Dec 21, 2018

Aquaman's Darkest Moment

As the year 2018 comes to an end, the inexplicable has happened. Warner Bros has actually made a feature film starring the DC Comics superhero Aquaman. Even more inexplicable, it looks like it actually might be good! Jason Momoa as Arthur Curry is going to get the ladies in the seats, and it looks like faithful renditions of Aquaman arch-enemies Ocean Master and Black Manta will draw in the comic fans. Speaking of Black Manta, today I’m going to be sharing with you the most dastardly deed of his long comic book history, and no, I’m not talking about that gloriously ridiculous yet wonderful helmet.

Aquaman's Darkest Moment
Ben Smith

Despite his position as one of the cornerstone characters of the DC Universe and a founding member of the Justice League, Aquaman doesn’t have what you would consider a large library of classic comic book stories. (Feel free to come at me, Aquaman fans!) The Super Friends cartoon didn’t do him in any favors in the “take Aquaman serious,” arena either. They’ve cut off his hand and given him a hook; had him lose the orange shirt; gave him the shirt back; had him grow long hair and a beard; cut off his hand again and gave him some weird water-hand. Aquaman is too important and too well-known for DC to let languish, but with a few exceptions, they’ve never totally known what to do with him in the comics.

After the casting of Momoa, it was clear the movies were going to with the “barbarian” look for the silver screen. Which works fine, and it looks like he might don the familiar orange and green anyway. I’m more of a traditionalist when it comes to the DC characters, I like the classic looks. I’ve always been more of a Marvel guy, but even still, those iconic DC costume designs are burned into my brain forever. Blame Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez.

But I digress, back to the story that would cement Black Manta as one of the most evil bastards in the history of superhero comics.

We begin with Adventure Comics #451, by (legendary Spider-Man writer) David Michelinie and (one of the best artists of all time) Jim Aparo. Aquaman is shocked when beloved family-pet-octopus Topo grabs his son, Arthur Jr, and swims off with him. (In the comics, Mera and Aquaman had a son at this point.)

Aquaman follows in hot pursuit, only to be delayed by none other than Starro. Starro is no slouch, having fought the entire Justice League before (in their debut, no less) and he’s surely going to significantly delay our aquatic hero.

(Back to Mera, who I easily love 100 times more than Aquaman. Aquaman has always been a necessary component to the Justice League, but not really a character I had great fondness for. Sort of like Reed Richards or Cyclops with the Fantastic Four and the X-Men, respectively. You can't have the team without them, but that doesn't make them the best characters to read about. Anyway, Mera is awesome, check her out in the Blackest Night event series, and the Aquaman comic that followed shorty after by Geoff Johns and Ivan Reis.)

However, Aquaman is in a fighting fury as a result of his missing child, and makes short work of this extremely deadly foe.

Starro had mentally enslaved a small group of fish people calling themselves the Idylists, a pacifist group of undersea humanoid dwellers. They were coincidentally looking for Aquaman to help them rescue Aqualad, who had been missing recently.

Fortunately, in Adventure Comics #452, the location of the missing Aqualad is right in line with the direction Topo disappeared with Arthur Jr. in. Aquaman presses forward, even though he continues to be delayed by groups of scuba-wearing thugs, attacking him for an as yet unknown reason. They finally get the best of him, distracting him long enough for a Hammerhead Shark (my youngest son’s favorite shark) to headbutt him into unconsciousness.

Aquaman awakens in chains, across from Aqualad and the Idylists leader (mentor? whatever). The villain in charge of the thugs is none other than classic Aquaman villain Black Manta.

Black Manta decides to finally verbalize the source of his hate, removing his helmet and revealing his face. “Have you never wondered why I’m called — Black Manta?”

(That kinda thing is always a bit on the nose, but we’ll roll with it, it was the ‘70s.)

Black Manta is sick of the oppression of his people on the surface world, and decides they will take it out on the ocean dwellers, or something. Look, any diversity was groundbreaking and much-needed back in those days, so let’s call it a good attempt and keep it moving.

Aquaman escapes after a quick tussle with Manta, before stumbling upon his gill implant experiments. He’s forcing the brilliant biologists of the Idylists to give himself and his men gills so that they can breathe underwater without equipment. Before Aquaman can destroy his well-laid evil plans, Black Manta reveals his significant advantage, the captive Topo and Arthur Jr. Topo had been accidentally drawn there by the mental summons of Aqualad, and grabbed Junior in his confusion.

Now, Black Manta is going to force Aquaman and Aqualad to fight to the death for his own amusement, and to speed things up a bit, Manta puts Arthur Jr. in a bubble slowly filling with air, giving Aquaman about five minutes to defeat Aqualad and save his son from suffocating on oxygen.

Much to the surprise of Aqualad, Aquaman doesn’t have the time or luxury to play it safe, and he goes at Aqualad hard, drawing blood with his first attack.

Aqualad has no choice but to fight back, knocking Aquaman into one of the fish he had been unable to control up to that point, and now he knows why. The fish are drones, meant to lull Aquaman into believing his power over waterlife was suppressed.

Now that he knows the truth, he commands Topo to grab and crush Manta’s remote device controlling the air bubble, and valiantly throws the trident at the bubble, smashing it and saving his son — or did he?

Black Manta flees, now that Aquaman and Aqualad are no longer forced to be on opposite sides, he cannot defeat them both should they combine forces again.

Shockingly, Aquaman was too late, his young son had suffocated to death. And right now, I know you’re probably saying in a high-pitched voice, “sayyyy whaaaat?” And all I can say, in an equally ridiculous tone, “I knooooow, right?

The distraught Aquaman gives the lifeless body of his child to Topo, to take back to Mera, before vowing to hunt down Black Manta and enact his righteous vengeance upon the villain. Aqualad, in the worst timing in the history of human history, is still butthurt about Aquaman fighting too hard, and refuses to help him avenge the death of his only child.

In a stunning turn of events, Aquaman had failed to save his son from dying at the hands of one of his greatest villains. This continued the trend arguably started by Amazing Spider-Man #121, when Spider-Man failed to save his (at the time) one true love, Gwen Stacy.

Superhero comic book fans had always been able to rely on the hero swooping in to save the day before anyone important gets hurt, but the ‘70s had started to usher in this wave of real consequences for the decision to fight crime and injustice. There is definitely nothing more terrifying and devastating than even the thought of losing a child, and the comics that followed this story would deal with that grief and anger fully.

I know, I’ve probably bummed you out, but keep in mind, Arthur Jr. never really existed in the first place. We read comics, and fiction, to experience the joys, heartbreaks, and terrors of life without any of the real life consequences, and there’s no better comic to experience those heavy emotions than this one.

As always, I recommend you seek it out and read it, and the aftermath, for yourself.

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