Aquaman, Black Manta, and DC’s Year of the Villain

Kelly Sue DeConnick told us what to expect from Aquaman and Black Manta during DC's Year of the Villain event.

Kelly Sue DeConnick is a pretty big deal. Her creator-owned work has won her, among other accolades, a Hugo nomination and a British Fantasy Award win for Bitch Planet, the brutal political satire exploitation book she did with Taki Soma and Valentine De Leandro; and an Eisner nomination with Emma Rios for the staggeringly beautiful mythic western, Pretty Deadly. But it’s her work with Carol Danvers that you’re most likely familiar with. Her time writing Captain Marvel made the character one of the biggest superheroes in comics, and paved the way for Carol’s absurdly successful film earlier this year.

So when she made the jump to DC (along with Legion of Super-Heroes reboot mastermind and current steward of the Superman titles Brian Michael Bendis; current writer of the best Superman book in years Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen Matt Fraction; and new Wonder Woman mythmaker, G. Willow Wilson), it was the sign of a massive change for the line. DeConnick took over as writer on Aquaman with December’s #43 and set about building a world around Arthur on land, while leaving plenty of trouble back in Atlantis for Mera to deal with. We had a chance to sit down with her and talk about her time building up Amnesty Bay, Aquaman’s unique power set, and why Black Manta is both the perfect villain for Aquaman and a deeply, profoundly messed up individual.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity. 

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Den of Geek: Early on you defined [Aquaman’s] signature power is the ability to ask for help. Is that kind of the overarching key to the narrative here?

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Kelly Sue Deconnick: I don’t know that I think that’s the central thesis. I do think it is a thing about him that I find fascinating that I don’t think has been explored. The “heavy is the head that wears the crown” thing has been very explored. I don’t know what new thoughts I have to bring to that aside from the fact that it’s kind of interesting to see Mera battling with that right now.

But I do think if we’re kind of looking at for what hasn’t been done, what is rich to be explored with him, and also I think what has often been treated as something that’s problematic about him. But I think it doesn’t have to be, shouldn’t be, and is in fact really interesting, is the fact that his signature ability is this ability to ask for help where he is also just a classically masculine character. Those two traits can sometimes be treated as incongruent. The tough guy doesn’t ask for help.

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I think that what’s interesting is when we’re sort of picking apart the idea of what makes a natural leader. So, one of the ways that they’ve played with the signature ability in the past is…it’s not that he talks to fish because that would just be ridiculous. He can control them because their minds are really small, but I don’t think controlling another living thing is a heroic ability. I think that’s a villainous power. Regardless of the depths of the mind of the thing that you’re controlling, I think controlling something that has a will of any kind… I think that’s villainy.

Right. Coercion or control is the easy way out, right? The inspiring thing to do is to convince a bunch of people to see your way.

Yeah, and the idea being that you have to be in this for the right reasons. They have to trust you, you must have a higher goal in mind in order to have everyone come to your aid.

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What made me think that that the ability to ask for help was maybe one of the theses that you were building around was the community that is kind of forming around Arthur in Amnesty Bay. You’ve got all of the powerful water gods, you’ve got Aqualad back with him. But, it feels like if the ability to ask for help is what defines him as a hero, it feels like you’re setting up a lot of people who are willing to give him help if he asks.

Yes, absolutely. I’m also playing in this particular arc with the idea of forgiveness. I mean, the town is called Amnesty. All of the people that we’ve sort of pulled in here are people who have struggled on either side of needing to forgive or needing to find forgiveness, which sounds super action oriented and punchy [laughs].

But the thing about superhero stories is finding the humanity in them. It can’t just be about pretty costumes bouncing around the page and cool action sequences. Cool action sequences and pretty costumes bouncing around the page are vital components of the genre and they need to be answered, but there also has to be something that transcends that, that’s human that we can all relate to in order for us to make the connection that makes it resonate. And so, it’s a little bit of a puzzle. And this is something I’ve worked with before because Carol Danvers is not a thinky heroine. She punches shit. You have a problem, Carol would like to punch it.

But you find the themes in there that resonate, that transcend just the action sequences, and even in the action sequences. Even when you’re choreographing the action sequences, you’re still looking for ways to… The same way that Stanislavski trained actors to look for psychological gestures to mirror what’s going on inside the character, we’re looking for that on the page so we can find the ways to make it have a capital T truth to it, make it have something that resonates for us.

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Mera and Arthur are in a place right now where each of them needs to forgive and each of them needs to ask for forgiveness. They’re so strong and so proud that neither one of them wants to be the first one to do it, and they have a ticking clock in the form of a child coming. That’s real and human and it’s not perfect. It’s beautifully flawed and the kind of thing that you don’t need to be bulletproof to understand that feeling.

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It sounds like you’re setting up Black Manta to be kind of the third point of the triangle there, with the needing to forgive and too proud to do it and-

Completely unable to.

Exactly. Right, and letting that kind of consume him. Does he fit in your head as the ur-Aquaman villain?

Oh absolutely. In contemporary Aquaman, the two big villains he has are Orm and Manta, and I was given the directive that they wanted him out of Atlantis for a while. That Atlantis and Atlantean politics had been well covered. It was an excellent storyline, and we needed to remind the readers that he was part of the DC universe on Earth, and we really need to make Amnesty Bay a place that feels like it has a sense of place as much as Gotham or Metropolis. Amnesty Bay should feel like a place we know and recognize. We know the characters that live there. When I say Metropolis or Gotham, you know exactly what I’m talking about, right? So Amnesty Bay, you should have that same sense of place and the characters that populate that place.

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So we’re really trying to build this. And so if the directive we’ve been given was to tell stories with him in his world on land, Orm doesn’t make sense as the primary villain there because Orm doesn’t really… With the exception of when Orm flirted with being a good guy for a little while, which I thought was fantastically done, it’s one of my favorite Aquaman stories in the last few years. But his concerns are all Atlantean. So, if Arthur leaves Atlantis, Orm is delighted, he does not give a shit. He’s not going to come after him. There is nothing that matters to him there. Now, the child might change that.

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Hint hint.

MIGHT. I don’t know, we’ll see.

But if we’re talking about Amnesty Bay, and land-based stories, then Manta is just the obvious go-to. And he’s such a great character, such a great character, it’s not like “Oh damn.” It’s like “Well great, fantastic. I love him.” He’s one of those people that, they say resentments are like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die. And that’s him. He is just everyday drinking poison.

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And now we get to drive the mech around.

Yeah. Well, kinda.

It’s a little bit better than drinking poison.

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Yeah. And the Mech is programmed to be like getting his dad back. There’s a lot to play with there too because that’s a complicated relationship.

And it’s from Luthor, so obviously there’s going to be some catch to it.

When we were talking about the villain offers [happening across the DC line as part of this month’s Year of the Villain tie-ins] and it was like, there is literally nothing… There’s no fire power, there is literally nothing that Lex could give him that he would give a shit about. He just doesn’t care. You want to give him something, he’ll take it, but he’s not going to make a deal with you for it. Because there’s just nothing that’s worth it to him. The only thing he would really want is his dad back and you can’t give him that, and then it was like “Wait, could you?”, and then that became interesting – what happens if you get what you asked for? And when you get what you’re asked for, Lord protect me from what I want.

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Maybe having his dad back isn’t exactly what he thought it was going to be. I just had this notion that he got his dad back and his dad wasn’t exactly what he wanted. And then he’d remember that like “Oh no, his dad didn’t respect him the way he wanted his dad to respect him.”

…He fusses with the AI, basically reprogramming the father figure to be the father figure he wants. Which, it’s really fucked up and incredibly human.

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So what’s Robson Rocha been doing art-wise that made you go “Shit, I should probably give him more of that to do?”

I spoke to him in the very beginning. I looked at all of his work when they were trying to make a pair for us, and suggested Robson, and I looked at it, and it was like “Oh, this is big, epic stuff.” So, this is kind of like, we’ve got to start thinking. We got to think big and epic, and then I talked to him and I was like “What do you want to draw?”. He was like “Monsters.” I was like “Alright! I’m in.” So, big, epic monsters. Cool. And he has just been killing the monster thing.

The thing that I discovered though that was fascinating was he’s really, really, really good at that, but most artists that I’m familiar with who have that kind of giant epic scope and can do those big sort of airbrushed-on-the-side-of-a-van kind of scenes, that is where all of their energy goes and they’re not as good at the small human acting moments. He is.

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He’s incredibly good at the small human acting moments, and in fact handles humor beautifully well and the Aqualad introduction. His take on Aqualad and his expressions and even his face, I asked him. I was like “Are you using a model for this kid?” because there’s a real specificity to his facial structure. He doesn’t look like generic dude.

[Aqualad] exists in space. That construction of his skull stays no matter what. I know we’re talking about basic drawing here, but it’s not something… It’s rare actually to have someone who is that distinctive looking and it’s not model-based, and he’s like “Nope, just comes out of my head.”. I’m like “Oh, okay. You’re a genius. Neat.”

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Yeah, when Aqualad follows Arthur into the water the facial expression, the way that his face is just flopping around on his skull is really like anime humor.

It’s just fantastic. He can do the humor without undercutting the stakes of the action, and that is a gift. So, he is just a complete delight to work with, and he is crazy fast. I feel like I’m being chased. I don’t know how he is both that good and that fast.

What’s been the toughest thing about Aquaman and Atlantis to crack, and what’s been the most pleasant surprise now that you’re kinda into it?

It’s always hard coming in when you’re writing these characters that have these long histories, and I think coming in at the time of the movie and making the book welcoming to the movie viewer, and also not alienating to the longtime fan. That was hard. Also, just getting him… He’s a tough guy. He’s not chatty. Getting him to kind of open up to me and I’m sort of learning who he is. That was hard. The supporting cast helps with that a lot.

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Also, just having the longtime fan base trust me that I don’t hate Mera. I love Mera, I love their relationship, but adult relationships can be complicated. I think they are one of the definitive relationships in the DC universe, and I believe they were the first married couple too, which I think is really important. I’ve no interest in making their love story go away. I am interested in complicating it because human beings are complicated, and I think that makes it more important and more real.

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Once we get some of this stuff wrapped up, I want to play with format a little bit. I want to do some more contained stuff. I want to see if I can figure out a way to do some of that. So, the X-Files model where you have these done in ones, but then you also have like larger storylines.

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