We’re deep in the heart of Pride Month, an occasion to celebrate diverse sexualities and sexual identities. And for all of us here at DC, there’s plenty to be proud of. But of all the rising stars who proudly represent a broader range of queer identity, few shine brighter than Jackson Hyde—DC’s very own Aqualad, soon to be an Aquaman.
Or…is he already?
Some say that Aqualad was created for the Young Justice TV series in 2010. And yet, his first appearance came months before that, in Brightest Day #4. On the show, this 21st Century Aqualad is called Kaldur’ahm. In the comics, he’s Jackson. Both are the son of Black Manta. Both are the heir apparent to the mantle of Aquaman. But are they the same character, or are they different people altogether? With Jackson’s own limited series just announced, Aquaman: The Becoming, now is the perfect time to set the record straight. Let’s take a deep dive into the history of the Aqualad, Jackson Hyde.
In creating the Young Justice television series, showrunners Greg Weisman and Brandon Vietti were meticulous in their reexamination of the source material, resurfacing often long-buried comic book stories for inspiration and reinterpreting them in surprising new ways. To create a leader for their own version of the Young Justice team, Weisman and Vietti looked to reimagine a forgotten member of Aquaman’s supporting cast: Calvin Durham.
First appearing in 1977’s Adventure Comics #452, Cal Durham was the right-hand man of Aquaman’s greatest nemesis, Black Manta. Durham, who had been surgically implanted with gills in order to battle the denizens of Atlantis on their own terms, defected from Black Manta’s team in Aquaman #57 when the mad diver’s quest for vengeance went too far. After his defection, Cal continued to live among the Atlanteans and eventually even rose to political office. Inspired by this Human/Atlantean hybrid, the Young Justice team created “Kaldur’ahm,” Aquaman’s own young ward, who would eventually discover that his human father was none other than Black Manta himself.
The same year that Young Justice was getting ready for production, writer Geoff Johns was getting ready to reinvent the Aquaman universe in Brightest Day—a universe-wide examination of the fallout from his prior Blackest Night event, and one which would, in its way, lay the foundation for Johns’ extensive work on Aquaman the following year. Inspired by the work in progress on this new Aqualad, Johns included him in Aquaman’s story for the Brightest Day series. But Weisman and Vietti were creating a new version of the DC Universe from scratch for Young Justice, where it was simple to fit a new character into Aquaman’s long history. Here in Brightest Day, a story which continued from decades of Aquaman history, it wasn’t so simple.
Johns took Young Justice’s core concept, an Aqualad who is the son of Black Manta, and gave him an entirely different history. Rather than growing up in Atlantis, this version of Aqualad was raised on the surface. And because the run-up time to producing a comic is significantly shorter than what it takes to produce an animated series, the world met Jackson Hyde months before Kaldur’ahm, the Aqualad which inspired him.
(This isn’t the first time something like this has happened. Batgirl, for instance, was a character created for Season 3 of the Adam West Batman TV series, but managed a comic debut months before her first on-screen appearance.)
Within months of each other, Jackson Hyde had debuted alongside Kaldur’ahm. Apart from their very different upbringings and resulting personalities, there was one more major distinction. While Season 1 of Young Justice had barely begun, comic book readers had already learned the secret of this Aqualad’s parentage, a fact which wouldn’t be confirmed in the show until its second season and explored further in the tie-in video game Young Justice: Legacy.
There was also a surprising similarity: both Jackson Hyde and Kaldur’ahm, in these early years, had a female love interest. Jackson’s girlfriend was a young human woman named Maria, who stood by him through the harrowing events of Brightest Day. Kaldur, on the other hand, longed for Tula, who in the comics had been the original Aquagirl and girlfriend of the original Aqualad, Garth. In the first season of Young Justice, Kaldur’s love for Tula went unrequited, as their mutual friend Garth maintained her affection even in this freshwater animated world.
Just as 2010 had been a launching pad for both versions of Aqualad, the following years saw them both vanish entirely. The line-wide New 52 initiative in 2011 called for a restructuring of the Aquaman mythology from scratch, placing focus on the man himself to the exclusion of supporting characters like Jackson. Tula was killed off-screen between Seasons 1 and 2 of Young Justice, and the show was canceled by Cartoon Network after its second season, bringing Kaldur’s story to an untimely end.
In 2016, DC Rebirth launched with a promise to reconnect DC’s heroes to the characters who carried their legacies...including a newly rebooted Jackson Hyde, who in DC Universe: Rebirth #1 was depicted for the first time as a closeted, gay young man living under his mother’s roof.
Months later, Jackson became a regular member of the Teen Titans beginning with 2017’s Teen Titans #6—an issue where we meet his first male love interest in the comics, a young man named Kenny. Unable to handle Jackson’s Atlantean roots, it isn’t long before Kenny breaks it off with Jackson, who’s already facing rejection from his own mother, forcing him to find acceptance with his fellow young heroes in the Teen Titans. In an early team-up with Dick Grayson’s Titans, Jackson’s predecessor Garth gives Jackson his blessing to use the name “Aqualad.” And once Jackson had had his fill of Teen Titans leader Damian Wayne (and honestly, who can blame him), Jackson left the team to pursue a mentorship for the first time from Arthur Curry himself in Kelly Sue DeConnick’s run on Aquaman. Still busy determining his sense of purpose, Jackson hasn’t been afforded much time to explore his own romantic life in the past five years—something the young Aqualad reflects upon in 2020’s Aquaman: Deep Dives #4. Nevertheless, his stewardship under Aquaman has made him into one of the DC Universe’s most prominent gay male heroes.
Young Justice Returns
Eventually, thankfully, miraculously, Young Justice was uncanceled. The show made its triumphant return in 2019, with a two-year time skip from the prior season. While Kaldur’s comics counterpart was afforded the luxury of a reboot, his own story was required to press onward. And so, this version of Aqualad was given a new boyfriend, a young Atlantean named Wyynde (after an Arion of Atlantis character just as obscure as Cal Durham, if not more so), now presenting Kaldur as bisexual.
Season 3 brought another major change for Kaldur, as well. No longer Aqualad, the king’s former apprentice was now Aquaman, serving as chairman of the Justice League proper while his predecessor retired from surface affairs to govern Atlantis. This makes Black Manta’s son, whatever name you call him, one of very few DC characters to have a different sexual identity depending on the medium you see him in. But then, with their very different upbringings, one wouldn’t be completely incorrect in considering them two different characters altogether.
In 2020, Jackson’s supporting roles in Teen Titans and Aquaman gave way to a starring feature, finally exploring the question of identity in his own story: You Brought Me the Ocean, an original Young Adult graphic novel by Alex Sanchez and Julie Maroh. Taking a few liberties with the source material, the “Jake” Hyde seen in this story is best friends with girl-next-door Maria Mendez, an updated version of the Maria who had once been Jackson’s girlfriend in Brightest Day. This version of Maria sees Jake as more than a friend, but Jake himself is too busy reckoning with his feelings for swim team athlete Kenny Liu, the only openly gay student at his high school. This touching, unabashedly queer story about the damage done by the secrets we keep and the courage of self-expression is the most thorough exploration we’ve had of Jackson’s character to date, and one which may inform his growth for years to come.
Meanwhile, in the main continuity, Jackson Hyde’s destiny is at last beginning to converge with Kaldur’ahm’s. In Future State: Aquaman, Kaldur has assumed the role of Aquaman, mentoring Arthur’s daughter Andy just as Arthur had mentored him. Exactly how Jackson made the leap from Lad to Man is a mystery, for now, but one which may be uncovered sooner than we think, as the next chapter of Jackson’s story is told this September in Aquaman: The Becoming.
As for Kaldur, the Young Justice team is currently hard at work on the show’s next season, Young Justice: Phantoms. We’ll let you know when it’s ready, but we can tell you that you’ll find it exclusively on HBO Max. In the meantime, stay whelmed.
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Alex Jaffe is the author of our monthly "Ask the Question" column and writes about TV, movies, comics and superhero history for DCComics.com. Follow him on Twitter at @AlexJaffe and find him in the DC Community as HubCityQuestion.