided readers with double-sized issues that featured multiple ‘chapters’ spread across 7 issues.

The majority of the story focused on three generations of early rulers of Atlantis.  After a break in that storyline that jumped readers forward in the historical timeline of Atlantis, connections were eventually revealed that would tie the series into the mythology of DC’s oceanic mainstay Aquaman.

Structurally, the stories were narrated by various individuals who had contributed to a general history journal known as the Atlantis Chronicles.  Each time period had a different chronicler who had a different voice and perspective.  This was a witty device on David’s part to keep each chapter feeling new.

In working out his history of Atlantis, David explained how variations amongst the Atlanteans developed over time.  He was able to weave together the seemingly contradictory generally known myths about Atlantis into a unified narrative.

 

Series Summary & Remarks

 

Issue #1 – The Deluge

From the beginning, a frequent theme of the series was a rivalry between science and religion.  This issue very clearly set the proponents of either side of the debate against one another.  In fact, that rivalry played out in literal fashion due to the struggle for power between the brothers Orin and Shalako.  Orin was the monarch of the Atlantean city of Poseidonis.  Shalako was its religious leader.

Orin traded technology to a group of outsiders, who later intended to steal more of Poseidonis’ technical secrets.  Realizing that the city needed better protection, Orin began building a dome that Shalako insisted would upset the sky-goddess.  Orin ignored Shalako’s objections, eventually completing the dome.  Initially, everything then seemed fine and the brothers managed to make peace with one another.  That peace was short-lived, as a meteor soon appeared that appeared to spell doom for the city.

The meteor’s crash into the Earth ended the first issue on an cliffhanger.  While the citizens of Poseidonis hoped that their dome would protect them from the devastation, readers would have to wait until the next issue to find out.

 

Issue #2 – The Vanishing Sun

The dome that Orin had instructed to be built over Poseidonis did manage to save the city from the destruction wrecked upon it by the crashing meteor in the first issue.  Unfortunately, that cataclysm left the city underwater.  Beyond the general hopelessness that such a situation might engender within a society, the earlier conflict between science and religion raged on.

Shalako used the meteor crash as proof that the gods were angry at the Atlanteans, so he led a group of followers to occupy a sister city known as Triton that was accessible via tunnels under Poseidonis.  Shalako called upon the evil gods to create a protective dome for Triton that was built by dark magic.

Meanwhile, Orin had used science to develop a ‘serum’ that allows his people to swim underwater.  Eventually the people in Triton grow envious and Orin gives them the serum as a gift.  Shalako is angered that his people took the gift and cursed them to have lizard-like scales. Not pleased, the people of Triton murdered Shalako.

It was interesting to note how Orin was continually loyal to Shalako, even as Shalako went mad.  Readers knew that Shalako had gone to ‘the dark side’ and Orin probably knew it too, but he still tried to save his brother at the very end.

The death Shalako didn’t mean an end of the influence of evil in the story though, as Shalako’s son Dardanus had actually helped orchestrate his father’s murder while managing to hide from the people of Triton.  Dardanus had sought revenge over Shalako’s murder of his mother, but Dardanus wasn’t to be confused with being a ‘good guy.’

 

Issue #3 – Youth

The spotlight began to shift to the next generation of Atlanteans in this issue.  Orin’s daughter Cora took center stage, with her being romanced by a young warrior named Bazil.  At the same time, she spurned advances by the now-teenaged Dardanus.

By this point in time, the mutations to the people of Triton in the prior issue further divided its residents from the people of Poseidonis.  War felt like it could break out at any moment, with those old rivalries still boiling beneath the surface of society.

Certainly the issue’s most pivotal event occurred when Cora was raped by Daradanus on the eve of her wedding to Bazil.  While Cora fought off Daradanus as he angrily admitted to loving her, she never reported the rape.  The incident would have serious future repercussions.

Until the dark ending, this issue had an often whimsical tone to it.  The teenage romance was juxtaposed with hints at Orin’s longtime infidelities and a rivalry between his wife and his old mistress.  David was never afraid to make sudden tonal shifts though and the ending of this issue was one of the most striking moments of the entire series.

 

Issue #4 – Full Scale War

Time jumped ahead several years to a point where Orin was semi-retired while his daughter Cora was queen.  Dardanus had taken over rule of Triton and a civil war seemed to be looming.  Cora and Bazil had a daughter named Fiona who was a teenager at the opening of this issue.  Her boyfriend Regin was the chronicler by this point.

Meanwhile, the ability of people in the rival cities to breath underwater had resulted in the cities being flooded.  David mentioning some of the day-to-day problems associated with such a change in lifestyle.  Dardanas continued to ratchet up tensions between the peoples.

Fiona had been intended to be designated as the next ruler of the kingdom, but Dardanas crashed that celebration.  He had discovered and raised the mutant child named Kordax whom he claimed to have been his child with Cora.  When Cora denied the right of Kordax to become the next ruler, a civil war broke out.

Cora’s cover-up of her rape obviously came back to haunt her.  Readers might have forgotten about the power of black magic that was shown in the second issue, but they were reminded of its looming influence in the miraculous survival of the discarded Kordax.

 

Issue #5 – Stuff of Legends

One could argue that the ‘main’ story came to a conclusion mid-way through issue #5, but leading up to that readers were treated to quite an initial finale.

Kordax led sea creatures to fight the resident of Poseidonis.  Joining that fight was Dardanus, who uses magic to bring his father Shalako in a spirit form.  Readers ended up with a multi-generational showdown, as Orin was killed but later defeated Shalako in his own spirit form.  Before Shalako died, he killed Dardanus over what was likely still a grudge for orchestrating his murder.  Kordax managed to survive, but was banished to a life alone in the ocean.

Kordax’s use of sea creatures actually ended up uniting the people of Poseidonis with those of Triton, as both group of peoples struggled to simply stay alive.  The people were seemingly united again, as long memories had whipped out or banished the immediate threats.

The story then flashed-forward to a later time person in the faux Atlantean history.  The final third of the series focused on a future generation of the original story’s characters, with the connections to those original characters intentionally left vague.

This new storyline was somewhat more focused that the initial storyline.  Family rivalries still existed though, this time in the form of three brothers named Kraken, Haumond, and Atlan.  The genealogy of this new generation wasn’t precisely spelled out, but Atlan’s hair color signaled some manner of relation back to Kordax.  For the purpose of the story, it set Atlan apart from his brothers.

Atlan had recently discovered that land still existed above the ocean and that humans lived there.  Honsu, the brothers’ father was a war monger and he didn’t necessarily see eye to eye with his sons.  Kraken was the brutal warrior amongst the brothers, while Haumond was a bit of a wimp.

The shift in the story’s focus was very jarring, with the reader leaping mid-issue from the conclusion of the prior couple hundred pages worth of story into an entirely new scenario.  That said, the mystery involving trying to connect this new storyline to the old one kept a certain momentum going.

 

Issue #6 – The War

Honsu decided to attack the surface world, but not all Atlanteans agreed.  A faction broke out amongst the people that were known as the Shayera.  This group was opposed to war and instead went into exile.  Much like Shalako’s old group of religious followers, the Shayera offered a warning about what might lay ahead.

Honsu’s war effort went well until his forces encountered the strong Egyptian peoples.  Their strength was in the sun, something that was an obvious threat to the Atlanteans who still had a dependence on water.

After Honsu called for a retreat, his son Haumond was left behind.  Haumond happened across a descendant of explorers from an Atlantean mission that Orin had sent out after the great meteor crash.  Those explorers had been assumed lost, but that was apparently not the case.  Rather, they’d discovered land and stayed there.  Learning of this link, Haumond plotted to end Honsu’s war-mongering.  At the same time, Honsu planned to take Greece.

 

Issue #7 – The Birth

Honsu’s campaign against the Greeks came to stalemate that was resolved by having Kraken fight a mysterious warrior.  That warrior killed him and was then revealed to be Haumond.  After sending his father home in shame with his army, Haumond was shown living for centuries using some potion supplied by Atlan.  He eventually chose to grow old and, in death, was taken back to the ocean by Atlan.

A later Atlantean queen named Atlanna came across the Atlantis Chronicles and enjoyed learning about the centuries of intrigue.  It was hinted that her husband Trevis was infertile and that the couple had not produced children.  Atlanna dreamed of a romance one night with a mysterious blonde man who appeared to be Atlan.  She soon found herself pregnant in real life, eventually giving birth to a son with blonde hair.  The child was rejected by the people and left out to die in the ocean.  Trevis eventually committed suicide.

Despite seeming to an end on a dark note, the entire saga concluded on a final optimistic image.  The baby that had been abandoned was shown gleefully riding a dolphin.  This baby would eventually become the hero Aquaman.

 

Conclusions

Even though the second half of the series didn’t quite live up to the heights of the first half, this is an excellent comic book series.  David crafted a very complicated multi-generational story that had to have been very difficult to work out.  On top of that mythos, he layered in action, moments of comedy and kept it moving with compelling cliffhangers.

Besides the main comic book story, I also enjoyed the text materials at the end of each issue.  For example, there was a faux DC Comics memo at the end of the first issue that discussed publishing an adaptation of a series of ‘real’ Atlantean historical documents that had recently been found under dubious circumstances.  This was purported to be the genesis for the series.  Unfortunately, the memo made light of Peter David writing and, while funny, might have inadvertently diminished the work of a then still up-and-coming writer.

Maroto’s art was detailed with interesting coloring.  The series benefited from being printed on what was higher-than-normal quality paper in 1990.  Maroto had quite a challenge with portraying a large cast in various period costumes.  He certainly met the challenge though, with all of the characters having unique looks.

Sexuality, often a staple of David’s work, was not shied away from in the case of this series. It was somewhat odd given that it set up a new Aquaman series that this was a ‘mature readers’ series.  The inclusion of these for adult readers and nudity would have further limited the audience, but it did make the work seem more ‘serious’ while reading it as an adult.

As I mentioned earlier, organized religion was often not portrayed in the most positive way.  In the case of the Atlanteans, historians embellished facts for a more sensational story that helped rulers to control the people through religion.  That said, David didn’t dismiss the idea of either an afterlife or of the legitimacy of magical elements in the world.  In fact, the story embraced such elements at several key moments.

With a multitude of witty touches in his writing, David treated readers to something beyond the norm.  The chronicler device allowed him to get into the heads of many characters, with the conflicts often coming out of what seems like might be heartfelt genuine reasoning.  In almost all cases, the heroes and villains were always flawed characters simply doing what they thought was right.

Not surprisingly, David appeared to be using this series to position himself as writer on a new Aquaman series.  Instead, DC launched a new series without David’s involvement.  He would get a chance to return to the character with his own series launch, but that would be several years later.

 

 

Bibliography


David, Peter. Aquaman: Time and Tide. New York, NY: DC Comics, 1993. Print.
David, Peter. Hulk Visionaries: Peter David – Volume 1. New York: Marvel Comics, 2005. Print.
—. Hulk Visionaries: Peter David – Volume 2. New York: Marvel Comics, 2005. Print.
—. Hulk Visionaries: Peter David – Volume 3. New York: Marvel Comics, 2006. Print.
David, Peter, and Esteban Maroto. Atlantis Chronicles #1. DC Comics, 1990. Print.
—. Atlantis Chronicles #2. DC Comics, 1990. Print.
—. Atlantis Chronicles #3. DC Comics, 1990. Print.
—. Atlantis Chronicles #4. DC Comics, 1990. Print.
—. Atlantis Chronicles #5. DC Comics, 1990. Print.
—. Atlantis Chronicles #6. DC Comics, 1990. Print.
—. Atlantis Chronicles #7. DC Comics, 1990. Print.

 

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