‘Black Manta’ is a stylishly gorgeous exploration of not just the title villainous character but also a variety of very pressing real-world issues told through the lens of superhero fantastical worlds. This series shows how to go about tackling a book that is about a pretty hardcore villain while also speaking to relevant topical issues with some superhero flair. This is a must-read book.
Stories that center around villains, especially super villains with very brutal pasts, are not always an easy sell. Getting people to connect with someone that has done heinous things takes a certain kind of touch or performance, making them sympathetic or charming in some way that draws the audience in.
Chuck Brown seemingly took that very much in stride with the recent Black Manta series, because he had something to say about this character. To work against that hard sale notion, Brown does well to set the character up as one that has standards about things and introduces the relationship between him and his partner and protégé Gallous the Goat. This makes his edges a little less rough, as do some of his feelings and moves about his son Jackson Hyde/Aquaman.
There is great energy to the way that Brown writes because he makes sure to give you what is needed and even a little more but doesn’t bog down the journey with anything that might be extraneous. It’s very streamlined and slimmed down but in a way that remains fun and allows the characters to really dominate the story rather than the other way around.
Overall, the big plot about an ancient rock that is awakening ancient Atlantean DNA within surface dwellers, including potentially Manta himself, is a really nice touch. With how long Atlantis has existed in this world and with how far their reach extends now and, in the past, it makes sense that there would be those that have them as ancestors in some forgotten way. Through this, we get to deal with a lot of magic and Atlantean stuff that brings in lesser-used characters like Gentleman Ghost and Doctor Mist, as well as introducing new characters such as Torrid and the new nemesis Devil Ray (who has a legit bone to pick with Manta).
Portions of the story also allow us to see that things are not so simple as hero or villain in many cases. There is a great scene with Manta’s captions about his understandably strained relationship with his son juxtaposed against a scene of kids pretending to be heroes making the one kid playing Black Manta into their villain to beat. Yet the kid playing him was one that Manta saved from pirates in the first issue and his words about Black Manta saving them showcase how often the role of hero or villain is in the eye of the beholder.
Through Devil Ray Brown also speaks to representation and generation differences. Devil Ray was a child that saw a Black man (Manta) who was able to go toe to toe with god-like characters (Aquaman) and this inspired Ray. It really speaks to the ideas of representation and who or what those of us in marginalized groups can or have to look to for guidance in our communities/society.
At the same time, Ray grows up to work under Manta but leaves disillusioned because he felt that Manta had lost his way. This speaks to a heavy consideration of current events where the younger generation sees that despite the previous generations talking a big talk, far too often some of those revolutionary talks were set aside for conformity or some status quo. Manta was one of those, becoming much like a lot of the villains that just end up doing the same stuff against the heroes and leaving their mission behind for petty grudges. Yet, in a way Devil Ray finds himself potentially teetering upon that same cliff with his actions in the series.
A rough and gritty character like Manta needs art that matches this vibe and that’s what this series has with the work of Valentine De Landro and Matthew Dow Smith who switched off on handling issues of the series.
There is a kinetic and aggressive energy to de Landro’s work, which is more than fitting to the story that is being told within these pages. Every time Manta appears on the page, there is a dangerous imposing nature surrounding him in a way that makes you feel like he might just stroll off the page and come at you.
Dow Smith’s work has a nice roughness to it while also being beautifully detailed and full of energy. It dances right on that line between detailed and out of focus/blurry in order to direct the focus where it needs to be and it works well. It’s easy to focus and follow the paneling style because of the way they’re set up with the white space working as gap borders between the panels and helping frame it all.
Through all six issues, Marissa Louise handled the colors and brought colorful shadowed darkness along that keeps the same tone across the series, no matter who the artist was for each section. There are pages where the color is more muted and standard, followed by where the colors take a sharper turn as flashes of purples and oranges and neon greens take over. It very much captures the point that Manta is a man that straddles various worlds, mostly between what we see as the ‘normal’ world and those that are far more fantastical in so many ways.
One is always going to see some great lettering work when they see Clayton Cowles’ name on a book, and that is the case here. All of the dialogue feels unique in its own way to each character, even when it looks similar or the same, which is always such a neat thing. Even the heavier dialogue pages don’t feel so heavy with the way it’s all been set out and arranged upon the page. Cowles is always great at making sure to slip in font changes to indicate yelling or emphasis, making it 100% clear what potential emotion might be behind a set of words.
Also, there are tons of fun things on the pages like SFX that range from more subtle (such as Manta cuing up a blast) to bigger bolder in your face ones (like unleashing those blasts) or the watery appearance of Devil Ray’s water form speech bubbles and caption boxes which are fantastic. It takes things up a notch, especially when “normal-looking” boxes would still have gotten the point across. But why go for ‘normal’ when you can go for something outside the box? Comic books are a pretty darn fun medium, and the best comics always remember and put that on display.
Black Manta is now available in trade paperback format from DC Comics