Master of the Sea

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Taking over from Kurt Busiek today on Aquaman: Sword of Atlantis is Tad Williams, who DC fans know best from his work on The Next and Helmet of Fate: Ibis. In this interview, Williams talks about his love for the character and how he plans to make Arthur Curry main series a popular commodity on many a reading list—by going in a bold, new direction that doesn’t involve as much swords and sorcery.

BROKEN FRONTIER: The writer you’re replacing, Kurt Busiek, has been credited as one of the creators who’s done the most with the possibilities One Year Later offered. Do you agree, when you look at where other creators have taken their books?

TAD WILLIAMS:I agree, but of course anyone with internet access knows that doesn’t always make the readers happy.  I really like what Kurt did, but I think I may go back a slightly more traditional direction, not least of which because I don’t think the sword and sorcery direction doesn’t integrate too well with the rest of the DCU.  In fact, something fairly significant happens with new Arthur’s sword at the end of my first issue that will comment on that.

But, overall, I’m keeping many elements, and doing my best to keep continuity with all the recent directions the various creators have brought to Aquaman.  (In plain English that means I’m trying to resolve a lot of dangling plotstrings.)

BF: Does that mean you’d rather see DC drop the ‘Sword of Atlantis’ subtitle? They’re not bound to last forever anyways…

TW: I’d rather the comic was just called “Aquaman”, but in the long run, it either works or doesn’t.  Either way, it certainly has the name “Aquaman” in the title, which is the most important bit.

BF: Looking at the larger scope, bringing a radically new atmosphere to the book could almost be seen as a necessity because of the discrepancy in Aquaman’s popularity: in this day and age, his own title was hardly ever extremely popular among readers, but then again, he’s a factor in team books, like the previous JLA series and most recently, Justice

TW: A longtime Aquaman reader wrote me a very intelligent email on just this subject.  His contention (which I think has a lot of truth) is that Aquaman’s own book hasn’t been connected into the rest of the DCU as well as it could be – that he spends too much time in the ocean and not enough interacting with other characters.  I’m not certain if I completely agree, but it’s something to consider, and I’m considering it.

BF: How will you go about putting the book more in tune with the DC Universe, without turning this book in an Aquaman team-up series?

TW: Well, for one thing more OPV would be good – Other People’s Villains.  Also, more integration with the surface world, although I don’t want to make the undersea world of secondary importance.

BF: Why do you think it is that the character has experienced a difficult time in the modern age to succeed starring in a solo book?

TW: I think part of it is that idea of being separated from the other mainstream characters, but I think he’s also suffered from people trying to revitalize him every dozen or so issues.  The hook, the beard and long hair, the water-hand, Arthur Joseph (new Aquaman) etc., are all interesting ideas, but taken as a whole I think they’ve given the readership the idea that no one’s quite sure what Aquaman IS. 

When a new writer takes over a Superman or Batman title, he or she doesn’t usually change something major right off the bat, they try to find cool new ways to work with the existing paradigm.  Aquaman’s paradigm has gotten a little fuzzy around the edges.

Then again, there’s always the possibility that undersea characters are just not going to be as popular as the dry-land variety.  I don’t think Marvel’s Namor has ever been a huge seller in his own titles, either.

BF: That’s true, and he shares some of the same problems: popular when co-starring, but never a success on his own… 

TW: But I think that’s in part because Namor has that whole “noble savage” thing going which makes him hard to use as a main character – he’s not subtle and he doesn’t make jokes.  That particular problem needn’t be Aquaman’s problem, too.  He CAN be funny and for whatever reasons he’s never been painted as the “savage” type.

(It’s one of the reasons I never believed Sue Storm would drop Reed for Namor, even if Reed was a pain in the ass: who wants to live with a guy who can’t make small talk?)

BF: As you've already indicated, testifying said difficulties are the different Aquaman incarnations we’ve seen over the years—beard, clean shave, mystic water hand, cybernetic harpoon, etc. Do you have a favorite ‘version’?

TW: I think my favorite version is the plain old vanilla Aquaman.  I’d like to have that character to work with and try to write him in a really interesting way.  All too often in comics, we see cosmetic changes (ooh, he’s going to wear the black suit!) passing for “character development”.  The more subtle, but equally immature version of this is, “He’s matured – he’s a bad-ass, now!  He’s dark and brooding!”

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BF: Oh, you mean Spider-Man? [Laughs] Now, we’ve tiptoed around it a few times, but it’s never really been addressed: who, do you feel, is Aquaman at his core?

TW: If we’re talking about Classic (as opposed to New Coke) I think he’s been WRITTEN as a very conflicted guy, and because of my respect for other writers’ work, I’d have to write him as such and use it – maybe resolve some of it.  Ultimately he is one of the most powerful versions of a one-of-a-kind character – he really isn’t like anyone else he knows – and finding and creating his place in the universe should have always been a big part of his mythos. 

Lots of superhero stuff is about “making” families (the whole X-Men franchise is about that and the Legion of Super Heroes verges on that at times) and it should be a focus for Aquaman

Also, of course, he’s a very powerful dude with a huge sense of responsibility who needs to lighten up a little to live a happier and more fulfilling life, and that’s something I’d make part of my take as well.

BF: What about favorite stories? Either as a reader or as a writer doing research, what are some of the moments that have struck you the most?

TW: I think the Sub Diego sinking was very clever and exciting, but I wish it had been tied down and connected to the rest of the DCU more quickly – witness the fact that it’s STILL not explained.  (That was one of the first things I started thinking about when I was offered the comic.) 

I’ve always loved Black Manta – I think he’s just one of the coolest villains, and I’d like to resurrect his crazy/badness a bit.    And of course a lot of his stuff in the Justice League has been very cool since Morrison resurrected them. 

In his own book, I liked some of the Skeates and Aparo stuff very much – there was ANOTHER cool California-sinking episode, I forget the number.  Which reminds me, why the hell was Atlantis off the coast of California in those days?  Did it just…float there?

Anyway, what I don’t like, except in the so-silly-it’s-fun way, is the original Aquaman stories.  I have a limited capacity to be entertained by electric eels making neon signs reading “Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act” to help Aqualad pass his GED exam, although I’m sure that kind of drama was a heart-pounder back in 1958.

BF: With the eels involved, I’m sure those fans found it electrifying! [Laughs]

TW: Shocking. Just… shocking.

BF: Once DC knew Kurt was not going to continue writing Aquaman, what put them onto you? Did writing Aquaman spin out of your work on The Next?

TW: Well, my editor Joey Cavalieri edits Aquaman.  I think his thought was something like, “We’ve taken Aquaman in a more fantasy-fiction direction, so Tad (who has spent twenty-plus years writing fantasy fiction) could be a good choice.”  And in at least one sense, worldbuilding and consistency, I think he was right.  I take that stuff very seriously.

BF: A novelist usually has a keen eye for setting and exploring the possibilities it offers. What place does the legend of Atlantis get in your vision of the series?

TW: I love the size of it, that other than Peter David’s tenure no one’s done much with its history, and I just pray that I get long enough on the title to really start drawing in the background.

BF: That said, how much of a change in direction will we see? Will we see you wrap up some of Kurt’s dangling plot threats before you make the title fully your own?

TW: I think it’s going to take me a year just to wrap up all the dangling plot threads from the last four or five creative teams.  I really hope we sell enough copies for me to get that done and begin turning all those other people’s Aquaman into the Aquaman I’d like to leave behind when I’m done with writing the comic.

BF: So, if you had your way, how long do you see yourself staying on this title to see everything through?

TW: I’ve never done a monthly comic, so who knows how I’ll feel a couple of years from now, but I’d love to chart Aquaman’s course for at least a few years – long enough to really make some things happen and give the readers a sense of continuity.  If DC lets me keep doing it, and no other Act of Poseidon intervenes, I’m planning to be writing it for the indefinite future with no end in sight.

BF: One change we will definitely is the style of art, as Shawn McManus replaces Butch Guice as the new regular penciller, bringing along a decidedly more ‘cartoony’ flavor. How much will the new style influence the overall look and feel of the title?

TW: I haven’t yet learned (and may never do so) how to tailor my writing to a particular artist, so it won’t have much effect on my work.  I hope (and this is probably an idle bit of silliness, but you asked) that if it has any effect it might be to lure a few younger readers to pick up the comic. 

God knows, the industry could use a few more kids my son’s age (10) reading and enjoying comics instead of only seeing the characters in movies and videogames.  If Shawn’s more open, cartoonish style aids with that, it would be very cool.

BF: What have you found working with Shawn to be? The two of you have in common that Sword of Atlantis is basically your first extended run on an ongoing title…

TW: All I can tell you is that so far Shawn is a real treat to work with.  He may reveal hidden evils later on, or even turn out to be a super-villain in disguise, but at the moment we’re having fun and I’m looking forward to seeing how we both grow into this comic.

BF: Your first story arc promises to introduce a few new characters. What can you tell us about them and how they will affect Arthur?

TW: I’m introducing a background story that will play out over (if all goes well) the next two years.  It concerns an unknown undersea civilization called Dyss and the alien-god around whom it’s literally built.  However, this is only one aspect of what’s coming – as I said, I’m building it up slowly, although they’ll have a big effect right away in the first issue.

BF: Also set to claim some of the spotlight is Black Manta, whom you referred to earlier. How does this classic villain fit into the story?

TW: He’s going to take over Sub Diego – or what’s left of it.  And he’s got a bigger role than anyone will see for a while, because he’s involved, at a couple of removes, with what took part of San Diego down in the first place.

BF: Next to Aquaman, you’re working on another project for DC, called The Factory. What’s the premise, and when can we expect to see it to debut?

TW: I think I’m changing the name to Bad Guy Factory.  The premise is that people who want to become villains, or who want to improve their skills or weaponry, or even just want to become henchmen, have to go somewhere, and that’s to the Factory, where they are taught/counselled/brutalized by old-school villains.

It’s kind of like Hogwarts for henchfolk.

I’m writing the first issue now.  I hope to see it come out no later than summertime, but who knows?

Aquaman: Sword of Atlantis #50 goes on sale today through DC Comics.

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