Dan Jurgens has been working in comics for decades, as both a writer and artist, and has worked on almost every major DC hero at one time or another.
He was nice enough to talk with me for the Shrine about his time writing the King of the Seven Seas:
The Aquaman Shrine: How familiar were you with Aquaman beforehand? Had you been a fan at all?
Dan Jurgens: I had always been an Aquaman fan. I was aware of him through the comics, of course, but became more interested through the old Aquaman Filmation cartoons. They weren’t great but at that time it was simply cool to have comic characters on TV.
After that I really became interested in the work done by Steve Skeates and Jim Aparo on the book.
AMS: How did you end up with the assignment? Was it something you pursued?
DJ: When Peter David first left the book DC asked if I was interested in taking over Aquaman. I was and mentioned the general direction I'd take the book but simply didn't have time to do so.
A year or so later Erik Larsen left and they asked again. By that time I had some time free and was able to jump on board. I also made it clear that I wanted Steve Epting as artist.
AMS: Did DC tell you Aquaman was near cancellation when you took it over? Was it a kind of "see if you can turn this around" situation, or was none of that apparent at the beginning of your run?
DJ: Oh, it was definitely on the chopping block. At one point I was told that if I didn't take it they might simply cancel it.
That could be a deterrent to some but, quite frankly, it's also kind of liberating so I said, "Let’s give it a shot!" Honestly, in those circumstances, there's nowhere to go but up.
I did ask if we could re-launch the book with a #1 in order to get more people to take a look at it. Sadly, that request was denied. We did get Mike Kaluta on covers, however, which helped signal a change.
AMS: How far ahead plot wise did you have the book? Were there bigger arcs you would've wanted to get to?
DJ: When I started I had the first year worked out in very tight fashion and had a general direction in place to take it in year two.
The next big arc would have centered around the idea of Atlantis as a nation with both an under and above water presence. The whole idea was to continue to build Aquaman up as a character of great worth and importance. I seriously suggested we call the book King Arthur.
AMS: What was it like working with Steve Epting? I had forgotten how good his work was on the book.
DJ: Steve Epting was and continues to be a fabulous artist. I had been trying to get him at DC for years and was very fortunate to be able to work with him on both Superman and Aquaman. He's one of the guys who is capable of not only drawing well, but telling a story with a sense of emotion, dynamics and drama.
AMS: Since you're an artist as well as a writer, did you write the scripts with a particular storytelling approach in mind, or did you leave that up to Steve?
DJ: I write a very detailed plot, broken down into page and panel-by-panel descriptions with light dialogue. I want to give the artist a sense of pacing while giving them the ability to open things up visually.
I believe one of the weaknesses in comics today is that almost everything is drawn from a full script, which often lacks visual drama. The artist done not then have the freedom to build that up.
AMS: One of the themes in your first arc--the war against Cerdia--also has to do with the rest of the world accepting Atlanteans as people, even though they seem very different. That seems very relevant in this current political climate, but were there events at the time that were on your mind as you were writing the stories?
DJ: I don't know that I'd say there were direct influences as much as indirect. Sadly, that is a situation we find throughout history. I'm sure it will continue into the future as well.
AMS: Was the Warlord's guest-starring turn meant partly as a tribute to his creator, Mike Grell, who helped you get your first job at DC?
DJ: I'm always up for throwing tributes in Mike's direction but that wasn't the point of that particular story.
The concept of magic and Atlantis had always been very much related to Skartaris. At the time DC also wanted to continue to expose Travis Morgan to new readers and asked if we had a way to do so. I was happy to oblige.
AMS: You had a lot of super-powered characters to work with in the book--Aquaman, Tempest, Mera, Dolphin--were there any of them you enjoyed writing more than the others?
DJ: I enjoyed Aquaman. As I said previously, as far as I was concerned, he was King Arthur. It just so happened that his Camelot was beneath the sea.
AMS: Related to that, much of your run of the book is narrated by Tempest. Was this because you found that character easier/more fun to write, or was it to keep Aquaman a little more mysterious, or...?
DJ: I found it to be a nice way to describe Aquaman. We really can't have Aquaman run around saying, "I'm king. I'm important. I'm impressive." It's far more interesting to have someone else think that so we see it through his eyes. Tempest held the reader's place in the story.
In addition, it made Aquaman a bit more remote and, I hope, a bit more regal in nature. I don't think of him as a character that a lot of people would ever get to know well.
AMS: Your run on the book feels very much like it was trying to bring Aquaman back to "basics", if I may use a clichéd term. Would you have wanted to eventually wanted to get him back to his classic orange-and-green look, something DC did in the very next Aquaman series, or didn't it matter to you?
DJ: Yes, I wanted to get him back to something resembling his original look but was denied that.
DC didn't seem to know what they wanted Aquaman to be for sure. They knew there were fans who didn't like the beard and hook and they also knew there were fans who didn't like the original look. There was a desire, I think, to find some kind of middle ground and I think we did that.
Peter had done some really strong work on the title that seemed a fairly personal piece of work. I couldn't do that and had to find something different to say while also supporting everything he’d set up.
AMS: As a writer on a book that you know might/probably will be cancelled, did you have any impulse to try something directly aimed at boosting sales? ("Ok, how can I work Batman into this?", etc.)
DJ: At that time, that type of thing would have been quite artificial. We decided our best approach was to redefine Aquaman as an important character by giving him the status of a king, combined with boosting Atlantis' profile in the world. We thought our best bet was to do the most compelling story possible.
AMS: Was writing Aquaman a fun assignment overall? Are you proud of your work on the book? Rereading them again eight or so years later, I found they hold up pretty well.
DJ: I had great fun writing Aquaman. I think the work holds up well and am rather disappointed it's never been collected.
At that time I think I was writing four different titles and in many ways, Aquaman was my favorite because we knew the future was gloomy anyway. Kind of that, "Hey, they're tearing down this house tomorrow! Let's have a party! We won't have to clean it up!" mentality.
By the time we were about six or seven issues in we knew the ax was inevitable. Despite that, everyone stayed on board to complete the job. I think that after a rather goofy year that preceded us we managed to restore Aquaman as a more dignified character and also gave the series several strong launching points for future stories.
AMS: What are you working on now?
DJ: These days I'm writing and drawing Booster Gold and writing Tangent: Reign of the Superman for DC.
It was great getting the chance to talk to Dan about his all-too-brief run on Aquaman. He served the character well, and now that have a glimpse at some of the plans he had for the character and the book, I'm even more sorry he didn't get a chance to continue on.
Thanks to Dan for his time and his great work, and special thanks to F.O.A.M. member Doug Zawisza for helping me get in touch with Dan!
...but we're still not done! In a first for the Shrine, we have interviews with both the writer and artist of a particular Aquaman run, when tomorrow we talk with artist Steve Epting! Be here!