The Hidden Depths of Aquaman: The Geoff Johns Interview

Comic book writer Goeff Johns talks about how Aquaman is made into a cartoon by people.

Ask any evolutionary biologist, and the answer is always the same, humanity started at the seaside. Not the first time, mind you. The first time around we all came from Kenya, the evolutionists say. But the second time round, when humankind rebooted itself some 75,000 years ago, it would be at the seaside. Our species had nearly been decimated, reduced to just about 20,000 individuals at the end of the Eemian Warm Period. That second time around, when we succeeded, we succeeded by singular acts of imagination. What if we didn’t need to hunt? Could we imagine a world in which food would be plentiful?

The oceans would ensure that and more; caves for shelter, and cliffs for defense. It was plenty at an unprecedented scale–competition for resources would effectively become a thing of the past. We’d take our first steps into entrepreneurship, effectively redefining the shells we found as jewelry. We’d begin to wear make-up for the first time. Ochre in the rocks would color our skins red, and that would be a nascent step towards caring about how others perceive us.

Was it that the proteins and fats in fish would change our neurophysiology? Was it that the abundance of food and shelter would force our imaginations to reinscribe the world around us? Was it that the plenty of becoming fisherfolk would force our hand at inventing leisure time? Most likely, we’ll never know. But at a time when we ourselves were an endangered species, we made our stand by the seaside. Maybe that’s why even today, coastline living is a signature of wealth and prestige. Maybe it’s encoded genetically as a marker of success.

It’s not by chance, then, that Geoff Johns keeps guiding the conversation about Aquaman back to his position on the coastline. Aquaman isn’t a story about not fitting in, Geoff reminds me. It’s a story about choices, about deciding how to define oneself. It’s about making a stand. “It’s actually really fun to write Aquaman now [in Aquaman], and then also write him in Justice League five years ago when he’s still got a chip on his shoulder, and it still bothers him when people talk about how he can only talk to fish and all that stuff. Y’know, when he’s still a little bit more gruff and aggressive and out to prove himself. And now I think he’s much more sure of who he is and what he wants, and what he does. Take the fact that he says he’s not going back and going to be king of Atlantis, that says it all for where he is in his life. He’s had enough of that”.

Aquaman certainly is plotting a different course for “bridging the five-year gap” than most other New 52 titles. With the New 52, most iconic DC heroes find themselves retold across two periods, now and five years earlier. Superman and Batman and Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, and The Flash appear in Justice League (where the heroes met and banded together for the first time) and in their titles. But while Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, and the rest seem to trace out their individual paths to their current iconic status, Geoff attempts something entirely new with Aquaman. Arthur Curry’s Aquaman is much more character-driven, much more about a personal evolution than about attaining iconic stature.

Take the restaurant scene in issue one, for example. Aquaman enters a seafood restaurant to enjoy a quiet meal. He is immediately accosted by onlookers dismissively trying to fathom his exact powers. “He talks to fish, right?”, one rubbernecker mumbles. Before that can die down, a pushy blogger seats himself in Aquaman’s booth and conducts an impromptu interview. The questions are offensive, and the tone of the interview is aggressive from the start. But Aquaman is more reticent, he offers the best answers he can. And finally, the server who treats him like just another customer? He leaves her two golden doubloons, enough to put her kids through college. “I think one of those things that was most unique about that scene is that that scene played out unlike any other superhero’s would have played out”, Geoff continues, “If you had Superman in the diner it would be a very different scene. Or Green Lantern, it would be a very, very different scene. But with Aquaman in particular, I think the scene resonated much more than it would for any other character in that setting”.

The considerable, regal grace Geoff inscribes in Aquaman is perhaps the first flash of this kind of characterization for the superhero. This scene underlines how Geoff will write a character arc for Aquaman that will see him more insular and less dependent on others’ reception of him. It’s about Aquaman embracing his place in the world rather than forcing the world to meet him on his terms. “Weirdly, he doesn’t belong anywhere”, Geoff offers, “that’s why he’s on the coast. That’s because of the influence of his father. In Issue One, he’s looking out at a boat, and he says, ‘Dad, why can’t you be captain of your own ship’? And his dad says, ‘Well, somebody’s got to say on land to help those people out in the water’.”

“Aquaman is on that line. He’s very interesting if you look at the way he’s perceived on land, in our world, is a bit of a joke. In the DC Universe Aquaman is seen as a bit of a joke. The way he’s perceived in the water is he’s the king of Atlantis. So underwater, he has this tremendous respect, but it’s not his home. He doesn’t feel at home there. But on land, he feels at home, but he’s ridiculed, and he’s also underestimated. He’s made into a cartoon by people. And so he’s walking this fine line. And his lighthouse is very symbolic too for what he does and what he believes in. But he’s on the coastline, which is the literal, the literal line between both worlds. So that’s the line he walks, that’s the line he protects, that’s the line he’s stuck on”.

It’s a radical reinterpretation and one that rejuvenates the character. Aquaman is a drama constituted by the dilemma of borders. It’s classic Second Age of the Western, told once the towns have been established, and the Sheriff needs to protect the town from the dangers of the badlands. “When [Aquaman] tells Mera [his wife] that he’s made a decision, he says, ‘I don’t want to go back to Atlantis'”, Geoff picks up after a brief pause, “It’s clearly a personally motivated decision. He wants to be happy, that’s what he’s saying to her. ‘I want to be happy’, he says to her. He never asked for that responsibility. Atlantis never wanted him, but they accepted him, and he did a great job at it. He’s good at it, he’s the heir to it. But it’s not what fulfills him”.

Within the next few moments, we’ll return to speaking about the coast. About the notion of Aquaman as occupying the borderland and all the tension and angst that comes with that. Within just three issues, Geoff has managed to overturn decades of lethargy and inertia around the character. This is the Aquaman we never knew we’d always hoped for. But the border is a strange and dangerous place. A liminal place that can easily bring forth physical danger or the psychic dangers of the failings of human character. Think back far enough, and you’ll remember Orson Welles’ magnificent A Touch of Evil. Geoff Johns’ Aquaman is every bit as powerful a character drama, married to classic terror-rides rides like Jaws. But as Super 8 showed us earlier this year, the true terror only hits once the home being defended has evolved in its full, complex beauty.

There’s still much more conversation to come. A conversation that will ponder the seas and look at them not from the evolutionary biologist’s point of view as easy food but from the oceanographer’s view as a stage for the strange and wonderful. The seas are alive and filled with terror.

I take a breath and ask my next question.

This interview continues in two weeks’ time. Catch Aquaman in today’s release of Justice League #4 which spotlights the character. And on December 21 with the release of Aquaman #4.