I had the privilege of interviewing writer/producer Marly Halpern-Graser. You might know his works from Thundercats Roar the Batman vs Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or recently (and the focus of this particular interview) Aquaman King of Atlantis. Marly is a likeminded Aquaman superfan and it was great to talk about this amazing little show.
King of Atlantis follows the events of the James Wan movie VERY loosely. How was it decided to what extent they would be connected?
You know, I honestly don’t remember exactly how it was decided because everyone involved was on the same page – it was one of the smoothest development experiences of my whole career. I can tell you why we decided to do what we did: the James Wan Aquaman was so good and so successful and reset people’s ideas about what Aquaman could be. We wanted to make our show accessible to people who mostly knew the characters from the movie. Even though we were doing our own thing, we assumed that events very much like the ones in the movie happened right before our show. That meant we didn’t have to re-tread over the origin stuff that had been done so well in the movie, it let us hit the ground running (or swimming).
Do you have a favourite fishy friend of Aquaman’s?
Topo. Always Topo.
It feels like there’s been a real effort in media with Aquaman recently to avoid the jokes of Aquaman being dumb and silly. Often this can go too far the other way and be too serious. But this was delightful in how it embraced the inherent goofiness. Do you think it’s important to retain that cheesy charm?
I understand Aquaman fans being defensive of him. He’s a great character with amazing runs in comics and animated appearances, but the mainstream perception of him was not only a joke about him being a bad superhero but it was always the same joke: “What’s he going to do if there’s no water around?” As someone who likes Aquaman a lot, the things I like about him are a little cartoony and silly so we wanted to embrace the silliness while portraying Aquaman as a very effective superhero. I would never say someone shouldn’t do a version of Aquaman that’s 100% serious, there have been plenty of comics with that tone that work great, but we wanted to lean into the goofier aspects that have always been there.
There are some deep cuts from the comics in the show, like the fire trolls in part 3. How deep did you dive into the world of Aquaman?Any specific comic runs or eras that stand out as favorites for you?
I love the fire trolls. They breathe fire underwater, what’s not to love? I think there were three main eras that influenced my ideas about Aquaman. First, the ‘60s Aquaman comics, written by Jack Miller with art by Nick Cardy, which introduced the fire trolls but also more importantly introduced Mera. Those comics gave us a great baseline for how out there and fantastical Aquaman’s world is allowed to be. Then secondly, I’m definitely influenced by the Peter David Aquaman comics from the ‘90s because those comics really set the tone for modern Aquaman. And finally, modern Aquaman! I read all the early New 52 Aquaman comics and the live-action movie is so influenced by those that the influence flows right into our show.
Aquaman has been through a lot of different iterations and unlike some characters like Superman and Batman, he can change quite drastically. What do you think are the core tenets of the character that are essential to stick to?
Hey, if Aquaman didn’t change over the years, he wouldn’t be King of Atlantis or even half-Atlantean. In the ‘40s he was a normal man whose father had taught him to breathe underwater using “scientific secrets.” But I think since the ‘60s introduced the Silver Age Aquaman, those are the elements you have to keep: that he was raised on land and then learned his long lost mother was an Atlantean and, because of her, he has superpowers that he uses to defend the ocean. Everything else is up to the kind of story you’re trying to tell. I also think it’s a strength of DC that there have been so many versions of each character over the years that you really can push them a lot further than most characters and still recognize the iconic elements.
One of the things I loved about the show was how remarkably well-paced it was. They’re long episodes, especially for animation. With Thundercats Roar, you were writing 10 minute episodes but with this, they would go up to 40 minutes. Was it difficult adjusting to a different episode length?
We quickly realized that we needed to think of the episodes like short movies, rather than long episodes. I’ve written a few feature-length projects for WB Animation so it was a lot easier to cut down from that than to build up from an 11-minute story. I wouldn’t say it was difficult because the format was very freeing. Telling a story in 11 minutes is hard, it’s not easier because it’s shorter. 44 minutes meant we had time to let scenes breathe. We could take a step back and show off the amazing backgrounds and we could let the actors speak at whatever speed they wanted!
Were there any awesome characters or concepts that you thought were too silly or out there? Or was everything on the table?
I’d say nothing was too silly and everything was on the table, but I do wish we could have used Qwsp, a magical sprite from another dimension who shows up and gets Aquaman into trouble. In the comics, he’s the one who helps Aquaman defeat the fire trolls! I tried to find a way to work him in but he’s such an out-there idea that the whole story would have to be about him and that’s not the story we were telling.
Your Aquaman feels very in-line with previous iterations while still standing on its own. Did you consciously try and look at Aquaman’s history in animation or did you just seek to chart your own course with the character?
We were very aware of Aquaman’s animated history, I know Victor pulled some monster ideas from the 1967 animated show, but we were trying to do our own thing. Our idea was to be an original take on the character that was “adapting” the live-action movie more than any other version of Aquaman. Mostly because the Aquaman from Justice League or the Aquaman from Batman The Brave and the Bold are amazing! We couldn’t top those takes, all we could do was make our own.
I loved the reveal of a fun new villain in Mortikov in the first episode only for it to be revealed that he was (SPOILERS) the classic villain, Scavenger, the whole time. What made you decide to switch up the character like that?
This was something that happened very organically while we were developing the three chapters of the miniseries. We started by thinking about Aquaman and his arc as he won over the citizens of Atlantis but the villains and what they’d be doing were not 100% set yet when we started outlining the chapters. Victor had always wanted to use Scavenger because he loved the design of his armor, but he also had an idea for an original villain who was an inventor. The original villain was always going to be the villain of Chapter One and we wanted to use Scavenger for the big world-shaking finale in Chapter Three. Scavenger was going to be looking for an alien artifact called the “Time Decelerator” because that’s from his first comic appearance in 1968! Pretty quickly we realized we should have the original villain become Scavenger and have the time decelerating crystal (with a time accelerating one) be the focus of the whole miniseries. We named the new composite character Pytor Mortikov because the most famous version of Scavenger was a character named Peter Mortimer and we wanted die-hard fans to hear his name and think, “hey that sounds kinda like Scavenger…” but I have no idea if anyone did that. Maybe we were TOO coy with it.
Were there ever discussions about utilizing Aqualad, Tula or other Aqua family characters or was that out of bounds?
No one was “out of bounds” but we wanted to stick to Aquaman’s supporting cast from the live-action movie and we didn’t even have room for all of them. I would have loved to have Aquaman’s parents show up in our miniseries but there just wasn’t time for that (or a good reason).
Do you think Aquaman’s reputation gives him a unique ability to work with this kind of off-the-wall style better than most superheroes?
Honestly, I think you could do this with any main member of the Justice League. They’re all so iconic and have all ranged from serious to silly over the years that they’re more flexible than most characters. But on the other hand, they’ll probably never let me write a Wonder Woman show because I’d put her on a giant kangaroo and have Mars, the god of war, actually live on Mars, the planet, and attack Wonder Woman with a spaceship (all things from the comics) so uh, yeah, I guess there is something unique about Aquaman that allowed us to make this series.
You were fortunate enough to have the amazing Flula Borg on the show. Was his role written for him or did he come in and improvise a lot of his dialogue?
The part of Mantis was not specifically written for Flula Borg but we were very fortunate that he read for it. As soon as we heard his take, we knew we’d found our shrimp. There was not very much improvising on our miniseries, but I know he improvised my favorite line in all of Chapter Three, which is when Mantis says to the other bandits, “Let’s keep guarding, people! Or animals, whatever we are.”
I feel like a lot of animated shows you’d write and have a good idea what you’re gonna be looking at. But the style of animation here is so fluid and always changing. What’s it like seeing scenes you’ve written come to life in such a way?
As the writer, the best part of my job is seeing designs, storyboards and animation come in for review. The artists on our show are so incredibly talented and it was a joy to work with them. The trick to being an animation writer is you have to think visually. You have to imagine what the scenes will look like and even try to imagine the fight choreography and the visual gags. You have to have it planned out in your head so well, that if the artists literally did what you wrote, it would be great. And then you have to sit back and watch every single artist involved come up with better visuals than you ever could.