Amnesty Bay is beset by Black Manta and his giant mecha-manta warsuit! Aquaman is hopelessly outgunned! Meanwhile, Manta's backstory is recounted between action beats. His father essentially raised him to be a selfish, self-centered person who put nobody and nothing above himself or his ambitions... and that mentality may have dire consequences today, when he comes face-to-face with his own son, Jackson!
For a comic that’s almost entirely defined (at least superficially) by its action beats this month, Aquaman #54 finds perfect balance with the quiet inclusion of character-defining backstory for its presumptive protagonist, Black Manta. Manta as a character has had something of a renaissance in the last few years; previous Aquaman writer Geoff Johns made great strides in not only fleshing him out as more than just “Aquaman’s requisite opposite number bad guy” to a fully-realized, three-dimensional human being with very real motivations and drives. Tying is origin into his father’s accidental death at the hands of Aquaman was the masterstroke.
Writer Kelly Sue DeConnick revisits those Aqua-ties this issue and bolsters them with a deeper dive into how Manta was raised. His father’s key life lessons: “Take what you want” and “Don’t put anyone or anything ahead of your own desires.” Interestingly, though, that second lesson didn’t apply to the son’s love for his father: upon his father’s death, Manta’s love and admiration for dear ol’ dad transforms quickly into a kind of hate and loathing for Arthur Curry unmatched by few other villains. Black Manta’s hatred is thus humanized in a way readers can, if not identify with, then definitely at least understand. (As a side note, I don’t think it’s an accident that Manta was the best part of last year’s Aquaman movie. Dude is a fierce onscreen presence, and makes that ridiculous headgear look menacing as all get out.)
The juxtaposition of present-day action beats against Manta’s fleshed-out backstory takes what could have been a one-note all-action bonanza and gives it narrative weight and heft. As I stated above, Aquaman himself is pretty outgunned for the bulk of the issue, so he isn’t much of a factor in the story. Instead, Jackson takes center stage for the present-day scenes, his own paternal drama playing out when he stands firm against Black Manta. (Mera’s there too, and she gets a solid moment to shine, but she’s not the focus. We’re going to have to wait at least another month for her major reunion with Arthur.) For all his faults, Manta’s father always looked out for his son – a trait that definitely did not pass on to the next generation. Even the AI running the mecha-manta is surprised at Manta’s callousness when it comes to attacking his own offspring.
That coldness, and willingness to do whatever it takes to achieve his ends, is what drives Black Manta. And he certainly could be a one-dimensional character for it – but thankfully, Kelly Sue DeConnick is a talented enough writer that she’s able to make him a compelling lead, if only for one issue. Artist Robson Rocha is on-point as usual, bringing a sumptuous depth and subtle beauty to his linework. This month he’s aided by pinch-hitter Jesus Merino. The two have a similar enough style that the shift in artists is smooth to the point of being unnoticeable. The story hits no speed bumps for it, which is a feat to be lauded.
Aquaman #54 takes a moment amidst its action to examine the past of Arthur Curry's chief antagonist Black Manta, bolstering the villain's appeal and readers' understanding of his motives. If you aren't reading DeConnick and Rocha's Aquaman yet, you're doing yourself a major disservice!
Aquaman #54: I Am My Father’s Son
Writing - 8.5/108.5/10
Storyline - 8/108/10
Art - 8/108/10
Color - 9/109/10
Cover Art - 6/106/10
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