Last time on our deep-sea adventure through the backlog of DC’s Aquaman saga, we jumped from the early days of the character’s first ongoing series with Aquaman #18 to a few years later with Aquaman #42, which showed the eponymous hero on a desperate search to find his missing wife, Mera. His journey put him in conflict with the Maarzons and his arch-nemesis, Black Manta. Though Aquaman survived these attacks and triumphed over his foes, the issue ended with the hero dejected and furious with no lead on Mera. In this issue, we saw an Aquaman that was at his wits end, far more morally grey than the much more positive and innocent superhero featured in the earlier installments.
This time, we’re going to jump ahead yet again, this time to a three-part story that was featured in Adventure Comics #451 and #452 and Aquman #57. Because of the content, this will be a longer piece than usual, so strap in.
ADVENTURE COMICS #451
The opening narration of this story wistfully recounts the days when Aquaman was the “champion of the seven seas,” setting the reader up for what seems to be an even darker and more emotionally fraught Aquaman story than we saw last time. As I’m looking at the first page, which picks up in the middle of the story as Aquaman shouts about Topo kidnapping his son, the first thing I notice is the credits. David Michelinie is credited as writer with Jim Aparo on art duties, but what I’m pleased to see is that we get a colorist credit here! Liz Berube is this issue’s colorist, and I believe she is the first to receive on-page credit for her work in the Aquaman issues I’ve read this month. It’s always interesting to go back through the history of comics and watch the industry change, and seeing credit given where – to the modern reader – it is obviously due is a great step forward.
The story then dials back a bit to show how Aquaman got in this situation. He and Mera (who is back in Atlantis, unharmed and recovered from his situation the last time we checked in) watched on their security footage as their pet octopus Topo escaped with Aquaman’s son, Arthur Jr., in tow. The son was not in the previous installments I read, but a quick search shows that he first appeared in Aquaman #23, so the character has been around for some time. Aquaman chases Topo and runs into many foes on the way, including my favorite so far: Starro, basically an alien starfish.
The Aquaman story in the issue ends with Starro’s defeat, which frees his follows from psychic slavery. His followers, a group of religious pacifists called the Idylists, in a twist of fate, were looking for Aquaman themselves – and were seemingly sent by Aqualad, which shocks Aquaman. Based on the cover to the next issue, it seems that our hero has every right to be unnerved… especially if Black Manta is the one pulling the strings.
Adventure Comics #452
This issue – forebodingly titled Dark Destiny, Deadly Dreams – picks up from where the previous chapter left off, with Michelinie and Aparo returning, but Jerry Serpe on colors this time around. His palette is a touch darker, which works for this grim tale. Aquaman accompanies the Idylists to find Aqualad, but the way he does so is less than ideal. He is ambushed and meets his old ally in prison, where they are left to dangle from coat-hangers.
Black Manta reveals himself as the Big Bad here, which is no surprise, though was is surprising is his bizarrely specific and gross simile: “I had intended to make the city’s occupants my army – but alas, they’ve as much fight in them as a pail of sun-soaked shrimp!” All right, then, Manta.
Manta goes on to reveal himself as a black man (I guess it was assumed he was white, as this is treated as an actual reveal) who plans to turn “his people” into an army to take over the underwater world. I instantly found myself wondering if this was controversial at the time upon reading it, because Manta is portrayed as an unrepentant murderer and there is little to no character nuance in this story’s attempt at tackling racism, which to say the least is an incredibly politically divisive now, of course, years later. I found this interview that write David Michelinie did with Mystery Island, in which he says: “I don’t remember any controversy at all. I also don’t remember making a conscious decision to have Black Manta be a black man. It may have well been my decision, or the editor’s, but then again I may have just assumed he was black because that’s what everyone called him!” Something tells me that, today, the reaction to Manta’s plan and then subsequent actions would’ve been very different. The set-up left me wondering when the narrative was going to expound on Manta’s motivation, which could humanize him, but it doesn’t happen in this issue. The conclusion of the storyline does later show a follow of Manta’s call him out for not being genuinely interested in social justice, which in a single scene painted a far richer portrait of Manta’s soldiers than of Manta himself, who seems nothing but blood-thirsty and power-hungry. I would be interested to see if there was any scholarly writing on this, as I’m left unsure if this Aquaman arc was the right venue to tell this story, and if Michelinie’s choice to assign this motivation to the villainous Black Manta and his followers were the right characters with which to do it – but nevertheless, it remains an interesting read and definitely a marker of its time.
Anyway, Aquaman and Black Manta get into a scrap, but Aquman has to dial back when he sees that Manta has his son and Topo kidnapped. He threatens to kill them if Aquaman doesn’t fight Aqualad to the death in a gladiator-style arena match. Aquaman deduces that Topo sensed Aqualad’s danger and, because Aquaman brushed his hint off, he kidnapped Arthur Jr. to get Aquaman to follow him to the jail… which, sorry, makes Topo seem like the worst pet ever. How many things had he tried before doing that? Last issue, we saw him very slightly bother Aquaman for a single panel! It makes me wonder how many things he tried before he settled on “Time to kidnap the King of Atlantis’s son and take him directly into an unknown danger, which will work swimmingly.”
Black Manta puts Aquaman’s son into a bubble and fills it with air, which the kid can’t breathe, as Aquaman fights Aqualad. When one of them dies, Manta vows to refill it with water. Aquaman does fight his friend, but the two of them quickly figure out a way to get the control from Manta and break Aquaman’s son out of the bubble. Because, come on, DC wasn’t going to kill Aquaman’s infant child.
Okay, so DC Comics just killed a kid. I wasn’t expecting that. These are the Aquaman comics that the modern creators are suggesting weren’t gritty, badass, dark stories? These?
The issue ends with Aquaman leaving to kill the Black Manta after a bizarre exchange with Aqualad, who is officially The Worst. Aqualad just watched Aquaman hold his dead baby, and then has the nerve to tell him that he’s not going to help him because of how Aquaman agreed to fight him in the arena. He says, “I mean, intellectually I know you had no choice – I probably would have done the same thing. But still, something’s… changed!”
Yeah, something has changed. Aqualad is a total dick.
Aquaman also leaves the body of his son with Topo, who is somehow going blameless in all of this, even though the kid’s death is directly his fault. Aquaman gives him the pass, though, and goes after Black Manta – with the intention of killing him.
Good thing Previews wasn’t spoiling the comics reading public back then. Because that is one hell of a spoiler.
Michelinie and Aparo are back to conclude their story with Liz Berube returning for colors. Aquaman tracks down Black Manta, who gets the jump on him and prepares to follow through on the cover’s deadly promise. However, like I mentioned before, one of Manta’s followers, Cal Durham, deduces that Manta isn’t genuinely looking to help those who have allied themselves with him, and turns on him. This enables Aquaman to defeat Black Manta, who he prepares to kill…
…and then, he doesn’t. He walks away, because he’s a hero. He’s pissed off and depressed and has no idea how he’s going to bounce back from what he has lost, but at his core, he remains that stalwart hero that the narration of Adventure Comics #452 recalled. As dark as the story has gotten, Aquaman himself remains true to his mission: protecting people, and doing no harm. 1
Because, like those relauches are so found of claiming, Aquaman is a badass.
NEXT UP: Adventure Comics #451 – 452 and Aquaman #57.
PAT SHAND writes comics (Hellchild, Vampire Emmy and the Garbage Girl, Van Helsing), novels (Avengers, Iron Man, Charmed), and pop culture journalism (Blastoff Comics, Sad Girls Guide). He lives in New York with his partner Amy, four cats, and enough bookshelves worth of comics to infuriate any decent fire marshal.
1. Though he does turn over Cal Durham to the authorities, which is messed up. That man helped him in a way that Aqualad refused to, risking everything he had and then losing everything he had to take a stand for what is right. Not cool, Aquaman.
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