Nathan Wilson: An Interview with Geoff Johns Part One (of Two)

Posted by on February 7th, 2011 at 12:01 AM

It is hard to talk about contemporary superhero comics without discussing the contributions of New York Times best-selling author and Eisner Award nominated writer Geoff Johns. Currently, the Chief Creative Officer for DC Entertainment overseeing the television and film development of DC Comics’ stable of various commercial properties as well as the ongoing scribe on perennial fan-favorite titles such as Green Lantern and The Flash, Johns is also behind various mini- or maxi-series such as Infinite Crisis, 52, Blackest Night, and most recently, Brightest Day. Johns has also defied convention with his experience in film and television, developing scripts for Smallville, Robot Chicken and Titan Maximum, and supervising production on the 2011 Green Lantern film.

Moving beyond the usual fan queries regarding the varied Lantern spectra or when and if Wally West will return as the Flash, I had the opportunity to have a serious discussion with Johns about his craft, writing process and career in comics.

— Nathan Wilson

NATHAN WILSON: What is your approach to comic-script writing and does it vary depending on the artist involved, say between Francis Manapul, Gary Frank, Doug Mahnke, or others?

GEOFF JOHNS: It always, always varies on the artist involved. I’m very collaborative with my artists and with Gary Frank or Francis Manapul they all have unique styles and they all have great ways to tell stories and how they’re best at telling stories, and what they excel at and what they enjoy, and the issue turns out as the best of their output.

So, every script or every story I work on, I find the core of what the story is really about underneath it all and I go from there. But the way I approach scripts, it has to be about who I’m working with. I need to know who that artist is and I think for me the real collaboration started when I first got into comics with Scott Kolins way back when. We used to talk incessantly about the Flash and storytelling and Keystone City. And the more I think that you’re in touch with your partner, your artistic partner on this, the better the final product is because they know the subtleties of what you’re going for. I remember the first time I ever described Keystone City to Scott, it was like three pages long because I was like it’s an industrial city and it’s blue-collar and the factories are wedged in between apartment buildings and it went on and on, and we had a lot of discussions about it. But once you understand what Keystone City is supposed to be and the way the people behave and everything else, then you can start to have a shorthand with him. So it definitely depends on who the artist is and every script is individually tailored to the artist I’m working with.

WILSON: Do you find that you keep up an ongoing communication with the artists or do you just work through your editor?

JOHNS: Yeah, I talk with my artist. I mean I work with my editors, who are great too. I work mostly with Eddie Berganza and Adam Schlagman at DC, but no, I’m constantly talking to them and with the artist. With Francis, because he is so expressive and he has such a clean style, it calls for a clean writing style, so that less is more in that case. So I don’t want to do narration when I work with Francis. I want him to be nice and open and just let the story flow, and don’t have captions interrupt the story. I only want to do dialogue, action and heart with that book [The Flash].

It’s the same with Gary Frank that there’s little narration. I don’t know if I’ve done any with Gary Frank because again it’s the way his art is that narration for me just doesn’t feel right. But in the case of Doug Mahnke or Ivan Reis it can work at points, but it all depends on who I am working with. With Scott Kolins it definitely works too because he’s more of a dense artist, he does more panels on the page and his storytelling style breaks down into more panels and it calls for that type of storytelling.

WILSON: Do you happen to use the script or the plot style writing?

JOHNS: Full script because I think those lines that are really important, those facial reactions I think you need to have. And even in action, action should be, a location should be purposely chosen. It shouldn’t just be a parking lot to be a parking lot. You know what I mean?

WILSON: [Laughs.]

JOHNS: Yeah, because when you go into plot style I think sometimes you can lose a lot unless you’re talking to your artist non-stop. I think there’s a lot to be lost in translation.

Scripts courtesy of the Comic Book Script Archive; pages from the finished Teen Titans #34 drawn by Tony Daniel, Kevin Conrad, and Art Thibert

WILSON: Where did you learn about comic-script writing, specifically the pacing, arrangement, and story development? Was it self-taught or did you learn from someone else?

JOHNS: I studied film at Michigan State University and screenwriting classes, writing classes, and stuff like that. From there, working with Richard Donner when I got out of college, I talked with him a lot about storytelling because every time we’d have a story meeting, I’d be in there and talk just about story and story structure, momentum and character and everything. He was so inclusive with me that for me it was like grad school. I used to write scripts and he’d read them, and mostly screenplays. So I learned a lot from him.

I look at him and a screenwriter named Brian Helgeland who did L.A. Confidential and a bunch of other movies. But he was working on Conspiracy Theory at the time (1997) and I got to know him really well and we’d talk a lot about story. And, James Robinson, when I first met him, gave me a lot key advice, real simple, common-sense advice on the format of comics (because I’d been used to writing screenplays), on things to think about when writing comics and what that means [in practice]. And then I read a bunch of comics and took everything from everywhere and applied it to what I was doing.

WILSON: Was it very difficult to go from screenwriting style to scripting comics?

JOHNS: It slowed you down, because you have to direct it while you write it, because you’re calling out the shots in the panels. There’s a great book. I always tell artists and writers they should read this book for comics even though it’s a film book. It’s called Shot by Shot and I think it’s a brilliant, very simple straightforward storytelling book about stage lines, shot choices, and everything else, but I think it’s the best non-comic-book-writing comic-book-writing book.

WILSON: I didn’t know the styles were that close together between film writing and comic scripting.

JOHNS: They’re pretty tight because they’re both visual and they both tell stories in frames. You just have less frames to do it in a comic book so you have to be a little more judicious.

WILSON: Since you took writing classes at MSU, did your passion for writing develop then or had you pursued creative writing beforehand? Were you into writing fiction and shorter stories as a child or teenager?

JOHNS: I always loved drawing and writing, and I would always draw little characters and create stories for them. I always liked illustration and writing, and when I went to school, when I got into high school, I got more into writing and film and television. In college I was really involved with the film club at MSU. It was the same film club that Sam Raimi founded and I was president of that for two years. I really enjoyed that and shot some movies on 16mm. We had a Fischer dolly and the whole nine yards, and it was really great. I always loved storytelling. But I still like drawing too.

WILSON: Do you still draw and do you include thumbnails with your scripts for artists?

JOHNS: I do thumbnails when I write my scripts, but I never send them off. It’s just for me really to get a visual sense of how the pages are going to lay out. I make these grids that are divided into six sections that essentially represent six pages and I take a stack of them and staple them together, and it then represents one comic book. From there, I draw it out, very bare bones, just to see what it’ll look like visually flipping through it because you want it to vary anyway. You know, where is it going to open up because there’s a big moment? So I illustrate that way.

I do some design work. I designed Pied Piper’s current costume. I’ve done some other design work here and there. I leave the illustration to the professionals. I just like doing it for fun.

WILSON: Speaking of professionals, was there a moment when you recognized your own strengths or comforts at being a writer?

JOHNS: [Deep exhale.]

WILSON: That’s not good [laughs].

JOHNS: [Laughs.] No, I always look at challenges. For me, for a long time, first issues were a challenge. I really wanted to figure out how do you write a great first issue, like a really compelling, fun, character-driven first issue that was its own story but set the stage for world-building. I love building worlds. I love Green Lantern because it’s a world that I want to immerse everybody in. Same with The Flash, Justice Society, whatever the book is. So I want the first issue not only to be a story but also to be a doorway into this world. And I think when I wrote Justice Society of America #1 and Booster Gold #1, and The Flash #1 I was really happy with them, and I felt like the first issues were starting to feel a little bit comfortable. But I always like to try to do new things. With JSA, I did that “coming up next this year in JSA” and that was the first time somebody had done that, and subsequently a lot of people have done that in a lot different books. Kind of trailer moments. I like exploring that.

The conclusion to the Sinestro Corps is still my favorite comic, Green Lantern #25, of any comic I’ve written because not only for me was it a satisfying conclusion to write, both from a story point but also emotionally with Hal Jordan and Coast City coming to life, and introducing the concept of the other corps full on that I had been hinting at, and teasing up Blackest Night and moving forward, and adding new things to something that’s been around for a long time. I was really happy with that.

But you’re always trying to, I mean I think everyone looks at what they’ve done and what they’re going to do, and you try to improve on it and see where your strengths and weaknesses are. I think it’s an ongoing process. Every time a comic book comes out, you look at it and you go, “Well, maybe I want to tweak this or should I have done this or this differently.” Or, if a project comes out that doesn’t seem to resonate as much as you’d hoped it did, you look at it and say, “What did I do wrong?” or “What could I do better?” Or, sometimes something comes out that did really well and you question, “What did I do well, what did I do right?”

WILSON: Are there key moments then, in looking back at the past couple of years, where you see either an evolution in your style or your own growth as a writer?

JOHNS: Green Lantern Rebirth was a big step for me, yeah, because I felt very comfortable with that story but also because I sat down and spent a lot of time with it before I even started writing it. I spent a lot of time asking what was Green Lantern to me, what was it going to be about beyond just a guy with a power ring. I felt like Green Lantern had to be more than just a guy with a power ring or part of the intergalactic corps. Overcoming fear was going to be central because I love exploring emotion, but fear in particular is something that we’ve been exploring since 2004 when Rebirth came out, and fear is such a prevalent force in society today and yesterday, and it will be tomorrow because you can’t put it in a glass, you can’t fill a room full of fear, because it doesn’t exist but it does. It keeps holding us back from following our dreams. It holds us back from getting close to people. It holds us back from getting to know people including the person next door or even the country next door. And fear is at the root of violence. Fear is a very real force and everyone has personal fears and they’re all different whether they’re macro or micro. But we all have fears we have to deal with.

So once I got to the core of that and really said, “OK, everything is going to be about this guy who is built to overcome fear.” There’s a line in Rebirth where Hal Jordan says “when I was ten years old, I saw my father’s plane crash,” and it resonated with me because my sister died in a plane crash. But when he sees his father die in a plane crash, it’s the worst. What happens when your greatest fear happens, what happens then? Well, then you can handle anything; you can cope. It’s part of life too that you learn how to cope and how to overcome your fears as you learn how to deal with life. On this superhero level, he learned how to overcome fear because he was forced to; he didn’t want to, but he was forced to. So then he became this pilot who was reckless and does it to overcompensate, to show everyone he is not afraid because he is still going to fly, he wants to fly. And, with Rebirth being all about this guy who came into fear and then breaks out of it was really inspiring to me. It’s the book that I’m most proud of maybe. That was a turning point for me.

WILSON: Would you say then that focusing so closely on fear, were you making a concerted effort to contextualize what was going on in the larger society at the time as people look back on the last 10 years and there’s anxiety and fear in American culture because of what has been transpiring domestically and abroad? Would you say that it affected you, that here’s fear as a viable thematic concept?

JOHNS: Absolutely. I mean look at American society in the 1940s. There was World War II but then in the 1950s everything got really nice and kind of everyone sees the 1950s as a quaint, suburban soda shop society because everybody experienced that fear in the 40s. But then you had a whole generation growing up in the 1950s who didn’t experience the fear in the 40s and they rebelled in the 60s, so it’s almost a cycle. Sure. Rebirth came out in 2004 and I’d begun working on it in 2002 and that was at the height of anthrax being sent around to news reporters and it was crazy. So, I’m sure, absolutely, that it was influential. I think also that you have a generation now that’s grown up with that anxiety, but soon we’ll get to a generation and it’ll be interesting to see what they gravitate towards or what the next decade or two is like when you have that generation that grew up not remembering 9/11. What’s that going to be like?

WILSON: That’s a good point.

JOHNS: Yeah, what are they going to rebel against, because they didn’t have that fear and anxiety that threw society upside down?

WILSON: With Rebirth being as you said a “turning point,” were there experiments then that didn’t pan out or turn out as you’d expected for better or worse?

JOHNS: Oh, absolutely. Some of it was due to having to work with a lot of other people, so you had to make some concessions. It happens when you work in a shared publishing universe. But I always have to take the responsibility for everything. Certainly there are projects for everybody that are a miss or something that didn’t turn out as well as you’d hoped. I think on every one of those, there’s one in particular that I’ve gone back, and the ending for me just didn’t work. It worked on some levels, but not on a lot of levels, so I went back and I asked why. “How could I make that choice, how could I make a different choice, how could I make my ending stronger, how can I make better superhero comics?” I think they are a lot of fun, but they are still a challenge to do. There are so many that have been done and they have to be about more than being just Batman #605. What’s the story really about? So, absolutely there’s stuff that’s happened and still happens, but you go back through and you want to learn from it. You have to look at it as a positive. It’s just like you’ve got to overcome your fears, you cannot be afraid to tackle the next project.

I remember when Mike McKone and I did Teen Titans, and people told Mike, who told me, that “we’re crazy for doing Teen Titans. It’ll never work” [laughs]. People told me the same thing, that “it will be a failure,” or asked, “Why, when they’ve tried to reboot three or four times?” My answer was because “I have a good idea, I’m excited about it, I think Mike and I are going to be a good team for it,” and I think the book did very well. I was really proud of the stuff Mike and I did. But same thing with The Flash, people asked me “Why do you want to do a run on Flash. Mark Waid just did a run.” I gave the same answer, that “I think I have some good ideas.” I don’t want to let fear stop me because you really can achieve it if you believe in it.

I wouldn’t want to sit there and list the books [laughs] that I’m not happy with, because I’m happy with most of them on some level. But there’s always stuff that you look at and it didn’t work and you want to see how to get better. You have to. If you don’t do that, you’re not growing or evolving. You’ve got to be honest with yourself and, even if they’re a piece of it, you can’t blame an artist, an editor, your landlord. You can’t blame anybody but yourself when a book doesn’t work. And if a book doesn’t work you’ve got to look at it, put it on your own shoulders, and say, “This is my fault, but why didn’t it work?”

WILSON: I received a similar answer from Grant Morrison who used the phrase “I liked them all, even the ugly step-children.”

JOHNS: [Laughs.] Yeah, that’s exactly right! There is no comic that I’ve taken off my shelf that I’ve worked on. I like all of them. All of them represent something to me and all of them were a great challenge and a great joy to write.

Tomorrow: Johns talks about writing and discipline.

All images ©DC Comics

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3 Responses to “Nathan Wilson: An Interview with Geoff Johns Part One (of Two)”

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