The Aquaman problem: ‘Neither fish nor fowl…’
EXCLUSIVE: Dan DiDio explains why the confused history of Aquaman put him in danger of being "neither fish nor fowl."
This is the second part of my interview in New York with Dan DiDio, the high-energy executive who came to DC Comics in early 2002 from a background in television. He is now senior vice president and executive editor of the DC Universe, meaning he is the guiding hand for the comic books that chronicle the exploits of all the gaudy icons that define DC and its long history. In the first part of the interview, DiDio talked about major new plans for Superman and Batman as well as the resurrection of "Adventure Comics" as a title. This time he talks about a venerable but troubled property from the briny deep…
GB: Tell me about the state of the union, so to speak, when it comes to the top-tier DC characters.
DD: When you look at it, really, we have what we deem to be five key franchises. You have Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern and Flash…
GB: Just five? Dan, somewhere, right now, Aquaman is crying saltwater tears…
DD: [Holds up some artwork on his desk] Look, I’m doing an Aquaman story right now! This is for the Christmas special. I’m actually writing it myself, which is kind of fun. But with the five key franchises you could argue what order they fall in because you see how Green Lantern is growing in leaps and bounds right now. And for me, it was essential to get Green Lantern and Flash to be in premiere status again, to be up there in the echelon of characters where people can’t wait to see and read the next story. We can look at the second tier past that, with the Aquamans and the Atoms and the Hawkmans, but the reality is those five characters can support not only their own book but series as well. When you have characters that important, you want to put as much energy into them and, more importantly, the strongest talent possible to keep them up where they belong.
GB: Tell me a character you would like to see revived or rejuvenated.
DD: Well we’re constantly tinkering. Here’s the thing I try to explain properly but somehow it always gets misinterpreted: Our characters are made of steel, not porcelain. They were here before us and they will be here after us. They will survive well past our lifetimes because of what they are, how they were created and the way they are maintained. So that be said, there’s flexibility in trying different things. You have to remember, a lot of our fan base has been reading comics 20 or 30 years now. They’ve see a lot of stories and a lot of things. We’re always trying to find a way to give them something new but also give them exactly what they want. There’s a lot of challenges with some of our characters. Like Aquaman. Most of people’s memories of Aquaman are actually from cartoons in the 1960s and 1970s than they are from the comics. We do have a small loyal fan base, they are people who enjoy that comic, [but] Aquaman has never been an upper-tier success. The challenge is how to make him that.
GB: I’d say one of the big problems is which Aquaman you’re talking about, there have been such dramatically different interpretations in the modern history of the character…
DD: There have been so many twists and turns. It’s left the character confused; we try to build a strong foundation for the characters and Aquaman does not have that right now. We have to get him back to a core conceit so we can build him back up again. We need to build on what is recognizable and draw people back in. And everybody wants to try to take on the character. I have a running joke: In all my dinners with the talent at conventions, I get three or four writers who will lean into me and say, ‘I know how to fix Aquaman.’ Everybody says that. It’s become a cause célèbre. It’s a running joke but, really, it’s not a joke because I know people do love the character. We’re going to be very cautious from this point forward because I want to make sure it’s perfect. I don’t want to add to the confusion when we take another pass at him.
GB: Which way would you lean, the classic Aquaman or the Peter David version, the one-handed, "angry" Aquaman? Or something in another direction, like when DC gave gave him the blue and purple suit?
DD: That’s the problem. That’s the Aquaman problem right there. You go to people and the audience is split. It’s split by generation gap. A lot of guys want the long hair and the harpoon hand, a lot of guys want the green gloves and the orange vest. It’s hard to reconcile the two. And a lot of times if you try to blend, you compromise both. You get something that is, excuse the expression, neither fish nor fowl. We’re trying to be judicious. That be said, I do enjoy the character. That’s why I’m writing about him for the holiday special…that and the fact that I drew the short straw. [Laughs]
DD: My background before coming to DC Comics was all television. I did 20 years in TV. My first inclination was to look at the TV stuff and see what was going on but the publisher, Paul Levitz, was very clear that he wanted me to concentrate on just the publishing. That’s what I embrace and that’s what I solely focus on. I have absolutely nothing to do with anything that happens with the Hollywood projects and more importantly I try to stay away from it. If we tried to time to everyone else’s schedule, our own schedule would fall apart. We have pacing and stories that are built for the periodical nature of our comics. We build stories that are weekly, we build stories that are monthly. It’s a lot easier for me to manage that process than to try to match it to something else. We try to create the best stories possible, things that stand nicely when they are collected up and complete. We want them to really give a clear definition of who our characters are and what their motivations are and the challenges they are faced with. Hopefully, if there is ever a movie adaptation out there, hopefully those are the things that people gravitate toward if they want to learn more about our characters off the screen.
GB: Do you find your writers and artists start to tilt toward the film visions of these characters? I mean does something like "The Dark Knight" exert a tug on their work, even subconsciously?
DD: Strangely enough, it can happen. This is a coincidence, but if you look at "The Dark Knight" and this new "Joker" graphic novel that just came out, the similarities are stunning. The reality though is the Joker graphic novel started one to two years before the Batman movie. It was years in the making, that book. The fact that they lined up so perfectly is more coincidence than application or planning. We’d love to be able to plan like that and build off something like that, but realistically that’s not how you concentrate on the publishing line. We have to have things that are compelling month to month, not just built around someone else’s event.
GB: Comic books are a powerful factory for characters in film, video games, toys and TV right now, but how is the original core business, the business of periodical publishing?
DD: There are challenges everywhere. Comic books were once considered recession-proof — I think somebody said that about video games now — but we are aware that there is finite number of dollars that retailers have available to them and we have to make sure our comic books are compelling enough to be must-reads. The approach that you can put anything on the shelf and hope it will sell just because of brand recognition isn’t as strong as it used to be. We need to maintain current consumer confidence, restore old consumer confidence and create excitement for new consumer confidence. The last thing you want is just apathy. We can’t take anybody for granted or someday we might be caught short ourselves.
GB: One of the most remarkable things about this modern moment of the superhero in pop culture is the flexibility of the iconic characters. Take Batman: Here’s a character that is on children’s pajamas and preschooler toys but is also in a bloody and psychological film that will almost certainly earn one or more nominations in the major Oscar categories. That new "Batman: The Brave and the Bold" animated series is so gentle and safe, and then you have Heath Ledger putting pencils through skulls in the "The Dark Knight"…
DD: The thing about that new "Brave and Bold" that shows what your saying is they have an interpretation of Aquaman that’s not seen in the comics or anywhere else, it’s new. What suit he’s wearing and the way he looks visually is brand new. Blue Beetle is the Blue Beetle that we just created a couple of years ago. And then they have the classic interpretation. So they have pulled on what’s best for them and made it up when they needed to. That’s one of the reasons I stay away from the films, for instance, because you have to go with what’s best for your medium. You can’t try to align with others. We can do things in comics, too, that can’t be done in animation or in film.
GB: There was a time in comics when the most exciting writers seemed to be moving away from DC and Marvel. That’s not the case anymore, clearly.
DD: During the 1980s there was a completely different market, naturally. The one thing [the upstart companies] did was drive original creator-owned product, which was wonderful for the marketplace because it broadened the spectrum of the material out there. Everybody was bringing their unique visions to their own properties. It energized things. The problem is that the thing that a lot of people love about comics — and the thing that a lot of people identify with in comics — are the tried-and-true characters that both DC and Marvel present. This is what comics are, day in and day out. Among the creators, so many people come back to comics and they want to write the characters they grew up on. Someone like a Brad Meltzer comes in to comics because he grew up on comics. He doesn’t have to be a comic book writer, he’s choosing it because of those characters.
GB: Will we see any "Elseworlds" stories again?
DD: It’s weird. We’ve reintroduced the concept of the multiverse in DC, which disappeared after the first "Crisis on Infinite Earths." While the concepts of the "Elseworlds" is something I’m always looking to do because it pushes the envelope, the conceit of the overall brand is something we’re being very judicious about because we can have the multiverse as a way to explore different incarnations of characters. To do it, it would have an exciting exploration of a character in a new and fascinating way. We point to "Red Sun" as one of the key "Elseworlds" stories and a model. But what you get if you have it as an ongoing brand is, "Here’s Batman in the Civil War," "Here’s Batman in the revolutionary war,"Here’s Batman as a Viking." And that is what it slipped into for a while. We’re just creating odd stories for the sake of being odd really without without furthering the character or exploring the character in different circumstances.
GB: Describe the DC Comics line right now.
DD: We put out an average of 55 to 65 titles a month. Historically, I think there was a low point in the late 1970s that we were down to maybe 30 or 40 titles. That was the DC Implosion days. In the 1990s, the heyday of the speculation market, there were 100 titles. The approach now is we build a line that we believe the market can support. Its as simple as that. You see what your thresholds are on your weaker-selling titles and where your upside is on the other ones, and you work it accordingly.
GB: There’s wildly mixed levels of excitement about webcomics. Some people shrug, others see the future, albeit one that may be difficult to monetize. There’s also the huge bookstore market now for trade paperbacks, hardcovers, etc. Talk a bit about format and the future — what is the comic book of the future?
DD: Realistically speaking — and this is just my opinion — we’re in the pamphlet periodical format right now and we’re going to stay in that for the foreseeable future. Primarily for the reason that our consumer audience is accustomed to that, understands it and they are driven by the collectible nature of it historically. It’s something you buy, something you own, something you possess. As new readers come in we will address their styles and their understandings. As people get more comfortable with reading material online, we will turn toward that expectation. There is a great improvement and growth in bookstore market and that is a key area. So we have three delivery systems: Online, in periodicals and in bookstores. Realistically, one of those could collapse and we could still be strong but it does require an adjustment in who and how you sell to them. No matter what, our future is in great characters in great stories created by great talent.
— Geoff Boucher
All images courtesy of DC Comics. Photo of Dan DiDio also courtesy of DC.