Even though the underwater hero Aquaman has been around in the DC Universe since 1941, he didn’t really have an arch-enemy of his own until the ‘60s. Although some fans cite Ocean Master as King Arthur of Atlantis’ main foe, we think that title goes to Black Manta. He’s had a few different origin stories over the decades, but his memorable armored look made him forever iconic. Before Yahya Abdul-Mateen’s return to the role in Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom, let’s take a deep dive (pun intended) into the history of Black Manta.
Black Manta’s DC Comics History
Black Manta first appeared as an antagonist for Arthur Curry in Aquaman #35 in 1967. He had no civilian name and his true appearance behind the black helmet and diving suit was a mystery. In that first story, Black Manta and his “Manta Men” attack Atlantis and, despite this being his first appearance, Aquaman describes him as “an old enemy.” In a foreshadowing of much darker things to come, Black Manta kidnaps Arthur Jr., Aquaman’s son. But Aquaman’s other arch-enemy Ocean Master rescues him.
Black Manta would continue to plague Aquaman throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s, first in his solo series, then in the anthology titles like Adventure Comics. What really elevated Black Manta to iconic status, however, were Saturday morning cartoons. He was a recurring bad guy in the ‘60s Superman/Aquaman Hour series, and was a part of the Legion of Doom in Challenge of the Super Friends in 1978. This made Black Manta known to millions of kids who never read a single comic book.
It’s quite possible that Black Manta was part of a long line of DC heroes created for outside media that just debuted in comics first. Both Batgirl and the second Aqualad were part of this group. The Aquaman issue introducing him had a cover date of August 1967. Black Manta then appeared in the first episode of the Superman/Aquaman Adventure Hour one month later in September 1967. It’s likely that they created him for the cartoon, the folks at DC heard about him, and so he debuted in the comics first.
Black Manta’s Many DC Comics Origins
For a long time, Black Manta was just a cool name and a cooler costume. He had almost no backstory. He finally took off his helmet in a 1977 story, revealing that he was an African-American man. He explained how he was trying to establish an underwater colony where his people would live freely without the persecution of the surface world. (How he planned for them all to breathe underwater remains a mystery.) This continued a problematic comic book trope, of African-American characters needing a codename with the word “black” in it. Several characters were a part of this trope, like Black Goliath, Black Lightning, and more. But Manta’s backstory reveal gave him more actual motivation than before.
Black Manta’s First Aquaman Origin Story
Manta would not get his first origin story until 1992, in Aquaman vol. 4 #6. In a flashback, they showed the boy who would grow up to be Black Manta growing up in Maryland, somewhere near the Chesapeake Bay. One unfortunate day, he was playing near the ocean when a group of pirates kidnapped him. They forced him to become their unwilling servant aboard their ship.
He spent years abused and tortured by these pirates, forced to do their bidding. One day, he saw Aquaman swimming through the ocean with dolphins, and signaled him for a rescue. But Aquaman didn’t see or hear him. But the young boy felt he ignored him, and it began a lifelong grudge. Once the boy was able to escape, he became a vicious pirate himself. And he now harbored a deep hatred for the King of the Seven Seas.
Black Manta’s Batman-Related Origin Story
Years later, a new origin story emerged, one that tied Manta to Batman’s home city. They revealed that the young child was diagnosed with autism and, because of caretakers who didn’t understand his condition, was committed to Arkham Asylum. While staying at Arkham, doctors there subjected him to experimental treatments designed to cure him. But they ended up having the opposite effect, making him grow up into the extremely violent criminal he became. Around this time, they finally revealed Manta’s real name—David Hyde. They also revealed that his son, Jackson Hyde, had become the superhero Aqualad II, spitting in the face of his father’s hatred.
The New 52 Black Manta Backstory
The New 52 reboot of 2011 was controversial, but Geoff Johns’s Aquaman run was celebrated. And here, Black Manta got yet another new origin story. In this iteration, Black Manta was a mercenary who was paid to obtain a sample of Arthur Curry’s blood to see if he was really from Atlantis. During the attack, Arthur’s father Thomas Curry dies of a heart attack. Blaming Manta and seeking vengeance, Arthur attacked the vessel that Black Manta was on, but accidentally killed his father instead. Blaming each other for losing their respective fathers, a rivalry began that would go on forever. Much of the cinematic Aquaman’s backstory drew inspiration from the New 52 run.
Black Manta Kills Aquaman’s Son, Arthur Jr., a.k.a “Aquababy”
While many villains threaten the lives of their respective enemy’s loved ones, few ever go through with it. The Joker killing Robin notwithstanding. But in 1977, Black Manta did the unthinkable in DC Comics and murdered Aquaman’s child Arthur Jr., also known as Aquababy. As revenge for his string of defeats at the hands of the Sea King, Black Manta kidnaps Arthur Jr. and places the water-breathing child in a bubble, slowly filling it with air and suffocating him.
Although Aquaman defeats Manta, he’s too late to save his son, and Arthur Jr. suffocates to death. It’s a horrible fate and a truly dark story for a Bronze Age-era comic. Our guess is someone at DC Editorial really didn’t care for Aquababy. The “Death of a Prince” storyline had huge ramifications for Aquaman as a character, and ultimately led to the end of his marriage to Queen Mera, who blamed her husband for their child’s death.
Black Manta’s Powers
Black Manta has no innate powers to speak of, although he is quite adept at various forms of combat. However, his suit packs quite a wallop. His high-tech diving suit allows him to have not only an indefinite oxygen supply underwater, but also protects him from the crushing depths and freezing cold of the ocean. The suit also allows Black Manta to increase his own strength and gives him incredible speed underwater. It’s resistant to bullets and plasma weapons, and this allows him to go toe to toe with Aquaman, despite just having average human strength. It can fire a variety of deadly plasma blasts as well.
Black Manta’s Role in Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom
In the first Aquaman movie, Yahya Abdul-Mateen portrayed the Black Manta. The origin story in the 2018 James Wan film sticks pretty close to the DC Comics New 52 version. He’s a high-tech pirate alongside his father, and when his dad dies after an incident involving Aquaman, he vows revenge. He attacks Arthur Curry in Italy, but Arthur ultimately defeats him. But as the post-credits scene shows us, Black Manta definitely did not die. All signs point to Manta trying to exact his revenge on the King of Atlantis in Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom.
The Black Manta Spin-off The Trench
Warner Bros. planned a spin-off film for Black Manta called The Trench. We saw Aquaman face off against the monsters who live in the undersea trench in the 2018 film. James Wan revealed that The Trench was secretly a stealth solo Black Manta movie. When Warner Bros. canceled those plans, ideas for the spin-off found their way into the sequel Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom.
Black Trident in Aquaman 2
In the trailer, we see that Black Manta is wielding the Black Trident, a relic from Atlantis from before King Atlan’s time. Chances are we are going to see Trident vs. Trident in the upcoming sequel. This would put Manta on equal footing with his famous nemesis. We’ll find out when Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom hits theaters on December 22, 2023.