Aquaman: King of Atlantis Creators Preview Their Zany Animated Saga

This week will see the premiere of the first chapter of Aquaman: King of Atlantis, a three-part animated saga inspired by DC Comics' protector of the seas. The HBO Max miniseries chronicles Aquaman's (Cooper Andrews) first day on the job as king of Atlantis, as he and his advisors, Mera (Gillian Jacobs) and Vulko (Thomas Lennon), get thrown into an unexpected and zany battle against Ocean Master (Dana Snyder) and other undersea threats.

The series finds a one-of-a-kind middle ground between the aesthetic and characterizations of the live-action Aquaman movies (with the films' director, James Wan, serving as executive producer) and a distinctly cartoony vibe, one that is brought to life by creators Victor Courtright (Pickle and Peanut, Yo Gabba Gabba!) and Marly Halpern-Graser (Batman vs Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Teen Titans Go! Vs. Teen Titans). Courtright and Halpern-Grazer are no strangers to irreverent animated projects, with both previously working on the Cartoon Network animated series ThunderCats Roar. With Aquaman: King of Atlantis, the pair take ThunderCats' sense of style and personality — and their love for Silver Age DC Comics — and make something magical.

Ahead of the debut of Aquaman: King of Atlantis' first chapter, got an opportunity to chat with Courtright and Halpern-Graser about their work on the miniseries. We spoke spoiler-free about how the project and its unconventional storytelling structure came together, James Wan's involvement, and the inspirations for its complex undersea world.

(Photo: DC Entertainment, HBO Max)

*** To start things off, how did you both get brought onto the project? What was the process like of pitching for the show?

Victor Courtright: Well, we were back on ThunderCats at the time, and there was some idea about a potential Aquaman animation thing floating around. I came in with a bunch of drawings of this green haired Aquaman that we've all seen now, and they were curious, so they asked me to write up some concepts. Me and Marly sat down, and we wrote out a whole bunch of story ideas and brainstormed a whole bunch about what this thing could be. It just kind of organically brewed from there. Really, the thing that we're releasing now is so close to what we were originally talking about.

Marly Halpern-Graser: Yeah, and this was all in 2019, so we had these conversations in person and everything. If you can imagine.

Courtright: I can't.

I was going to ask about that. How much of this process was done pre-COVID, and how much of it was done after?

Halpern-Graser: We basically did all of the pitch and development of the concept pre-COVID. And then, I think, we got our green light and really started production for two weeks, before we had to all then work from home for the rest of the show.

Courtright: It was a shift.

The decision to tell Aquaman: King of Atlantis in a three-episode structure as opposed to shorter episodes is fascinating. I was curious how you came to that creative decision. 

Halpern-Graser: The three 45-minute specials was a format that we sort of came on to pretty early into development. Like Victor said, we came up with a lot of the stories and villains and characters we wanted to use first, before the format. But the format happened pretty fast. I think what's really cool about it is 45 minutes really is enough time to tell a full feature length amount of story, even though it's not feature length. You can really get a full arc in there. It was really cool to be able to do the full storytelling of basically three short movies, and be able to produce that in the two years that we had. I think we got to do so much more with the characters, and push them so much farther, than we could have with just one movie.

What was James Wan's involvement in the project? How did he help you guys stay in your own continuity, but also draw inspiration from the movies?

Halpern-Graser: James Wan and Atomic Monster and the whole team over there, their involvement was part of it. It's a big part of why we did this is, because we knew that they would be interested in producing an animation like this. And I think the relationship was really great.

What basically happened is, they saw and approved and gave feedback on every single part of every single thing that we did. Where they were the most useful — because we were using their movie as sort of a springboard — is they really helped us make sure that we had Aquaman's character right, and that we had his perspective right. Because they had spent so much time thinking about him before we even started this, and it was important for us that Aquaman be sort of the point-of-view character and be very relatable. He's from the surface world, he's now reacting to all these crazy, wacky things — we hope — the way the audience would. They were really helpful in keeping that grounded Aquaman character front and center.

Were there any particular influences that you took, outside of the comics, for crafting the series' world? Watching the episodes, the world is so fully realized and fascinating to look at, in terms of creature designs.

Courtright: Oh yeah. The visual style of this thing is from all over the place — old monster movies, old animation, our experience on ThunderCats. We worked with a lot of the same design team, and some of the board artists, and a lot of our crew from ThunderCats as well. We really just kind of pulled from all over the place, and that's one of the things I love about the Aquaman world is that so many different things can fit together. It was just such a good starting point, such a good inspiration for creating new things that feel fun and strange.

Halpern-Graser: This Aquaman project is pretty different than ThunderCats, but one of the things that Aquaman and ThunderCats have in common is they both have always had a mixture of magic and sci-fi, all in the same world. The Atlanteans have a lot of super science, but what Mera is doing is definitely magic, controlling water like that. There's always both things side by side in Aquaman, and that's really fun to play with.

Aquaman: King of Atlantis premieres Thursday, October 14th on HBO Max, with subsequent chapters debuting on Thursday, October 21st and Thursday, October 28th. Keep an eye on later this month for a spoiler-filled chat with Courtright and Halpern-Graser.