“Good men can do bad things, Mr. Maurer. Things for which they must take responsibility.”
This is the idea that’s at the heart of this current issue of Aquaman, as well as the entire arc beginning from the Mother Shark flashbacks. There are other things, such as history, which is also vital, which we’ll get into in a moment, but even those things serve to tie together and underline this fundamental idea.
Arthur Curry is a good man. The Aquaman is a hero. We know that. We’re aware of that. And yet…he’s also the man who stole the life of Black Manta’s father. He’s a man who killed in a fit of rage and wronged another man who wasn’t responsible. Some may argue that Manta’s father was a criminal who’d done terrible things, which is likely true, but nothing justifies Arthur angrily taking the life of this man because he could in a fit of rage, driven by revenge and hate. And that, that mistake hangs over him. It probably always will, as Manta will eternally hunt him for his sin. Manta isn’t just a man, he’s the living embodiment of Arthur’s mistakes. He’s the face of his horrors. He is the monster of Arthur’s making, in some ways. Arthur isn’t responsible for what he does, but he will always live knowing, Manta wouldn’t quite be who he is, if not for his own actions.
And so the good man, who cannot take back his actions, who cannot absolve his actions or past, must constantly deal with that. Manta thus becomes the face of the past that always threatens to shackle you and break you. And on the other end of that, you have Mera and the baby, this promise of the future. This unknown and other terrifying thing that speaks to not what was or has been, but what may be, what could be, if a good man is able to overcome his past. That works on both the Manta front but more crucially in the context of this current arc’s context of the relationship as well. Arthur’s a man who, upon being told of his wife being pregnant, responded like he’d been struck by lightning and felt he needed to leave for the moment. And from that, with superheroically operatic drama of an outburst being a literal earthshaking one, we arrived here. To this moment, where Arthur and Mera both love each other, want to be with each other, want this future, but can’t quite be the one to break past their ego to heal the tiny little rift of the past. The past holds them back.
That aspect, the haunting of history permeates the whole book, really. It’s literalized in the form of Tristan Maurer, the 200+ years old horror writer, sea captain and founder of Amnesty Bay. He is living history. And he is also the literal monster from the past few issues. Yet he is also a man. A man and a monster. Capable of both good and bad. Not quite dualities but symmetries. He is a man drawn to those with rage, hate and anger, who cannot forgive, whether it be themselves or others. He is a being that, in some sense, is there to bear witness, as to what choice those he’s drawn to ultimately make. Man or Monster? And once more, as essentially a cosmic spirit, he’s here, haunting the narrative, watching our characters, who’re filled with such history, even Arthur, Mera and Manta aside. For we have Kaldur, the son of Manta, who has his own painful history here. The blood of Manta, the title of Aquaman. What path will he choose? Man or Monster?
That is the question that haunts the issue and story as we move forward. Are we better than our lowest points, our greatest errors and our most painful traumas, the ties of the past that threaten to weaken us? Or do we just give in? The creative team of Kelly Sue DeConnick, Robson Rocha, Daniel Henriques, Sunny Gho and Clayton Cowles ask that of us and the characters as we go on. Our choices define us and in the face of the struggles to come, there’ll have to be some tough ones made.