Now that we've concluded our look at the first ten issues of Aquaman: Sword of Atlantis, I thought why not talk to the man behind it, writer Kurt Busiek?
Busiek's comic book credits are numerous: Marvels, Astro City, as well as runs on The Avengers, Spider-Man, Superman, Conan, JLA, and many, many more. He was generous enough to take time out of his busy schedule to talk to the Shrine about his time writing Aquaman--both of them:
Aquaman Shrine: How did the creation of Sword of Atlantis come about? Did you have this concept in your mind before DC wanted to do an Aquaman reboot?
Kurt Busiek: I really didn't, not all together. When Dan Didio asked me to take on Aquaman, he knew they needed something that was a dramatic change, because the series had already been canceled and he was looking for a way to reverse that. A number of more traditional approaches had been pitched, and they'd all been rejected by the people upstairs.
He had an idea for the series that I thought about, but didn't think I wanted to write, so we just talked shooting the breeze, talking about Aquaman, what had worked, what hadn't, over the years. The two things I mentioned that Dan responded most strongly to were, first, the idea that the undersea setting could be a fantasy setting as rich and strange (stranger!) as anything in Tolkien or Robert E. Howard, full of exotic kingdoms and gorgeous visuals, even more of a fantasy approach than what we'd seen in the comics before. And the other idea was that I thought Aquaman had gotten less and less human over the years, with fewer ties to the surface world--he'd started out as a human being with science-created powers, then was retconned into a half-human/half-Atlantean, then retconned into a full Atlantean, with no human side left at all. And I thought that might have distanced the character, made him harder for readers to connect to.
Dan suggested I do something with both ideas, so I combined them, reworking the undersea world into a more sprawling fantasy setting, and essentially starting over with a new Aquaman built on his original origin. And I knew I had the real Aquaman in the cast, and it'd be a major storyline element to restore him, and King Shark around to add to the mix.
A secret behind the series revealed: I forget the details of Dan's idea, but it involved Aquaman, Arion and some monster character I can't recall, as a kind of sly nod to Marvel's Defenders--a sea prince, a sorcerer and a monster. So I kept that bit, using Arthur Joseph as my "sea prince," the Dweller as my sorcerer and King Shark as the monster. I even had Arthur Joseph meet a young surfer named "Silver" a few issues in. I'm pleased to say nobody caught it.
We were doing something so different from a traditional super-team set-up that it really wasn't anything more that a minor nod, but it was fun.
AMS: How familiar were you with Aquaman beforehand? Had you been much of a fan of the character?
KB: Sure. I'd started reading comics regularly in 1974, and I picked up on Aquaman a couple years or so after that, right around the end of his second Adventure run and his return to his own series, though that didn't last long. So I was paying attention from then on, and since I became a huge Jim Aparo and Nick Cardy fan, I went back a ways in Aqua-history, too.
I have to say, for all that I like the Silver Age Aquaman, and have liked what others have done with him, like Peter David's run, I think my favorite period for Aquaman is the Jurgens/Epting run. If that hadn't come at the tail end of the series when sales were already low, but had been done as the launch of a new series after waiting a bit, I think that'd have been a hit. Dan had a really majestic take on Aquaman, and gorgeous art from Steve.
AMS: I agree with you on that--I think that's a very underrated take on the character. What was your collaboration with Butch Guice like? He did some amazing work on the series.
KB: Speaking of gorgeous art! Yeah, he sure did. Butch is a fan of classic adventure strips like Terry and the Pirates, and he really likes drawing natural settings over cities and buildings, so a looser, more adventure-oriented approach, and all that seafloor and ocean waves and such was just perfect for him. And he did a sensational job.
We probably talked the most when we were designing he characters and talking through what the series approach would be like. After that, I wrote the scripts and he'd draw them and all I could do was be amazed.
AMS: Arthur Joseph's origin is reminiscent of the one used for the Golden Age Aquaman--a son developing powers through experiments by his father. Was this at all intentional?
KB: Oh, sure. It was very deliberate, going back to the very beginning but putting a modern spin on it. It was a way of getting back to an Aquaman with more ties to the surface world, connections we could use as the series went on--even ties back to that lighthouse in Maine. We never did get to use them much, but that's what it was for.
AMS: Sword of Atlantis was much more a fantasy/sword-and-sorcery book than a superhero one. Was it your intention to keep the book on this track, or would it have become a little more superhero-y as Arthur Joseph fully accepted the heroic Aquaman mantle?
KB: I wanted to keep it mixed together--to present the undersea civilization as always caught between threats from the abysses, where dark and dangerous fantasy threats oozed up, and threats from the surface, where corporate interests wanted to get their hooks into this world that was largely unseen by the rest of the surface. That'd be more of a source of superheroic stuff, while the abyss threats would have been more fantasy.
AMS: Were there any particular fantasy books or comics that were influences on Sword of Atlantis?
KB: Probably Arthurian legend and the work of David Gemmell, more than anything else. Tolkien and Howard were the ones most often mentioned by the fans, but I wasn't really thinking about those.
AMS: Sword of Atlantis #43 opens with Arthur Joseph talking about how unimpressed he was with the original Aquaman growing up, sounding a lot like many comic book fans ("He talks to fish!", etc.). Was this your attempt at taking the "Aquaman is lame" meme head on?
KB: A little bit, in a humorous way. I was preparing what we'd get into later, which was that Arthur Joseph couldn't talk to fish, but he could sense their emotions, and see through their eyes, and he'd learn how cool that way. Plus, it was a bit of characterization--for a boy doomed to spend most of his life underwater, Aquaman isn't the hero he'd latch onto, because he doesn't think of breathing underwater as cool. It was the flying heroes, the ones who could go where he couldn't, that would make him dream of being like them.
So it was characterization, it was a bit of foreshadowing, and it was a gag.
AMS: Sword of Atlantis #s 46 and 47 feature a flashback tale starring the original Aquaman and Mera. (In terms of the context, it reminds me a bit of the story you wrote for Justice League of America #240, which was a "classic" JLA tale not too long after the debut of the new Detroit-based iteration of the team.) Do you plan this from the beginning, to feature the original Aquaman so prominently?
KB: When we started on the series, we didn't have any lead time, so we knew we'd need to get Butch some breathing space. So we planned for that two-issue story to happen right after the first arc, to help the schedule and to show readers more of the way we wanted to handle the fantasy setting. Plus, since we had Orin stuck as the Dweller, it was a chance to showcase him in his glory days, to show that we liked him and were happy to star him in stories, even if he was in troubled shape in the present. And as usually, we were planting stuff--the mystery of the Thorny Crown, a history between Orin and King Shark, all stuff we could use later.
As it turned out, Butch left the book, so a schedule-saver wasn't strictly necessary, but we didn't know that when we started.
AMS: You used a couple of many of the original Aquaman's supporting characters and villains--Mera, Vulko, Ocean Master, the Fisherman, etc. Did you plan to keep these characters around but with Arthur Joseph in the center, or did you think you'd eventually phase them out?
KB: Mera and Vulko would have been important recurring characters, at least--I didn't want to get rid of anyone, but to built a big sprawling cast of characters who could come in and out of the series as needed. The long-term plan would have wound up with Orin and Mera on the throne of a restored Atlantis, with Arthur Joseph as the young adventurer with ties to Atlantis but also ties to other places and characters, and both Orin and Arthur Joseph would be the lead, depending on the story.
Ocean Master would be a recurring master villain, with ties to surface interests that wanted to exploit the undersea civilizations, and I wanted to do a lot more with the Fisherman, after having given him that new, much creepier origin. He was tied in with Lovecraftian "fishers from outside," and exploring them through him would have been fun.
Plus, we'd have seen a lot more of Windward Home, characters from Sub Diego, and lots more.
AMS: Why did you end up leaving the book after issue #49?
KB: I'd pitched the series that would become Trinity, and DC wanted me working on that. I couldn't do that, Superman and Aquaman all at once, so something had to go. Had Butch stayed on Aquaman, I might have stayed too, but with no regular art team, sticking with Superman felt more urgent. And then, of course, the minute I was gone from Aquaman and Tad was installed, Countdown got approved and Trinity got delayed a year. And when I did get started on it, it was so much work that I couldn't stay on Superman either, so there you go.
I'd love to have had a long run on Sword of Atlantis, but it just didn't break that way. And I still want to do something with a lot of the ideas I had for the series, but things got changed so much after I left, I'll probably do it outside the DCU somewhere, with a new character.
AMS: The original Aquaman is back in current DCU continuity, but Arthur Joseph is still out there, somewhere. Would you like to see him come back in some form? Surely, the DC Universe is big enough for two Aquamen!
KB: I'd give him a new codename, at this point, but sure, I'd like to see him back. I love the costume we designed for him, so if he stuck to that (maybe with new colors, to give Orin clear ownership of the orange and green), I'd think he could be a useful and interesting character.
A painful, if familiar, pattern with Aquaman is one of unfulfilled promise. Even when blessed with a top-flight writer full of ideas and an equally top-flight artist (as Aquaman was on Sword of Atlantis), Aquaman--whoever wears the mantle--never seems to quite get the chance to show what he can do.
Like I said when I first started the Sword of Atlantis recaps, it took me a little while to warm up to the whole concept of a new Aquaman, but eventually I got on board and came to find I enjoyed the series quite a bit.
I really appreciate Kurt Busiek taking the time to talk to the Shrine about his days writing Aquaman. Thanks Kurt!