Aquaman Can Punch The Hell Out Of Superman: Dan Abnett And Brad Walker On ‘Aquaman’ [Interview]
Thanks to the biweekly release schedule it shares with many of DC's other Rebirth titles, the current Aquaman is humming along briskly, telling a high-stakes story and offering a new level of development to its characters. Aquaman #6, out September 7, features an epic fight with Superman and a milestone in the life of Black Manta.
ComicsAlliance talked to writer Dan Abnett and artist Brad Walker about how recent changes for Superman affect Aquaman, why Rebirth and the biweekly schedule benefits creators and readers, and what their plans are for Aquaman's greatest enemy.
ComicsAlliance: The first thing that happens in Aquaman #6 is the big confrontation with Superman. And this isn’t the Superman that Aquaman knows. It’s the pre-Flashpoint Superman who has taken up the role. In that complex a situation, how do you think about Superman and Aquaman’s relationship?
Dan Abnett: To be perfectly frank, that’s actually very difficult indeed. Because when we set out to tell the story, what we wanted was a sort of pure Superman. A Superman who was Superman and not in any way qualified by any changes in circumstance, so essentially this Superman is exactly that --- he’s the classic Superman, and I just wanted to write it as cleanly as possible, so that I wasn’t avoiding the issue, but that sort of thing didn’t get in the way of the very much more direct and visceral and important argument that the two of them were having. After recognizing Superman as Superman, even though he’s not particularly familiar with this particular iteration, he’s seen enough strange things to know that when Superman turns up, Superman is Superman.
It’s a tricky thing, and certainly I discussed it with the editors, and indeed the Superman editors, to make sure that we didn’t dodge the issue, but actually allowed this issue to stand on its own. Hopefully there will come a point, I guess, where people will read it in trade form, and the issue of which Superman it is will be less important, as continuity has moved on from there. So I wanted it to be sort of definitive. I don’t know if that made Brad work any harder.
Brad Walker: That’s funny, because Dan and I didn’t talk about that, but I thought about that as I was working on the issue. When you think about it, Superman is really the wild card of the current DCU, in the sense that he has a different relationship with everybody else in the universe than they have with him, and there are a lot of ways that creators could interpret that, where his relationship can probably sort of organically evolve with elements of archetypal relationships between the characters, or you can pick up hints of the relationships they had with the New 52 Superman.
You could organically slide into a lot of that, depending on what the story calls for, and what the characters need, but as Dan was saying, because Superman was sort of the trickiest element coming into Rebirth, I don’t know that we wanted to weigh down an Aquaman story by belaboring all of those details, and talking a lot about, “Which Superman are you? You have a son, correct?”
DA: I think your use of the word “archetypal” there is really important. Whichever Superman it is, the function of his performance in the DC Universe is as the Superman archetype, that essentially everybody looks up to. And there is a sort of pecking order, no matter how much of a wild card he is. And Brad is certainly correct, there are many other ways we could have taken that, in terms of the questions of Superman’s identity and relationships with people, but then it wouldn’t have been an Aquaman story anymore. It would have been a Superman story, and that’s not our remit to do that.
But just as a caveat, without any spoilers, thinking about that and being aware of it has set up some interesting repercussions. It’s fair to say the relationship between Superman and Aquaman will continue --- they’re fellow members of the Justice League --- and there may be more complex and subtle explorations of that and the fact that this isn’t the Superman that Aquaman knew appearing as the series progresses.
And from my point of view as a writer, considering that about Superman in terms of Aquaman and the DC Universe as a whole has had a really interesting impact on what I’m doing in Titans. So the thought process wasn’t a waste of time at all. It was one of those cases where we thought, “There are too many things we can do! Tear it down and do the important things!” But there are so many other things to explore.
CA: In terms of the big fight that happens with Superman, I’m always interested in how writers and artists break down a fight scene, and who decides what happens when. And this is especially interesting because Aquaman and Mera both break out some surprising moves, and hold their own against Superman better than we might expect. How did you two talk about that?
DA: I think the handling of that scene originated with a face-to-face conversation I had with Geoff Johns before we even got into the scripting, about that confrontation being a really important thing to do because of what it says about Aquaman. We wouldn’t have considered doing that if we hadn’t thought it would be an even enough fight for neither one of them to seem like a bully. I think Aquaman’s power level, and Mera’s certainly, are often underestimated.
If you read this arc as a whole, we get a profound sense that Aquaman is much more than a guy who swims fast and talks to fish. He’s got a level of power to him that’s sustainable, and I think by the time we reach that confrontation, his dander’s up. He’s had everything thrown at him, and he’s had to shrug it off and try to make his way through it. And finally he’s confronted by Superman, and that’s a very big moment.
I don’t think either of us is suggesting that Aquaman outclasses Superman, but he certainly can hold his own. I think he’s possibly the most likely member of the Justice League --- with the exception of Wonder Woman --- who can go toe-to-toe like that and stand even a chance of soaking it up and doing some damage.
In terms of scripting, I scripted it by the dialogue --- the conversation that had to happen between them. And then sort of marking it when the key moments happen: who swings the first punch and that kind of thing. And I always trust that Brad is going to see that and act that out, and if he doesn’t think it’ll work like that, I’ll get an email that says, “This is dumb. Don’t do it that way, how about this!”
BW: “Why did you write this?”
I’ve always noticed that a function of a character’s solo book when it’s working well for me, I feel like the creative team is using each story to sort of highlight why a fan would think that this character is cool, or why you would care about reading them. And so anytime you’re including a guest star, I feel like it should be serving that function. I know there are a lot of readers who get really caught up in power rankings, and I tend to feel like that is secondary. As an Aquaman creator, I wouldn’t be offended if Aquaman showed up in Batman and Batman got the upper hand, because that’s for Batman’s book to handle.
So when you’re putting Superman in the climax of a big Aquaman story, it’s to say something about Aquaman. And it's what Aquaman says to Superman: “I’m not your subordinate, that you get to show up and police my actions. Not only am I equal to you, but I serve a function in the world that you don’t understand.”
So using a fight scene to illustrate that, we have to show that Aquaman can punch the hell out of Superman, that they can go toe-to-toe and scrap for an entire issue, and Aquaman will keep getting back up and keep opposing him. And Mera’s right there, I would say to not only support that, but instigate it in some ways, because she has a different approach to the surface world.
DA: I actually think that if either of them were to put Superman on his backside it would be Mera.
I agree absolutely with Brad’s take on that. That it is a matter of not just showing you people together, but showing you the contrast. Showing you why the book you’re reading is distinctive and important by showing you the differences between him and characters that he knows and can contrast with. And indeed, his ordeal with Superman in this issue sets up what will happen next, both in terms of his physical endurance levels, as far as what the next story has in store for him, but also in terms of the contrast between him and the other character who’ll show up. It’s not to say that Aquaman is better than X, X is better than Batman. It’s to say how different they are in handling things.
Without spoilers, there is a scene with a group of guest stars not too many issues away, where without even talking about it we show that some of them can do things that Aquaman can’t, and some of them really can’t do the things that he can, and that’s just accepted by them all because they’re together working on something. And I think that’s always a really cool thing, when you see characters just placed against each other, and in a particular circumstance that allows them to thrive, or to turn to one another for backup.
CA: Talking about these interactions makes me think about the characters you’re dealing with as regulars --- Aquaman, Mera, Black Manta, and so on. They have these histories that go back fifty years or more, but then you also have this short history that goes back to 2011, more or less. How do you balance that long-term understanding of who these characters are with the shorter history of the current DC Universe?
DA: I’ve always felt that the comparatively shorter timeframe is simply a way for every reader to more easily get their heads around who characters were and what they’re doing, without feeling weighed down by immense excess baggage.
And I think one of the really brilliant things Rebirth has done, rather than scrapping the reboot or anything like that, is to say that the greater depth of a longer-term understanding of these characters is entirely valid and informs what’s going on, even though these histories are comparatively short. There is a sort of best of both worlds combination.
I’ve always felt that the New 52 wasn’t a simplification; it was a distillation. It concentrated all the things that it had taken years and years to tell, and allowed us to see them in a very much more concentrated way. So I think that sort of thing comes across. And again, using the parallel of Titans just for a moment, in Titans we’ve literally inherited a past continuity that nobody knew existed, unless they happened to be diligent readers for the last 30 years.
And I think that was one of the interesting benefits of Rebirth, to say that that sense – which I think has been there since day one of the New 52 --- that things have just become a more distilled version of themselves. And that if you know the prior histories, then that is just an advantage.
I think that possibly of all the Rebirth books, Aquaman is the one that has continued the least changed and the least molested by the fluctuation of the way the continuity works. There was such a solid core built by Geoff [Johns] and Ivan [Reis] in the New 52, that what we wanted was to keep doing what they’d done so well. To do it as well if not better, and keep that up, without trying to further revise stuff. Whereas, with the example of Titans, there were clearly things where I had to explain, because it was part of the story that things have changed.
So there’s less of that, but there’s lots of little touches we’re trying to throw in --- little nods to a greater continuity for those that are aware of it. Even a comparatively minor character like Black Jack, who is named to acknowledge a more distant continuity.
BW: I always feel like DC works best when they’re not working as hard at the continuity aspect or including that in the story. I feel like the characters are so iconic and archetypal that if you just write forward-thinking stories with the characters, presenting them in the form and fashion that readers care about and love, which is the overall thrust of Rebirth, I feel like they always read really well.
And if you look at the stuff that was best received in the New 52, it was the stuff that --- like Batman, Aquaman, and Green Lantern --- didn’t work too hard to write a new continuity. They just took the characters in their classic form and told stories going forward.
And I feel like that’s what we’re doing in Aquaman. We’re not constantly referencing the plot points of New 52 or looking back to specific stories from Peter David’s run or something, and trying to retrofit them into the story that we’re working with now. We’re just trying to tell good Aquaman stories, with a very familiar feel to the character. And I think that’s what Rebirth was trying to do that I think people are responding so well to.
CA: Along those lines, I really want to talk about Black Manta. Because he’s probably my favorite DC villain, and I really love him in this book --- both the way he’s written and drawn --- and I’m especially excited about where he ends up by the end of this issue. So I wanted to ask both of you about your take on him and what direction you’re coming at him from.
DA: I have to say he’s one of my favorite characters too. If nothing else, he wins the ‘Best Hat’ award.
BW: [laughing] Or heaviest!
DA: [laughing] Best Hat, Heaviest Hat --- all the hat awards go to him. He’s just such a distinctive, dynamic character, and I think he’s a wonderful antithesis to Aquaman in almost every regard. And I think that’s why he works so well.
At his purest, in the way he’s been dealt with in stories prior to our run, he’s been great. Because if nothing else, he’s this spirit of vengeance, which is so determinedly singular. In comic universes where revenge is a feature, he still stands out in a wonderful way. However, that is also limiting, because it means that almost any story you tell with him in that mode is going to be singular, and probably end up with one or two of the same usual outcomes. He tries to get revenge on Aquaman, he’s thwarted, etcetera etcetera.
So one of my agendas to begin with was to say let’s use Black Manta right from the get-go, in this new series. Because he is kind of the arch villain, he’s the classic villain. Let’s use him in a really interesting way, and let’s try and develop him so that he actually becomes bigger. And very early on --- you see it in the Rebirth one shot and our first issue --- in bringing his particular brand of vengeance for the umpteenth time, he’s so psychologically defeated by Aquaman, that Aquaman is actually creating a much more dangerous foe. I really like the idea that any developments in Black Manta are sort of Aquaman’s fault, even though he was doing it for the best possible reasons.
In demonstrating to Black Manta what a futile and ultimately pointless thing he was trying to do, he broadens Manta’s remit in the most dangerous way. And now in issue #6, we’re seeing that growth and progression. He’s taken to heart so much of what Aquaman has schooled him in that actually he becomes a larger and greater threat. And I think that was something that we both really liked about the idea of taking him from being an interestingly one-dimensional villain into something where there was a greater scope. And without overselling the point, he becomes a much greater parallel to Aquaman, because there’s that sense of leadership, even kingship, going on there.
But I think he’s great. He’s a brilliant foil, and I want to make him more complex without losing that essence of danger and determination.
BW: I really like the move to not just use him as a villain in the first arc, but to set up him up as supporting character with ongoing subplots in Aquaman’s book, which I think puts him on a different level than he’s been on in the past. And there’s a whole tapestry that he’s at the center of now that Aquaman’s going to be intertwined in.
Ongoing comic books and maybe soap operas are really the only media that are set up to follow characters that way. And it’s even better suited to a biweekly book, the way so many of these Rebirth books are right now, which I think is a unique reading experience. And Black Manta is a prime example of a character benefitting from that. When we were first revealing covers, so many fans were tweeting me, saying, “It’s so great to see Black Manta,” and I didn’t want to say at the time, but it was cool to know that they weren’t just getting to see Black Manta — you’re going to see a lot of Black Manta, and you’re going to get consistent character development for Black Manta.
So for this character specifically, and for DC characters in general, I think that the Rebirth relaunch really affords a lot of interesting possibilities for character like that who don’t have their own book. You can get a lot of mileage out of them now.
DA: That’s certainly something we talked about early on, isn’t it Brad? That two issues a month is not a case of looking around for filler to fill the pages. It’s a case of knowing that you’re connecting with the reader twice as often, and giving them twice as much. There is more real estate. In a monthly book, you’re obliged to deliver something that doesn’t drag out or feel slow, but if you’re coming in fast, you can spend slightly more time doing things that otherwise would not qualify for the precious page time, and the development of a villain is a perfect example of that.
I think if this had been a straightforward six-part monthly story, we would have spent less time playing with Manta. I think there was a great opportunity to do that, and it’s something we will do as the book progresses with other characters as well. There is sort of breathing space to show other characters developing, without the readers going, “Well that was two or three pages of monthly fix of Aquaman wasted there!” We get the elbowroom to grow things properly.
BW: That’s such a consistent gripe that I hear fans talking about. That with the 20-page format now, with editors and writers and artists trying to give a more visually impressive reading experience, which means you’re going to get splash pages if you want this to look powerful, and you’re going to get three-panel pages in a fight scene. I don’t think that the audience, even if they think that they would, would accept a ‘70s comic reading experience where you have ten-panel pages.
When you have two issues a month, you come closer to that without losing any of the visual punch of a modern comic book. I think the benefits of that --- we’re just barely starting to see them. If we can sustain this, I think it’s going to be a cool thing for readers to settle into. And that’s what it feels like to me: that we’re really getting to settle into a story with these characters and their world, and supporting cast members, which is such a dying art. And we have a bunch of Atlantean and surface world supporting characters that I really enjoy playing with, and I hope the fans really settle in with them. And Black Manta’s chief among them.
And drawing him in the helmet is not only cool and more challenging than I expected, but I have a really good time drawing him without the helmet. I was really inspired by a couple of shots of him that Oscar Jimenez drew in the Rebirth issue, and I sort of ran from that blueprint. He’s a character with so much failure in his life and his past that he’s really taken in, and I enjoy drawing his face and expressions, and acting with him, because you really see all of those disappointments and failures in every line on his face.
I love a good dastardly-looking villain, and I’m really trying to work with that. When the helmet comes off, because the helmet affords pretty much zero expression, so when it comes off you try to go the other way. And some of the pages at the end of #6, with his storyline, I was really happy with how we acted his way through them.
CA: I don’t want to spoil the specifics, but in the last panel of him in #6, it’s this great moment where he’s very calm, and he’s very self-satisfied, and the way that you draw his face there is amazing.
DA: It’s always exciting when pages come in and we get to see them, but I have to say that when that page came in, everyone cheered when they saw that panel. Such a great capture of character, I think. It’s just fantastic.
BW: It’s funny, I think it says a lot about his character that he can have moments like that where he’s so smug and self-assured, when like I said, his life has been defined by failure. But you know, any good villain --- that kind of personality is what defines them.