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Monday, September 20, 2010

Aquaman Shrine Interview with Bob Greenberger - 2010

The Shrine is thrilled to run this chat with Atlantis Chronicles editor Bob Greenberger, who worked at DC for many years and is author of numerous comic-related books like The DC Comics Encyclopedia. Here's his recollections regarding this unusual series:

The Aquaman Shrine: How did the idea of the Atlantis Chronicles series come about?

Bob Greenberger: At the time, I was editing numerous titles and was thinking about what was not being done by DC. Both Dick Giordano and Paul Levitz were encouraging editors to think about subjects that we could be passionate about, which would translate into an exciting creative team and readership.

A popular staple of mainstream paperback originals at the time were things like the John Jakes massive generational history volumes and one day, walking home from the train station, my mind somehow wandered from The Kent Family Chronicles to translating that to Atlantis. It was more than just Aquaman, but to me, it would be a way to link from Arion to Aquaman with elements of high fantasy and adventure.

My first thought for the writer was the team of Roy Thomas and Gerry Conway, since they were trying to work as a team in Hollywood and this had that sort of Hollywood scope and feel. They weren't interested so I decided to work with someone I had a personal connection with, someone who could think beyond pure comics and that led me to my pal Peter David. We were already working on Star Trek together so I mentioned it and the novelist in him leapt at the chance.

TAS: Whose idea was it to get Esteban Maroto for the art? I think its obvious he was a perfect choice, but it certainly was a relatively off-the-beaten-track pick, as opposed to a more traditional superhero artist.

BG: Since this was spanning the generations and was more fantasy than heroic adventure, I selected Esteban. He had done some things for DC but as a reader I had loved his artwork dating back to discovering it in the Warren magazines. We needed some translation help, which he received on his end, and I wound up spending time on the phone with his daughter Gemma. It wasn't until the series was just about wrapped that he brought the family to America and we finally got to meet. He was genuinely delighted to have drawn the book and gifted me and Peter with two of the covers.
The only serious error in communication occurred in issue #3 when Peter wrote a character named Cora. He imagined it as a male but in Spain, names ending in "a" are female. When the full 48 pages of finished art arrived (which is how we worked), we were surprised but Peter mulled it over and decided this was a nice idea and he could run with it.

TAS: How was the unusual format--seven 48-page issues--arrived at?

BG: At first, I pitched it as a twelve-part maxiseries but Marketing had less confidence in its sales across a year. Since they liked the idea, we kicked ideas around until someone (I honestly forget who), suggested six double-sized issues. As we broke it down, it became clear we needed a seventh issue and the Powers that Be approved it. We decided to give the series a rare mid-run push with a recap and some addition marketing but I have no idea if that really helped or not.

TAS: So there wasn't much resistance at DC to doing this series? Kind of surprising, since it features no recognizable characters, is fairly complex, and is essentially a long form prequel for a character who never sold that well to begin with!

BG: No resistance whatsoever. Within editorial, there was some genuine excitement for trying something new in terms of content and format. Marketing supported us in an above the norm way so I have no complaints with what happened.

Remember, this was at a time when the titles that became the first Vertigo books were gaining traction as being different and experimental. This could arguably be lumped in the same way and given its limited nature; everyone was comfortable with trying the concept.

TAS: Several issues have a text feature which has comments from a supposed Atlantis expert, "Dr. R.K. Simpson." Its done so straight that if you didn't know it was really Peter David, you'd think this was a real guy. Whose idea was this?

BG: Entirely Peter's. To this day some people think Simpson is a real person and I usually don't have the heart to prolong the myth.

TAS: Unlike almost any DC comic I can think of (other than Watchmen and other non-DCU series), Atlantis Chronicles features a fair amount of nudity and sex. Was it decided this series simply wasn't going to appeal to the younger end of the comic book-reading crowd, so why edit some of the more adult material out?

BG: The Atlantis Chronicles had the freedom to be a little more "adult" thanks to being a Direct Sales-only title that was higher priced given the page count and Baxter format. That meant we knew 10-year olds were not likely to buy it. Peter wrote his story thinking about the great European family dynasties that were filled with betrayal, politics, sex, and war. Add magic and stir.
In the final issue, our in-house coloring department thought they were doing me a favor by adding in nipples to one panel, which made me, the retailers, and management flip. There was a glitch along the way that prevented me from seeing the final proofs so we were shocked when the book was printed. Thankfully, this was before DC began its "pulping mistakes" phase.

TAS: Was there any attempt to market this series to non-regular comic readers, like the sci-fi and fantasy community? I would think this would have been very popular to people who read R.A. Salvatore, Terry Goodkind, Robert Jordan, etc.

BG: Honestly, at the time we weren't thinking of anything but the Direct Sales market so comparisons with the fantasy fiction authors were not on our minds. However, once DC began entering the bookstore trade I had been regularly arguing this could be sold alongside those authors. I even lobbied for the book to be considered by the Science Fiction Book Club. Given how little Arion and Aquaman had to do with the series, it really could work as a standalone fantasy about the fabled continent.

Unfortunately, through the years, DC surveyed retailers and the numbers never seemed strong enough to support collecting this. I would lobby for it at the annual Collected Editions planning meeting to the point where I was ridiculed and people saw the title more as a punch line than as a viable candidate.

I've been gone from DC staff for four years now and they still have yet to take the title seriously and get it out there.

TAS: Arrgggh! There were no letter columns in Atlantis Chronicles, and this was pre-internet. What was the general reaction to the series? Did it sell well?

BG: It sold well enough that no one complained to me about costing the company money. It received nice reviews in the fan press and on the early message boards such as CompuServe and Genie.

What mail we did receive was largely positive and I don't recall anything overly negative.

TAS: You told me that Atlantis Chronicles is one the series you're most proud of. Can you expand on that a little bit? What do you love about it so much?

BG: Peter and I both still point to this miniseries as a highlight of our comics career and I think a lot of that has to do with the freedom we had to tell a story about a previously undocumented portion of the DC Universe. There was nothing to contradict and we wound up adding the Chronicles and some characters that have since endured.

We enjoyed telling a slightly more mature story, doing something beyond heroic adventure with cliffhangers every 22 pages and working in a different genre. There was excitement every six weeks or so when Esteban's artwork would arrive, which we found very encouraging.

That we could generate something out of thin air, gain administrative and marketing approval, and do it with no interference whatsoever was a rare and unusual set of circumstances, allowing Peter and Esteban to work unfettered with results that still hold up today.

As I said during my recap of the seventh and final issue, I think Atlantis Chronicles stands as one of DC's finest--and most unusual--achievements of the last few decades, and it adds immeasurably to the rich history of Aquaman, even if he only appears in the final page. Thanks so much to Bob for giving us some info on how the series came out!


Wings1295 said...

Very cool interview! Amazing to me to actually read that he didn't run into clashes with the basic unknown the comic entailed and instead found an easy path to getting it produced and out to sell. Quite a rarity, I think, especially for DC Comics!

Wings1295 said...

Thanks to Rob & Bob!

Joe Slab said...

Total coolness !

I can't believe that DC hasn't collected this yet!

Russell said...

I appreciate the effort that went into this, but it is totally not my cup of tea.

Tom Galloway said...

Hardly "pre-Internet". There was a fair amount of discussion about AC on Usenet's rec.arts.comics groups at the time...with Peter David sometimes participating in it.

That era of Usenet's reasonably well preserved at Google Groups; an advanced search for "Atlantis Chronicles" in the Google/Usenet group rec.arts.comics in the 1990 timeframe should turn up most of the discussion threads.