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Monday, July 21, 2008

Aquaman Shrine Interview with Shaun McLaughlin

One of the nicest side benefits of doing this blog is having the opportunity to go back and re-read comics I haven't perused in a long time, since often I discover things I missed the first time around.

That was the case for the fourth Aquaman solo series, which ran only for a year but definitely contained some fine moments with the King of the Seven Seas.

The man responsible for those moments, and every single issue of Aquaman, Volume 4, was writer Shaun McLaughlin, and he was generous enough to talk with the Shrine about his time writing Aquaman:

Aquaman Shrine: How did you end up writing Aquaman?

Shaun McLaughlin: I knew [Editor Kevin] Dooley and had written a piece for Amazing Heroes. I was passionate about comics. I was one of those kids who would argue with their teachers about the literary value of comics. Actually, I'd argue about anything, but that was a recurring topic.

I had been collecting comics seriously since 5th grade and originally wanted to draw comics. I abandoned this idea when I realized I was hampered by an astonishing lack of drawing talent. I didn't argue that.

As a rule, I don't suffer fools gladly and I'm usually too vocal about telling people when I think they're wrong. That's hurt me professionally, but keeps my blood pressure low.

I was in a pool of people who were pitching for a new Aquaman series. I was the only non-published guy. As the others fell out, I got my shot.

AMS: How familiar were you with the character? You brought back so many elements from Aquaman's past (the Aqua Cave, Thanatos, the blue costume) I've always assumed you were a fan.

SM: Aquaman was my favorite DC character and I was a big DC fan. I grew up with two much-older brothers and they had a lot of comics from the 60s so I had a good, solid grounding in the DC universe and I had a nice set of Aquaman back issues.

Even as a little kid I knew those Steve Skeates issues were something special. I read and re-read those. I had only bits and pieces of the longer stories and I spent too much time trying to figure out how to piece things together.

AMS: How far ahead did you have Aquaman stories? Did you have any sort of overall goal for the character that you wanted to get to in, say, two, three years?

SM: The pitch had to have an outline for at least the first eight issues. I may have had the first year in there. I knew where I wanted to go. I had several goals for the character but was a bit hamstrung by editorial interference.

Really, I've done about 400 episodes of TV and a couple of movies since then and the hoops I had to jump through were pretty ridiculous. And I didn't know they were going to make it tougher by setting the hoops on fire and dousing me with gasoline later.

I wanted to use the first year to settle everything with Poseidonis. The first four issues of the second year were going to be my Time and Tide and round up all the origins into a coherent whole--which I was ordered to do and told that all continuity was sacrosanct.

The next thing was going to be a hunt for his surface world roots and then I thought we'd be in a better place to move forward with him being a sea hero with roots on the land.

There were characters introduced in the first four issues that were going to pay off a year and a half two years down the road. Minister F'ancha was going to be revealed as Orm and Wylie was going to be the major surface world villain, essentially Aquaman's Lex Luthor.
Part of the conventional wisdom of the character at that time was "sea stories don’t sell because people can't relate to them" but also "land stories don’t work with a sea hero". I was trying to pull that paradox together.

It's sad, but even all these years later, I get upset thinking about this. I invested a lot emotionally and professionally in those issues and am still frustrated at how things worked out. Most of those are not really me or what I wanted to do. The NKVDemon issue is close and #13 is almost exactly what I wanted with the exception that I was told we couldn't mention that these little kids had AIDS--which is typical of the dopey decisions they were making.

One of the few things I was allowed to do was play with the one-hour time limit. Holy, Christ, what an uproar. That was the one change the fans who wrote in really reacted to angrily. Comics and fandom were different then.

AMS: That's interesting, your idea of eventually revealing F'ancha to be Orm; I've always wondered why you never used him. Were there other villains (mostly other heroes' ones, since Aquaman's Rogues Gallery is rather thin) you wanted to use at some point?

SM: Hmmmm. I don't remember. It was a scramble to come up with the NKVDemon and there were a lot of other villains you just couldn't use because they were part of other character franchises and editorial was very protective of those. It was always hard to find a villain. We used to say "Marvel villains want to rule the world, DC villains want to rob a bank."

I didn't really like a lot of the rogues gallery. Never really understood The Fisherman or The Scavenger (who I wound up using in a very different way--and then that was bowdlerized in a really cynical attempt at humor). What did these guys want? Why were they there? A villain should really want something and have a reason for being a villain more compelling than the heroes' reason for being a hero.

The Fisherman stole things using customized lures and fishing equipment. Uh-huh. And why did he do that? If I could have figured out a why, he'd be worth using. But I had my own--um--fish to fry. Ahem. You don't have to do a huge, world threatening story. A fist fight can be as dramatic as a war if both parties have a lot at stake.

I was trying to build a big story with Orm where my whole point was that he was tired of getting the crap kicked out of him every time he went up against Aquaman, so he was going to use other people against Aquaman while he was the puppet master. The O.G.R.E. storyline was going to be a big one, almost all-out war.

AMS: Aquaman as a character comes with a lot more emotional baggage than most DC heroes. Did you feel like you had to deal with all that, and get it out of the way, to tell other kinds of stories with the character?

SM: Well, I was under editorial instruction to deal with all of it. I was told that all continuity was part of the package and needed to be dealt with.

That being said, I was okay with the emotional baggage. This was 1990-91 and only a few years after the Crisis, so it was a very different time in comics. I was initially told that the core DC reader was 15-25 and we should aim at that readership with more mature stories, not necessarily all-action. Then I was told we needed more action. Then I was told to gear the comics to 12 year-olds. Then aim for a younger audience that might be buying newsstand. It was very confusing and the way the series was being built, each issue laid the groundwork for what was to come after it.

It was also a time before the Vertigo imprint, when Swamp Thing and Sandman were a part of the regular DC lineup and I foolishly thought I would be allowed some of the same leeway as some writers from across the pond. I was a big fan of the Grant Morrison Animal Man and was shooting for that kind of tone in the beginning. As the Pushmi-pullyu aspect of editorial became more apparent, this was tough. A lot of this was on Usenet a few years ago when it turned out that Peter David, Eric Larsen and I all had the same problems. Good God, anyone who can get the three of us to agree...

Gerry Jones and I used to say that we should have walked in the first day with British accents. Then they would have left us alone.

Story telling wise, a character with emotional baggage is inherently more interesting than the (then) typical blank "heroic" slate. I initially wanted Aquaman even angrier under the surface, trying to control himself because he was still really trying to adhere to a 60's heroic ideal, and then crack and actually kill Manta (in self defense, but c'mon). Then he’d have to deal with the DCU fallout, all the other heroes wagging fingers. Wasn't allowed to do this. Sounds like a broken record, eh?

So I don’t know if it would ever have gotten out of the way, but I wanted to bring some closure to things that had been hanging in the Aquaman continuity for a long, long time and that no one seemed to notice as the basis of great stories. Aquababy, Manta, Mera, Orm. Then I wanted to give him two new love interests, one on land and one underwater to point up his duel aspect and then bring Mera back from where Thanatos had her trapped.

A character with a lot of history can corner you or you can look into that history and figure out how to tell stories using it or around it.

AMS: One of the things I liked about your run was making Aquaman more of a eco-centric character. Would you have pushed this more if the book had gone on?

SM: That was how the series was going to start in my first pitch, but that was kiboshed and pushed back to the middle of the series. He's a character who's always trying to retain/regain a balance, so I wanted to explore him in the middle of commerce vs. ecology. Especially since in comics at that time commerce usually came with big guns.

sgBut it's a tough issue to dramatize. I'm not against issues with less action, but you need something to drive the story and so we were working up to a consortium of people trying to keep the seas free for commerce and bleeding heart Aquaman being a thorn in their side. Queequeg was going to come back just as nuts, but much more dangerous because of this. Again, this was 1991, so the corporate villain idea wasn't as hack as it would be now. I wouldn't try that plot now.

AMS: How closely did you work with Ken Hooper?

SM: Ken is fond of saying we co-plotted the last few issues. I don't think saying "Can we do something with dinosaurs and magic" amounts to co-plotting, but we spoke at least once a week.

We took each other's input and shared many of the same concerns about what was happening to our work. I saw a lot of the pencils and I can tell you that the inking and reproduction was not doing them justice. His art was sometimes statted and compositions changed, which is an editor's prerogative, but not always a good idea. Like making a right hand turn on a red light, just because you can do something it doesnt mean you should do it.

Ken was in a bad place because he came from a more illustrative background. He really liked Roy Krenkle and Hal Foster and people like that and I certainly didn't have the skills at that time to push him to make it more cinematic and comic-bookish and Dooley sure didn't. Now I know different and maybe could tailor my scripts a bit more. I asked him to do an awful lot of panels sometimes and I didn't go to town on the panel description. Had I been more experienced, I would have made it easier on him.

Why was the book canceled so abruptly? Did sales start out good and fall fast, or did the book always struggle?

SM: The book started out ridiculously strong and then fell off. The nadir was around #8 or #9 and then sales began to climb to the point that #13 brought me a nice royalty cheque, but I was already off.

I was told all along that the book was doing well until I handed in the script for #10 and was told that my re-up depended on my script for #11. The day I handed in #11 and was told to wrap up all my plot threads in #12.

Part of it was the comics boom of the early 90s followed by the bust in the market. We were cancelled at a sales number most comics would kill for today.

Part of it was that I was fighting constantly with the editor because I never had clear direction for more than a week at time and I was really, really angry about my dialogue being re-written into stuff that I thought sounded like it came from a 1944 issue of All-Star Comics. Not all my dialogue, but enough of it. And it's not like I wasn't around to do re-writes if he wanted. He just thought he knew better.

It would be fair to say that I wouldn't deal with me in that mood, but I've done a lot of story editing since then and I have never treated a writer or artist the way I was treated. I have given some executives heart attacks, tho'. And he must have liked something I was doing because he was asking me to pitch a 4-issue Wildcat mini at the same time I was doing Aquaman and it got far enough for me to have plotted the 4 issues and we were talking about artists.

Peter David became available his star was rising, he was interested in the book and they eventually decided to just start fresh with a new #1. They were originally going to keep Hooper, but then decided to start all over.

AMS: When you're a kid, you tend to think (or I did, at least) that all comics are done in the Stan Lee/Jack Kirby mode, where practically all the creative decisions are done by the writer and artist. So when a book and/or character is not what you, the reader, necessarily want, you tend to blame the writer and artist, not realizing there are so many levels of people these books have to go through before they hit the newsstand.

Being a comic fan yourself growing up, how disappointing was it, dealing with all this bureaucracy? Would you have been willing to deal with it if Aquaman had kept going? Is that partly why you moved on to work in TV and movies, like so many comic book writers have done?

SM: Well, to start off, the bureaucracy in TV and movies is much bigger and often more intrusive creatively than in comics. I've had many better experiences in TV and in movies than in comics, but I've also had few backstabbers that make what I went through on Aquaman look like milk time in Kindergarden.

It was terribly disappointing partially because I really did have an emotional attachment to the character and I wanted to do something really, really good. There was never a chance to do that or get any traction with the constant changes, re-writes and focus on piddling issues (I was once castigated for describing an instrument panel as having switches instead of pressure sensitive controls "…like on Star Trek.") A lot of it is just basic human interaction. Sometimes you get along with people, sometimes you don't. Add the creative aspect to it and it gets emotionally more charged.

I work much differently when I edit and it's partially because of my experience. I feel my job is to make the writer look good and to let the writer's idea be the best it can be. It's not to have it be written the way I would do it. If I wanted it that way I'd write it myself.

I'm not a total douche when it comes to having my way. I pitched for the first "Aquaman" episode of Justice League and didn't get the assignment. And I was one of the producers of the show! I didn't bitch about it or go home and cry into my pillow (which only would have annoyed my wife). I just did my job and went home to write my own stuff.

This is commercial writing and you're getting paid to provide a service. But if you're paying someone, you should let them provide that service. I always cared passionately about what I did. If my name was on it, I wanted to be able to stand behind it, good or bad. I was four months ahead of schedule, so I had plenty of time to re-write to the content of any heart.
When people do ask me about the series, I point to #8 and most especially #13. Good or bad, those are close to being what I like and what I would do. #13 is just about exactly what I wanted. You can say my run wasn't successful or you didn't like it, but in many ways it really wasn't my run. There was a co-credit on the Pinky and the Brain episode I did that was much closer to being my work.

I always wanted to do movies and TV so it's not like I ran there from comics. I continued to do some comics off and on, but I really lost a taste for it after awhile.

After my daughter was born, it became a question of where was my limited time better spent? The kicker was when I was writing a book based on a show I was working on. A new editor came on and told me they could no longer use me because they didn't feel I "understood the characters". Of a show I was working on as a day job. And a show I was freelancing TV scripts for. But I didn't understand the characters enough to write the comic.

I liked the stuff I did for Disney and Dark Horse, but if I can go pitch a feature to Tim Allen or a fill-in to a DC editor--both will take about the same amount of time. Tim Allen will treat me better and there's probably a slightly higher chance of selling him something. So why would I continue with comics?

AMS: What are you working on now?

SM: I was at Warner Animation from 1994-2006 where I started as a Production Assistant and eventually became a Line Producer on shows like Batman Beyond, Static Shock, and Justice League. I also wrote some television animation.

I just finished producing the movie
Gene-Fusion for Beckett and hope to do more with them. I have three screenplays either sold or in negotiation, two animation and one live-action and am writing my thesis for my MFA in Creative Writing Screen/Stage.

AMS: If DC came to you (after apologizing profusely) and said "Shaun, here's Aquaman--go", what would you like to do?

SM: Well, I've done some stuff for DC since and it would be incredibly arrogant of me to dream of any kind of apology. It's their character and I was a tremendous pain in the editor's ass. I'm arrogant about a lot of things (also vain, moody and a bit obsessive), but I know where I stand here.

I have no clue what I'd do. I haven't followed the character since I left (could I really look at it with a non-jaundiced eye?) and I really don't even know what's going on with comics in general now. I've been cutting back more and more on my comics and the last thing I bought was one of the Superman Family collections and before that it was The Black Dossier.

I really wish there were more comics I like but I walk though the comic store and shrug a lot now. I've been working for Beckett and I really liked their Fade From Grace and The Ballad of Sleeping Beauty, but those are things I look at in wonder because I could never do a comic like that.

It's also been harder and harder for me to write comics as I get farther away. I used to have a real feel for a page and see it in my head (even if that wasn't what the artist did). I don't have that now. If I were to do a comic now, I think I'd almost have to write it like a TV script and find an artist that I was sympatico with. Not impossible but most of the guys I know like that are in animation and I don't think they'd like the pay cut.

I've come to the conclusion, post-Crisis, that every superhero universe should be blown up every 15 years and after that there should be a two-year moratorium on re-telling classic stories. Doing something like that with a classic hero would be fun. I'd like to do something fun for the joy of doing a comic.

Shaun was one of my most enthusiastic interviews, and his ideas for Aquaman stories down the line make me all the more sorry he never got the chance to tell them.

Thanks Shaun, and special thanks to John Schwirian, who introduced us!


Anonymous said...

Thanks Shaun, and thanks, Rob! I always liked this series, and now it sounds like I'd like the writer behind it, too! I often think that if I were to write an AQUAMAN series, I'd start with stuff established in this one...

Siskoid said...

Best interview yet, Rob!

I love tell-alls. I'm just waiting for people to die to tell my own story.

Diabolu Frank said...

Definately the best yet!

Anonymous said...

Man, it seems like Aquaman's greatest villains are neither Ocean Master nor Black Manta....instead, they are the editors at DC. Great interview Rob, and it sounds like he had a lot of great ideas...it's a shame that his hands were tied.