Making Aquaman Cool Again: An Interview with Geoff Johns

For as long as I can remember, Aquaman has been the butt of a lot of jokes. My favorite over the years involves The Geek Show's desire to have Danny McBride star as the beleaguered and hilariously unpopular hero on land, working hard to taunt bad guys into a car wash so he can use his watery powers against them. "Come into the car wash and tell me that, bro..."

The best part of that would be the wig he'd have to wear.

And though we joke about him, Aquaman can be a pretty badass character. For evidence, you need to look no further than the current DC relaunch of the character. Written by Geoff Johns and drawn by Ivan Reis, the New 52 launch of the character is a take we've never seen.

You see, this Aquaman knows he's the butt of a joke. He's reminded constantly. The first issue sees him enter a seafood restaurant that was a spot his father had taken him in his youth. Yearning for old times when things weren't as complicated, he sits down and orders fish and chips.

You could almost hear a needle scratch across a record. Aquaman eating his fishy friends?

An opportunistic blogger calls him out on it, hoping for an interview that would generate millions of hits, and Aquaman explains that he comes from the sea, what else would he eat?

Then the blogger hits him with both barrels: "What's it like being no-ones favorite super hero?"

By embracing Aquaman's reputation, Geoff Johns is managing expectations and throwing readers and the character a much needed curve ball to reinvigorate the hero into something incredible.

With two issues out and the third coming this week, I find myself enjoying an Aquaman book, which is the first time I've done so in a long time. He's been fine in team books, but I'm surprised to find how much I'm interested in Aquaman dealing with a new threat from the sea eating humans and him dealing with the fact that no one likes him.

Johns, who is also the Chief Creative Officer at DC, is known for taking characters and breathing new life into them, starting with his epic run on The Flash and his reinvention of the Green Lantern Corp over the last few years. I had a chance to speak with him about Aquaman, the next character he's set his sights on rejuvenating:

Bryan Young: The take of the book is very much that everyone in the universe and reading the book knows that Aquaman over the years has become the butt of a giant joke. What is it about Aquaman, who by all rights could be a very cool character, caused him to earn such a reputation?

Geoff Johns: I'm not quite sure. Part of it is, in a weird way flattery. Everyone knows Aquaman, probably from all the animation he's been in over the years from the 70s and the 80s, entering him into the pop culture. I don't know who made the first Aquaman joke, I'm sure it was comics readers, maybe we all did. But it's the idea that the perpetuated story of Aquaman is that he only has powers in water and he talks to fish. I think it's the idea of him in the middle of a city just doesn't make a lot of sense to people. It's just the character itself.

BY: With the book you're embracing that and turning it on its ear. What brought you to that approach?

GJ: I went back and read a lot of the old Aquaman and there's a lot of great stuff, but there was this attempt to push him as hard as he could to be cool or edgy and I thought that addressing that stuff would appeal to anybody, not just comics readers. It was different, no one had done that yet, and I thought it was more real and honest. And it's fun, working with an underdog.

BY: You're writing Justice League also, are there differences in the Aquaman in that book versus his solo book?

GJ: There is. Justice League takes place in the past and Aquaman has a lot more to prove. He's just starting out. The perception is already beginning and all these super humans are just showing up and here's Aquaman. The perception is "What's next? Now we've got a guy talking to fish. What can be next?" And I think he's dealing with that and is more sensitive to that. He's overcompensating and settling into the more confident forthright hero as the series progresses.

BY: Are we going to see him develop camaraderie with other heroes like with Batman?

GJ: You will see it. Not necessarily with Batman, but you will see him make some connections pretty early on in Justice League. You also see in a later issue, maybe #8, the tensions between him and Green Arrow. You'll find out why Green Arrow and Aquaman dislike each other very much.

BY: That can make sense, with Green Arrow being very anti-authoritarian and Aquaman being a king...

GJ: It has nothing to do with social issues or political viewpoints. It has to do with an incident that happens between them.

BY: With the Justice League book and Aquaman happening at different times, do you worry that it might be hard for people to keep track of the continuity?

GJ: I think it's a little tricky. Justice League is five years ago. Aquaman is now. Action Comics is five and a half years ago. There is a bit of a timeline jump that you've got to figure out, but I try to make the books I'm writing as accessible as possible for anybody whether you've been reading comics for 10 years or 10 weeks. It's a hard balance, but I think we're pulling it off.

BY: When you went back and read all the Aquaman material, what jumped out at you as the pinnacle of what he's been?

GJ: He's incredibly powerful and his mythology is incredibly intricate. It's the idea of Atlantis. It's the depth of stories you can tell. I've been writing Green Lantern for a long time and one of the reasons I've enjoyed it is because the depth of stories you can tell is pretty endless with Space and everything. With Aquaman there's actually the opposite of Green Lantern in that it's inward toward our world, the unknown in our oceans and the depths of the that should be extinct, things that just baffle science. Things that shouldn't exist because it needs some kind of sunlight and the food chain to keep it going and yet there's nothing like that in the equation down there. There's so much to draw from for Aquaman.

BY: You've got an incredible track record with reinvigorating characters like Wally West and Kyle Rayner, and then having someone replace them pretty quickly. (Barry Allen took over as the Flash and Hal Jordan as Green Lantern). Is this just a plan to replace Arthur Curry in the next few years or is that entirely coincidental?

GJ: There's no plan to do a new Aquaman. This is Aquaman.

BY: What about the Rogues gallery?

GJ: We worked a lot with Black Manta in Brightest Day and I thought he turned out really well. He'll be in the book again. To me he's a pretty ruthless bounty hunter. I think he looks cool already and he's a great character. There's a lot of great plans for him. And then eventually we have plans to revamp more of his minor rogues, but most of the villains he's going to be up against are new.

BY: One last question about the DC relaunch: A lot of people were on the fence about how successful the relaunch was going to be, and now that we've seen it become the runaway success that it is, what are you guys doing to keep that momentum up?

GJ: I can speak for the books I'm working on. That's my day to day more than anything else, but everyone knows the spotlight is on them. All the other writers and artists are trying to bring their A game. Everyone is trying to make the books the best they can be. If they're not the best they can be, we have to stop and figure out what to do to ensure that. With Aquaman, having Ivan Reiss and Joe Prado on the art...they're just amazing, you can't get anyone better drawing this book. It's a matter of quality. It's all about keeping the quality up. At the end of the day, people will try #1s and they'll try a relaunch, but the books got to be good to get them to keep buying it. Especially for characters like Aquaman, where there's not a whole lot of loyalty to the character yet. It's all about quality. Each book stands on its own and can be judged on its own, but I think it's obvious that the DC universe as a whole the quality is going up.

BY: That's all you can do, thank you very much for your time.

Aquaman #3 hits comic book shops this week. If you've ever been interested in getting in on the ground floor of a character about to hit mainstream stardom, now might be the time to do it.