Warning: Spoilers below!
“See, when you’re a light in the darkness…it’s easy for monsters to find you.”
A lighthouse. It’s an essential part of the Aquaman legend. It’s his home, it’s where he grew up, it holds significant value to him. But more than that, the lighthouse is a perfect representation and encapsulation of all that Arthur is, of everything Aquaman means. A light in the dark. A hope in the unknown, guiding you and all others to home. A bridge between worlds, the known and the unknown. The dweller of the deep and the guardian of oceanic secrets, he guards the shores and watches out for anyone and everyone that needs him. A man of the land, whose calling is the ocean. A man all about one, profound thing: balance.
And thus, it’s no surprise that the iconography of the lighthouse, his home in Amnesty Bay, has grown so popular and vital over the years for Arthur Curry. And the creative team of Kelly Sue DeConnick, Robson Rocha, Daniel Henriques, Sunny Gho and Clayton Cowles really emphasize that imagery and idea here, again, as they firmly re-establish the setting of Arthur Curry. This issue even sees a very literal rebuilding of a lighthouse, a new fire being lit and all, so it’s something worth noting, especially in conjunction with some of the other choices in the issue.
But lighthouses aside, this issue’s central focus is on paying off one single promise: Jackson Hyde. The second Aqualad, the son of Black Manta, has never really been used in the Aquaman ongoing to date and this issue is really the first time we get to see the character and get a sense of him within the context of Aquaman and his world. Even the previous issue (which was fantastic) only had him on for a single page, being a promise of exploration, while this issue is very much a delivery upon that. So there’s something intensely satisfying about that, especially as we finally get to see DeConnick’s voice for the character and it is incredibly good. He feels like a real, believable teenager and it never runs into the issue that pops up when some creators take stabs at pulling off young people. Jackson is enthusiastic and anxious, ready to learn some moves and superhero better, while hoping he’s no bother, worrying about what impression he has on others. Apart from that, he always has something to say and is thoughtful, as he builds a nice little rapport with Arthur across the issue. It’s something that really clicks, contrasting with the more cocky and serious nature of Garth, as Jackson’s a bit more laidback but a mess of nervousness, talking on and on to offset that.
And the dynamic art team of Rocha, Henriques and Gho ultimately present a really cool young hero who feels relatable and exciting to read about. Even his design here gives him a neat, unique hairstyle rather than cutting corners and just making him bald or what have you. There’s a level of care and attention to detail here, which is admirable. There’s even a great little scene where in he shows off his aquakinetic powers to create a rainbow, which is fantastic. The gay man with the power of rainbow-creation, amongst a whole host of others, is pretty darn charming.
There’s also one particular panel where he simply leaps off a cliff and you see from from below as he’s falling, and it’s just spectacular. You get the shock and wonder all captured, with the eyes and expression, as well as the posture, but Rocha also throws in the the saliva leaking from his mouth, which may not be a thing you ever picture when you imagine a superhero leaping off to perform super-feats or perhaps even want to see, but Rocha and Henriques go the extra mile and present a very believable version of that moment. This is a person. A very dynamic person, but a person. And that’s kind of the goal here. This is a viewpoint character. This is the “Robin,” if you will. He’s the Watson. He’s us. He’s the companion in this insane world of sea gods and mythic heroes.
DeConnick’s comics are very concerned about rhythm and flow, which is a great fit for Aquaman and Rocha makes for a great collaborator here, as his storytelling really does have that clear, purposeful rhythm, with every moment flowing from another really nicely. It’s a smooth, comfortable reading experience, where in DeConnick and Rocha’s story is neatly guiding you, and that’s part of why this issue is laid out the way it is. Jackson being introduced to this brand new world and status quo of Aquaman as a newcomer. But his presence has more purpose than that. We’re setting up for the arrival of his father, Black Manta.
Jackson, created as Kaldur for Young Justice, has always been a fantastic concept. Here’s the son of Manta, whose entire hatred for Arthur is built on how he took the father-son relationship he had, and you give him a son, except the son despises him and treats Arthur as his father figure and mentor and stays with him. It’s the ultimate nightmare of the villain and a powerful, powerful twist to place in the mythology. Moreover, for a concept about a “man of two worlds,” someone caught between two sides, Jackson is a perfect fit. He embodies that, but on an even higher level, caught between his two father figures, the toxic and the heroic. It’s a perfectly Shakespearean addition to the turmoil and drama of a franchise built on that sort of thing. But that story? One where he’s really caught between the two, that conflict? We haven’t really ever seen that. It exists more in the potential ideaspace than it does on the page. But finally, at long last, we’re about to see that conceptually brilliant and absolutely delicious story here.
As for Manta? He’s up to the usual Year of the Villain tie-in business most others seem to be tied up in these days, as expected. But the upgrade or “gift” he gets from Lex is quite different than most or anyone might expect. He gets a giant mecha, a Megazord, a Voltron, whatever you’d like to call it. Initially it may have some people scratching their heads in confusion, because a mecha isn’t exactly hard to get for Manta. And neither is it very special or unique in the realm of comics. What’s so special about something so relatively mundane? Well, there’s a lot of thinking in play here.
Manta isn’t the sort of guy to get a “magic” or “cosmic” upgrade, nah. Neither is he the sort of accept some biological enhancements or superheroes. Oh no. Black Manta isn’t super strength, he’s a hard practiced punch in your face, a well held dagger to your heart or lasers of rage from his eyes razing you to the ground. He’s pure blunt force. And on top of that, he’s a pirate, a smuggler, a weapons man. So he’d only take a tech-based weapon, one with pure blunt force that lets him beat the snot out of Arthur, which the mecha fits. But also, it’s not just any mecha, it’s mecha built off the remains of his father, with an A.I made to simulate his dad.
Aquaman, Arthur Curry, is open, fluid and warm. He’s loving and gentle and welcoming. He has pain from his parental loss and tragedies, but he’s not locked in that pain, he lives with his arms wide open. Manta on the other hand? He just cannot. He’s toxic, unhealthy and obsessive. So if “The Call” embodies who and what Arthur is, this Mecha Manta embodies Manta. Manta locks himself in a cold, hard shell of his father’s tragedy and uses it as a weapon. He closes himself off and lives within this perversion of his feelings towards his father, while thinking about him and his thoughts. He’s the ultimate contrast to Arthur, who’s suffered similar tragedies but is a lot more healthy. But even past that, in the issue, if Arthur works with an entire community, full of warmth, to build a lighthouse, which is his representation, a warm light in the dark, Manta’s is a black chunk of murder weaponry that is anything but. KSD likes to take that which is internal and express it outwardly, as all good superhero fiction does, by connecting heroes’ skill-sets and powers with their pain and emotional states. This is a perfect demonstration of that. It totally clicks when you give it some thought. Manta is as robotic as the shell he pilots, while Arthur is as radiant as the flame he lights, never alone the way Manta is.
It’s also worth touching on the characterization of Arthur here, which as time progresses is gaining a better balance and synthesis of the noble hero of the comics and the more, cool swaggering “bro” of Jason Momoa’s portrayal in the movie. The scene where he takes off his shirt, does the devil horns and just leaps off a cliff yelling is pure Momoa, but is put together in a way such that it feels like something the Arthur we’ve been reading about for nearly a decade would do. Meanwhile, on the Atlantis end, the team continues to nail the characterization of Mera as a clever and tactical monarch who fights against any and all odds to live by her own principles and plays the political game as well as anyone. Abnett’s world-building additions The Sisterhood are used in fun ways, as the team calls back to the cool Ninth Tride, the almost Gotham or Hell’s Kitchen of Atlantis, which Abnett and Sejic built, once again adding nice connective tissue to the past work, while this run goes to different places.
The greatest strength of this run at the moment remains its ability to really write people as believable people, with all their little back-and-forths and fears and hopes, balancing an almost slice-of-life element with that of divine myth and the epic scope of that, as well as the oncoming terrors of cosmic horror in form of Lovecraftian beings of ancient power. It all feels seamless and somehow works, as DeConnick and Rocha have a spot-on voice for seemingly everyone involved. All in all, Aquaman #51 is a solid issue that introduces Jackson Hyde to us and him to the world of Aquaman and boy have we needed an issue like it for ages. It’s been a long time coming and this delivers.