Aquaman has experienced quite the renaissance at DC in recent years. Since the New 52, he’s had critically acclaimed runs by Geoff Johns, Jeff Parker, and Dan Abnett. Each of these creators built on what came before them, establishing Aquaman as one of DC’s most additive franchises in recent memory. Now the torch has passed to Kelly Sue DeConnick, and thus far her run has continued the character’s streak of success. Joining her for most of this run is the fantastic art team of Robson Rocha on pencils, Daniel Henriques on inks, and Sunny Gho on colors, with the always amazing Clayton Cowles on lettering.
Aquaman #54 continues the arc “Amnesty,” which features the return of Arthur’s longtime nemesis: Black Manta. This issue specifically is a Year of the Villain tie in, meaning it is part of DC’s line-wide initiative to push powered-up versions of their supervillains. Each Year of the Villain issue places special focus on a villain, with this issue having Black Manta flashbacks drawn by Jesus Merino and inked by Vicente Cifuentes. Despite being somewhat constrained by tying into Year of the Villain, the creative team has crafted another solid entry to this Aquaman run.
As a Year of the Villain tie in, Black Manta is the central focus of this issue. DeConnick provides some deeply interesting depth to his character. Manta has always been somewhat of a one note villain; since the New 52 he has been purely characterized by his intense hatred of Arthur. We get several flashback sequences of Manta as a child. These describe his relationship with his father, as well as providing insight into how he became the man he is. In the present, Manta operates a giant robot with an AI based on his father. Manta makes several tweaks to the AI to make him more obedient, and I have neither the qualifications nor the time to unpack all that.
At the end of the issue, Manta reveals to the new Aqualad, Jackson Hyde (who is also Black Manta’s son), that Aquaman killed Manta’s father. This story beat is from Manta’s New 52 origin in Johns’ Aquaman run, and it’s a piece of continuity I’ve found problematic as someone against heroes killing. DeConnick addressing this in her run and leading up to Arthur and Jackson discussing it is an exciting opportunity for this moment to be analyzed with a new lens. Ultimately, Manta is still the same person: a man consumed by revenge and hate with no room for anything else. Yet DeConnick provides quality character work to add a bit more depth to this iconic villain.
In addition to strong writing, this Aquaman run has had an excellent art team. Rocha, Henriques, and Gho bring bold mythology to life on these pages and made possible the tonal shift between Abnett and DeConnick’s stories. That said, they are not quite able to shine in their usual capacity. This art team excels at drawing hulking monsters, rippling water, and all-powerful gods. This issue does not provide too many of these moments, as it mostly focuses on Aquaman’s battle with Black Manta’s giant mech. There are two pages here where the team properly lets loose, but most of the issue they feel limited to typical superhero action. The flashbacks are drawn by another art team, though they do a passable job conforming to the style of the other artists. There’s nothing too notable art-wise about these sequences, but they work for the story being told. Cowles’ lettering suffers similarly to the artists, however his choice of word balloon for Black Manta’s robo daddy AI is unique and stands out appropriately. Even the writing has suffered here, with this issue feeling like the most decompressed of the entire run. This team has put in incredible content issue after issue, yet it feels as though this Year of the Villain tie in has knocked everyone a little off balance.
Like many line-wide initiatives, Year of the Villain has limited the vision of creators and interrupted their stories. Though this issue suffers by being a tie-in, it continues a story that is overall very strong. Black Manta receives some much-needed character work, and when allowed the art continues to shine. Aquaman #54 is a bit of a lull in an excellent run, but that lull is still comparatively quality comics.