Graphic novels are an ever-expanding market for younger readers, but with few exceptions, classic superhero characters tend not to be featured on middle-grade shelves. This year, DC is diving head-first into the young adult and middle-grade markets with their DC Ink and DC Zoom imprints, respectively. The first wave of books just started hitting the stands this past week, kicked off by a new take on an iconic character fresh on everyone’s minds: Mera of Xebel, one of the stars of last December’s Aquaman film.
Written by New York Times-bestselling author Danielle Paige (Dorothy Must Die), Mera: Tidebreaker follows a rebellious young Mera’s attempts to avenge her fellow Xebellians by taking down the missing Prince Arthur once and for all. Featuring gorgeous art by Stephen Byrne, Tidebreaker is an exciting and engaging introduction to Mera for a new generation of comics readers, and Paste had the opportunity to speak with writer Danielle Paige about what it’s like bringing a new voice and perspective to a character with more than 50 years of history in the DC universe.
The interview has been lightly edited and condensed.
Paste Magazine: How did Tidebreaker come to be? How did you link up with DC and come to Mera as the central character for your graphic novel with DC?
Danielle Paige: Well, DC actually approached me back at BookCon a couple of years ago. I met Michelle Wells, who is like the goddess of this project, and she told me she wanted me to make a list of characters that I wanted to write for and my first… I knew about the movie, I knew about Aquaman and I wanted to start there, so I pitched Aquaman as the Little Mermaid actually. […] A Whole New World was the name of my pitch and it was Aquaman falling in love with a girl on land and having to choose between the land and the water.
And DC quickly informed me that actually Aquaman—he did not grow up under the sea, and that was the one thing I could not do. So they suggested Mera, and I didn’t know that much about her except that she was Aquaman’s great love. And the more I learned about her, the more I wanted to write about her, so we flipped the script and actually came up with a new angle which was when I learned that Mera and Aquaman’s colonies basically have a very antagonistic relationship. Xebel is the penal colony of Atlantis, so now Mera wants to kill Arthur, she’s not just coming to land to fall in love with him. When she meets him, she actually has to change her mind.
Paste: That’s such a big change from “Aquaman: The Little Mermaid” to “Mera, maybe a murderer but we’re not sure yet.”
Paige: Yes! If you read my other books you’ll see that’s not really a big change for me, because Dorothy Must Die is a big twist on that.
Paste: Speaking of Dorothy, this isn’t the first time you’ve had the opportunity to put your own twist on such a big established universe. What’s it like to come into something with so much history? Either with the Wizard of Oz or with a character like Mera… especially Mera, whose backstory can be a little convoluted, as is comics. What’s it like to come into it and get to put your own twist on it?
Paige: Well, my background actually was soap operas. My very first job was at Guiding Light, which isn’t there anymore, but it was. So for me writing about characters that have existed a really long time was what I did, and with really, really big backstories, so for me it was kind of like coming home in a way. But I love writing. I love the Wizard of Oz, but getting to pick up a character you watch your whole life and then give them a new story is so much fun.
But I have to say that when I did write Dorothy, when it actually came out, I did have that moment of like, Oh no, I made a character who was super beloved into someone who isn’t so lovely, so that was a bit of a hurdle. But I loved doing it.
Paste: It’s exciting. And I think it’s important, too, to get that fresh perspective on something, where you’ve only seen the same thing over and over again, it’s always interesting. Speaking of Guiding Light and your work as a screenwriter—working on your first graphic novel, did that feel like bridging the gap between being a prose novelist and being a screenwriter in a way?
Paige: It did. I mean I honestly, I think it’s probably the thing I’ve written the fastest in the last couple of years because it was just—I think I wrote it under a month—because it was just so much fun to come back to scriptwriting. And obviously the art process takes a really long time, but my part of it, I was so excited to write it, and I came up with a draft in a week and then we tweaked it, but it was really just super easy. It felt like coming home.
Paste: Did you get to collaborate with Stephen Byrne at all, during that process? What was it like to work with him on that?
Paige: It was kind of like having a long-distance love affair in a way, because we didn’t actually—he lives in Ireland, we didn’t meet until we had the ARC [advance reader copy]. We met at Comic Con in New York on the day we got to see the ARC, so we never saw each other [during the process].
We spoke through the editor mainly. I would send any notes I had, I would talk to my editor and then he would get my notes, and then I’d get art in the mail, in my email. There was… a little bit of separation but it was a great relationship in that I felt like he and I were just very—whatever I put on the page, he created something way more beautiful. And also, yeah, he’s just such a gorgeous artist.
Paste: As soon as I opened it, as soon as I started reading it, the colors he did, the way he emphasized Mera’s hair, it was so beautiful to read. I know it can be tough to do graphic novels, especially graphic novels that aren’t full color, but he just did such stellar work. And I imagine that must be such a weird process, like oh, I’ve sent you my script and then suddenly you’ve sent me back, like, the idea of my child. And then here it is! My whole child, in color, in my hands.
Paige: Yes! It was honestly like that. You’re super nervous about what you’re gonna get back. Honestly, when I saw the first art, I thought, This is just stunning. He really captured what I thought she would look like. My notes were just so, so minor. I have a big interest of fashion so I would draw, I sent pictures of things, I’d tear up pictures from Vogue, and like, “Can we do this dress?”
And I actually drew a dress, that’s in here—the last dress she’s wearing throughout the book. I did a drawing and he incorporated it which is really cool. And the only other big art contribution, big note from me, was that I wanted to make Arthur look like Jason Momoa, when he was young, so we looked at pictures of Jason Momoa from Baywatch and sent them to my editor.
Paste: I love that. To ask you about that last dress specifically in the end, the ones with the flowers that kind of come across, that’s so cute—is that the one that you drew?
Paste: I loved it!
Paige: Yeah, it was really fun.
Paste: Thinking more specifically about the story of Tidebreaker… in the initial scene with Pilan, Mera’s friend, and then, especially throughout the book, when Mera’s watching the protests, where you see the hats, and you see the sign, it feels like activism is a really important part of Tidebreaker, and of Mera’s story as a Xebellian. Is that something you knew at the outset you wanted to explore?
Paige: No, it wasn’t purposeful. Well, it was purposeful, but it wasn’t—I didn’t go in thinking I was going to do that. I actually wrote this party scene as an opening scene, where Mera sneaks out and she wants to go to a party, and then she protects her friend, but instead I was writing at the same time that Parkland was happening, and Charlottesville. And I was watching these teens stand up for themselves, and what was happening in the world, and I rewrote the beginning because I felt like… our real world has to be reflected in these books.
Paste: Right. And it feels like YA and middle grade has become such an important place to explore those stories, I mean obviously there’s Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give and Mark Oshiro’s Anger is A Gift. Do you feel like there’s a lot of space in graphic novels or in comics to explore that, that maybe hasn’t been touched on the way that it sort of has in the prose Young Adult sphere yet?
Paige: I mean I think so, and I’m sure that there are… I am so new to graphic novels, but I am learning about what other people are doing right now. I think there’s so much room, and what we did with Mera, it’s a shorthand for what’s happening in the world. But I think it’s so important for kids to see that they can have a voice, and whether it’s in a big way or a small way…we’re all part of this world, and kids are so invested in the future.
Paste: Right, and it seems like found family, both really literally with Arthur obviously and even with Mera in a sense, is also a big part. Getting a chance to explore her friendship with Pilan, and having Pilan there to back her up when she snuck out, and even her relationship with Hikara. Did you know that you wanted to explore that as well? It’s not just sort of that “fish out of water” tale, but exploring the idea that maybe your family isn’t always on your side, but there are people on your side, and those people are your family as well.
Paige: I absolutely love the idea of found families and I think that so many people have to—in my own life, I think my friends are my family. I think there’s so many stories, especially in YA, where you have a girl who’s kind of on her own, and they don’t necessarily have a support system, but in real life, you do have friends and you do have mentors, and you have other people that you can relate to so I didn’t want her to be a lone wolf in that way.
Paste: And you mentioned Mera as a young woman—one thing that stood out was that moment when Mera says, “I want you to see me as more than just a dress.” And then throughout the rest of the graphic novel, she spends a lot of time in dresses. I really like that idea of Mera saying, I want you to see me as more than a princess, but I’m not saying that because—that’s a part of who I am, that’s not all of who I am.
Paige: Right, and I think that I personally have a real love for fashion and I think it’s a way to express yourself, but I don’t think that’s how you define yourself. I think there should be room for both. It’s okay to dress up and look pretty and still be a badass and be seen for all the things, so that’s what I was hoping to do.
Paste: Do you have, any other projects coming up with DC, either with DC Ink or generally? Are there other dream projects you might have if you got to do more in this world?
Paige: I do have a couple of pitches at DC, but I don’t want to say them out loud in case they don’t get approved. But I honestly—I would love to write for Mera again, but there’s so many characters that I’m in love with in the DCU. Growing up I loved Lois Lane, I love Batman, I mean, I would write for anyone honestly. And I just read Mister Miracle, which I loved. There are so many exciting things within the universe, and I have a couple of ideas that are new that I hope might make it.
Paste: I will keep my fingers crossed. Mister Miracle—that was an intense read.
Paige: Yeah, I loved that one, it was so much fun.
Paste: So good! And coming back to Tidebreaker, there’s a moment at the end where you find out what happened to Mera’s mom and why Arthur hadn’t seen his mom again, which felt really like a fresh take on their relationship. What made you want to focus on Mera’s mom and Arthur’s mom as characters? That’s certainly not totally unusual for Aquaman, but it’s something you don’t see a lot. Usually you have a lost mom and you know, it’s the dad and he’s going through these struggles, and there aren’t really any other moms in the mix, and it’s often just like oh, there should be more moms here.
Paige: I am fascinated with mother-daughter relationship but I’m also fascinated by the idea of maternal societies. When you look at Atlantis, there’s this idea that Arthur’s mom was so powerful and so important, and I like the idea that in this undersea universe that women are very powerful and very important. So like, yeah, if she can be a warrior—she’s a warrior’s daughter on both sides, which I think is very cool.
Paste: The whole idea of Mera’s goal being, “I don’t want to have to choose between being a wife or a mother or a queen or a warrio,, I want you to give me the opportunity to do all of these things, I want to do all of them at the same time and I can do it, just give me the chance.”
Paige: Right, right. And I think that’s reflective of our society as well. And the more that we can show that to girls, and to boys, is important.
Paste: It is, especially to boys—that was something that really stood out to me with Arthur. The work that you do to sort of drive the point home that Arthur, we all know him as this really badass guy and generally a kind and good person, he wants to do his best, he wants to support Atlantis, and protect Amnesty Bay. When he messes up with Mera, and kind of not expecting those feelings, he has a moment where he’s like, You know what, yeah, the onus is on me to tell Mera and tell my girlfriend, I have to have that conversation. I can’t just hope that it will go away. And we don’t often get the chance to see these very thoughtful and emotive young men.
Paige: Oh, good. I’m glad that you liked him. I’m glad that you like that. I wanted him to be a truly good guy because it made it all the more complicated for Mera who has come here to take him out, and if he’s actually a good man it makes it all the more complicated for her.
Paste: Right. He’s a good guy, not just a quote-unquote “nice guy.”
Paige: Right. And I also, one of the things I do love about the comics is that, Arthur and Mera are like… a real match, because they’re both super powerful. If anything she’s more powerful, because she knows everything about the history and he’s coming into it much more blind. So I think that I love that, and even when you watch the movie, it’s that thing where, she’s the one who starts and kicks everything off and comes to get him. She’s the start of the story.
Paste: And it’s the trope of, moreso on Mera’s end in this case, the longstanding trope of enemies to lovers, where you’re—you still have elements of that kind of combative relationship with Arthur and Mera, but it’s not combative, they’re not fighting. But they’re both people who understand each other and love each other enough to say, “I’m gonna tell you when you’re wrong and we’re gonna have a conversation about that.”
Paige: Right. I think that they truly, truly are equal and they have enough love for each other that they can have those conversations and know that they’re still together, which I think is great.