WARNING: This article contains spoilers for Aquaman Annual #1 by Phillip Kennedy Johnson and Max Fiumara, in stores now.
In Dan Abnett and Stjepan Sejic's Aquaman, the Justice Leaguer is currently a man without a crown. He is living in hiding, taking part in a rebellion fighting the ruthless rule of Atlantis' new monarch, King Corum Rath. But in last week's Aquaman Annual #1, we saw a story that was detached from this conflict, one whose place in DCU continuity isn't exactly pinpointed. Instead, the annual tells a beautiful and haunting one-and-done story that saw the return of a classic Superman villain (of sorts): the Black Mercy.
The story starts as a pretty standard tale before taking a seemingly inexplicable jump forward dozens of years into the future. No longer are Arthur and Mera a young couple, and no longer is Atlantis a submerged nation. This look into the future shows us a much older and greying King Arthur and Queen Mera along with their young son, Prince Tom. Together, they rule over Atlantis, which has just finished construction of the Crownspire, a new division of the nation that is both under and over the water, the perfect middle-point to create peace between Atlanteans and humans.
It doesn't take long for readers to catch on that this look into Aquaman's future isn't exactly right. Things are a bit off, and this idealistic life quickly starts to come apart at the seams. At the mid-point of the comic, we realize why: This future is a lie, perpetrated by the Black Mercy, which has both Arthur and Mera roped in its parasitic grasp, leagues below sea level.
The Black Mercy first appeared in 1985's Superman Annual #11 story "For The Man Who Has Everything" by legendary creators Alan Moore, Dave Gibbons and colorist Tom Ziuko. An alien plant that latches itself onto a host, the Mercy plunges its victim into a dream-like stupor, presenting the sleeping victim with a perfect life in which the dreamer is fully happy as the plant feeds. It's incredibly dangerous and has proven to be quite the obstacle to overcome. Moore and Gibbons' story saw Clark Kent taken to a world where Krypton had never been destroyed, where he had a life and a family, and though it was entirely false, it proved incredibly hard to leave behind.
The Black Mercy is a noteworthy adversary because it truly gives its host another life, one that is heartbreaking and incredibly difficult to abandon. Such is very much the case for Arthur Curry and Mera of Xebel in the Aquaman Annual, who slowly begin to realize that the son they have isn't real. In order to survive, to break free of the Black Mercy, they have no choice but to sacrifice the child they thought they had, and leave him behind. The two are then left to mourn someone who was never real, but who also meant the world to them.
The Annual's story proved to be a classic, eventually being adapted for the Justice League animated series as well as the Melissa Benoist-led Supergirl. The Black Mercy has made sporadic appearances in various comic book titles over the years, including a 2016 return in DC's Trinity series. However, what's curious about this appearance is that it wasn't used by an adversary. The Mercy was simply mysteriously living in the deepest trenches of the ocean, leading readers to wonder if, perhaps, there's more to this story that has yet to be told.