Review: Black Manta trade paperback (DC Comics)

I wouldn’t go so far as to say a consistent characterization for Black Manta has been established among DC Comics' writer set. But, between Aquaman writers including Geoff Johns and Dan Abnett, and particularly some good work Sean Ryan did on New Suicide Squad some years back, I’ve long since learned a Black Manta story is worth paying attention to. Not good but not quite evil, often playing to his own unique moral code, a story with Black Manta rarely disappoints.

And so too with Chuck Brown’s Black Manta miniseries, running concurrent with Brandon Thomas' Aquaman: The Becoming and leading in to the Aquamen miniseries. I might ordinarily quibble with an uncharacteristic amount of the supernatural in a Black Manta story (vs. the geopolitics and spy double-dealings of the aforementioned New Suicide Squad Vol. 2: Monsters). But for one, I think Manta David Hyde has come far enough that he can withstand such genre shifts, and for two, Brown does well in making it all work. Artists Valentine de Landro and Matthew Dow Smith are both gifts here, bringing to Manta a gritty minimalist style we might otherwise expect from something like Gotham Central.

[Review contains spoilers for Black Manta and Aquaman: The Becoming]

In one of Manta’s various twists, Brown suggests that Black Manta is descended from the Atlantean “Deserter” tribe, one of Johns' seven kingdoms of Atlantis. It’s not my favorite development, as I’d rather Aquaman do battle with the non-Atlantean, human supervillain Black Manta and leave such Atlantean conflicts to Aquaman’s rivalry with Ocean Master. But neither does it seem like Brown or Thomas will have Manta growing gills any time soon, as it seems plenty “surface dwellers” out there have Atlantean genes.

[See the latest DC trade solicitations.]

I do wonder if this will be swept under the rug or if Thomas will pick it up in Aquaman. Aqualad Jackson Hyde, Manta’s son, has just spent six issues of Aquaman: The Becoming on the run specifically because he’s from Xebel and not Atlantis, though now Jackson’s heritage is both human, Xebelian, and Atlantean. Again, whether that small strain of Atlantean DNA will be enough to redefine these characters or if Brown’s miniseries will end up a footnote remains to be seen.

Specifically, Brown makes explicit what’s been suggested before, that the Deserter tribe settled in Africa, and so African-descended people across the world are essentially “African Atlanteans.” Indeed, in large part Brown’s story hearkens back to Manta’s late 1970s portrayal, in which David Michelinie and Jim Aparo established Black Manta as a Black man seeking to conquer Atlantis as a new Black homeland, a place that was, it turns out, his ancestral home. (These motivations for Manta are not wholly unproblematic, but an improvement on “black” simply being code for “villainous” as it had been for Manta’s 10 years prior.)

With the Manta miniseries, Brown grafts this conception on to the here and now, presenting a Black Manta whose ideals have largely given way to seeking treasure for profit. This runs him afoul of a disaffected “Mantaman” who soured on his former hero when he found Manta spending more time fighting Aquaman than systematic racism. The so-called “Devil Ray” is “wrong” in terms of opposing our protagonist and trying to poison the Atlanteans, but not entirely wrong in terms of his criticisms of Manta.

In this, Brown does well portraying many different facets of Black experience — a young idealist in Devil Ray, with Manta as an older, tempered sovereign, for better or worse. Gallous the Goat, Manta’s assistant, parallels Devil Ray, taking up Manta’s lost convictions without necessarily resenting him for losing them — and all, of course, remind Manta of estranged son Jackson. Brown rounds out the book with a largely Black cast, including Dr. Mist and Wonder Woman’s Nubia. It is nice to see a DC book spotlighting their Black characters beside just from Milestone, though perhaps even better if there was more opportunity than just an anti-hero’s miniseries.

It is in Dr. Mist, in Manta teaming with an escapee from Hades, and in Manta using Gentleman Ghost to peer back in time that Black Manta gets surprisingly supernatural, more Justice League Dark than Aquaman, really.1 Again, that’s not where I’m used to seeing Manta, but de Landro and Dow Smith help a lot, not to mention Marissa Louise’s muted color palette. It would be one thing to place a spectral Manta against the background of ancient Atlantis depicted cheerfully by Paul Pelletier, for instance, but it feels far more of a kind when drawn with Dow Smith’s thin, sketchy lines and Louise’s sicky greens.



In all I’m (excited but) a bit hesitant about Aquamen; Black Manta becoming a tried-and-true ally of Arthur seems too much change for the character (nor do I think DC would stick with that long-term anyway). But I’m glad to see Manta get the spotlight and Chuck Brown does fine work in Black Manta. It neither seems Brown nor Brandon Thomas are sticking around DC much longer, more’s the pity; I’ve enjoyed what each of them have done and I’ve been glad to see these takes on the Aqua-family that are more than business as usual.

[Includes original and variant covers, character designs]

  1. Though Aquaman himself took a pretty convincing spin with the JLD recently in Justice League Dark: The Great Wickedness.  ↩


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