Aquaman swims into American movie theaters this week, but the character is also making a big splash in his home waters. This week, Kelly Sue DeConnick (Captain Marvel, Bitch Planet, Pretty Deadly) takes the rudder on his DC Comics series with Aquaman #43.
DeConnick picks up with Arthur Curry after the events of the Justice League/Aquaman crossover event Drowned Earth. At the end of that story, our hero was presumed dead after saving the world. In Aquaman #43, we find Arthur stranded on an island with no memory of who he is or how he got there — and the inhabitants of the Village of Unspoken Water, while kindly, are not at all who they might seem.
Polygon sat down with DeConnick to chat about movies, comic books, gods, water, and what makes Aquaman Aquaman.
Polygon: At San Diego Comic-Con [DC Comics co-publisher] Dan DiDio described the series as a reexamination of what makes Aquaman Aquaman. What makes Aquaman Aquaman in your arc?
Kelly Sue DeConnick: It comes back to the water, right? You have to go back to fundamentals and think about What is the character of the water? It’s elemental, it’s mythic. In almost all of our world myths life comes from the water, and life returns to the water. Creation myths will often start with the ocean; in biology, life begins in the ocean. And then in many apocalypse myths the world is destroyed in a flood, and that repeats culture to culture as well. It’s incredibly common, this idea that we come from the water and we return to the water.
It’s elemental. It’s basic. It’s powerful. It’s also joyful and sensual and fluid. It’s deceptive, because we have this constant relationship with water. Our bodies are mostly water; it’s benign and beautiful and it’s life. But it is also powerful and cruel. Or not even cruel, but indifferent. It is so much larger than we are.
And I think thinking about all of that in relation to the things I want to talk about with Arthur was important. Also because we have this tendency to culturally be dismissive of him, like he’s a silly hero or something. And like, no, no. I don’t know what is bigger or more basic or more mythic or more iconic than the ocean. That’s in his name, ‘water’-man. That’s intense.
Everybody thinks that he’s the goofy guy who talks to fish.
But we can reframe that, even, too.
And I’ve done it. I wrote a short story a few years ago — it’s a very silly short story, it’s a very lighthearted — but I made the talks to fishes joke, right? But in this day and age, in this moment, in our world, in this moment in our culture, there is something really fascinating to me about Arthur’s telepathic ability, which I refer to as “The Call,” because this is not a superpower that everybody has.
There are lots of superheroes that have healing abilities. There are lots of superheroes that fly, there are lots of superheroes that can talk underwater or whatever. But this telepathic ability that he has to communicate with sea life is pretty unique. That’s not something he shares with anybody else that I can think of. But if you reframe it, it is interesting to think of it in terms of — he is such an incredibly powerful and dynamic and masculine figure, and one of his most unique and most iconic abilities is the ability to ask for help.
And that’s what The Call is. He is a king, he is virtually a god in how physically powerful he is and whether it’s in the comics or in the film he is a very attractive, highly masculine man, in the traditional sense. And yet this incredibly unique ability of his is really an ability to ask for help. It is the ability to call these creatures in the oceans and say, “Bring your gifts. There is a fight and we need you.” And that’s pretty amazing. That’s not silly, that’s not dumb. That’s kind of beautiful and really resonant.
So at the same time, I want to talk about the ocean; and I want to talk about the elements; and I want to talk about mythology; and about how powerful this idea of water is; and the idea of fluidity; and how interesting this power is of being able to ask for help, especially in the context of his masculinity; and how interesting it is to think of the idea of staying afloat, right? He has to learn not to fight the water, not to fight the ocean, to respect and go with the power of the ocean, and deal with life on life’s terms; deal with these difficulties as they come to you.
We’re always looking for incredibly human experiences in these overblown, crazy, huge ideas, right? Like, yes, he is all of these things, but he also has to be somebody that when the reader is reading this story, they see something of themselves in. Or they see some kind of human moment that produces an emotion in them that is authentic and has meaning and some kind of resonance. Otherwise it’s just pretty colors dancing across the page. Which is fine, I guess, but it’s not … enough?
Aquaman stories often rooted in Atlantis and in his supporting cast, family and his Kingdom. And you start your issue by taking him out of all of that. What can you tell me about the Village of Unspoken Water and the people that we’re seeing in the first issue?
The Village of Unspoken Water is a metaphysical isle, and it is populated by bunch of […] I mean, you sort of know, when you see them, I think, that it’s not just a bunch of old people.
These are ocean gods of the world. An Indian ocean god and a Japanese ocean god and South American ocean gods and Native American ocean gods. Just a whole bunch of different mythic traditions from around the world. Because again, I’m trying to underscore this idea that no matter who you are, no matter what culture you are from — the ocean and the water is primal and necessary and vital and important to your culture and your psyche, regardless. I don’t care how landlocked you are [laughs].
And it’s fun, too, because in comics we’ve long embraced the mythic traditions of Norse mythology and Greek mythology; it’s fun to look at some of the other world mythologies.
He is on this island with a bunch of ocean gods who have grown old and weak, and he doesn’t know who he is or how he wound up there or why. We get to follow along with him as he regains his understanding of who he is and what his purpose is. And eventually we’ll learn what happened to him between the end of [Justice League: Drowned Earth] and the beginning of the story on the isle, and how he got there.
You wrote the series knowing that your first issue would be happening at the same time as the release of Aquaman. Was that knowledge present in the process?
Yes and no.
Like, you can’t be an idiot. You can’t be like, Well, I’m just going to ignore the movie entirely. That’s dumb. Millions of people are going to see this movie. It is very kind of Hollywood to make this really, really expensive commercial for our book. We should probably make sure that if people pick up the book because they saw the movie, that there is something in it that they recognize at least a little bit. Because that’s a very, very expensive commercial and you don’t want to spend that money for nothing. So, like, don’t be dumb.
There’s an angle [some folks take] on it — “Comics lead the films, the films don’t lead the comics” — well, yes, but also … shut up. Look, I’m not in a competition with the films. I don’t feel defensive about the films. I don’t feel threatened by the films. Comics are always going to be cooler because we’re cheaper. It’s true!
And it has nothing to do with the money that it costs you to buy it. It’s about the money it costs to produce it. We are so inexpensive. It is so inexpensive to make a comic that they can take more chances with us. We also come out monthly; we’re really responsive. We can do crazy stuff, and if it doesn’t work then that’s OK. We’ll just forget about it and we’ll do something else.
Because of that, comics are always going to be more exciting, they’re always going to be cutting edge. There is no reason we need to be like We’re not reacting to the movies because we’re too cool. Of course we’re way fucking cool, and you know what, we’re so cool, we don’t have to worry about it.
I feel really strongly about that. I don’t have to work in comics. I work in comics because I love comics. So this is this notion that Well, I’m just going to completely ignore the films, that’s stupid.
Another thing about comics that I love is we have these incredibly iconic characters who change quite a bit over the years, over different creators and over different decades, but they do so because we’re always retelling stories. This is just like mythology: Mythology changes over time because we’re telling stories that have meaning for us as we evolve. And so we can stay true to what is the core of the character and still make changes. We can still have shifts and it doesn’t make it meaningless, it makes it, in fact, more alive. The same way language evolves, stories evolve.
That said! I can’t just scratch the needle across years of continuity and be like, OK, well, the film portrayal of this character is very different than the traditional comic book portrayal of this character, and I’m just going to start writing Jason Momoa fan fiction. No.
But I am taking something of his portrayal of that character that appeals to me. Again, I’m saying this based on very little, because I have not seen the Aquaman movie yet. But based on how [Jason Momoa has] portrayed the character thus far, there is a joyfulness to him. There is a playfulness to him that speaks to that idea of water for me, and is a little different than the very regal, very poised Arthur we’ve always seen, in the “King of the Seven Seas” kind of way. But I think it’s close enough that we can nudge him in that direction without it feeling like a record scratch.
So that has been my challenge with regard to the movie, to walk the line between wanting to pay attention to it, wanting to take something of it so that that commercial is not wasted, but also to be true to the history of the character in the comics.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.