Aqualad’s fortunes in the DC Universe seem inexorably, and inextricably, tied to those of his animated counterpart.
Introduced in 2010 in “Brightest Day” #4, at about the same time “Young Justice” made its television premiere, Jackson Hyde was a New Mexico teenager raised by his parents to fear water in a veiled attempt to hide him from his true father — who, as on the Cartoon Network series, is revealed to be Black Manta. Informed of his parentage, Aqualad teamed with Aquaman, Mera and Aquagirl to defeat the classic villain, and was poised to join the Teen Titans — at least, until “Flashpoint” came along. When DC relaunched its superhero universe in late 2011 with the New 52, Jackson was nowhere to be found, and with the cancellation of “Young Justice” in 2013, it appeared unlikely he would crop up anytime soon.
But there he was in May 2016’s “DC Universe: Rebirth #1,” published almost three years to the day after the Season Two finale of “Young Justice,” which until relatively recently looked like the end of the fan-favorite cartoon. Sure, it was only for two, somewhat-incongruous, panels, but they nonetheless signaled a significant change to Jackson Hyde.
And then he disappeared again, until, following the announcement of the long-awaited third season of “Young Justice,” DC revealed Aqualad would at last resurface this week in “Teen Titans” #6.
Written by Benjamin Percy and illustrated by Khoi Pham and Wade Von Grawbadger, the first part of “The Rise of Aqualad” story arc gives the character a proper introduction to Rebirth continuity, where his bleached, close-cropped hair makes him more closely resemble his animated analog. Here, like the version from DC’s pre-“Flashpoint” universe, Jackson is a teen in New Mexico eager to test his superhuman abilities even as (in this case) his mother seeks to keep them secret while fulfilling a promise — to herself, she insists, unconvincingly — to protect her son.
But unlike the previous incarnation, who had a girlfriend and a budding crush on Aquagirl, in Rebirth Aqualad is gay, and has a closeted boyfriend. Make that had a closeted boyfriend.
Referenced in his fleeting appearance in the “DC Universe: Rebirth” one-shot, Jackson’s sexual orientation and complicated romantic relationship are reinforced in “Teen Titans” #6, where he bristles at pressure from his mother and his boyfriend Kenny to hide who he really is. His longings to be open about both his powers and his sexuality are intertwined in a familiar metaphor that’s lent poignancy when a discussion with Kenny about living their own lives shifts abruptly as a TV reporter’s tour of Titans Tower goes viral, inspiring Jackson to demonstrate his water-bending hydrokinesis for his boyfriend. Make that ex-boyfriend.
Freaked out by the display, Kenny decides that rather than it’s time for them to go their separate ways. We’re left to wonder whether the abrupt breakup is actually in response to Jackson’s abilities, or if it owes more to his rapidly changing expectations for their relationship. But whatever the case, it serves its purpose in the story by spurring Jackson to head to San Francisco (he’s certainly not the first gay teen to do so), and to Titans Tower, “to escape this prison … and start something new.”
That journey of self-discovery, and Jackson’s embrace of what makes him “different,” begins, not so coincidentally, as the new incarnation of the Teen Titans grapples with a new mystery and, ultimately, a new threat: King Shark (he looms large on the cover of “Teen Titans” #8, so it isn’t really a spoiler). More importantly, however, it comes just as the team truly begins to feel like the Teen Titans.
After an opening arc (plus a “Rebirth” one-shot) devoted to bringing the team together, and establishing Damian Wayne as their leader and benefactor, Issue 6 focuses more on personalities and interpersonal relationships, those elements that “Teen Titans,” at its best, is known for. That’s no more evident than in the dynamic between the wise-cracking Beast Boy, still obsessed with fame even after all these years, and the deadly serious Robin, who have already emerged as perfect foils — a relationship only enhanced by the presence of Damian’s dragon bat Goliath.
A few weeks have elapsed since the events of the previous issues, during which time these Titans (Robin and Beast Boy, joined by Starfire, Kid Flash and Raven) have stopped the Royal Flush Gang, established a reputation for themselves in San Francisco, and settled into their roles. After a rocky beginning, they’re at ease with each other, which allows for moments of humor, and even a couple of sly nods to the animated “Teen Titans Go!” (After first testing “To me, my Titans!” in “Nightwing” #10, Damian apparently hasn’t settled on a rallying cry just yet.) That makes it an ideal time to introduce a new, unpredictable element into the mix, and Aqualad fits the bill.
Jackson Hyde is a neophyte with a mysterious — although, granted, not too mysterious to readers — past who’s unsure of himself and his abilities. He’s bound to provide a stark contrast to the highly trained Robin, the cynical Raven, the carefree Beast Boy, and so on. Although Kid Flash is a relative newcomer to superheroics, Jackson approaches the Teen Titans as an utter outsider with a lot to learn about their world, and about himself.
He won’t immediately discover much about the latter, though, as “The Rise of Aqualad” is a two-part story — a rarity in modern mainstream comic books — that’s followed by the “Lazarus Contract” crossover with “Deathstroke” and “Titans.” However, it’s a safe bet those answers will come fast and furious beginning with “Teen Titans” #9, the first part of the ominously titled “Blood of the Manta.” Maybe by then one of the biggest mysteries of this week’s issue, and decades’ worth of Teen Titans stories, will also be solved: What happens to Garfield Logan’s costume when he changes form.
Luckily, the Son of Batman is on the case.
“Teen Titans” #6, written by Benjamin Percy and illustrated by Khoi Pham and Wade Von Grawbadger, is on sale now.