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Thursday, March 15, 2007

Aquaman Shrine Interview with Steve Skeates - 2007


I've already gone on and on about how much I love Steve Skeates' Aquaman stories, so I'll just shut up and let Steve do the talking:

Aquaman Shrine: Did you seek out to write Aquaman or were you asked?

Steve Skeates: A touch of both actually, but just a touch. That is to say, back in the late sixties, when editor Dick Giordano made the leap from Charlton Comics to DC, bringing along with him such Charlton "luminaries" as Steve Ditko, Pat Boyette, Denny O'Neil (who had been working there under the name Sergius O'Shaugnessy), Jim Aparo, and even me, Dick asked the two writers of the troupe (O'Neil and myself) to drop by his new spiffy DC office at our respective conveniences in order to pick up our new writing assignments, and somehow, hardly running true to form (being generally lazy, somewhat timid, and more than a little disorganized) I showed up in Dick's office approximately 24 hours prior to O'Neil making the scene. Therefore, I was given my druthers, allowed to choose between the two regularly published but faltering adventure comics Dick had inherited--Aquaman and Bomba, the Jungle Boy.

Which one would you have chosen? As I recall, it was only after I had made my choice that Dick informed me that I would be teamed here with Jim Aparo, a plan that pleased me no end, seeing as Jim and I had worked together quite often at Charlton (on The Thane of Bagarth series that appeared in the back of the Hercules book, on various "mystery" stories for The Many Ghosts of Dr. Graves and Strange Suspense Stories, and even a nifty western "The Coward" which Dick liked so much he made it the cover story when he used it in Gunfighters #52) and Jim had always done such a great job (often making a rather mediocre scripting job on my part come alive and therefore seem far better written than it really was) that I honestly could think of no other artist I would have preferred being teamed with.

AMS:Did you ever hear anything from the higher-ups at DC about what you were doing or just from then-editor Dick Giordano?

SS: After a while Dick and I began to notice that Aquaman was rather unique amongst all the DC publications in that nobody up at DC seemed to be reading it, neither the other editors or the higher-ups! Dick and I used to joke about this phenomenon--sure, we were rather bothered by the fact that no one up there was into what we were up to, no one was congratulating us or whatever, that we weren't getting feedback from our peers (a welcome--if not downright necessary--commodity as far as any creative endeavor is concerned), yet, at the same time, this was allowing us a lot of freedom; I do sincerely doubt that we would have gotten away with such experimental issues as "Is California Sinking?" (Aquaman #53) "Crime Wave,"(#54) and "The Creature that Devoured Detroit,"(#56) had the higher-ups been checking into what the heck we were up to!

AMS: Your Aquaman stories are universally known as being unique--they don't feel or read like a typical superhero comic of the time. Since there isn't a "typical" Aquaman story--unlike say for Superman, Batman, Spider-Man, etc., did you feel free to use the character in the kind of stories you wanted to tell? Did you tailor them much to fit Aquaman and his settings?

SS: My stories--unique! Did I feel free cuz no "typical" Aquaman (as opposed to Supes, Bats, etc.)? I can very safely say that the initial uniqueness of our Aquaman tales was far more Dick's doing than my own. Prior to handing out any assignments, Dick had thoroughly thought it out as to the particular directions he wanted his various inherited series to progress in! In the case of Aquaman, it was Dick's idea to start off with a rather huge story arc (not particularly "huge" by today's standards, nor did we call 'em "arcs" back in those days), lasting a year and a half, in which Mera is kidnapped and Aquaman searches practically every community on the ocean floor in hopes of locating his missing wife.

Dick visualized the series as resembling The Fugitive, Route 66, Run for Your Life, etc., etc.--you know, one of those highly popular TV series with a wandering/searching hero who enters a new town each episode--it was up to me to figure out what these undersea towns would be like and how visiting them would ultimately lead to a reunion betwixt Aquaman and Mera.

AMS: Was there much back and forth with Jim Aparo, or once you sent the stories off was that it until they were published?

SS: Interestingly enough, there was absolutely no back-and-forth between Jim and me, mainly due to the fact that neither of us was living in NYC at that time--Jim living up in Connecticut somewhere, and me residing some three hundred miles in the opposite direction, in the Southern Tier of New York State. It wasn't, in fact, until well after we had finished that initial story arc (and considering all the work we did together at Charlton, this meant we had been working together for something like three years) that Jim and I finally met each other face-to-face. The thing is, as far as I'm concerned, Jim and I didn't need any back and forth, mainly because we seemed to be (to employ the vernacular of that time) totally on the same wave-length.

I was working full script, and after but a few issues I realized that I really didn't have to be overly elaborate in my picture descriptions, seeing as Jim seemed to visualize things (and I do mean everything) pretty much exactly the same as I did; thus I would pare down my descriptions 'til toward the end of our Aquaman run more often than not my description of the art for a panel would consist of but one word! And, even under those circumstances, Jim would never give me less than what I wanted and would often give me far more than I expected! Truth be told, far as I was concerned, we made a perfect team!

AMS: Did you ever get word of sales? Aquaman the title ended so abruptly!

SS: From what I understand, Aquaman was one of the few books to be cancelled for some reason other than sales! Not of course that sales were all that spectacular when the sea king's book did get done in. Reaching a bit further back, I'm more than happy to point out that sales had steadily grown during that initial year-and-a-half story arc, and perhaps that arc should have been extended, seeing as said sales veritably plummeted once that big story had reached its conclusion. And, despite even that surprise three-issue Deadman back-up in issues 50 through 52 (written and illustrated by Neal Adams) sales never got back up to where they had been. Still, those somewhat lower sales were at least respectable if not exactly spectacular, and, in fact, the sales figures that came in a week before it was decided that the book would be cancelled were the best to hit the Editorial Director's desk in quite some time.

However, there were problems between Dick Giordano and that just-now-mentioned Editorial Director, Carmine Infantino by name--they didn't exactly see eye-to-eye; "creative differences" is, I believe, the polite way of putting it. Furthermore, said differences do stand as the underlying reason for Dick's departure from his editorial position, one of the major hidden reasons for him wanting to get back into his artwork (mainly, his inking) full time. There was just one thing Dick didn't want to give up editorially, and that was editing Aquaman. Therefore, he offered to edit that book on a freelance basis. But Carmine (who had had enough "trouble" with Dick when Dick was essentially under his thumb) saw (from what I hear) the probability of dealing with Dick as a freelance editor as leading to even worse "troubles!" Therefore, despite its okay sales, Carmine cancelled the Aquaman book.

AMS: What have been your favorite characters to write in your comics career? Was writing a character like Aquaman more, less enjoyable? The same?

SS: One day, up at DC, while blathering away to one editor or another, it suddenly hit me that there were essentially two groups of writers who worked for that company--those who wanted to write for Superman (Bates, Maggin, and a couple of others) and those who wanted to write for Batman (just about everyone else up there). I, however, didn't seem to fit into either of those categories--Superman was too well known, too overblown, had too much of a history and a rather self-righteous personality I really couldn't relate to; admittedly, I had enjoyed writing those three World's Finest stories of mine in which Supes appeared, yet that experience was hardly like a dream come true, and my emphasis (in two of them anyway) was more upon the other characters (Aquaman and the Teen Titans) than upon the so-called Action Ace.

As for Batman, he was way too obsessive, took himself way too seriously, and simply was not a fun guy! Don't get me wrong now--I love film noir, that neon-splashed topsy-turvy urbanity of certain cheap forties films, a background very similar to where Batman lives; recently (in fact) someone asked me to list my ten favorite movies and they all turned out to be post-World War Two black and white brooding private eye crime dramas. But that's film, whereas, to me, that sort of stuff simply doesn't work in comics--in short, for me, Batman is just too brooding, too dark, too dour! I mean, c'mon, lighten up, guys! But, to get back to my favorite characters--it may have something to do with the struggle I had had to go through in the early years of my career, but in any event there never really was some character I was desperate to write for; I was just happy to have a character I was regularly writing whomever that character might be, and after but a few issues (thanks to tampering with that character almost upon a subconscious level) whomever that superbeing was would become my favorite. Lightning, Kid Montana, Underdog, Supergirl, Bucky Bizarre, Plastic Man, the Teen Titans, and quite definitely Aquaman!

AMS: The hero you introduce in Aquaman #56--the Crusader--has a career consisting of five pages, and then is killed off. When you wrote that, did you wonder, can I possibly get away with this? Could you kill off a character without asking DC for permission?

SS: Actually it never even crossed my mind that I might have some problem offing this dude. I've already mentioned the fact that nobody was reading the Aquaman comic, but, beyond that stands the actuality that, as a superhero, the Crusader was hardly a viable character anyway--he was basically incompetent (it had taken him forever to track down a bunch of car-stealing punks); he was overly violent--a trait which may have allowed him to fit in with the superheroes of today, but back in those days superheroes were much better behaved! And, he was so self-centered that he was willing to hasten the total destruction of the entire planet if setting up for that ultimate catastrophe would but make it easier for him to play superhero!

In all of that the Crusader was designed to symbolize virtually everything that could go wrong with a superhero--or, to put it another way, he was absolutely the wrong man for the job, the crux of his blind incompetence being a rather fascistic total abuse of power, and, as such, he simply had to die!

AMS: Were you a fan of the character at all before the assignment?

SS: I must admit, prior to being offered the job, I had never read a single Aquaman story. However, once I had gotten the assignment and started reading over various earlier Aquaman tales in order to familiarize myself with the characters, all the while keeping in mind where Dick wanted to take this series, I rather knew from the git-go that this was gonna be a fun ride! And, I certainly wasn't wrong there!!

AMS: Who were some of your favorite artistic collaborators?

SS: I've been extremely lucky throughout my career as to whom I've wound up working with (extending in fact even unto this very day, seeing as I just recently wrote a story that has been illustrated by the great Dick Ayers, a story that'll be getting published later on this year)! Starting way back I got to work with artists who were favorites of mine way before I even thought about getting into comics--people like Steve Ditko, Ogden Whitney (I loved his work on Herbie!) and Wally Wood.

There were as well artists I'd never heard of, including various up-and-coming new guys, all of whose work on my stories veritably knocked me out--a category which includes people like Pat Boyette, Jim Aparo, Tom Sutton, and Pete Morisi. Hey, how could I leave out of any list of those I've had the pleasure to work with such greats as Jaime Brocal, Gil Kane, and Dick Giordano himself (loved the extra-added tough-guy edge he gave to my Sarge Steel stories)? On and on it goes, with folks like Jack Keller, Jerry Grandenetti, Murphy Anderson, Gene Colan, George Evans, Nick Cardy, Ramona Fradon, Mike Sekowsky, Ric Estrada. And then, in the humor department, there was Sergio Aragones, Steve Smallwood, Henry Scarpelli, Lee Marrs, Dave Manak, and so many others. And finally there were even those artists who generally get no respect who did fine by me! For example, Tony Tallarico (considered by some to be one of the worst artists ever to work in comics) did a truly beautiful job on a Charlton ghost story of mine entitled "The Stranger."

AMS: Did you set out to write comics as a career? Have you done other types of writing professionally?

SS: Yes, I indeed did. I was about to graduate from college even as the sixties comic revival was getting underway. Therefore, I wrote to what I considered to be the four main comic book companies in the country, applying for work, and got a phone call from Stan Lee himself who hired me as his assistant editor. I didn't last too long in that job (mainly because a large part of the job was proofreading and I've always been quite lousy at that), was almost immediately replaced by Roy Thomas, but having worked as Stan's assistant was enough to get me in the door at other companies, and thus began my career as a freelance writer.

AMS: What are you doing now?

SS: Still writing, of course. As I mentioned above, there's that story of mine illustrated by Dick Ayers that ought to be getting published any day now. Mainly, though, I haven't in recent years been so much writing for comics as writing about them--for such publications as Charlton Spotlight, Comic Book Artist, and Alter-Ego.

As those of you in the know can't help but be fully aware, those particular publications don't pay enough to keep even the most frugal individual alive, thus I've also been holding down a perfectly mindless dayjob, undoubtedly the less said about the better, except that I did want to mention the peculiarity of this particular raconteur finding it somehow honestly downright relaxing to be (for the first time in my life) getting paid for employing my back rather than for straining my brain.

Meanwhile, I'm rather rapidly approaching retirement age, and I do wonder what that will mean? Once I'm receiving social security, will I be able to quit my dayjob and become a full-time writer once again? And, would I even want to do that? Hmmm…I suppose, only time will tell.

What a thrill it was to talk to the writer behind the first Aquaman stories I ever read, Steve Skeates. I thank Steve so much for his time, and also to Laura of The Unofficial Aquaman Website for helping me get in touch with him. Thanks guys!


Plaidstallions said...

A great read Rob, really enoyed it.

Anonymous said...

Great interview, Rob! Thanks for doing this, for all us old Aqua-fans.

Anonymous said...

Nicely done, and very, very interesting for those of us familiar with the stories he's talking about. You seem to be a pretty good reporter! :-)