Aqualad's coming-out story: How DC makes a splash with a gay YA graphic novel
Read an exclusive excerpt from You Brought Me the Ocean.
Author Alex Sanchez spent most of his teen years under water. As a gay kid from a Mexican immigrant family who relocated to Texas when he was 5, scuba diving was how he “coped with adolescence,” he tells EW. “I had always loved the ocean.” So does Jake, the central character in You Brought Me the Ocean, Sanchez’s upcoming YA graphic novel for DC Comics. It’s a common thread that came instinctively for the author for what is equal parts coming-out story and origin for this incarnation of Aqualad. Sanchez, who previously broke into LGBTQ YA writing with Rainbow Boys and So Hard to Say, says, “Writing for young people is remembering what it was like for me to be growing up."
Most fans waist deep in the DC lexicon commonly associate the title "Aqualad" with someone like Garth, the Atlantean sidekick to Aquaman who first appeared in comic-book form in the 1960s, or Kaldur’ahm, who filled the same role and became a popular mainstay of the Young Justice animated series. Jackson "Jake" Hyde, who first made a splash in comics in 2010, made a comeback in 2016's DC Universe: Rebirth #1 issue, which unearthed a secret about the character.
In one introductory comic panel, Jake is approached by his mother as he sits in his room, staring at a fish tank. "It's not natural what you are," she says. And, no, she's not talking about his ability to manipulate water with his mind. "He had a boyfriend, Kenny, and a girl best friend, Maria," Sanchez remembers of that comic book arc, "but in that case I wasn't sure of how much Maria knew he was out." You Brought Me the Ocean was his opportunity to create his own mythology for the superhero.
DC launched a series of novels and graphic novels aimed at the young-adult audience, including DC Icons books like Leigh Bardugo's Wonder Woman: Warbringer and standalone illustrated epics like Danielle Paige's Mera: Tidebreaker. After a "surprise email" from the publishing giant showed up in Sanchez's inbox asking for story pitches for Jake's origin, DC paired him with Julie Maroh, the acclaimed French illustrator behind Blue Is the Warmest Color, which became the 2013 film starring Léa Seydoux. "I’m also grateful for being the kind of person who checks their spam mail," Maroh writes to EW over email. Their first inquiry from DC editor Sara Miller about the graphic novel ended up there. "Check your spam, people — maybe Spielberg wrote to you!"
Neither creative focused too much on Jake's history in the comics when crafting this new tale. That wasn't the point. "They said, 'Don't spend a lot of time researching the characters and what they they've done in the past,'" Sanchez recalls. "'Just write your story and have the freedom to really tell this how you want to tell it.'" That's not to say there was no research. Sanchez threaded different pieces from various comics and tapped his own experience to flesh out this story.
In You Brought Me the Ocean, Jake is a textbook case of "fish out of water" living in Truth or Consequences, N.M., a town surrounded on all sides by desert. He hasn't been swimming since his father fatally drowned, yet water is all he seems to think about... that and Kenny Liu, the captain of his school's swim team and one of the only out gay classmates. Jake has a best friend, Maria, who secretly fosters romantic feelings towards him, but there's pressure to go to a local school with her instead of pursuing his passion to study marine life. Coming of age becomes even more stressful when a flash flood exposes him to new truths about himself: the markings on his skin begin to glow as he telekinetically commands the very water rushing towards him.
"That's part of what I'm so excited about with this book," Sanchez notes, "the metaphor between superheroes and LGBTQ people, that sense of having to live a double life and having a secret identity and how well that fits in with the superhero metaphor. When we can truly be who we are and be true to ourselves, then we open up and that's our superpower. Our superpower is being who we are and being true that."
It's not a coincidence that, visually, water and Kenny bring more color to Jake's world. "From a narrative point of view, I wanted to create a contrast between the environment where Jake grew up and with the entrance of water and love in his life, which are intertwined here," Maroh explains. "This is why you can notice the story getting bluer page after page."
Though his kid self wasn't so into superheroes in tights, Sanchez remembers a time when comics weren't so inclusive. He gravitated more to stories about Casper the Friendly Ghost and Wendy the Good Witch, which didn't have clear queer visibility but he saw himself in them anyway. "They were good, but everyone was freaked out about them because they thought they were monsters," he remembers. "Looking back on it, I wonder if part of the appeal of those comics to me was that sense of knowing I was queer and knowing that I was a good person. Why were other people scared of that?"
Maroh had a different experience. "It took me so long to understand and accept my queerness when I was a teenager that I never paid attention to representation in media and pop culture," they reflect. "Although, in high school I had started to create a fantasy comic book where the main character was transgender! But even then... I wasn’t aware at all of my trans-ness."
Comics have since evolved with the rest of the world. For DC, specifically, characters like Midnighter and Apollo, two gay heroes, featured in their own series; occult expert John Constantine maintained both male and female relationships across comics; and Kate Kane, the incarnation of Batwoman famously adapted as the CW series, is an out lesbian. Maroh says the chance to bring this kind of queer story to the DC label now "means that the world is getting better!"
"Not for an illusory idea of natural progress, of course," they add, "but because of all the political commentary happening worldwide. Comics are often mirrors of what occurs on a bigger scale. It’s thrilling to be part of it at this precise moment in history."
Sanchez sees superheroes as a new kind of celebrity for younger readers. "To have the character Aqualad not only identify as gay, but going through his own coming-out process, it's like a celebrity endorsement," he says.
You Brought Me the Ocean will be available in full starting Tuesday.
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