Previously, in COMICS 101: It’s been non-stop Aquaman around these parts in recent weeks, as we’ve been exploring the past of one of DC Comics’ ironically both most famous and least respected superhero characters. Last week we took a look at Aquaman the family man, with his surprising (for comics) marriage to Mera and the even more unexpected arrival of Aquaman and Mera’s child: the for-many-years-nameless Aquababy. However, there was another common superhero motif that Aquaman had long been lacking: arch-enemies. That is, until 1966…
Although there had been plenty of pirates, smugglers, mad scientists, monsters and undersea conquerors for Aquaman to contend with over the years, the series had always been fairly light in the supervillain department, particularly in a traditional “I want to kill Aquaman” kind of sense. So it was kind of a surprise that Aquaman’s two most significant and well-known antagonists made their debut within the same year.
Okay, that’s not entirely true. There had been one recurring Aquaman villain to show up before either of the subjects of today’s discussion. But come on. It was The Fisherman. I mean, just look at him:
He’s got a rod and reel, for pete’s sake. Ooh, I hope he doesn’t put on the Waders of Doom! Please.
So let’s put Mr. Bass Master aside and focus on the first of our two real contenders for Aquaman’s accept-no-substitutes arch-enemy. Contestant #1? The Ocean Master.
The Ocean Master made his debut in AQUAMAN #29 (September-October 1966), in the somewhat awkwardly titled “Aquaman, Coward-King of the Seas!”, written by Bob Haney and drawn by Nick Cardy. In an unusual intro, Aquaman is summoned to the Pentagon, where he views a video transmission from the aforementioned Ocean Master (who’s sporting probably the best fish-based mask ever seen in comics, as well as a snappy manta-ray t-shirt).
At the sight of him on the video screen, Aquaman is lost in thought, remembering a recent encounter he and Aqualad had with the Ocean Master, preventing him from poaching a pack of whales. Getting back to the present, Aquaman listens as Ocean Master makes his ultimatum, demonstrating how he can now strand ocean liners atop icebergs, and threatening to do more of the same unless he’s given free rein to terrorize the seas.
However, when Aquaman and Aquaman later confront the Ocean Master, Aquaman shows a strange reticence to apprehend the watery terrorist, several times even refusing to fight back:
Finally, after the Ocean Master’s plot has been foiled but he’s managed to escape, Aqualad confronts Aquaman about his sandbagging their pursuit of the villain, and Aquaman comes clean: Ocean Master, it turns out, is Aquaman’s heretofore unrevealed half-brother, Orm.
Quite frankly, if you name some poor kid “Orm” and he doesn’t turn out to be a super-villain, I think you’ve dodged a bullet. As Aquaman explains it, after his Atlantean mother passed away, his human father remarried, and the two had a son, Orm, who bitterly resented young Aquaman because he lacked the water-breathing powers that were Aquaman’s Atlantean birthright.
Angry and rebellious, young Orm turned to a life of crime, and grew to hate his half-brother, until a bonk on the noggin from a falling rock gave him amnesia (a comic-book standby), leaving him with no memory of his half-brother Aquaman, but still determined to rule the oceans.
For most of their early encounters, that would remain the status quo, with the Ocean Master returning to bedevil Aquaman, yet having no idea that the two were flesh and blood relations. Eventually Ocean Master’s memories would return, but his hatred for Aquaman would remain. In more recent years, Ocean Master’s backstory would radically change (along with Aquaman’s, but we’ll get to that later), but the notion of his being Aquaman’s half-brother and bitterly jealous of Aquaman’s abilities has stayed a constant.
But by far, the supervillain everyone thinks of when they think Aquaman? Black Manta.
Why? There’s no great origin or compelling motivation, at least not at first (although later events we’ll discuss down the road definitely cement him as Aquaman’s #1 enemy). No. Black Manta takes the crown because he’s just so damned cool-looking. I mean, just look at him.
To be fair, most people probably think of Manta as the main man due to his appearance in CHALLENGE OF THE SUPERFRIENDS, which paired his primo design with a great voice by Ted Cassidy.
Black Manta made his debut in the pages of AQUAMAN #35 (September-October 1967), in “Between Two Dooms,” written by Bob Haney and drawn by Nick Cardy.
Here Black Manta’s status as Aquaman’s frequent nemesis is treated as fait accompli, as seen in this reference by Aquaman to the Manta as his “old enemy.”
Manta’s got a pretty evil plan his time around, as he uses his Manta ship to boil the water inside Atlantis’s protective dome, forcing the Atlanteans to drain it, and in the process robbing them of the water they require to breathe. Manta is temporarily foiled when Aquaman orders his people to undergo a temporary process that turns them into air-breathers, but Black Manta ups the ante once more when he manages to kidnap Aquababy from Mera, promising his safe return in exchange for Aquaman’s surrender.
Surprisingly, Manta is as good as his word, returning Aquababy to Atlantis (granted, in a missile, but still, a return is a return) once Aquaman has given himself up. Unfortunately, good ol’ Uncle Orm, a.k.a. the Ocean Master, has arrived on the scene and swipes Aquababy for his own purposes. Manta’s none too happy about that, and soon the two Aqua-foes are duking it out over the right to kill Aquaman. Eventually, the two wind up going mano a mano, with Aquaman barely even remembered at this point.
As a premiere appearance for Black Manta, it really isn’t much to write home about. We barely get a good look at him, and he’s not much of a presence in the story, for that matter. As for an origin story, Black Manta wouldn’t get one until, believe it or not, 1993, in issue #6 of writer Shaun McLaughlin’s AQUAMAN series, an fairly unsatisfying notion about a young Manta being shanghaied and forced to work on a ship, with Aquaman failing to rescue him, and the boy swearing revenge on both the oceans and Aquaman. Meh. Rick Veitch made a second attempt at a Black Manta origin in #8 of his Aquaman series, an equally blah concept about a young Black Manta being an autistic boy fascinated with Aquaman. Frankly, I think the definitive Black Manta origin has yet to be written.
There was also a period where he was turned into an actual monstrous Manta/Human hybrid, but the less said about that the better. It was quickly realized, I think, that when the coolest thing about a character is his helmet, you don’t lose the helmet.
Come on back next week and we’ll jump ahead a few years and look at my all-time favorite AQUAMAN run, by the only artist who ever really managed to make Aquaman look like a badass. Who, you ask? You’ll have to wait and see…