Retro Review: Adventure Comics #452 (1977) – “Dark Destiny, Deadly Dreams”
Retro Review takes a look at iconic issues of DC Comics books and measures their artistic integrity against their cultural and symbolic importance to the DC Universe and comic books in general.
Adventure Comics #452 – “Dark Destiny, Deadly Dreams”
Written by David Michelinie
Pencils & Inks by Jim Aparo
Colours by Jerry Serpe
Letters by Jim Aparo
Published: August, 1977 (DC Comics)
The 1970’s marked a shift in the tone of superhero comic books. With the loosening of restricted content by the Comics Code Authority, the perhaps overly optimistic tone of the Silver Age of Comics was eroded by the storylines of the Bronze Age, which dealt with more mature subject matter including, among other things, racism, sexual violence, and drug abuse. The now famous run of Green Lantern/Green Arrow has come to epitomize this shift in tone, but it is far from the only or most enduring example. In fact, in can be argued that the event with the longest lasting impact to come out of the Bronze Age was part of an Aquaman storyline unfolding in the backup pages of Adventure Comics.
When Aquaman’s first solo run ended after 56 issues, the King of the Sea was once again relegated to guest appearances and backup features. Years later, his backup feature returned in Adventure Comics and kicked off a storyline which, though nameless at the time, would later be known as “Death of a Prince”, in which a cadre of Aquaman villains assault the King of the Sea. The storyline had several twists and turns, including the dethroning of Aquaman by the Atlantean Council, but two of the biggest consequences of the arc occurred in Adventure Comics #542 – the end of the partnership between Aquaman and Aqualad, and the death of Arthur Curry Jr., also known as Aquababy.
The issue picks up where the last left off: Aqualad is missing, and Aquababy has been kidnapped by Topo, the former octopus sidekick of Aquaman. While pursuing Topo, Aquaman is ambushed by the mercenaries of the mysterious “usurper” of the city of the Idylists – a purple-eyed pacifist sect of Atlanteans. When Aquaman attempts to use his marine telepathy to get help from a hammerhead shark, he is betrayed, knocked unconscious, and held captive in a cell along with Aqualad. The usurper eventually reveals himself to be Black Manta, who plans to take control of the underwater realm. Black Manta demands that Aquaman and Aqualad fight to the death with the life of Arthur Jr. hanging in the balance, forcing Aquaman to turn on his sidekick. With Topo’s aid, they escape the death trap, but not before Black Manta could escape, leaving Arthur Jr. dead.
By this point in his publication history, Black Manta was already firmly established as Aquaman’s greatest archenemy, but in “Dark Destiny, Deadly Dreams”, David Michelinie’s script cements this position two-fold. The death threat against Aquaman’s son forced him to turn on his most loyal sidekick, and though Aqualad concedes that he would do the same in Aquaman’s position, seeing his friend and mentor turn on him so viciously shatters the bond of trust between them. And when Aqualad tells Aquaman that he can no longer be his partner, refusing to join in the hunt for Black Manta, Aquaman in turn feels betrayed; their partnership is wedged apart both from outside and from within. Add to that the ultimate tragedy of the issue – the death of Aquababy – and Michelinie not only takes Black Manta to the darkest place he had gone to date, but he set up the previously unprecedented emotional anguish that characterized Aquaman in several later incarnations.
Unfortunately, the fallout of these events aren’t really felt until subsequent issues, and though Jim Aparo’s artwork does a fine job of capturing the terror and anguish and heartbreak of the various conflicts, it isn’t really enough to solve some of the more glaring details of Michelinie’s writing. There are several instances where page breaks jump through time without any indication of that time passing. The result is the constant feeling that you’ve missed a page, which only serves to remove you from the narrative. Similarly, there is a very short sequence which takes place above the surface of the ocean which, though important later on, is entirely tangential to the events of this issue. It is strange because this particular installment of Adventure Comics is a lead feature with no backup, following a relatively linear story. That single page diversion, much like the bizarre page breaks, grinds the issue’s momentum to a halt, which proves problematic in terms of the reader’s emotional investment, particularly given that much of the emotional fallout does not take place within the issue proper.
But perhaps the strangest aspect of Michelinie’s script has to do with Black Manta himself. Though this issue is famous for the death of Aquababy, it is likewise famous for what it reveals about Aquaman’s archenemy. It turns out, Black Manta is actually black. This isn’t especially shocking in and of itself, but what makes this reveal somewhat infamous is that Manta’s motivation for conquering the ocean is to give black people a place to be “masters” after having been oppressed for so long on land. It’s a racial motivation that had never before been part of the character’s actions and which feels both unearned and unnecessary. The proof of that is the fact that, with the exception of a couple of casual mentions in the issues which followed, this motivation was quickly dropped and forgotten about. Ultimately, making Black Manta black was an interesting reveal, but bringing race into his villainous motivation just didn’t fit.
These narrative inconsistencies make this a curious issue. For each of the major upheavals the characters experience, there seems to be some bizarre non-sequitur to undermine its emotional weight. And while, as mentioned before, it is not enough to make us overlook the sloppy writing, Aparo’s artwork does succeed in lending credibility to even the most ridiculous moments of the story. His major strength lies in conveying emotion through the character’s faces and physicality. Black Manta’s righteous anger, Aqualad’s heartbreak, and Aquaman’s rage-filled grief are brilliantly and masterfully captured in Aparo’s pencils and inks, and manage to ground in realism some of the leaps demanded by the story.
Adventure Comics #452 is not the strongest comic. In fact, Michelinie’s writing emphasizes some of the narrative issues that relegated Aquaman to backup status for so long, and likely led to the cancellation of his initial solo title. Curiously though, the follow up to this issue is actually Aquaman #57, the first new issue of the solo run published in nearly seven years. And though the decision to bring back the title would have been made before this issue, it still makes the point that for all its faults, this issue contributed a depth and gravity to the Aquaman mythos that had been missing up to that point. In fact, this issue represents a sort of mythological rebirth for Aquaman; in many subsequent issues and incarnations of the hero – including Peter David’s seminal run in the 1990’s – the death of Arthur Jr. weighs heavy. The emotional burden of that death, as well as his fractured relationships with Aqualad, Mera, and Atlantis itself, are to this day powerful motivators behind the character’s frequent violence, self-loathing, and self-imposed exile.
Despite its flaws, “Dark Destiny, Deadly Dreams” is a powerful issue. In terms of the narrative, it offers some of the first examples of emotional brutality in Aquaman’s mythology, establishing internal and external conflicts that would help propel and motivate decades of engaging and inventive Aquaman stories. From a publishing standpoint, the entire “Death of a Prince” arc is an example of the shifting nature of comic books storytelling, in which stories continued and developed not only across several issues of the same title, but also across titles.
With one foot stuck in Aquaman’s dubious publication past, and one in its rather stunning future, Adventure Comics #452 is an extremely peculiar read, but both its trivial and substantial contributions to the mythos make it deserving of its iconic status.
Adventure Comics #452 is available for digital download on the DC Comics website.
Though Jim Aparo’s artwork is strong, this panel bothers me. It seems as though he has forgotten that Black Manta is underwater, now inexplicably speaking and not drowning while standing on the ocean floor.
- The entire “Death of a Prince” arc spans nearly twenty issues, which even by today’s standards is a long arc. For the era, it was positively epic in scale.
- Despite the pop culture jokes, I actually find Aquaman’s marine telepathy a terrific power. It’s use and misuse in this issue is very well demonstrated. But for all that, I still don’t like the idea of Topo. Unlike Porm and the dolphins from Peter David’s Aquaman run, Topo is a relic of a sillier age of comic books, and feels like a strange inclusion in such a grounded storyline.
- I find the schism between Aquaman and Aqualad far harder to swallow than the one that occurred between Batman and Dick Grayson. The emotional scar runs far deeper and there is such heartbreak and mutual betrayal in their separation.