Johns Fights For The Underdog In "Aquaman"

Geoff Johns is the man with the magic touch when it comes to bringing DC Comics' iconic characters to the forefront of comic book fans' minds and imaginations. His 2005 revival of Hal Jordan and subsequent Sinestro and emotional spectrum storylines have turned the Green Lantern corner of the DCU into one of the publisher's most popular franchises. The 2009 "The Flash: Rebirth" storyline not only returned Barry Allen to comics continuity but also firmly re-established him as the go-to Scarlet Speedster, setting the character up as the cornerstone of the company's September relaunch, spinning out of "Flashpoint." Johns has tackled everything from "JSA" to "Booster Gold," from crossover events to company-wide shakedowns, but this Wednesday, Johns turns his storytelling eye to a new series starring a character who has been languishing in comic book limbo for years: Aquaman.

Aquaman, AKA Arthur Curry, was one of the characters Johns personally brought back from death in the pages of "Blackest Night" and "Brightest Day." One of DC's oldest heroes, Aquaman was a Golden Age character created in 1941 as the star of a back up feature in "More Fun Comics" anthology by writer Mort Weisinger and artist Paul Norris. Though Aquaman became popular enough to eventually helm his own title, the character has never been able to sustain an ongoing comic the way Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman or other Golden Age DC A-listers have. With writer Peter David's seventy-five issue run in the mid '90s lasting the longest of any "Aquaman" series, the character has been re-imagined as everything from a hook-handed maniac to a regal Atlantean King, and starting on Wednesday, it will be Johns turn to take a stab at the underwater hero.

Addressing the question, "How do you launch a successful Aquaman series?" Johns spoke with CBR about the aquatic do-gooder, touching on what makes a good Aquaman villain, plans for Mera and Aquaman in "Justice League" and why fans should care about Arthur Curry, the man Johns calls "the underdog of the superhero world."

CBR News: Over the years, Aquaman has been everything from an ecological hero to the star of an undersea fantasy book to the head of the Justice League. With of all these different facets a part of the character, how did you go about launching this new "Aquaman" series? Did you look into his past in an attempt to bring together his disparate continuities and figure out ways to make them fit in the New 52?

Geoff Johns: No, I talked to Ivan Reis and Joe Prado and then my editor Pat Buchanan about Aquaman in general and just started with a real base idea, because the New 52 is as entry level as possible. We just talked about who people think Aquaman is and started from there. Then, we built on the perceptions of Aquaman and the take on Atlantis, and we have a take on who he is and where his world's from. It's all pretty new. It's more about the character of Aquaman, who he is and the zeitgeist and finding his place in DC Comics and how he relates to the world on land and why he chooses to be on land rather than the ocean, what the consequences of that are. And addressing these with humor and honesty -- we're dealing with Aquaman here.

The King of Atlantis returns in "Aquaman"

So, yeah -- we just talked about the character himself and why he does everything, how he feels about it, what he thinks when people crack the Aquaman jokes that are extremely easy to make. It's all about responsibility and standing tall for what you believe in and not worrying about what other people think. It's all about being an underdog. I think it's much more based on stuff we deal with than any old comics.

You mentioned the jokes that always pop up when discussing Aquaman. Because DC is making such a push to get new readers onboard, how do you deal with the perception that Aquaman is just the guy who talks to fish?

[Laughs] We just deal with it, head on. If you read issue one, you'll see right away how he's going to have to interact with the real world. But I like that. Like I said before, I think we're all really exited because Aquaman's part of this big launch with the rest of the 52, and I think it gives him a much bigger shot at being tried. People might go into the comic shop, see the cover and say, "That looks really cool," and pick it up. Or they might just see Aquaman and say, "Aquaman's lame, I'm not going to pick it up -- but I'm trying all the other books, [so] maybe I will try it out -- the art's beautiful." Hopefully they'll get into it and dig it. I think it's a great time to try Aquaman, It's a great challenge to see if we can make the character captivating for people. I just really find him interesting. What makes him cool is the challenge of making him cool, because he is Aquaman!

Going along in that vein, your entire career at DC has been doing just that -- taking old iconic characters and making them cool again. Between Green Lantern, Flash -- who you did a lot of stuff with, and now he's got a series again -- and Aquaman, do you see this as your role at DC, reestablishing DC icons as icons?

That's the hope, but with "Justice League" it's a little bit weird. "Justice League" is all about how the world perceives them as icons -- but they're people. We get to see the people behind the masks. "Aquaman" is the same way. I want to build these characters up and make them icons, but I want their stories to be big. The best thing about DC is that characters like Green Lantern and Aquaman and Flash have this massive tapestry to paint their stories across. Green Lantern has the whole universe to paint his story across, this big canvas. Flash has all of time and time travel and parallel dimensions and great villains. Aquaman has the oceans and the mysteries of the deep and the fabled city of Atlantis everyone's heard about.

One of the big questions this first year of "Aquaman" is, who sank Atlantis and why did they do it? I think that fits the kind of epic, iconic stuff I want to capture, but at the same time, it really humanizes the character. It's all about humanizing Aquaman and getting into what makes him tick, what he has to deal with, what he's all about and what it's like to be the biggest underdog in the superhero community.

You say you want to focus on humanizing Aquaman. In your mind, who is Arthur Curry? What makes Aquaman a character people will want to read about?

I think Arthur Curry is a really interesting character. There're things in life we all are kind of obligated to do, responsibilities we have either to ourselves or to other things or whatever. Aquaman probably has one of the greatest responsibilities thrust upon him. He never asked to be deemed a king of any kind of underwater kingdom. He never asked to be Aquaman, but he takes on that responsibility in his own way and he doesn't really get rewarded for it, especially when he's on land. I mean, in the ocean he's supposed to be king to a kingdom where nobody really wants him there. He's not like them; he's more human than Atlantean. And on land, people laugh at him and make fun of him. Even a character like the Ray would be like, "Hey, maybe nobody knows who I am, but at least I'm not Aquaman!" So he's got to deal with these two. It's a very sharp contrast between land and sea.

I think you see Arthur Curry, as a person, learn to take on responsibility and shoulder it. At the same time, really, he lets everything slide off his back like water. I think that's something we can all learn. He's kind of marching to his own tune -- whatever they say, they say, whatever they think, they think. I think it's really compelling. To see an underdog in the superhero community is just a cool character to watch. What happens when they are talking about the Justice League and they're all psyched about Superman and Green Lantern and Wonder Woman and they get to Aquaman and they're like, "Yeah, right place, right time when they formed that team. Why is that guy there? He has no business being there."

You've got underdog Aquaman, and you've also got Mera as a focus in the title. You've mentioned before that you want to do big things with her, so what role does Mera play in "Aquaman?" Is she a dual protagonist; is she a cheerleader for him, telling Aquaman not to listen to what everyone says?

She's a little bit of both, but more of the second protagonist. She really comes in in issue two, and issue six is actually focused squarely on her. I've written her through "Blackest Night," and she really broke out of "Blackest Night" in a lot of ways. I have a lot of fun writing her. I think she helps give Arthur the strength to carry on, but also, she has such a different perspective on everything because of her background and where she comes from and what she wants. Her manipulation of water, her powers, will be explored much deeper than they have been before. She takes a very different stance than Aquaman on something very big in the first arc that causes a little bit of tension between them, but, I think, in a good way, it's a healthy debate. But yeah, Mera will be a very, very strong character. She'll eventually be with the Justice League, too. I consider her one of the strongest female heroes DC has. I just loved that she could hold her own in "Blackest Night" and people really loved her for it. I've always liked the character.

What "Aquaman" run or creative team made you fall in love with Aquaman and Mera and Aquaman's world?

Peter David got me to love Aquaman. I think Peter David did, next to the creator, bar none, the best take on Aquaman. I'm a huge fan of his stuff. We're going in a very, very different direction than he did, because he already did that direction. But he really got me into Aquaman.

As far as Mera goes, I don't quite know what got me into Mera. I just love the idea of a really strict queen, kind of like the queen in "300." She was a really strong, kick-ass character, and I was like, "That's Mera." To me, that's the power Mera has and the strength Mera has. Coming from a different underwater society than Aquaman made her even more intriguing.

At the end of "Brightest Day," we had the revelations that Mera is from another dimension known as Xebel and Jackson Hyde, the new Aqualad introduced to the DCU in "Brightest Day," spent time in Xebel. There were also hints that Xebel might have dealings with Atlantis. Is this something that you're going to explore more fully, either in this first arc or as the series goes on?

Eventually we'll probably get there. There's a lot of stories ahead of that one, though. We're going to be introducing a lot of new stuff, a lot of new villains, new big supporting characters -- there's one in issue three that will be a little bit mysterious, [who's background] we'll unravel throughout the series as it goes. We will get to the underwater adventures of Atlantis and Xebel eventually, but not right away.

From the solicitation information we have, the first of the new threats are the Trench creatures, which sort of look like anglerfish from hell. What can you tell us about the Trench and those creatures coming out of it?

They're anglerfish from hell! You're exactly right. By the end of issue one, you'll know exactly what they want and what they're all about. You won't know where they're from or why they are there, but that's kind of what the first arc is all about. I wanted to do something that was a little bit more of a reflection -- I don't want to spoil anything, but this won't make sense until the arc is done. It's a weird strange reflection on Aquaman and Mera. It's pretty horrific. One thing leads to another in the storyline when we explore who the Trench, and what they want and why and what they've done over the centuries. I wanted to create something brand new for Aquaman. He has a couple great villains, but we're really hoping to push new stuff in the book. The Trench are very different from any other antagonist in the DC Universe. There's nothing else quite like the Trench.

That was something I've been curious about since the solicitations came out. Like you said, they are different from other villains in the DCU, and they look very different from the foes like Ocean Master or Black Manta that Aquaman typically fights. Was this a purposeful decision, to create new, more terrifying villains for the New 52 Aquaman?

Absolutely, really important. The details are eclectic. They sound like seals, but they're really weird creatures! It's really explicit in issue one, that Aquaman protects land from sea and sea from land. He's caught in the middle, literally. That's what he's all about. His whole life is being caught in the middle. He's clearly half human and half Atlantean; he feels like he's at home on land, but he's also at home in the ocean. It's a duality that he struggles with constantly.

Since we're talking about villains, do you have plans for Ocean Master or Black Manta or some of those other villains to come in later arcs?

We will eventually get to Ocean Master and Black Manta and one other very obscure Aquaman villain from the past that we are reintroducing, but we are focused a lot on new stuff to start. New threats, he meets some new villains; there's also a storyline of him searching for who sank Atlantis that introduces a bunch of new characters.

Along those lines, when people talk about Aquaman villains, a lot of attention has been paid to Black Manta and Ocean Master -- are there any other bad guys who, to you, are quintessential Aquaman villains that, even if you haven't done something with them yet, you want to make sure you hit in the series?

Well, first, Black Manta and Ocean Master are definitely -- talk about Aquaman villains, those are the two Aquaman villains. There will be others, but there's one that I think we can make essential, too, just like Black Hand kind of grew out of "Green Lantern" and became a very great villain for us and a great dark reflection of Hal Jordan -- somebody who was embracing every moment of death. We do have one villain from the Aquaman universe we're going to try and do that with, but I don't want to get into it just yet.

On the art side of the equation, you're back with Joe Prado and Ivan Reis on the book. What's it been like working with the two of them again?

It's been great! I love working with Ivan and Joe. We've been on projects together now for years: "Blackest Night" and "Green Lantern" and now "Aquaman." I think that the fact that we're all really excited about "Aquaman" and dedicated to the book is a lot of fun because we can have really in-depth conversations about who the character is and where we want to take it. When you work with artists like Ivan and Joe, they can deliver anything you ask for, so you get the epic scope of the ocean and the beauty of water. Ivan calls it visual poetry, the way water moves. He really ups his art -- his art is already beautiful, but it's even more beautiful in this book. When Aquaman finally hits the water, it's pretty stunning to take in. As I said, it's great to work with guys like these on this book.

When you guys were working together on "Blackest Night" and "Brightest Day," you brought in Jackson Hyde and did a little bit of stuff with Lorena. Are you guys thinking of doing more things with Aqualad and Aquagirl?

We're going to focus on Aquaman and Mera for a while. We introduce a new member of the family at the end of the first arc, in a way. Eventually Jackson and Lorena will be in the book, but the story is squarely focused on Aquaman, and then Aquaman and Mera. We really want to keep them at the center of the book. But it is a big univers,e and those characters will come into the book; we have stories for them, too.

When you were talking about the title's villains, you said the Trench will be, in a weird way, a dark reflection of Aquaman and Mera. A lot of the things you do -- "Green Lantern," "Flash" -- have characters seeing the dark opposite of themselves or seeing their actions negatively impacting things. Is this a big theme that you want to hit in "Aquaman" as well, looking at what would happen if things went wrong in his life or him seeing that dark reflection of himself?

It's not so much [that there's] any evil in Aquaman. I think the best villains are emotionally and physically compatible with the heroes. You see a lot of it. Lex Luthor is the exact opposite of Superman in every way, and he's compelling for that reason, because he so desperately wants to be Superman. Joker is the same way with Batman -- he's completely psychotic. I think there's a lot of interesting themes you can have with heroes and villains. What they represent or what they bring out in the hero is very, very important. Sinestro, in a weird way, he's not the opposite in Hal at all. Sinestro shares a lot of the same traits Hal has -- he's very driven, and it's very compelling because he's so driven and self-righteous. Hal's the same, but he does it in a different way. Sinestro is much more tactical and kind of buttoned up and professional. Hal's a little more by the guts, and [the question is,] which one is better?

I just think the best kinds of villains aren't just simple, like Bizarro. The best kind of villains are ones that emotionally and physically challenge a hero and bring something out that you didn't notice before so they can contrast with the hero a lot better. That's why I tend to like Captain Cold; his attitude and his power is great because it's all about the cold, and things moving slower on a molecular or subatomic level. So to have his attitude and emotion compared to the Flash, and why he does what he does -- he lives hand to mouth, thinks of himself as a blue-collar criminal -- there's just some great contrast to who Barry Allen is. We hope to do that with Aquaman and Mera and their villains.

Is this also the reason why you're using Darkseid as the first villain in "Justice League?"

Well, for that, that's a simple reason. Working with Jim Lee on "Justice League," if they are going to come together, it's going to be because of the biggest, baddest villain in the DC Universe -- and that's Darkseid. That was simple. He's just a great, great villain.

Because Aquaman is going to be in "Justice League," what has it been like switching from writing this struggling Arthur Curry in "Aquaman" who's finding his place between water and land and the younger version in "Justice League," where he's struggling to find his place in the team?

It's been great bouncing Aquaman off of the members of the Justice League, where his attitude is slightly different. He's a little more defensive because he's not used to it yet. But it's been a lot of fun, and it's great to write and try to establish Aquaman in both books at the same time. We can have some sort of consistent portrayal of who he is. Hopefully people will see him in "Justice League" and be intrigued enough to try on "Aquaman," or vice versa.

Touching once more on the Trench and the first arc of "Aquaman," have you done a lot of research on ocean life and deep-sea creatures and real-world underwater trenches in preparation for the series?

Yeah, and there's something you learn about the Trench based on a very strange organism that I just find fascinating and completely disgusting and disturbing! It's all based on the science of it. Even down below, when we get to the bottom of the ocean, things don't quite work as well, Aquaman's powers don't work the same way. Even Aquaman has limitations. There was a lot of research involved in this. I learned a lot about piranhas, too!

To wrap up, we've talked about everything from characters to themes to stories and issues. Ultimately, what is the heart of "Aquaman?" Is it that the title character is struggling to find his place in the world? Is it finding the humanity in the characters?

I think the heart of "Aquaman" is responsibility to ourselves and the world, and the sacrifices we'll make to honor that responsibility. That's the heart of "Aquaman" -- responsibility. It's the whole arc. I have the entire arc of my entire run mapped out, and the entire arc is about Aquaman and responsibility.

"Aquaman" #1 lands on shelves September 28

Don't miss a four page preview of "Aquaman" #1 right here on CBR!

Tags: dc comics, justice league, new 52, jim lee, aquaman, geoff johns, ivan reis

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