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Friday, October 17, 2008

Aquaman Shrine Interview with Paul Kupperberg - 2008

As I mentioned last Saturday, I was thrilled to see that the Patron Saint of the Aquaman Shrine, Paul Kupperberg, was the author the three-part Aqualad solo story that ran in Adventure Comics #'s 453-455.

That gave me an excuse to interview Paul a second time for the Shrine, something I've wanted to do for a while. And what better time than during our 3rd year kick-off week?
Aquaman Shrine: How did you end up writing the Aqualad series?

Paul Kupperberg: Boy howdy, I don't remember, more than 30 years later, but seeing as how Paul Levitz was the editor, I would guess, us being friends and me doing other work for him at the time, including the New Doom Patrol, I was probably in the right place at the right time. I attribute much of my career to fortunate proximity.

AMS: Do you know the genesis of the strip? Paul Levitz and David Michelinie started the "Aqualad Searches For His Past" story line in Aquaman's Adventure Comics series, but was it always intended to be wrapped up in a solo Aqualad series?

PK: I read Aquaman, of course. On top of the art by Jim Aparo and Don Newton, it was being written by David, one of my favorite writers at the time. I believe the intention all along had been to do Aqualad's search as a separate story, whether in Adventure or Aquaman's own book. It wouldn't surprise me if David had meant to write the story himself but was too busy to get to it.

At any rate, I was given the set-up: Aqualad goes off to find his past and you need to include the purple eyes, the Idylists of the Hidden Valley (mmm! Ranch dressing!) and that his father was the king in there. Otherwise, do what you want, have fun, and end it with Aqualad having learned his lesson, swimming back to Atlantis to reunite with Aquaman, everything's forgiven.

AMS: You were writing this strip around the same time you were writing the Mera back-ups in Aquaman, then right after this you took over the Aquaman book. Back then at DC, was this how writers got groomed? Was going from the back-ups to the full book seen as a "promotion"?

PK: Not a grooming per se, more like a series of happy accidents capped by a last-minute desperate need for a fill-in or replacement writer. For instance, I was given the Aqualad back-up to write first. Then Paul probably figured, what the hell, I was already playing in that particular sandbox--or, in this case, fishbowl--so I might as well script the Mera series as well. Maybe knowing me and my own dysfunctional family as well as he does, Paul thought I'd be a fit for these characters.

Those were the happy accidents. The last-minute desperation was, David's leaving Aquaman, the book is coughing up blood, but needing someone to take over...you! You've written some Aquamanish stuff recently. Congratulations, the title is yours, you're late.
AMS: The Aqualad segments were only six pages each--an incredibly short space to try and craft a story with a beginning, middle, and end. As a writer, did you find this was good training, learning to tell a story in such an abbreviated format?

PK: The best training! I started off by writing 6 and 8 page stories. It was probably close to two years before I got to write anything much longer than 10 pages. That means in anywhere from 5 to 8 pages, you've got to introduce and set up your characters and their situations, introduce the problem, show the problem in action, then resolve it. No "continued next issue" stuff here, forget your "decompressed storytelling." Short stories is manly writing.

To this day, I can whip out a 6-pager like a'ringin' a bell. I've recently written back-ups for Moonstone Comics' upcoming Captain Action title and I was pleased to discover I still had the chops. You learn to write concisely (it takes a lot longer to write short than it does to be verbose; Thomas Jefferson once ended a letter by apologizing to his correspondent that he "hadn't the time to make (the letter) shorter"), you learn to create characters in brief but surprising complex strokes, and, most important, you discover how to keep the story moving by trimming the excess fat, eliminating anything that doesn't directly and immediately serve the story.

It's like Alex Toth used to say: he spent the first half of his career learning what to put on the page and the second half learning what to leave off. Start your on-the-job training with stories that force you to think that way and you're off to a good start.

AMS: The Aqualad strip had superb artwork--pencils by Carl Potts, and (for the last two chapters) inks by the great Dick Giordano. How closely--if at all--did you work with Carl, who was also relatively new to comics at the time?
PK: I knew Carl from around the 'hood and various poker games—he also drew a Nightwing and Flamebird 10-pager for Superman Family that I wrote though I don't recall if that was before or after Aqualad.

In those days, standard operating procedure was the writer wrote a script, handed it to the editor who handed it to the writer and the only interaction between that writer or artist might come six months later when one happened to run into the other.

Carl's a talented artist, writer and teacher. At some point when I was in Licensed Publishing at DC, Carl was supposed to write a DC Comics Guide to Visual Storytelling book for me, but it never got off the ground, having nothing to do with Carl. It's shame. It would have been a valuable addition to the serious writing on the craft.
AMS: Aqualad, on the last page of Aquaman's solo feature in Adventure Comics, is about the biggest, whiniest jerk ever seen in comics--he's giving Aquaman grief about their relationship while poor Arthur is holding his dead son's body! Did you perceive that at the time? Was giving Aqualad a solo strip right after that an attempt to return him to more of a heroic mold?

PK: Again, I think you're ascribing too much intent to events at a time when we just didn't really think that way. There was no "Uh-oh! We had it act like a jerk, we'd better give him another strip to bolster his image!" The whiny jerk aspect was a story gimmick: we need to separate Aquaman from Aqualad and send the latter off a quest. We can use this to break them up.

I guess a lot of the so-called characterization of the day was kind of clunky, especially when it was being handled by a 22-year old writer who still lived at home with his parents, like me. I was learning my way around, but I still hadn't had my storytelling epiphany, the one where I realized that story has to come out of character. Back then, I was still moving characters like chess pieces to have them do what my story needed them to do.

And yet, the Aqualad back-ups are one of those things I did that people, 20, 30 years later come up and tell me or e-mail me that they remember. It seems to have struck a cord with some readers that I've reread the story trying to understand but then, I guess it's a very personal thing.

A woman once approached me at a convention, 20-plus years after it was published, to tell me that it might be overstating it to say that story this saved her life when she was 16, but reading it when it came out gave her enough hope that she too could survive as an outsider, on her own merits, that she stopping thinking of hurting herself. Whatever it was resonated with her experience.
AMS: Was the Aqualad strip always intended to run just the three issues? Would you have wanted to continue it if you could have?

PK: It was designed a 3-part from the start and I don't recall any plans to make it a permanent back-up. I don't know if I would have wanted it to continue. I don't recall having empathy for the character, at least not as a solo entity. He was okay alongside Aquaman, but he just didn't do it for me.

AMS: What are you working on now?

sgPK: All sorts of stuff. My humor book Jew-Jitsu: The Hebrew Hands of Fury is being published at the end of October 2008 by Citadel Books. Then there are those Captain Action back-ups I mentioned, from Moonstone, coming by the end of the year.

I'm also writing some Simpsons stories for Bongo Comics, Cartoon Network stories for DC Comics, some Superman young reader storybooks for Stone Arch Books, non-fiction books for young adult readers--just finished one about the Alaska Highway and I'm about to start on one about Yahoo co-founder Jerry Yang--a bi-weekly column on comic book novels for Bookgasm.com, and various other projects.

And I've just finished a mystery novel, set in the world of 1951 comic book publishing that's currently seeking a publisher. If anyone's interested, they can see what I'm up to and read excerpts from works old and in-progress at Kupperberg.blogspot.com.

By the way, I just note that for all my association with Aquaman, I don't swim, hate the water, and I also hate seafood. Just more of life's little ironies.

As usual, Paul was very generous with his time doing this interview for the Shrine--after all, we're talking about all of 18 pages he wrote 31 years ago. Yet he delivers all kinds of cool back story, the kind of stuff I've been so interested in all these years.

At the top of the post, I called Paul "The Patron Saint of the Aquaman Shrine", and it really is an apropos title--he has helped me and the Shrine tremendously, both in front of and behind the scenes, and this place wouldn't be nearly as interesting without his help.

Thanks again Paul!

1 comment:

Paul Kupperberg said...

"Patron saint"?

What's my rabbi gonna say when he finds out?

Thanks for the kind words, Rob. It's been fun being part of the gang!