It’s hard to imagine that a year ago my work sent me home to wait out this COVID-19 thing. It was also a year ago when I hunted down every issue of the Aquaman Death of a Prince storyline from the late 70’s. And after finally getting around to reading it, I can tell you that it’s incredible.
And I don’t know if I’m shocked, surprised, or confused. Because this was really mature. I guess when I think of Aquaman in the late seventies my mind goes to the Brave and the Bold animated TV show. I think of the over the top villains, cheesy sentences, and all the camp that ensued. The villains were matched to the character and of course they always had a gimmick that was related to their name. But Death of a Prince was everything but that. It was dark, epic, and it had consequences. A lot of consequences.
Paul Levitz pretty much kicked things off and decided to give Aquaman a bit of torment. The council decides to remove Arthur from the throne because he did a bit too much super-heroeing and not enough Atalantianing. There was mystery and there was loss, and Arthur, Mera, and Arthur Jr. found refuge in a new headquarters. Levitz is such a good writer and I made a new discovery in the form of Jim Aparo. His crisp, clear lines and incredible, and I do mean incredible, fight scenes really elevated the scripts. Levitz set things up by making things just a bit darker. Just a bit of foreshadowing that things are going to change.
And then David Michelinie got on board and he literally just ramped things up. Michelinie and Aparo really put Aquaman through the wringer over a solid handful of issues. And then everything just culminated to the now famous (or infamous on your perspective) Adventure comics #452. Not only does Black Manta reveal himself. Not only does Aquaman have to fight Aqualad to the death, but he also loses his son. It was an incredible, terrifying, gut wrenching moment. You had to flip back and forth through the pages to believe what you were seeing and watched as Black Manta suffocated Aquababy. They killed a fucking baby in 1977.
Then Aquaman 57 continued the story and Michelini gave us one of the most defining moments of the Death of a Prince story, if not for Aquaman as a character. He catches up with Black Manta, beats him to a living pulp until Black Manta begs him for mercy. Instinct kicks in and Arthur grants it. It was an incredible moment and showed just how much Michelinie brought to the table.
Paul Kupperberg jumped on at the end of the storyline. Pretty much everything after is Arthur trying to come to terms with his loss. He rushes off to do more super-heroing in order to distract himself. And he leaves Mera on her own as she dashes off on a desperate mission to find a piece of healing technology in a last futile effort to save her own son. She of course finds it but when she returns it was for nothing. Because he had already died.
And of course she’s furious when Arthur returns. But she pushes her feelings aside as Orm, the Ocean Master decides to attack in yet another attempt to take over the kingdom. The both of them do reconcile by the end of the last issue, Aquaman #63, but you know the damage has already been done.
And this is Aquaman! The guy who talks to fish! This was the turning point for DC when they started to appeal to an older audience. One could argue, and I do, that Aquaman Death of a Prince is an astounding piece of DC history. When you read a lot of this stuff during this time period, most of it was very formulaic. The creative team’s job was to simply get you from one story to the next. And perhaps they added something to the canon or mythology along the way or maybe they did not. But usually there weren’t any stakes. With Death of a Prince you had stakes and consequences. I can just imagine how gut wrenching it must have been if you were a big fan of these characters. Because you were forced to watch Aquaman beat the living shit out of Aqualad.
There is a collected edition out there of Death of a Prince but you really should do yourself a favor and grab the individual issues. It’s just a neat trip down DC History lane. You’re treated to stories like The Spectre, The Creeper (now I know where that Batman TAMS was coming from!) and Superboy. You also get some neat team ups with Batman, Green Lantern and a bit of Robin. It showcases a lot of the different styles and takes on characters that were kicking around back then. And it was all in the backdrop of this really serious, dark take on an otherwise light character who was pretty much an underwater Superman at the time.