A History of Stupid Black Manta Origins
Well, it finally happened: Aquaman has achieved something resembling legitimacy. The James Wan directed 2018 picture opened to warm reviews and excellent box office receipts and will certainly shape perception of the character for years to come. No longer will he be the orange shirted douchebag who talks to fish and is conspicuously useless among the other SuperFriends. Instead he will be a long haired, bearded fellow who pounds beers with his dad and acts first, thinks later. I overall enjoyed it and particularly liked Black Manta, the distinctively designed Aquaman villain portrayed by Yahya Abdul-Mateen II whose origin story the film contains. Like many other comic book characters that have been around for over 50 years, the origin shown in Aquaman is neither Black Manta’s first origin nor his second. The character has undergone a number of changes over the year and that is why I am here today, to guide you through the many incarnations of the character. By the end I think you’ll understand why James Wan and co. went with the “avenging his father” angle.
Black Manta first appeared in 1967. Despite Aquaman #35 being his first appearance, both the comic and the characters within it treat Manta as a longtime foe of Aquaman’s. This is fair. Aquaman isn’t Batman. No one is expected to follow all of his adventures, so the guy probably has many archenemies we don’t know about, maybe a second family in Kansas, a secret findom instagram, etc. Here Manta has a submarine as well as hideous genetically engineered “Manta Men” that look just like manta rays but with human-like facial expressions and the legs of men. It’s fucking horrifying, spiritual scions of Jabberjaw interacting with regularly depicted humanoids. Aquaman #35’s plot concerns both Manta and Ocean Master (played in the film by Patrick Wilson) vying over the right to kill Aquaman, with a babynapping involved for good measure. Let me tell you: a lot of Silver Age comics weren’t good by their time’s or contemporary standards, and this one is particularly rough. For one thing, pretty much every line of dialogue has either a pun or some other reference to marine life or another aspect of the sea. You know how Robin used to say “Holy ____” in the old TV show? Well, Aquaman’s male companion Aqualad does that too, only it’s “Holy Haddocks!”, “Suffering Swordfish”, “Wailing Wolffish!”, that sort of thing. It’s constant, never clever and each makes me happier no self-respecting sequel to Aquaman will have the stomach to introduce anybody whose name ends in -lad.
I hate these guys.
Atlantis is also a far cry from the visual feast it is in the film; as far as I can tell from the artwork, it’s a domed city that must have seawater pumped in from the outside. It seems to me the purpose of living under the fucking sea is ruined by having everything under a dome. It’s like playing baseball in Olympic Stadium. “Atlantis is running out of water” is the lamest goddamn plotline. Ms. Marvel wouldn’t be able to get away with a story where Kamala must investigate the alarming lack of garbage in New Jersey. Black Manta’s plan consists of distributing a chemical onto the dome that evaporates all the water. This forces Aquaman to inject all of Atlantis with “Project X”. No, it has no relation to that found footage party movie. What it does is makes everyone who takes it capable of breathing air. Aquaman, Mera, Aqualad and Aquababy don’t take because they’re the fucking royal family (and their male companion) so they deserve better than the peasants. It’s at this juncture that Black Manta kidnaps Aquababy (by knocking out Mera) and makes the ultimatum of Aquaman for the kid’s safety. Aquaman acquiesces only to see his son intercepted by Ocean Master. Ocean Master is, like in the film, Aquaman’s half-brother, but only Aquaman knows that truth. It’s the classic dramatic dilemma of your half-brother having amnesia that results in him wanting to kill you and take your kingdom. Out of gratitude for him saving his life a few times and the selfish desire to only see Aquaman dead by HIS hands, Ocean Master fucks up Manta’s plans enough that they skirmish in their respective hammerhead shark and manta ray ships. Aquababy saves Ocean Master’s life. Aquaman spends most of the issue hurtling through the ocean in a plastic tube. The comics’ authors beckon the readers to “meanwhile, stay wet!”. Remember: if you’re kicked out of literally every other industry for being an unlikable pervert, there’s always comics.
So clearly Black Manta’s first appearance was meant as a device for deepening of Aquaman and Ocean Master’s fractious relationship. A bug masked dude with a fleet of crimes against nature saunters in, fucks up Aquaman and his greatest enemy must right what is wrong out of some sense of obligation. No one knows or even really cares who this man is under the mask. This would prove true for years until DC deigned to publish Black Manta’s first origin in Adventure Comics #452. Well, it’s not so much an origin as it is an explanation for the character’s motivations. Black Manta tears off his helmet and corrects Aquaman that when he says “his people” he means African-Americans, not landlubbers. “Have you never wondered why I’m called BLACK MANTA?” he says, dramatically. Well, you have a manta-shaped ship and your costume is black, so the name isn’t too out there. I’m pretty sure Black Canary is called that because she wears black. He explains that since black people have had a pretty lousy last few centuries on the land, what with the Middle Passage and George Zimmerman and all, that they may as well try their luck living in Atlantis. Insert your own black people swimming joke here, I’m not doing it for you. This issue also makes Aquaman fight Aqualad to the death for the fate of Aquababy and unlike the last issue covered in this article, the result is a dead baby floating around in the water. Aqualad is miffed about the forced combat thing too and abandons his mentor. People talk a lot about the death of Spider-Man’s girlfriend Gwen Stacy signaling superhero comics’ loss of innocence and the end of the Silver Age, but multiple panels of a suffocated kiddie are much more hardcore. Granted, on those panels Aquaman is calling his sidekick “minnow” and asking an octopus named Topo (after the Jodorowsky film, obviously) to see to it Arthur Jr. receives a proper burial
“I mean, I’m not called White Aquaman…”
From then on, Black Manta’s bonafides as Aquaman’s archenemy were beyond repute. Yet his past was still a mystery. That black liberation motivation turned out to be a sham to boost recruitment in his gang, proving Black Manta was comics’ very first ever RACE HUSTLER. Shaun McLaughlin tried mounting an explanation in the early 1990s. Boy Manta lived in Baltimore. He hung out by the docks because he loved the ocean. Unfortunately, some toughs took him aboard, enslaved him, made him clean and it’s implied sexually service them. He tried to flag down Aquaman playing with some dolphins but they failed to notice him. So the boy had to stab the dudes to death and escape on his own. Instead of focusing his hate on the Sobotkas or whoever it was from the second season of The Wire that hurt him, Black Manta decided to devote his hatred to the sea. Aquaman is king of the sea, ergo kill Aquaman to exorcise the demons infused by being diddled by longshoremen. I’ll admit, “I got raped on a boat and I’ve decided to blame Aquaman for it” is a unique motivation. That doesn’t make it a good one.
Look, just be glad someone thought better of adding an unzip sound effect.
In the 90s comics flirted with a lot of stupid ideas, so a lot of characters received makeovers they didn’t necessarily need. Superman became a blue electric man, Wolverine lost his nose, Spider-Man put a blue hoodie on over his spandex. Aquaman himself went from the doofy Superfriends character to a bearded barbarian with no shirt, one hand and a hook where the other one once was. When the crossover Underworld Unleashed rolled around – which had the ostensible purpose of revamping DC’s cheesier villains into more imposing figures – Black Manta was one of the many who sold their soul to Neron. What does a soulless Black Manta look like? This!
He’s become a Purple People Eater!
I have to imagine many of the desires granted by Neron were sexual fetish related. No one wants to become a giant manta ray unless that is what cranks the shaft, so to speak. As for how does becoming a manimal square with hating the sea so much he wants to rule it: WHO KNOWS! Fuck it, the 90s weren’t supposed to make sense. He stayed this way for a number of years until his foe used his newly added healing water hand to cure Manta of many things, his being an eyesore of an abomination just one of them. See, when you’re a marginal comic book figure, everything about you is subject to change. Superman, Spider-Man, Batman, they have largely stayed the same over the decades because people would revolt were Batman to be altered into a traumatized boy avenging his asshole being ravaged by batmen (the British armed forces term). Black Manta, though, he’s a cool design with everything else subject to change.
To wit: the origin story Rick Veitch gives him. If you thought “raped by pirates” was a problematic story, you haven’t seen anything yet. Young Manta is an orphan at Arkham Asylum (your guess is as good as mine) who suffers from the kind of autism that has his body register “the soft touch of cotton sheets… as excruciating pain”. By contrast, he loved ice baths. The Arkham staff didn’t pick up on this so their treatment route consisted of tying him to his mattress with belts and then trying to smother him with a pillow. What percentage of Asylum employees have “you don’t have to be crazy to work here but it helps” coffee mugs? 40%? The kid also repeats the same word multiple times, in a nod to the obsessive/compulsive disorder supposedly underpinning the autism. So when he sees Aquaman on TV, he alternates between saying “swim swim swim swim” and “love love love love” while tears roll down his face. If the artist was going for poignancy or emotional affect, he failed. If he was going for comic imagery that jackasses would later take out of context for laughs, mission accomplished!
Little known fact: Mohamed Atta said the same thing as the plane hit the tower.
Having exhausted the therapy potential of “yelling at him” and “hitting him”, the doctors administered electroshock therapy to him, which it had the double edged sword effect of giving him neurotypical speech patterns and also a homicidal bloodlust. For some reason in the “present day” segments of the issue Black Manta is back to his OCD autistic talk of “love swim love swim”, as though the electroshock therapy wore off. Maybe he got dosed again and the effect reverted, like when Fred Flintstone’s personality shift caused by a falling bowling ball is solved with another falling bowling ball. After subduing his enemy, Aquaman uses his hand made of water (long story) to telepathically search Black Manta’s mind, in addition to transforming him back from the hideous manta ray form back to a human. Aquaman realizes Black Manta is autistic, and “their misguided attempts at therapy CREATED THE BLACK MANTA!”. “My head feels clear for once…” Black Manta proclaims.
New murder defense: “the autism made me do it”.
Okay, let’s break this down. I’m going to give Rick Veitch the benefit of the doubt because he’s a great creator. I don’t think he tried to be offensive. Yet clearly there are some problems here, like a CHILD being institutionalized at ARKHAM ASYLUM. One can establish a character living in a dingy mental institution subject to substandard care without using the #1 vacation spot for the Joker, Two-Face and the rest. It’s like putting a baby in Guantanamo Bay, which to my knowledge we haven’t done yet. The ages don’t work out if Black Manta is a child while adult Aquaman is on television. The comic never explains why he goes back to acting autistic after decades of cogent behavior. There’s also the suggestion that mistreated autism causes people to kill. Finally, Aquaman finds himself at a juncture at which his most hated foe is a mutated autistic man whose motivations stem from a misfiring brain. All of his problems could be solved by a bag of ice and a bath tub. He didn’t need the healing properties of a water hand everybody calls “The Thirst”!
See, the message is positive. Autistic people can be bastards too. They’re not all Radio!
It doesn’t help that apparently the cure to autism fades after a few issues, but not before Black Manta reveals that autism had no relationship to his being evil. Oh, so it’s not that bad because Aquaman only ASSUMED autism was at the root of evil, it didn’t turn out to be true. Veitch still seems to think autism is like cancer in that it can go into remission or crop up again. Nevertheless, Black Manta returns to his old ways of homicide and sea conquering, next being hired by somebody to take over a version of San Diego that fell into the ocean. “Sub Diego has a large African-American community” the benefactor says. Everything is one step forward two steps back for the guy, because when he ultimately DOES take over the city his face gets eaten by resident giant shark man King Shark.
He’s become that Mel Gibson movie. You know, Forever Young.
Finally, someone actually gave a shit about Aquaman and DC put out the comic because they wanted to instead of just feeling obliged. (It’s probably because the powers that be wanted enough material for a film, but whatever.) This is the point at which Black Manta receives an origin similar to the one the movie uses and it’s a simple, succinct one. Aquaman killed Black Manta’s dad in response to Black Manta attacking Aquaman’s dad and triggering the heart attack that would eventually lead to his death. So in a fit of rage, Aquaman went looking for Black Manta and inadvertently choked Manta’s dad to death in the process. Simple, clean, easy. Everybody understands “daddy issues”. “You killed my father” may be a cliche, but it’s a sore sight better than the alternatives of “raped by longshoremen”, “Farakkhan of the sea” or “autistic serial killer”.
He may have taken over the city, but he hasn’t prevented the citizenry from writing racist graffiti about him.
It goes to show the transience of comic book characters. Barring a select few (also known as “popular characters” that “people” “like”) these creations of undercompensated Jews from the 1940s are interpreted and reinterpreted until something sticks. It took nearly 50 years for someone to come up with a reasonable and compelling enough rationale for a prominent superhero’s main villain. Hell, it took that long for him to get a FIRST NAME. (David, in case you’re wondering.) Yet with the exception of that period in which he was a man-fish, the bug eyed helmet and scuba gear look stayed the same. Superman has undergone more design changes. Why does the look stay the same while literally everything about the guy is subject to alteration? Simple: the design is cool. It hearkens to 50s and 60s robots and robot aliens from bad science fiction movies. I was very pleased to see it faithfully recreated on the silver screen. If avenging your dad ever goes out of fashion, there’ll always be that costume.
Thank you, everyone. I never plan on reading another fucking Aquaman comic again.
I found this in the course of my research. I’m sharing this with you because I hate you.