SPOILER WARNING: The following story contains spoilers for "Aquaman" #15, on sale now.
Joining a best-selling title with a well-established feel is a tough enough challenge for an artist, but doing so on a book moving into an event is even trickier.
But that's just the situation Paul Pelletier found himself in with DC Comics "Aquaman" #15. The second chapter in the "Throne of Atlantis" crossover with "Justice League" (which just so happens to feature the art of departing "Aquaman" art team of Ivan Reis and Joe Prado), the issue focused on the Justice League's first response to literal waves of attack by Atlantean king Ocean Master and Aquaman's feelings towards his aggressive brother's plans for the surface world. Pelletier took on the unenviable task of trying to establish his own take on the underwater hero while meshing with Reis' established style. (And see writer Geoff Johns take on the whole story here)
For an inside view of the story and the artist's work on it, CBR News spoke to Pelletier for the latest of our regular "Commentary Track" features. Below, he explains what his goals were in drawing both Aquaman and the Justice League, why Darkseid appears the way he does, what he did and didn't take from Reis and where the story will move forward as "Throne of Atlantis" approaches its second month in the new year.
CBR News: You start out with a pretty dramatic image – Gotham City underwater including Commissioner Gordon and the Bat Signal. What was your impression of this opening as a drawing challenge? It seems a lot harder to make floating things look dramatic.
Paul Pelletier: [Laughs] A little bit, but I just thought this was a really cool opening. When I first read the plot that Geoff sent in, I thought it was really cool. It was something iconic with the Bat Signal and a nice way to start off my run with "Aquaman."
You've said you were excited to draw some members of the Justice League in this story, and it broke down to Batman/Aquaman and Superman/Wonder Woman. Did breaking them into pairings like that help you get a handle on the characters?
Knowing I had to hit the ground running on the book and that the deadline was tight, I didn't have too much time to worry about it. I was just trying to get the characters right. It was interesting drawing the scene with Aquaman and Batman since they were in the Batwing. It was a little cramped but still a lot of fun. When I got the colored pages back from Rod Reis, I thought he'd nailed it. He gave it a great feel. When they're in the cockpit talking, you can tell it's a completely different setting than the rest of the book.
I felt bad because you got to do this scene on Aquaman's backstory – almost his secret origin in the New 52 – but in there you have to squeeze in this little close-up of Darkseid. Are you itching to do a full splash of the villain at some point?
The funny thing is that I kind of cheesed out on that panel a bit because what Geoff originally asked for was a panel of Darkseid fighting the Justice League, but on a nine-panel grid, the figures would end up being so tiny! [Laughs] So I just worked Darkseid in there, and Geoff was fine with it.
Aquaman's character has a lot to chew on in that scene, and we usually see him as more of a brash, angry guy. Are you getting a sense for how he'll be different moving forward?
A lot of this depends on what Geoff is looking for in the plot. That whole scene with Batman was a more emotional thing, so we did get to see him in a slightly different light. But I was joking with some of my friends that in my first few issues of "Aquaman," the character I'm probably getting to draw the least is Aquaman! [Laughs] It's kind of like when I got to draw "Hulk" at Marvel where the only character I wasn't drawing in the first five issues was the Hulk. It's ironic how these things work out.
But I'm still feeling my way into how I approach Aquaman. I look at the stuff that Ivan Reis did, and it just blows me away. I'm trying to stay true to what he set up but feeling my way into the character too. I'm establishing how I'm going to deal with him. And I've probably said this before, but it takes me three or four issues to really get a handle on a character. I'm getting more comfortable as I go, but I'm really in that period of time where I'm getting to know the character.
Speaking of Ivan, we get one page here with the creatures from the Trench, and I would have mistaken that page for one of his. Did you spend a lot of time studying his designs and his first arc to match the style so strongly?
Definitely. But the funny thing is that I'm drawing a sequence right now for issue #16 that'll be fun to see how Ivan and Joe [Prado] react to because I'm taking the Trench characters and throwing in my own little twists to them. I'm drawing new versions on some of them, so it'll be fun to get their reactions. So far they've been very supportive of what I'm doing on the book. But I definitely went back to the first hardcover of "Aquaman," and those Trench designs were so cool that I wanted to stay faithful to what Ivan had done. Now I can have some fun with it and change things up. Just like human beings, not every one of them looks the same.
You also get to cut loose with the new Ocean Master design. For a while, the character was in shadow in the book. What was your guideline for drawing him once he was fully on the page?
I was sent designs that Ivan had come up with for Ocean Master, and it's a really cool design. When I got to that first splash page with him, it's just fun stuff – classic supervillain stuff. It lends itself to cool visuals.
And when we get close up to him, you seem to draw him a little more scarred up. Do you try to make your villains a bit more rough and damaged looking than the heroes?
Yeah. I definitely do. I think with villains, they tend to have a little more character to the face. With Aquaman or Superman, they're these iconic, good-looking guys. But with villains, you can have a little more done with the face. I drew Ocean Master rougher than what the average superhero would look like. But I've got to look out too because a few times in drawing Aquaman or Superman, I got to drawing them too old looking. They're supposed to be a little younger here. I guess I'm still getting comfortable with the idea of younger heroes in the DC Universe versus back when I was working at DC ten years ago with the classic characters. But with the villains, I feel a little safer getting away with scars or roughing up the character a bit.
The great page is a cliffhanger, but Geoff has talking about this event being written issue-to-issue instead of dividing the plot into two threads for the two books. Aquaman is seemingly turning on the League at this point to mollify his brother. Assuming Ivan will play with that more in "Justice League" #16, what do you get to play with in your next issue?
In #16, a good bulk of it is Aquaman learning more about Atlantis, and we get to see a lot more of the Trench. I think Ivan is handling more of the Aquaman versus Justice League battle, and I come back in after. There are a few pages where I get to draw the heroes the Justice League recruit to battle against Atlantis, so there are a few pages of all-out action there. But a good chunk of it is dealing with the Trench. It's been cool stuff because it's deep underwater so I can fool around with a little more shadow and murkiness to show that they're so far down there. That's always fun.
Has drawing those Atlantis sequences given you gotten a beat on how "Aquaman" will go for you once the event is done?
I believe so. I'm getting more and more comfortable with how I approach him, and of course I'm getting used to Mera too. By the time this storyline wraps up, I think I should have my version of Aquaman down. He should be a lot of fun to draw in the next arc.
And following Ivan and Joe on the book, the common denominator we have between us is Rod Reis on the book. He does an amazing job of pulling everything together. I think he's the big reason why there is a similar feel between the two art styles right now. I was talking with Geoff and mentioned how Ivan and I are from the same school, but Ivan skews more towards George Perez and I skew more towards John Byrne. Rod just does a fantastic job when he colors this stuff because it gives those two sides a uniform feel. I give big props to the job he's doing.
"Aquaman" #15 is in stores now from DC Comics.