Aquaman Villains Explained: Who is Black Manta?

Get ready to meet one of the most important Aquaman villains of all time! Here's the history of Black Manta.

Black Manta has been a fan favorite villain for decades, and now, moviegoers are about to be introduced to one of the (if not the) most important Aquaman villains ever, when Yahya Abdul-Mateen II puts on the iconic helmet in James Wan’s Aquaman movie. And it’s about time. 

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But how much do you know about this unique villain? Join use as we delve into the ocean depths and discover the history of the enigmatic, helmeted Aquaman villain. It’s a history that reveals three separate origins, infanticide, and torture. Intrigued yet? Well, hop onto the giant seahorse of history (what?) and read on…

Aquaman #35 - DC Comics

The Early Days

In the Golden Age and early Silver Age, Aquaman wasn’t really known for his A-list rogues gallery. He fought pirates, sea monsters, and odd duck aliens, but nothing really super compelling. Then, Black Manta came along and things changed (sing it, Sebastian!) under the sea.

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Black Manta first appeared in Aquaman #35 (1967) and was created by Bob Haney and Nick Cardy. In an odd bit of business, when Aquaman and his family first encounter Black Manta, the Sea King acts like he has encountered the underwater villain before. Haney and Cardy proceeded as if Manta was a long time Aquaman foe instead of a newly-introduced threat to the world of Atlantis. Perhaps this was to make Manta seem important right away or maybe it was to give readers a sense that Aquaman actually did have a cadre of threatening villains.

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In this initial appearance, Manta poisons the waters around Atlantis and battles an amnesiac Ocean Master. For those not in the know, Ocean Master is actually Aquaman’s evil brother, but at the time of Manta’s debut, Ocean Master, real name Orm, was suffering from memory loss. So Orm helps Aquaman defeat Black Manta and it’s kind of cool that Manta and Ocean Master share page time in Manta’s debut. After all, the two villains serve as duel threats in the Aquaman movie.

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Interestingly, Manta also kidnaps Aquaman’s son Arthur Jr., aka Aquababy ( yeah, I know) in this sotry. Aquaman, Mera, and Ocean Master rescue the infant Prince of Atlantis, but when Black Manta next encounters Aquababy, things take a darker turn. Wait for it…

Black Manta, Bizarro, Captain Cold

Meanwhile, at the Hall of Doom…

Most comic fans of a certain age know Black Manta from the Super Friends cartoon. This classic ‘toon is probably the reason why so many people think Aquaman is a joke (nice sea sled!), but Black Manta really was a standout Saturday morning superstar. His voice (performed by Ted Cassidy (Hell yeah, Lurch from The Addams Family), was chilling and really captured the imagination. In a bit of early animation genius, the Super Friends version of Black Manta’s eyes would blink as the distorted voice of Cassidy rung out. 

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I think all us oldster comic fans have been dying for an accurate big screen Black Manta ever since the formative days of the Super Friends. So thank you, James Wan. Thank you.

Aquaman, Death of Aquababy

Infanticide.  No, really.

For over a decade, Black Manta was a constant threat to Aquaman and Atlantis. But not much was known about this him until Adventure Comics #452 (1977) by David Michelinie and Jim Aparo. In this issue, Black Manta finally unmasks (unhelmets?), and it’s revealed that the man behind the bulbous battle helmet was an African-American man trying to conquer the undersea realms to find a home for his people. 

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Manta then kidnapped Aquababy once again, and using Arthur Jr. as a hostage, Manta forced Aquaman and Aqualad to fight to the death. Manta traps the infant in a shrinking bubble of air as Aquaman has no choice but fight his heroic adopted son Aqualad. Aquaman attempts a rescue, but it is too late, and Aquababy drowns in the air bubble.

Yeah, Black Manta violently and horrifically kills his arch enemy’s infant son. That wasn’t done much in the comics of the era. This solidified Black Manta as one of DC’s most evil villains. I mean, does Luthor kill a baby? Penguin? Crazy Quilt? I think not. Black Manta is one cold bastard, make no mistake. There’s your Aquaman 2 story, folks.

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The Origin

Even after the whole murdering a baby thing, Black Manta didn’t have a proper origin story. Decades after his debut, Manta finally received an origin in Aquaman vol. 4 #6 (1992) by Shaun McLaughlin and Ken Hooper. After decades, the creative team revealed that as a boy, Black Manta was kidnapped and forced to work on a ship filled with salty dudes. Lonely, scared, and desperate, the young Black Manta saw Aquaman swim by. On that fateful night, young Manta cried out to Aquaman to save him, but Aquaman failed to act. From then on, Manta held a deep hatred for all things Atlantean, particularly the Sea King.

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Now, I get Manta was pissed, but that doesn’t really justify baby murder! Whatever the case, Black Manta’s backstory was told, but like the ocean waves themselves, Manta’s origins proved to be amorphous and ever-changing.

The Other Origin

Which brings us to Aquaman vol. 6 #8 (2003) by Rick Veitch and Yvel Guichet. The spurned by a Sea King origin didn’t stick, so a number of years later DC attempted to come up with another backstory for Black Manta. And this one is as dark as the bottom of the deepest ocean trench.

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In this second attempt at a Black Manta origin, it is revealed that as a boy, Manta had severe sensory issues as he could not stand the feel of cotton and the only thing that can calm the future villain was immersion into cold water. The poor kid was put in Arkham Asylum where the staff would frequently restrain him on his bed…with cotton sheets. Later, the boy was a subject of cruel experimentation. His mind cleared, but severe violent tenancies were unleashed. Growing up, the tormented boy was fascinated by Aquaman and, yikes, there you go.

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Watch Super Friends now and imagine Black Manta as a person on the spectrum victimized by ignorance and cruel torture. Yikes.

Brightest Day, Young Justice, and the Other OTHER Origin

It can be reasonably said that the legacy of Black Manta owes as much to animation as it does to comics. That animated legacy continued in the Young Justice animated series (it’s coming back!). In this milestone piece of DC animation, Black Manta’s son was introduced, a heroic young man who would go on to become Aqualad. This all new Aqualad had to overcome his father’s vile legacy to take his rightful place besides Young Justice.

This idea of Black Manta as a father was shunted over into the comics by Geoff Johns in 2011’s Brightest Day miniseries. Before the events of Brightest Day, Aquaman was believed dead.  At peace, with his arch nemesis sleeping with the fishes, Black Manta retired from his life of baby murder and opened a fish market. When the Sea King is resurrected (because comics!), Black Manta goes mad, murders all his customers, and once again dons his distinctive ginormous helmet and returns to his life plunder and death.

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During this return, Manta learns that he has a son, and, after decades, readers finally learn that Manta’s real name is David Hyde. Hyde was once a young husband and treasure hunter. When he and his wife were exploring the Bermuda Triangle, they were kidnapped by violent brigands from the sea realm of Xebel. You know else is from Xebel? Mera, that’s who. David Hyde’s wife was pregnant at the time and David, mom to be, and unborn baby were experimented on. What’s with the baby violence?

The infant was given hard water powers and fearing that the cruel Xebels would use the infant as a weapon, Mera rescues the child. Later, Manta and his child Aqualad are reunited during the events of Brightest Day. It seems after over four decades, Black Manta had an origin that stuck-and a family.

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Black Manta and Aquaman in DC's New 52

The New 52…and ANOTHER Origin

Well, until the New 52, that is. With the reboot of DC continuity, the new Aqualad, the son of Black Manta was gone, and Manta was a mystery once again. Here, Geoff Johns and Ivan Reis added another piece to the Manta puzzle. In these issues, readers learn that, years before the first confrontation between Manta and Aquaman, the Sea King had killed Manta’s father. This creates a need for vengeance within the black heart of Black Manta. This is, unsurprisingly, the version most similar to the one we see on screen in the Aquaman movie.

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The New 52 version of Black Manta was front and center in the Forever Evil crossover event and also worked with the Suicide Squad. Hey, James Gunn, welcome to the DCU! Now, perhaps put Black Manta into your Suicide Squad 2 script?

Aquaman opens on Dec. 21.