Friday, February 22, 2019

Black Supervillains: Black Manta

Let this be a lesson to those who insult his helmet
Name: David Hyde

First Appearance: Aquaman #35 (1967)

History: David Hyde aka Black Manta was a treasure hunter who operated with his father on the high seas. At some point he was approached by a scientist named Stephen Shin, a man obsessed with proving the existence of Atlantis. Shin hires Black Manta to steal a blood sample of the half-Atlantean son of his acquaintance and lighthouse keeper Tom Curry. Taking the job, David and Tom had a struggle which resulted in the older man dying from a heart attack. Enraged, Tom’s son Arthur Curry, who would one day became the superhero known as Aquaman, swam out to Manta’s boat and murdered who he thought was David…except it turned out to be David’s own father. Swearing revenge, Black Manta gave up treasure hunting and instead dedicated his life to one singular purpose: kill Aquaman and destroy everything he holds dear.

Beta Says: Obvious we’re doing something a little different with Black Manta, as he is in no way a hero. He’s a card-carrying villain, one that wouldn’t be interested in redemption if it was on the table (unless it somehow included killing Aquaman, of course). Unlike Amanda Waller or Bronze Tigers, characters who either have altruistic motives or were forced to be villainous due to brainwashing, Manta is as evil as they get in DC Comics and would happily kill any number of innocent people in the world so long as his nemesis was one of them. The reason we’re looking at this guy is twofold: 1) he represents something far more rare than black superheroes in comics; black supervillains in comics. The number of villains who happen to black is very, very low and when they do show up they are almost always racially motivated and the whole thing ends up being incredibly awkward at best and racists stereotypes at worst. Black Manta does not do evil for the greater good, nor does he do it because of injustice faced by his people. He does evil because he is a psychopath who’s only thinks about his vendetta against Aquaman and his being black doesn’t figure into it at all. And that’s awesome.

2) He looks super cool. If you disagree feel free to jog on.

More on the scourge of the seas after the jump.

Black Manta is his natural state
Before we can get into a deep dive into Black Manta I should first point out the origin listed in the “History” section of this page is actually one of three origins for the character. Despite being created in 1967, and being Aquaman’s archenemy for decades, it wouldn’t be until 1993 that DC Comics ever bothered to give us any of the character’s backstory or motivation for why he hated the king of Atlantis (we didn’t even get a full name for another twenty years, and even then “David Hyde” might just be an alias). When they did finally tell us they would eventually heavily retconned this origin two more times.

Originally, Black Manta was a kid who was kidnapped by sailors who forced him to work on their ship where they apparently physically, and sexually, abused him. He once spotted Aquaman swimming nearby and called out to him but the hero seemingly didn’t hear him. Since then Manta developed a hatred for the sea and by extension Aquaman. His second origin states that he was a mostly non-verbal autistic child who was being treated at Arkham Asylum for some reason. He only felt truly calm when submerged in cold water but that didn’t stop the Arkham staff FROM CONDUCTING EXPERIMENTS ON A CHILD. These experiments did allow him to became verbal but they also turned him violent. As an adult, because he was a violent killer who only truly felt at peace underwater, it was apparently just a matter a time before he came into conflict with Aquaman. A final retcon that took place with the New 52 which did away with all that other silliness and replaced it with a deeply personal revenge cycle that threatens to consume both Black Manta and Aquaman, as both men were responsible for the death of the other’s father. It’s a far better, much less convoluted background for the villain.

Speaking of background, despite being created in 1967 it may be difficult to think of Black Manta as one of the first black characters in comic books, as he is not revealed to be black until 1977, having never once removed his helmet in the ensuing ten years. I find it highly dubious that his original creators, Bob Haney and Nick Cardy, were envisioning a black man under that helmet.

"People call me 'Black Manta' but I prefer 'African-American Manta'."
Anyway, Black Manta is usually portrayed a as treasure hunter/mercenary/pirate who is constantly in conflict with Aquaman. He wears a battle suit that not only allows him to function underwater but grants him with strength that allows him to fight the superhumanly strong Arthur Curry on more or less even terms. He also can often shoot energy beams out of his eyes. His vendetta against the king of Atlantis is more consuming for him than the average villain, and once escalated to the point of him murdering Aquaman’s young son (a move that helped transition the hero to a brooding, almost antihero during the 1990s). Another time, when Aquaman had apparently died, Manta retired and opened a bait shop or something. Then when he saw Aquaman alive and well on the news he apparently shrugged his shoulders, killed all his customers, burned his store to the ground, and went back to work. Fighting Aquaman is all he knows.

He also has a son, Jackson Hyde/Kaldur'ahm aka Aqualad II (the same character who appears in the Young Justice cartoon and whom I’m sure we’ll talk about sooner or later), but the two haven’t interacted as much as you would think. They did recently find themselves at odds in the pages of the Teen Titans. Considering his own issues with his father, his relationship with Kaldur'ahm should be an important reoccurring theme.

As I said earlier, the reason I dig Black Manta has a lot to do with the fact that he is one of the few black villains around. He’s also not a thug, not really, and certainly doesn’t have any traits associated with negative stereotypes. His war against Aquaman, and sometimes the sea itself, has nothing to do with his ethnic background. He’s a prominent black character in DC Comics where his being black isn’t the dominant aspect of his personalities or goals. In a lot of ways, he’s the perfect POC representation. I mean, he’s at least better than Falcon since none of his retcons involve him secretly being a pimp.

And then Black Manta turned into Literal Black Manta
Of course there was the time that Black Manta made a deal with Mephisto the demon Neron and had his marriage erased got turned into a literal manta man. That was dumb but thankfully didn’t last long.

Traditionally, Aquaman has been considered a joke in pop culture, mainly due to his portrayal in the Super Friends cartoon. As a result Black Manta, despite being used regularly in adaptations, hadn’t really gotten a chance in the spotlight despite his many years of publication. That changed recently with the release of the Aquaman movie, which has gone on to be the most profitable of the new DC movies. Black Manta appears in the film, portrayed by Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, and is the center of the one of the coolest sequences in the flick. Likely, Manta’s exposure is at an all time high and will likely keep him as a top tier villain in the comics for some time to come.

Manta: "Damn it, son! Our family is in the Aquaman killing business!"
Aqualad: "God, Dad! You just don't understand me!"
For more on Black Manta click here. Next time we’ll be finishing off Black Superhero Month with a double-header, as we take a look of at a double-act of heroes who were created alongside one of the more iconic black superheroes in history but have been unable to reach that level of notoriety.

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