Previously, in COMICS 101: Last time, in our continuing coverage of DC Comics’ AQUAMAN, we celebrated the work of Jim Aparo, this columnist’s personal favorite artist to draw the character. This week, we’ll focus in on a specific Aparo-drawn adventure, one which rocked six-year-old Li’l Scott to the core…
As I mentioned last week, Jim Aparo had a very good run on AQUAMAN in the pages of ADVENTURE COMICS in the mid-1970s. And there was one issue in particular that most definitely caught my attention on the spinner rack at the local Quik Stop:
Look at that cover. It’s got everything. A giant logo you can’t miss, the lead character’s most popular villain giving the thumbs down, and the hero’s sidekick about to thrust a razor-sharp trident into the hero’s throat. How is that not worth 35 cents?
And talk about your artwork. This is vintage Aparo here, maybe my favorite of all his covers. And as a kid, since I mostly only knew Aqualad from an issue or two of TEEN TITANS and his Mego action figure, (as seen here…)
…seeing him ready to murder his own mentor? Man. That’s drama.
The story, written by David Michelinie, picks up right in the middle of the action, with Aquaman in pursuit of his son, the aforementioned in these columns Aquababy (by now finally given a proper name, Arthur, Jr.). Arthur Jr. had been mysteriously kidnapped by a most unexpected suspect: Topo, Aquaman’s longtime pet squid. Tracking down Topo led Aquaman into the path of a group of pacifists who called themselves “the Idylists,” who were searching for their own missing hero, who, surprisingly, turned out to be Aqualad. Aquaman and the Idylists are in turned attacked by mysterious undersea thugs, underlings of the unknown criminal who’d taken over the Idylists’ city. And naturally, that unknown criminal turned out to be…
Who else? Black Manta.
With the captured Aquaman at his mercy, Black Manta engages in some primo monologuing, and in a surprising revelation, explains part of why he’s always trying to take over Atlantis:
So Black Manta is really, well, Black Manta, and after he explains himself, Aquaman manages to escape, and leads Manta and his men on a chase into the city’s medical facility, where experimentation has been going on to allow Manta’s men to breathe underwater. In a characteristically badass move for Aparo’s Aquaman, he jumps behind the controls of one of the facility’s giant medical lasers, and threatens to “burn sizable holes in you and your army.”
Unfortunately, Manta retains the upper hand, as he still has Arthur, Jr,. and Topo held hostage.
And here’s where it starts to get really dark.
We cut to an arena, where Aquaman and Aqualad are being made to face each other in mortal combat, until one of them lies dead. If they don’t? Well, until someone kills the other, Arthur Jr. will remain trapped in a globe that is slowly being drained of water. Suffocating in a bubble of air. As soon as one of them is dead, Manta will trigger the remote and replenish the water.
Let’s stop and take a look at that for a moment. Here’s a mainstream comic book in 1977 that’s showing on-panel the suffocation of a toddler. How the hell did this get approved?
With his boy’s life on the line, Aquaman feels he has no choice, and goes after Aqualad with vicious brutality.
During a lull in the fight, he realizes that there’s still one sea creature within range of his telepathic powers: Topo.
Topo reaches out and crushes Manta’s remote, dropping the forcefield around the arena and allowing Aquaman to hurl his trident at the globe imprisoning Arthur, Jr.
Manta realizes it’s time for a strategic retreat and gets moving, collapsing part of a building on some Idylists on his way out as a diversion. Aquaman manages to save them, too, but is met with the worst possible news when he goes to check on little Arthur.
Aquaman’s gambit to free Arthur from the globe came too late, it turns out. The boy was already gone.
How depressing is this? I’m a six-year-old kid just trying to read a cool AQUAMAN comic with Black Manta on the cover. In no way did I expect a panel with Aquaman cradling the body of his dead baby.
I’m honestly not sure what was more surprising: this unexpectedly dark and depressing turn of events, or how little effect it ultimately had on the character. Sure, the next issue featured Aquaman going after Black Manta for revenge (ending with a well-done climax in which Aquaman finds himself unable to murder Manta in cold blood, despite what he’s done, as seen here:)…
…but in the long run, the murder of Aquaman and Mera’s son was seldom mentioned again. You’d think it would have had more of an effect on him, but within a couple of issues (and in his many appearances in JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA, for that matter), it seemed practically forgotten. Maybe he’s just in really deep denial…
Still, taken just independently of its place in the larger story, this was one of the darkest, most depressing comics I ever read as a kid, and yet it had the greatest impact on me, mostly because of the finality of it all. It got across what most stories didn’t: that there were no guarantees in life, and sometimes you could do everything right and still lose. And lose big. Not the most fun lesson to learn, but one we all end up learning at one time or another.