To start with, please introduce yourself to our readers – how long have you been writing comics, and how did you manage to get into the comic book industry?
I have been writing comics for thirty years, which is slightly staggering when I think about that. My two favorite things to do were to draw and write stories. So I used to write and draw my own comics. Much later, wondering what I was going to do as a career, I ended up getting an English degree and had decided that I wanted to write. I was working on the licensed stuff Marvel UK was producing, so Carebears, Thomas the Tank Engine, Ghostbusters, Thundercats and Transformers. In order to be an Editor you have to understand how all the parts of a comic work. So some of us specialized in being colorists and letterers. I wanted to write so I started to write those things back then, especially Ghostbusters.
And that was my night job. It does get difficult with deadlines, pressure, lack of ideas etc and it does sound like a wonderful job if you’re excited by comics, it can be a slog. But I always remind myself that I am luckily still doing that if I wasn’t doing professionally I would try to be doing in my spare time. But it takes a lot of hard work. One of the reasons I’ve maintained my position as a writer is to write furiously and prolifically. Comics are fun, but like anything else they’re nothing like as glamorous as they appear to be. They’re about hard work every day and discipline.
It’s clear from the start of the first arc that this is definitely a politically charged story, addressing the ideas of rogue states, political assassinations and terrorism – was that something you consciously wanted to write or did it evolve naturally?
It’s a bit of both to be honest. I relished the opportunity at writing Aquaman – because although he’s one of DC’s big six or seven characters and he’s one of the Justice League’s front and centre members, he’s always been given a short shrift. He’s the guy that talks to fishes, he’s the butt of popular culture jokes. Given the science fiction and fantasy elements of what I like to write he appealed to me because he’s a superhero – yes, but there are strong science fiction and fantasy elements in his world. So I thought what can I do with that? Aquaman has been written brilliantly on a number occasions in the past, Geoff Johns has written him extremely well and so has Peter David.
I deliberately decided to look at what his role was as the King, a leader of the nation. Not that that hadn’t been done before, but it was something we could really run with and play with. It is a story about him as a person and a story about him as a superhero. So I wanted to establish Atlantis as a credible culture. Even if you’ve made that deliberate decision early on, it’s surprising how subconsciously start to affect everything. I’m way ahead of the publication of the stories I’m writing, I look back on them and think “Gosh that has more resonance than I intended it to.” The American election was happening as I was writing this, so the early issues sort of flavoured it either deliberately or accidentally by anticipations of these big world events of 2016.
When it got to them happening, then the fall out and the reaction from them, they weren’t things we necessarily would’ve imagined and that in itself ended in the writing. We had a long conversation editorially about whether we should change some of the sequences and the intent of the story given the fact that the identity of the President had changed. We decided to carry on with what we’d been doing and then reflect it afterwards. But we’re dealing with a political story that has some sense of realism and then the real world does things you don’t see coming. You start to think, “this makes my story look less believable!” It’s a double edged sword, you’ve got to be aware. I don’t want to say something that makes people think I’m making a direct dig at someone when in actual fact I wrote it three months ago!
Black Manta and Aquaman have danced as each other’s opposite for years, after involving N.E.M.O. (a shadowy militarized organization) how did you put your own spin on their conflict for Rebirth?
Not only did I want to elevate Aquaman into that status of leader with a political ambition, but Manta is his arch-foe. I think he’s a great character. He’s always been incredibly single minded. All he wants is revenge. And there’s only so many times you can tell that story before it becomes A) repetitive and B) it makes Black Manta look stupid as he fails repeatedly at trying the one thing he set out to do. I wanted to open with him failing to do defeat Arthur and being stopped. It goes to the point where he walks away wondering “what the hell am I doing with my life?”. We end that opening issue with him defeated and then recruited by N.E.M.O. who have a bigger agenda.
I wanted Manta not to redeem himself or become a good guy, but to simply expand that – to be inspired by the slap down given to him. We haven’t really stated it, but by defeating Black Manta at the beginning of the series, Aquaman has essentially a created an arch-villain that is much greater than he was originally. He’s turned Black Manta into a personal nemesis, a world class threat. I like the fact that in the first 7 issues, we see the rise of them both in a parallel. He’s a great villain, and I wanted to make his remit broader and so he could pop up anywhere, not just Aquaman.
What was it like to write the Justice League opposed against Arthur at times during the series?
There is the inevitable need in any comic as part of a big universe, be it Marvel or DC, to feature guest stars for the additional eye candy or to appeal to new readers to the book. But, I didn’t want to do so in an arbitrary way. Firstly, Superman appears. And to have Superman appear in confrontation with Aquaman for a really legitimate reason was really useful. At the end of that Superman gives Aquaman one last chance to get his house in order – and when that doesn’t happen, for the Justice League to turn up it had to happen. They need to act and they will act, but they are going to give him the chance to speak for himself even if they’re treating him with caution, then they’ll do their best to help him.
It’s one of those difficult political situations for them to help him in the way they would want to. Do they believe what he’s saying? Or do they think he himself is misled? I felt that his bond with the Justice League was undeniable, and his membership equally so. Aquaman’s outsider nature in the Justice League is well established. His greatest friend in the Justice League I think, is Wonder Woman. They’re both the offspring of a culture that’s set apart from regular humanity. And therefore can appreciate that responsibility and tradition a great deal better.
We loved how well written Mera has been so far, it could’ve been easy to relegate her to a side-kick role. How will her relationship with Arthur and her duties for Atlantis intertwine and develop her character?
So as far as I’m concerned, she’s a co-star of the book. I think she’s one of DC’s most underrated characters. The danger you mentioned that she could become underwritten and sidelined in the book is also a real danger of her becoming the star of the book. She’s potentially, dare I say it, more interesting in the book than Aquaman himself. I wanted to make her a permanent part of the things Aquaman does. And she’s sort of his conscience. She’s the person he turns to, the one he turns to advice.
But she’s also quite a ferocious person so sometimes her advice is harsher than he’s expecting it to be. In the recent issues I’ve made the additional theme into that. I didn’t want to make it into a ‘will-they-won’t-they’, but it does have serious impediments. It allowed me to play around with the culture of Atlantis and the responsibilities of royalty, kingship and leadership. Her appropriate-ness for as a potential Queen of Atlantis, her role to me gives her plenty of things to do. I try to make the pair balance.
There’s a huge element of science fiction and political drama in your writing during the first arc, were you inspired by any comics outside of Aquaman when it came to writing this story?
All sorts of things to be honest. Some of them really bizarre. When it first came to writing Aquaman, I went off and watched any movie I could think of that had something to with the ocean. So from ‘The Abyss’ to ‘Battleship’ and also documentaries. Everything that happens below the surface happens in a particular way. It’s easy to forget that. It’s easy to make them walk and talk around corridors as if they’re just in a city somewhere. There is an added dimension to it. One of my favourite tv shows is ‘The West Wing’, so I couldn’t stop thinking about that. At one point, we joked that we should’ve called it ‘The Wet Wing’ because there’s a lot of walking and talking in corridors like in that show. But we wanted to give it a realistic edge.
Aquaman performs best in situations that match up with science fiction and horror whilst based in the real world. . It dampens the overly fantastical elements involved with the character and makes him more credible and believable. It makes Atlantis a little more credible even though it is a sunken city full of merpeople. I asked the artists to make it bigger, not just a castle at the bottom of the sea, to give it an enormous sprawl. They have their own culture and their own ways. My inspirations were as broad as that and some of the ideas were very left of field. I watch movies, tv and read books a lot for pleasure, and even though I come across various things I don’t think “I can use that!” in a magpie sense. So there are several things that I was reading and grew an idea because of them, not from them. It made my brain fire in some kind of way.
And there is a major story arc coming. Directly after ‘The Deluge’ we have a brand new villain for several issues. And as far as new readers of Rebirth are concerned there will be another new threat, but will actually tie into things before Rebirth. But for long term readers there will be a great thrill in it. That story is coming full circle in a big way. . Some will be huge global stories, with Aquaman doing things on the centre stage. But others will be him and two other people trapped in a small environment facing something very claustrophobic.
What’s it like working with Geoff Johns?
He’s a lovely guy, we get on very well. And he was particularly supportive in the start of Aquaman and indeed Titans, the other book I write for DC. I was asked to produce a series called ‘Titans Hunt’ which was directly before Rebirth, which was enormously enjoyable. And it shifted the Teen Titans before the brand new continuity. I guess in many respects it was a dry run for Rebirth itself. I was asked to do Titans and Aquaman. I had long conversations on the phone with Geoff and flew out to Burbank had had meetings with him several days in a row whilst we planned things out. Of course he’s the Ringmaster controlling it all.
So what sort of things does he need to see in my stories, what flexibility have I got what exactly can I say, what were my obligations, what did I need to carry forward. And also how far can I go? Titans particularly is at Ground Zero of Rebirth with the return of Wally West. There’s a grander plan at work in DC Comics so there was a risk of me saying too much. But he’s a great guy. He’s a terrific thinker. He has such an amazing understanding of all the DC Characters really, he has a great insight. His directive was a smart move, to really focus on character and personality more than anything else. To focus on who these characters are as people is the thing that will make readers invest. And given the response so far from Rebirth, that is definitely the case. It doesn’t matter how cool the villain or storyline is, it doesn’t matter how big the shock or the twist is – you have to be grounded with the central character of the book first to make all those things worthwhile.
Finally, if there was a particular aspect of your writing that you could choose to appear in the Aquaman movie, what would it be and why?
I would hope the way his personality operates will have some compatibility with what has come before. Obviously the movie will have necessary differences to that. I would say that I put quite a lot of work into imagining how Atlantis as a realistic environment and the people who live there, how they function and the different areas of their society… like ‘The Widowhood’ for example.
My objection to Atlantis and any other location like that in DC or beyond is that it’s always like “oh, and here’s the sunken city of Atlantis and it’s a lovely backdrop” and that’s it. There’s no exploration into that environment about what it’s like to live there, how does it work? What are the social boundaries? I’d like to think I’ve contributed to make Atlantis a little more credible. To make it a living, breathing organism full of people that matter. So that it has more than just a few pillars sitting at the bottom of the sea. It would be lovely to see some of that translated into movie terms.
Thanks for speaking to us Dan! We can’t wait to see what’s to come. The first arc of the story, Aquaman: The Drowning, is available from most comic stores now. We also want to say a big thanks to Nicole Valdez for organising the interview.