Swimming Soon Into Savage Dragon: Talking Aquaria With Adam McGovern And Paolo Leandri

by Hannah Means Shannon

Back up stories are a pretty fascinating niche in comics culture–they wax and wane in popularity, never quite going away, and yet most comic readers are aware that they often contain hidden gems in storytelling or in creative talent. Many of the names and characters you might first encounter in the backs of title books end up with their own titles further down the road.

Coming up this December, we’ll be seeing a new back-up feature in the pages of Savage Dragon by Erik Larsen, published by Image Comics, and its one that takes us deep into mystery and into aquatic mythology: Aquaria. Created by the same team who brought us the Image series Nightworld, also drawing in its own way on storytelling tradition, Aquaria is written by Adam McGovern and illustrated by Paolo Leandri.

It features a young female protagonist who can change between a human form, and a scalier, more powerful version of herself, but in this particular story she’s got company, investigating the magico-mythical story of a mermaid who unlocks some of Brooklyn’s past.

Adam McGovern and Paolo Leandri join us here today on Comicon.com to talk about their intriguing new adventure story.

Hannah Means-Shannon: Adam, can you tell us a little about the creative origin of Aquaria for you, as well as her development as a comic and how she found her way into Image’s Savage Dragon?

Adam McGovern: When the Dean Haspiel-driven “Brooklyn Superhero Universe” was being developed, we were approached about participating. The first thing I think of when I free-associate on Brooklyn is–mermaids! They have a cosplay parade every year at Coney Island. Aquaria is the modern mutant update of that tradition (though she ties into it in many more ways that we’ll hopefully show readers soon). In addition to the LINE Webtoon platform (where Dean’s The Red Hook, Delsante & Venancio’s Purple Heart, and Kushner, Beyale & Goungor’s Brooklynite have appeared), some parts of the “NuBKU” have been on-paper–there was a Red Hook story in Dark Horse Presents, and Aquaria was welcomed to the always-unpredictable back pages of Savage Dragon, whose auteur Erik Larsen has long been one of our team’s strongest supporters.

HMS: As someone who works in a number of fields, how does your life as a critic and writer about culture relate to your work on comics? That’s a tough question, I know! For instance, do you find you need outside voices to be critical of your creative work, and does thinking about the critical aspect of comics intimidate you when it comes to actually writing comics. Asking for a friend…:)

AMcG: What’s a superhero-writer without a double identity? 🙂 But seriously, those two sides talk to each other. In my critical writing, I’m usually pursuing a personal understanding of how some comic, novel, movie, etc. works (or how it goes wrong), and what cultural ideas and emotional issues are *at* work in its creation. So, this is an ongoing schooling for when I write my own comics. It’s all in the stream of Story; each of us inherits tales told by our ancestors, and popular fantasies shared with millions, and we all muse on stories of our own (whether that’s role-play and imaginary friends when we’re kids, or goes on to be a career). So, there’s no “outside” of creative work when I’m critiquing; they’re more like two halves of the same conversation. I still need voices from outside my head to point out where my scripts may be going off-course, and luckily comics is such a collaborative artform that I never want for other perspectives!

HMS: There are some wonderful detective aspects laced in to Aquaria. What are some of the influences there? The Spirit? Detective fiction?

AMcG: Kind words and good question–I see it more as a kind of archaeology, so my influences might be, like, the Natural History Museum, walking tours of abandoned industrial sites, and old Jacques Cousteau undersea documentaries! The mystery that interests me most is piecing together our own past, the line that connects us across planetary migrations and erased history. Aquaria is tracking down people who’ve been forgotten, and hidden forces endangering Earth or holding the key to helping it.

HMS: There are also elements of other genres, like superhero secret identities and little bits of science that make me think of science fiction. What wider elements of genre tradition find their home in Aquaria?

AMcG: All are welcome! Her first adventures last year had elements of cautionary environmental fables and cheesy giant-monster movies, and the series overall is like an indie-film urban fairytale–fanciful miracles alongside head-spinning pseudo-science. Even in the real world, we’re approaching that proverbial point where science seems like magic, and Aquaria is one of the post-princesses who self-reliantly show the way through its wonders and dangers.

HMS: How does serializing Aquaria in these smaller units affect how you conceive of and present the story? What opportunities does it afford?

AMcG: I naturally think in brief beats–monthly comics and episodic TV were my early education. Long-form stories are a relative anomaly in comics history–as late as the original 1960s “Silver Age” Marvel and DC comics, even a single issue of Fantastic Four or Justice League would be broken up into chapters. We’re getting re-accustomed to that compression through web-series and YouTube vids. In Aquaria, the short form affords opportunities (and obligations!) to tighten the storytelling and express the tense wit of the characters; there are other, longer tales in the “folds” of these ones, like more details on Aquaria’s origin and her mentor Flo’s mysterious/marvelous background, that we’ll open out to if Aquaria comes back in her own book.

HMS: Paolo, what are the most important elements of the “look” of Aquaria that create the mood you’d like to create for the character, whether in her human, or in her aquatic form?

Paolo Leandri: I followed Adam’s request to made her a bit introspective and goofy in her human form and a mix of weirdness and dynamism when she becomes a mermaid; in fact, in the first sketch that I made in a rush because of a tight deadline, I made her more like a glamourous model, and then when I had the time to read the script, I realized that would not have fit.

HMS: There are elements of technology to design, plan, and present in this comic, such as the behavior of phones, and the presentation of vehicles. What’s the tech ethos of the comic, and how did you find the right vibe?

PL: The technology they use at C STUFF [Aquaria’s mini-school for genius geeks] is a mix of hi-tech and do-it-yourself type things; being a society that is reorganizing after a disaster caused by too much technology, of course they don’t want history to repeat itself.

HMS: This story deals with an amphibious hero, but also a mermaid. What comics or film traditions might have informed you when creating these watery creatures and the way they move in water?

PL: There is a long tradition of such in American comics and Aquaria draws from it, with a bit of “Creature from the Black Lagoon”, but a little prettier.

HMS: As an artist, what elements of mainstream or indie comics appeal to you? What artistic styles impress you the most?

PL: I’m rooted in Golden, Silver and Bronze Age comics, so Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, Gene Colan, Reed Crandall, Matt Baker, Joe Maneely, Bill Everett and more. People that look at my artwork frequently find a similarity to Mike Allred and I think it’s a big compliment! I like guys that find their distinctive style, like Mike Mignola and Charles Burns.

HMS:  Could you tell us a little bit about the development of the covers for Aquaria. How did you conceive of them, and refine them, and what do you hope they convey to the reader?

PL: At first, covers were a problem for me since I mistakenly conceived of them as one scene from the story, so they looked more like splash pages than covers; then I realized that a good cover must represent the whole story in a single image, and the results were better. I must thank Erik Larsen who gave suggestions and corrected the Nightworld and early Aquaria covers; I must have benefitted from this, since for the last three covers of Aquaria that I made, I got the OK from the boss at first sight!

All art by Paolo Leandri, with colors by Dominic Regan; logo by Steve Price.

Thanks to Adam McGovern and Paolo Leandri for joining us today to talk about Aquaria!

Look out for Aquaria in the page of Savage Dragon coming up soon in December 2017!