Aquaman Maelstrom Featured Interviews 

520 Weeks – Jeff Parker on “Aquaman:” “What Can Aquaman do that Superman and Batman Can’t?“

By | October 25th, 2021
Posted in Interviews | % Comments

On Tuesday, August 31, 2011, “Justice League” #1 dropped, officially beginning the experiment known as the New 52. DC Comics was not just relaunching all of its titles, it was doing so in a new, clean(er) continuity, in an attempt to revitalize and enthuse the fan base. It was an unprecedented move that bore good, bad, and mediocre comics.

Over the next year, we’ll be discussing each of the New 52 titles with a member of its creative team. We’re not taking any clear path through these books, but hopping from title to title, line to line, in an effort to spotlight the breadth of the initiative.

Today, we’re chatting with Jeff Parker. The veteran writer/artist look over “Aquaman” with #26, and instantly made the book his own. Along with artist Paul Pelletier, Parker told action packed stories that highlighted the uniqueness of the character and continuing Geoff Johns’s approach, which was to expand the character’s supporting cast and mythology, giving him a richer, more developed world to play in.

Jeff is currently writing “Ninjak” for Valiant Comics, and just completed a Kickstarter for a book called “Blighter” along with artist Drew Moss. Follow him on Twitter (@JeffParker).

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Cover by Paul Pelletier

So you were following Geoff Johns on “Aquaman,” and Geoff had taken on the book as a pet project. I remember being at New York Comic Con right after it launched and he says “I’m gonna make people think Aquaman is cool.” It’d been a long time building, but Aquaman had become the Superfriends punch line for a long time. And no disrespect to Geoff’s run, but I always thought that that run was very decompressed and there wasn’t as much action as you’d expect. I just recently reread your “Aquaman” run and the action starts on page one. What were your initial goals with the title? What were the things that you felt you wanted to bring to that book?

Jeff Parker: I wanted to further distinguish what was different about Aquaman I wanted to embrace Aquaman. I felt like you keep seeing people doing takes on Aquaman like “oh now he’s more like a barbarian” or “he’s a hook guy” or whatever. I don’t want to slam everybody else’s view, but I grew up on Aquaman, and I liked the character. Man, I love those Ramona Fradon and Nick Cardy drawn stories, everything is beautiful. Jim Apparo, you know, I was totally into it. I grew up not far from the beach, so the idea of being this guy who goes in and, and gets to communicate with sea creatures and everything was just super interesting to me. He was the only one who wasn’t always in the middle of a city. When I was a kid, everybody’s thrust into New York all the time.

Also, he has a healthy relationship with his wife. It doesn’t have to be a source of tension. There’s all these things you can show; you can tell stories about a couple that are exciting and it doesn’t have to be like “Oh, are they gonna break up?” You can show what a boss Mera is, and it’s fun. And the fun thing is that Aquaman actually isn’t worried about her all the time. “Oh, no, my wife can absolutely kick ass. I’m just going to trust her to do this thing while I do this other thing because I know she can get it done.”

So when I came on. I just thought, “it’s weird to me when people feel they have to justify their character.” As far as I’m concerned, if I’m writing and he’s the main character, he’s the best hero.

I think the book really found its footing when I asked myself, “what can Aquaman do that Superman and Batman can’t?“ I realized everybody knows who he is. He never had a secret identity. One day they found out he was Aquaman. It’s kind of like finding out your friend you grew up with became an Olympian athlete or something. “I did notice he could do some sweet dives into the water and everything.” That’s when I got to the issue where he goes to his high school reunion, and that’s always the one people come up to me at shows and talk about because that’s the one where it clicked for them. He’s dreading going back, because it’s kind of like a rock star going back to their own high school reunion. It also reminds you that he might actually talk kind of like a Mainer when he speaks. You know, when it’s specially when he’s around other Maine people, he probably does start doing that. That was great, because that’s where Paul Pelletier is from. So I like, I can always just pump him for Maine stuff to use in the book. But you know, they’re all talking about “Yeah, I’m running a lobster boat, and blah, blah, blah,” and you’re like a king of the sea. You’re just not sure how to broach the subject . Mera is enjoying how embarrassed he is.

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But then I got to do it, like cool monster stuff, like bring back the creature, King Chimera. I got to have all these big fights, and finally get to the thing I wanted to do. I always thought it was so weird that the previous comics just keep avoiding his mom. It’s like, that’s the only reason he’s Aquaman. He doesn’t have lighthouse keeper powers. He’s got the powers that come from his mom.

It was always just sort of avoided and that’s when I came up with the mystery of him opening her tomb to find she’s not there. “Wait, my mom was never actually entombed, what happened?” And then he starts the whole search to find out where the search for mom and we got to go to Gorilla City and all kinds of cool stuff on the path to get there. You get to see him fight Grodd and that whole story was just a blast.

I’ve spoken to a bunch of creators about this time, and it seems like there was an inordinate amount of editorial interference in some of these books. How, how different was what you wanted to do with Aquaman, versus what you got to do, in terms of editorial oversight?

JP:: At the time we came in, there was a bunch of shuffling around going on at DC. So we barely could keep an editor on the book; they were being moved around, they kept getting different assignments, which is probably extremely confusing for them. But it was great for me and Paul, because no one knew what we’re doing. And they had to just trust us. So everybody would come in and they go, “you guys doing okay, can I get you anything?” And we’re like, “No, we’re fine. We know our story.” And I think [the run is] so good because we were left alone for the most part. We had some good editors like Matt Idleson and Chris Conroy early on, and once brought us in – well Paul was already on, and he brought me in – they gave some good takes and everything but then they got moved around again. I tried to use some of that.

[Once we got going,] we were going like gangbusters. I wanted to do another year or two, but then we finally got a regular editor and you know, my take is, he didn’t like that he didn’t get to pick the team. Editors like to pick the teams. And so essentially, we got kind of booted. And you know, then others got brought on to go in a different direction. This is one of those things where you gotta know what the job is. And I felt like it was already working. People liked where the book left off when Johns left, and I thought, “okay, I’m not changing the status quo, I’m just going to do my own version of it and bring in some other elements.”

One of my big agendas was that I didn’t want to see Black Manta. It’s like dragging in the Joker every 10 minutes. Give them a break, so they’re special when they come back. I wanted to focus on some other villains. So that’s, that’s the way I went with it, and that’s the way I’d do Superman if they call me.

When something’s not broke, don’t fix it. You know, we held on to our readers, it was doing well. And then, bam, we were kicked off the book. It goes in this other direction that was not fair to the creators themselves, but that was the assignment they were handed. Sometimes editors do have great ideas; I’m very big on editors. But you know, maybe what the creators are the ones who have to live with it. Don’t type through me, just let me write the story. Be the sounding board to tell me like, oh, as an objective reader, I’m not getting this or this isn’t. That’s the kind of thing an editor can do and should do. I’m grousing a little bit because I wanted more time on the book, I had more stories to tell.

That’s why I was so glad that they invited me back to do the story for the 80th anniversary special, and I got to bring in Doc Shaner because he always wanted to do Aquaman. He loves him as much as I do. I felt like we got to do a very representative Aquaman story that kind of brings in all the recent versions together. I just felt like we needed to establish that he’s not a different guy just because he got some tattoos and grew his hair out. Doc did that beautiful scene when Aquaman gets hit with a torpedo and he’s kind of stunned for a bit as he drifts down, and he starts to fall through earlier versions of himself. When he’s back in our run, he remembers the problem with the dog on the beach. Salty is sitting there freaking out because something’s in his ear and his friend Erica comes up and shows him “Oh, he’s got a foxtail in his ear.” And that’s because his subconscious brain is going to what’s bothering the volcano squid. I like to remind people he’s also supposed to defend the creatures of the sea in addition to wearing a gold scale suit.

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That’s one of the things I loved about your run so much is that I felt like it was a really great representation of who Arthur is as a character without trying to make him into something else. I think that oftentimes the most enjoyable comics for me, when you’re talking about a big two property, is when somebody isn’t trying to reinvent x character but just trying to tell the best version of that character that they can and your run felt like that. There’s a scene, I think it’s in your first issue that I giggled when I read it, when he flies through the sky because of the water pressure shooting him out of the sea. I was like,”why aren’t folks doing this all the time?” Like you said, Superman can’t do this, it’s an Aquaman exclusive thing. And it was really fun and really and really enjoyable.

JP: What’s the world really like for Aquaman? He still likes the little townies from Amnesty Bay as much as he likes Atlantis. He’s stuck in a weird position; he’s kind of like somebody who moved to the big city for his job.He’s still part of these two places and he tries to, give equal time and attention to both of them. It’s hard. He’s just a normal guy. And that’s what’s interesting about it for me. He’s got some tragedy in his background, but not as much as your Batmans and such, right? You know, yeah, there’s no Crime Cove, or whatever. ”Don’t swim by there, that’s where we were picking out pearls when my mom and dad got shot by a spear or something.” That was a horrible metaphor.

Don’t worry, the spirit of it was there. So let’s talk about Paul Pelletier. Paul’s work is just fantastic throughout this book. I know Paul preceded you on the book; how did you find working with him?

JP: I had worked on a back during that whole Hulk event. We had worked with a group called the Intelligentsia with all these smart bad guys, like the super apes and MODOK and the like. So I got a little taste of what Paul was like to work with. So when we got together on “Aquaman,” you know, I just immediately said, “Okay, well, what is it you’re not getting to draw yet?” One of the first things he said was Swamp Thing, so I wrote Swamp Thing in immediately. And then we did a kind of soft crossover with the “Swamp Thing” when Charles Soule was working on it. I always go through and ask what they want to draw, and more importantly, ask what they don’t want to draw. Sometimes artists easily get typecast and now everybody expects them to do this same kind of story all the time. I like to help folks avoid that; sometimes if you ask them what they want to draw, they just can’t answer it. They just go, “Oh, no anything.” But asking what they don’t want to draw gets you there a lot faster. Usually, but Paul really is easygoing and I haven’t seen anything he can’t draw yet. Later, he and I then worked on the “Justice League United” book and he essentially had to draw Sgt. Rock and all these characters, including the Justice League, all together. And man, I don’t think there’s anything he can’t do.

That is one of my favorite forgotten DC books of the last decade. I wish that went on for a lot longer.

Now let’s talk about the end of the run. You said you had a couple more years worth of stories in you. What was the one story you would’ve wanted to do if they gave you one more arc?

JP: You know, I should have looked back at my notes to see because I had a bunch of notes about different things. We had toyed with the idea of raising part of Atlantis. That was a good editor note and I think Chris Conroy was the one who was bringing it up to remind everybody Atlantis is another country. I also wanted to do a bunch of small ‘done in ones’ where we could explore some different genres. I wanted to do a very modern version of what they might have done in the late 50s, early 60s with these done in one type stories and get a little more sci-fi with it.

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I loved the arc that leads up to him meeting his mother because there is kind of, you know, there’s the Gorilla City issue, which kind of acts as his own little story, but it’s part of this bigger arc. There’s the Swamp Thing issue., there’s the Martian Manhunter issue, so you get these little tastes of these characters. without it being a whole arc.

JP: That’s essentially where I would have gone. Thanks for reminding me about that, because I loved bringing Martian Manhunter into it. It would have been more, more like me finding kinda like what I did with “Agents of Atlas” at Marvel, like, let’s find some of the other characters who are cool but for some reason no one’s using them and bring them in and show that they have a place to be and make their your own fun corner. That is really enjoyable to be in.

You did not have a launch book in the New 52, so I think your perspective here is really fascinating. What was your perception of the new 52 when it initially launched?

JP: I liked the fact that they weren’t throwing a lot of things away, like with Aquaman they were going back to his classic look because again, don’t don’t break what’s working. Yeah, everybody loves Jason Momoa Aquaman, I do too. And Kelly Sue [DeConnick] helped bridge that gap to make them the same guy. Which was, you know exactly what you need to happen because now a zillion people have seen that movie, which uses a lot of our Maelstrom run thing. So that was nice.

Are you in the credits for that, by the way?

JP: I didn’t get thanked in the credits. I did get money.

That’s even better.

JP: Yeah, it is better. I’d still like to be in the credits. You know that but uh, I won’t lie. I had to be a little bit of a squeaky wheel there. That’s what you run into with work for hire. You know, technically they don’t have to do anything. But they also don’t probably want to be embarrassed like, “well, you seem to use a lot of this run that these people came up with.” At least Paul got in the credits. I’m glad about that.

//TAGS | 520 Weeks

Brian Salvatore

Brian Salvatore is an editor, podcaster, reviewer, writer at large, and general task master at Multiversity. When not writing, he can be found playing music, hanging out with his kids, or playing music with his kids. He also has a dog named Lola, a rowboat, and once met Jimmy Carter. Feel free to email him about good beer, the New York Mets, or the best way to make Chicken Parmagiana (add a thin slice of prosciutto under the cheese).


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