Nathan Wilson: An Interview with Geoff Johns Part 2

Posted by on February 8th, 2011 at 12:01 AM

Previously: Part 1.

WILSON: With all this work — I know a lot of writers produce when inspired, when there’s an impending deadline, or simply by a schedule. Can you tell me a little bit about your process? Do you feel that you’re more disciplined now at this stage in your career?

JOHNS: No, I’ve always been disciplined. It’s why I can turn out a lot of comics. I think I’ve been writing three or four books since I started and the reason I do that is because even before I got the job working in-house at DC that I’m doing now, I had an office that I would go to at 9 a.m. every day Monday through Friday, and leave around 7 p.m. And I just had a schedule, and I did it because I liked it a lot, but also, it was my job. I really enjoyed it. I work at home a lot and on the weekends too, but I did go into this office every Monday through Friday without fail. I liked the structure. Especially if I want to come in this week and write an issue of The Flash. That’s a very fortunate thing for somebody who loves this world to be able to say.

WILSON: What’s a typical writing day for you now?

JOHNS: It all depends. It might start at 6 a.m. I might write for three or four hours in the morning, might write at night. I write on the weekends like a regular workday. It depends.

WILSON: You don’t set up or establish a quota of “I must complete x number of pages a day”?

JOHNS: No, it’s more by week now just because there’s so much going on. Working on other things.

WILSON: With such a high monthly creative output then, do you ever fear that the work suffers because of the amount of books and projects you deal with? How do you combat that fear?

JOHNS: Well, I used to do three or four monthly books, but I’ve scaled back. Now, I’m doing two monthlies and a mini-series, so one is a finite project. But no, as long as I’m feeling good and I never rush through writing. It takes what it takes. As long as I have the stories and I’m enjoying them, then I’ll keep doing it.

WILSON: It’s obvious that you love comics and are a big proponent of the comics industry, but do you ever have trouble divorcing or separating Geoff Johns the writer from Geoff Johns the reader?

JOHNS: You mean when I read comics?

WILSON: Yeah.

JOHNS: Yeah, sometimes. That’s probably why I read by writer mostly, especially in the superhero world. Sometimes it is by character, but mostly by writer in the superhero world. But that’s why I really love reading 100 Bullets and Sweet Tooth and Grant’s Batman and there’s a lot of books I love reading that I can kind of divorce myself a little bit as a writer and just enjoy as a reading experience. But, no reading a superhero book, can sometimes be difficult because you love the character so much that you see potential in them that maybe you think could be realized a different way. There are a lot of books out there I really enjoy right now. And I guess I can separate myself most of the time.

WILSON: When you look at a page is your enjoyment hindered or improved because you know the craft behind it.

JOHNS: Whenever I see a page with an explosion, I always sort of cringe.

WILSON: [Laughs.]

JOHNS: Yeah, because nobody wants to draw that, nobody wants to read that, it’s a waste of a storytelling page. You have your pet peeves, but overall, I can divorce myself pretty well. I think there are a great number of books out there right now from all the publishers on all sorts of fronts. It’s really fun to read them. I really enjoy Pete Tomasi’s Green Lantern: Emerald Warriors right now because I think it’s a great book and Fernando (Pasarin) is doing a wonderful job on it. I read comics every week still.

WILSON: Speaking of craft, I know that some writers converse with others about storytelling, but for you personally, do you have a community of writers that you share ideas and story concepts with, or bounce script ideas off of, or is it all a closely guarded secret?

JOHNS: It’s not just writers, it’s also editors. I talk to Grant a lot because I think that Grant is my favorite writer in comics. I think that Grant also has a really, really smart perspective on superheroes and we talk a lot about superheroes and myth and trends and new things to do. We come at it from different viewpoints, which I think is really exciting, but I just find him awesome to talk to. I love talking to Peter Tomasi because he was my editor on Green Lantern and Justice Society, and now he is writing full time. Talk to him a lot about craft too. And because I talk to him about craft, we actually kind of came up together, because I worked with him almost the exact day I got into the business on JSA, and then he brought me in on Green Lantern and Pete really helped me grow a lot as a writer. I owe him a lot. I talk to a ton of writers. (Brian) Azzarello and I just had the best conversation in New York about writing and it’s just fun to get everyone’s perspectives and challenges. And there are challenges to be a writer and developing the craft and evolving yourself to different levels, but a lot of that can come with talking about it with different writers.

Editors are important too though. Like Eddie Berganza and Adam Schlagman I talk to all the time and they edit every book I write, even Batman Earth One. And we get along tremendously creatively, and to just bounce ideas off of them, to talk about stories, they’re really valuable as well.

WILSON: In approaching these other writers or taking inspiration from them, when you read works by Peter or Grant, are there things that you look for specifically that you try to bring into your own work?

JOHNS: Not as much, not exactly. It is more like — and Pete and I have done this a lot on Brightest Day, even on Green Lantern and Green Lantern Emerald Warriors — Pete will call me up or I’ll read a great script from Pete, and I’ll be like, “Awww,” and I’ll call him up and say, “I’ve got to up my game man!” It’s more of an inspiring thing, like “Wow, look how good this stuff is. My stuff has to be great too.” I love what Grant is doing with Batman conceptually and I watch that happen and I think, “That’s so cool and inspiring that I need to make sure that I’m being everything I can be with Green Lantern.” And I love that book, I love working in that mythology, so how can I continue to let it grow and breathe and connect with people? Because it’s all about connecting with people.

WILSON: Would you say then that you draw more inspiration for your writing from other comics, fiction, film or television, or is it a blend?

JOHNS: A lot from life before anything else really. Most of the Green Lantern stuff that I’m currently working on is about my life experiences, even though it’s wrapped up in a superhero package. Everything, you know. You’re bombarded by so many different things that you’re influenced by. At the core though, all those things have something in common. You talk about film, TV, comics, fiction and even nonfiction, everything at its core has an emotional resonance and a story that connects with people on an emotional level, so really that’s all that stuff is. And comic books, especially superheroes best use is as metaphors and representative of things we have to deal with.

WILSON: Until recently there wasn’t a lot of crossover in your books thematically. Can you tell me how you manage and oversee your regular monthly books now that there is a Brightest Day thematic bridge, if you will, linking them together?

JOHNS: Well, it’s not that, but just part of a story. Each one of my books has a mission statement. Underneath everything, what is it really about? What is the story you are telling? What is the story about? It’s about learning to accept life despite its flaws and learning to embrace it, which is what Brightest Day is about underneath everything. You top that off with all the great superhero stuff. Every book has that core that I start from and every story has to revolve around that. Someone else says, “I reject that” [acceptance of life’s flaws] and that’s a story. Another story is: “I will as soon as I find someone to share it with, as soon as I can get beyond my loss of this.” I guess, thematically, that’s how it works for me. The Brightest Day story is about giving Everyone that’s involved a character and letting them tell their stories.


WILSON: Do you find then that you have to wear different hats or assume different personas as a writer with all of these different characters between books?

JOHNS: Yeah, but Brightest Day to me is a different type of book. Much like 52, it’s like working with another writer but you’re still working with characters. I mean I’m still working with the characters individually in that book. I’m not writing a team book and haven’t done it in a while. Writing JSA or Teen Titans was a different experience because the spotlight is always moving around.

WILSON: Speaking of 52 and Brightest Day, weeklies let alone co-authored books have difficulties for various reasons, but with so many different ideas and personalities, what did you learn from these collaborations about writing that you may not have known or realized beforehand?

JOHNS: 52 was a great learning experience because I got to work with writers I like and it taught you “Hey, I’m working on the Booster Gold story and I need seven pages” only to learn you have five. So you rethink that and learn how to tell more story with less pages and it’s very interesting. You learn what is important. You throw out that piece because it’s not integral to the story. So, 52 was, along with Green Lantern Rebirth, a big turning point for me as a writer. 52 was a turning point because I remember coming out of 52 and working on Justice Society of America #1 and being very, very happy with that script. It was 40 pages and took me forever to write, like three weeks to write it. But I really enjoyed it. It introduced a ton of characters but it was very succinct as a script for me. A lot of that goes to 52 in learning how to get to the point and make sure everything you’re doing is to serve the character and the story. You don’t just have a double-page spread, you don’t just have a scene to have a scene. It all has to matter.

WILSON: When looking at the all the different characters you’ve written in your career and there have been quite a few, probably the most iconic and recognizable here and abroad is Superman. Can you tell me how your approach in Secret Origin was different from your earlier experiences with the character?

JOHNS: Do you mean with my Brainiac arc?

WILSON: Yes, but as a reader yourself. For people like me born in the 1970s, I would contend Superman was a very powerful figure. Since he was so culturally iconic, did you want to try something completely different with Secret Origin or emphasize and synthesize everything you loved about the character into a new narrative?

JOHNS: The biggest thing I wanted to do with Superman was to introduce skepticism when he showed up. In order to do that, he’s on this path. In that first issue, he finds out that he has been sent by this rocket and he runs across the field and Jonathon chases after him and says, “Why’d you have to show me that dad, why’d you have to tell me that?  I don’t want to be that, I want to be your son.” And Jonathon hugs him and there’s a great splash page that Gary drew, and Jonathon says, “You are my son.” For me that encapsulates everything about Superman. He wants to be one of us so badly, so I wanted to show that he’s a really good kid and he’s just a good person. So he comes to Metropolis and the Daily Planet is down on its luck and they’re jaded there, and Luthor is feeding on the city as a parasite, and there’s a cynical side to Metropolis that I wanted him to come into and be the guy who says, “Everyone is looking for a savior.” In the end, Superman flies up and everyone says, “Hey, what do you want us to do, what should we do? Tell us.” And Superman basically says, “I want you to do what you can,” and it’s so common sense. And I guess for me it’s what Superman represents that at our base level everyone wants to be good. So I wanted to explore his effect, not just his own personal journey at finding his place and being comfortable at being Clark Kent and as Superman in Metropolis, but also in getting back to his more innocent side when he first shows up, asking, “Why can’t people be nicer to each other?”


WILSON: What would you say then as there seems to be more of a disconnect today between Superman and the larger society in terms of popularity than maybe even 15 years ago. Do you think he still holds that same value or relevance for society today?

JOHNS: I think he can. Absolutely. I think he does. I think he’s one of the greatest characters to work with. I had a great time writing him because you always know what he’s going to do or what he’s going to try and do at least. You see that “S” shield everywhere. I mean the comic sales go up, they go down, but the Superman icon, the logo is everywhere and has never gone away. It’s probably more recognizable than any other logo across the world. And it means something to them. It means morality and strength, and truth and justice, I do think Superman still does resonate. He just needs more exposure across the board.

WILSON: You’ve dealt with not only Superman, but nearly every superhero at DC and even a few at Marvel, and you have this new Batman Earth One as an original graphic novel. Batman is still obviously a company figure or company toy. Apart from your 2003 Possessed, do you have any plans or any desires to produce an original story or book either within or beyond the superhero genre that’s not based on company-owned characters?

JOHNS: Yeah.

WILSON: OK.

JOHNS: [Laughs.] I do. Yeah, I’ve got a stack of stuff, but there’s one in particular that I’ll be getting to.

WILSON: OK. Can I ask at least if it will be within the superhero genre?

JOHNS: I don’t want to get into it yet, but it’ll be a genre but not spandex.

WILSON: Well, even with the superhero genre, you’ve managed to avoid pitfalls that many writers seem to have when they come onto a new series. They either abandon everything that came before, they ignore aspects of character history or continuity that do not fit into their vision, they wax nostalgic for the stories they read as children, or, rarely, they find a harmonic blend that honors the old without being pastiche with innovation triumphing over mere imitation. I would place your work in this last category along with Morrison and a few others, but is this an accurate portrait of the superhero genre in your opinion and has it affected your approaches to books such as Green Lantern, The Flash or even Superman Secret Origin?

JOHNS: I don’t know. My approach, like Grant, which is maybe why we get along so well on this, but I don’t want to throw stuff out and I do want to introduce new stuff. When I get on a book, that’s the two things I always want to do. I like the option of having all these toys on the shelf to play with in a story, but you have to add new to it. You have got to have your own personal take, you have to add new characters, otherwise, don’t get on the book. And new isn’t simply plugging in a new character, like a new villain to throw in a new villain. New is you need to either reinterpret a character and introduce a new take, a new scope on it, something new to it. The most successful runs in comic-book history, you see that. Look at Frank Miller’s Daredevil. A defining run for that character. Same with Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing. People came onto books with characters that were established already but they added something brand new. They looked at them through a completely different lens. I think the danger of throwing everything out is you start to split your audience up. I’m all about being inclusive and new.

WILSON: Moving away from storytelling for a bit, what would you say owning your own comic shop has taught you about the industry that you didn’t know and what in this experience has affected you the most in terms of your positions as both a writer and an entertainment executive?

JOHNS: I bought it because I love comic books and I love comic-book stores. Anyone who reads comics can relate to this. If you’re on a subway and you look over and somebody is reading a comic book and they glance at you, you have an instant connection, right? Because you know that you both read comics and it doesn’t matter what they’re reading.  They could be reading something that you don’t read or something that you love or whatever, but you instantly have a connection. You read comics and there’s a camaraderie that happens instantly. And to have a store like that where people come in and debate and some are heated, some are passionate about it, that’s the experience I always loved. I love comics and I want them to thrive, so I wanted to open a shop to learn more about the retailing business so I could see the business side to educate myself as to what people like, what they’re worried about, price points. That was a huge issue in my shop and it’s helped inform me on different levels, both as a creator and as a part of DC on things that we should be thinking about as writers and as publishers.

WILSON: With such an avid love of comics and putting so much of yourself and your time into producing them, what is the most important thing you would like readers to take away from your body of work?

JOHNS: Well, I hope a positive message. I think superheroes are positive and have positive messages. I’ve never thought about it in that way, but people are going to take what they’re going to take; I hope it’s something they can apply to their life. You meet a lot of people who are inspired by heroes to be better people or to live a certain way. I hope they love the heroes. I do it because I loved Captain Cold. Great character, but crazy, so why do I love him? He’s this blue-collar, down-and-out super-thug, but he has a weird moral code and he has a heart deep down in there despite the cold exterior. He has a heart that is beating and I explored that in an issue with Scott Kolins in The Flash #182, which is one of my favorite issues I’ve ever written. Scott did a great job on it and I got to explore Captain Cold.  People are always asking Scott at conventions for sketches of Captain Cold, and I still get to work with the character and I think he resonates for people. I hope they take away a growing love and appreciation for these characters and what they represent, but what they take away is going to be up to the audience.

WILSON: What has been the most constructive and valid praise as well as criticism you’ve received as a writer?

JOHNS: We get that every day, so I would be hard-pressed to pinpoint.

WILSON: Well, either in a personal or professional setting?

JOHNS: In a professional setting, it would be the acknowledgement of passion. That’s a positive thing. I think if you want to tackle this stuff it’s not a job; it’s a passion. This is a passion business. I think everybody involved in comics does it, because they love it and they should. And for criticism? Everyone has stuff they need to work on. I don’t know if I can give specifics. There are always things you need to work on and to look at.

WILSON: OK. In reflecting back on your career thus far, where do you feel you still need to go as a writer? How do you challenge yourself to be better and to improve?

JOHNS: I want my craft to grow, I want to do new stuff. One of my favorite things is introducing characters who have been around a long time to people who haven’t given them a chance but suddenly find themselves thrown into them. That’s always fun.

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2 Responses to “Nathan Wilson: An Interview with Geoff Johns Part 2”

  1. [...] is the link to Part 2 of my interview with Geoff Johns at The Comics [...]

  2. [...] the badlands of TCJ.com to read a two part Geoff Johns interview with Nathan Wilson. Part One and Part Two. He says a lot of things I thought were pretty interesting, whether in terms of how he approaches [...]