COMMENTARY TRACK: "Marineman" #1

Steve Ocean is Marineman, a famous oceanographer and documentarian who uses his abilities as a gifted underwater athlete to spotlight the awe-inspiring life-forms that live beneath the sea. But Ocean, like his namesake, is filled with secrets, many of which remain unknown to readers following the first issue of "Marineman," the new ongoing Image Comics series from writer and illustrator Ian Churchill.

To that end, Churchill has joined CBR News for a special commentary track on "Marineman" #1. Much like his book's protagonist, Churchill shined a light on some of the more mysterious elements in "Marineman," including several true-to-life facts about aquatic life and man's capacity to withstand incredible conditions out in the ocean depths.

CBR News: Ian, of all the places you could have started in "Marineman," why did you settle on this free-diving sequence?

Ian Churchill: Before I begin, I suppose I should mention that I love the underwater world, and have ever since I was a kid! I am a keen scuba diver and have an interest in most sub-marine activities.

The opening page of "Marineman" introduces us to the world of free-diving. I was a little concerned at the amount of dialogue on the first page, as too many words can sometimes be off putting to a first-time reader. I always knew the first page would be a bit 'wordy, but it was necessary - I know a fair amount about free-diving myself, but it was a safe bet that most readers wouldn't be as familiar with the subject as I was. I kept it as reader-friendly and bare bones as possible with the hope that anyone who was really interested in the activity could pick a couple of phrases to type into a search engine and find a more in-depth explanation of the disciplines.

I did, at one point, consider opening the issue with an action sequence featuring an oil rig disaster which is alluded to later in the issue, but I only have so many pages per issue and decided the free-diving sequence was far more important to the plot than going for the obvious action hook.

So I knew I'd need a large amount of space to accommodate the balloons and had that in mind when I designed the page in my head many moons ago. Free-diving is a fascinating sport/activity and is essentially holding your breath for as long as possible while swimming underwater, which is why it's so accessible to everyone. I think most people have held their breath and swum around underwater with a pair of goggles at some point in their lives, but free-divers train themselves through breathing techniques and relaxation methods to extend the amount of time they can safely remain under the surface, and these days, they can go very deep and are constantly pushing themselves to go further.

I can't remember exactly when I became interested in free-diving, but it probably had something to do with seeing a documentary about Tanya Streeter. The current holder of the women's no limits record, Tanya is very easy on the eyes and tends to swim around in a figure hugging silver wetsuit! Does that make me shallow? Probably!

I was a kid when I first learnt about the mammalian dive reflex, which is also mentioned here, and it's stayed with me ever since. It sounded like having super powers to me as a small boy! As soon as your face goes under the water, it triggers the reflex. Your heart rate immediately begins to slow down and your blood is re-directed to the parts of the body that require oxygen the most. Very cool stuff indeed!

We get our first official look at Steve Ocean during this spread. This is the titular hero of your book, Ian, so what can you tell us about this introduction and who Steve is as a person and hero?

I wanted a big splashy (no pun intended!) introduction to Steve "Marineman" Ocean, and I think I succeeded - he looks like he's almost swimming off the page! At this point in the story we don't know anything about him, so the blurb had to be succinct and to the point, to show who he is and what he does. I also had to find a way to keep him free of scuba gear but allow him to be underwater with the fish, and free-diving was the way to do it, as we don't know whether he has powers or not at this juncture - which is why the explanation of free-diving on page one is even more relevant.

Steve Ocean is a minor celebrity who presents underwater documentaries much like Jacques Cousteau used to do, and also the late Steve Irwin. He's bright and colorful with a larger than life on-screen personality. What looks like a superhero costume is a customized wetsuit to capitalize on his professional nickname of "Marineman." What appears to be a utility belt is ostensibly a weight belt, although it does house small items that may be useful in underwater situations too. His goal, or mission, is to inform in an entertaining way and convey to his viewers the wonders of the marine environment.

Later in the series, we'll discover his other motivation for doing what he does, but when we first meet him in issue one, to the public at large, he is just a good looking guy with a good job and an aspirational lifestyle. I think when dealing with superheroes in general, because they are so fantastical, you have to find a way to ground them to everyday life so that readers can relate to them. I think that's why Spider-Man was so popular when he was created, because he was just a regular guy who just so happened to have super powers and people could identify with that.

This is our first introduction to Ocean Point Aquarium and Institute for Marine Research, which is sure to be an important location as the story of "Marineman" goes forward. Can you talk about the kind of work that goes on here, what Steve and his colleagues strive for through the aquarium and research center?

The Ocean Point Institute for Marine Research is a fictional version of the Monterey Bay or Woods Hole establishments and is responsible for furthering knowledge of the marine environment. This is where Steve spends much of his time when he's not filming documentaries underwater. I did a lot of research looking at modern aquarium/research facilities, and on the whole they tend to look quite contemporary, so I wanted to keep that aspect. I shaped the main building like a giant nautilus shell to inject a link to the ocean, and also just because I thought it looked cool!

I went for a bird's eye view to try and capture a glimpse of the surrounding area as well as to give the reader an overview of the layout of the aquarium and the institute. I'd had this page in my mind for roughly 10 years, so it was good to finally get it down on paper. In fact, it's an amazing feeling finally seeing the whole issue in print!

Steve's taming of the shark is an amazing sequence, and it tells us pretty much everything we need to know about this guy: almost without lifting a finger, Steve exerts his mastery over one of the ocean's most fearsome creatures. What were you trying to say about Steve in this sequence?

Tonic immobility is a real-world phenomenon and when I first heard about it, it blew me away! What I was trying to get across with this page and the preceding ones was just how astonishing real-life events can be without any super powers being involved. I think if you have elements of the story anchored in real life, then when super powers are introduced they appear even more incredible. Let's face it, in comics, superheroes have been around so long now that we kind of take the whole super-powered thing in stride. But when you strip it back and really focus on what it would be like if in the real world there was suddenly just one person who actually had super powers, well, to me, that's very interesting. Especially when it's marine-based!

The public perception of sharks is a rather distorted one, mostly due to media sensationalism and to memories of the movie "Jaws." The majority of sharks are relatively harmless to human beings. I've swum with sharks a number of times and they are, in my experience, cautious and timid creatures. If you are bigger than a shark, they'll generally swim away if you get too close to them. The larger sharks are a different story and more caution is to be observed, but they still get a bad press to this day which doesn't help matters when it comes to conservation. You always have to treat a shark with the utmost respect and remember at all times that you are a guest in its domain. As soon as you enter the open water, you have to be aware that you're potentially entering the marine food chain. Most shark attacks are the result of the bigger sharks' curiosity, or a case of mistaken identity on the shark's part. We, as people, choose to go into the water and we should always bear in mind the set of risks that come with that decision.

I'll step off of my soap box now!

The issue definitely takes a turn on this page, Ian. Other than the introduction, the majority of "Marineman" #1 until this point seems like fairly normal, everyday stuff in the life of a famous marine biologist. But here, things move towards more of a military and spy angle as Steve unlocks a secret entrance complete with sophisticated scanning technology.

Yeah, this is the turning point of the issue. Like you say, up 'til now, it's been everyday stuff to give a feel for Steve's circle of friends and the world he lives in, but this page is where you're led down the path less travelled to pique your interest. I mostly called out this page because I was really happy with the coloring on the final panel. I had all these ideas in my head about how to go about it, but didn't know if I could pull it off as I'm still fairly new to coloring. But I managed to get what I was after and I think it worked out really well!

I really enjoy coloring. I find it relaxing and challenging at the same time. My only problem is that I use a mouse to color! I've tried using a tablet, but just couldn't get to grips with it. Maybe if I get to try a Cintiq at some point that may make a difference, but for now I'll keep using the mouse. It's not the speediest of implements but it does get good results - eventually!

If we thought Ocean Point Aquarium was an important location in "Marineman," wait until you get a load of Marine Base Alpha! What's going on here, Ian? Was this part of your original pitch, having this top secret Navy base that few people knew about? Should we assume that Steve is some kind of government-sponsored hero?

I always loved the old '60s spy movies when I was a kid, with all the cool secret hideouts, so I think that influenced my young brain! In my opinion, when dealing with a water-based character, you have to confine the character to what makes the character and his abilities special, in this case, water. To reflect that and to incorporate a cool hideout, using the Navy seemed the logical choice. Plus, secret stuff is always interesting and exciting! Does this indicate that Steve is a government-sponsored hero? I think the Navy would like to think so...

This page was a real challenge to color, and I think I did it justice. Originally I had a different shot planned out which would have made it a double page spread, but I lost a lot of material when my computer crashed on me a couple of years back, so I decided to re-think it somewhat. They say necessity is the mother of invention and I think the single page reveal says everything I needed it to.

Being a penciler, it's always tempting to just go for the big splashy stuff because that's normally the most fun stuff to draw. However, I've been trying to hold myself back from too many spreads so that when I do use them, they have more impact. To me, the storytelling is paramount - that and the pacing. So in editing myself, I'm concentrating on getting the rhythm right, which should allow the rest to fall into place organically.

Oh yeah, this is also my wife's favorite page of issue one, too!

We end the issue with the arrival of Lt. Charlie Greene. What can you tell us about this character? How is she going to factor into the coming issues?

Ah, Charlie, Charlie, Charlie! What can I say? She's a block-rockin' babe! I had to give the readers a reason to come back next issue! She's a strong, feisty, straight-talking woman who is more than a match for Steve, both verbally and mentally. Circumstances throw them into each other's path, but she is definitely not a fan of Mr. Ocean.

Richard Starkings called this page my, "Face it, tiger..." moment, which I thought was a huge compliment! John Romita Senior is my all-time favorite comic book artist, so for Rich to say it echoed that moment to him really made me smile!

You close the issue with this special feature, The Oceanauts, which is going to be a regular feature throughout the series. Can you tell us more about what this project is, as well as talk a bit about your first interview subject, Peter Mumby?

With the Oceanauts feature, I wanted to give some insight as to what various marine scientists actually do and how they work to protect the oceans for all of us. The marine environment is a fragile animal which is constantly under threat of infection and sickness and the marine scientists of the world try to diagnose what's causing the problems so they can take steps to patch things up before things get out of hand.

I wanted to be a marine biologist when I was a boy, mainly due to watching the groundbreaking documentaries of Jacques Cousteau. I used to watch his shows with my grand-dad and was fascinated by all things underwater and the marine habitat. I got okay grades at school, but I soon realized my strengths lay in other areas. Peter Mumby, on the other hand, had the smarts to match the passion and went on to become a highly-respected marine biologist. He also happened to be my brother's best friend, so I pretty much grew up with him and, as we always had a lot in common, we became friends too. We got to talking on his recent visit from Australia and the conversation evolved into the Oceanauts feature, which seems to be getting a positive reaction! Pete has been crucial in recruiting suitable candidates to interview for the feature due to his standing in the field and I can't thank him enough for all his help.

I think the feature is an entertaining look at what these men and women do and helps to answer questions you probably didn't know you had about your oceans and how they are cared for. I've said before, "Marineman" is the comic I would have wanted to read when I was eight and I've tried to pitch it on two levels, so it can be enjoyed by both children and adults alike. If this feature can inspire a new generation of future marine biologists or just highlight to older readers what's going on in their oceans so they can get involved, then that's enough for me. What's the saying? If you're not part of the solution, then you're probably part of the problem!

So, issue #2 covers Enric Sala, a real-life Steve Ocean who fronts marine documentaries for National Geographic. Issue #3 focuses on Dr. Colette Wabnitz, a leading marine ecologist and issue #4 spotlights Dr. Kenny Broad, a marine environmentalist who spends a lot of time cave diving. Issue #5 and #6's interviewees are being rounded up as I write, so you can expect two more interesting marine scientists with entertaining underwater anecdotes to be added to the list!

"Marineman" #1, written and illustrated by Ian Churchill, is currently on sale. The second issue of the series arrives in stores on January 5, 2011.

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