For fans of the modern DC Universe, Geoff Johns stands as nothing less than a titan. Besides serving as DC’s Chief Creative Officer, Johns has gained a reputation as one of the company’s most masterful writers. Hailing from the suburbs of Detroit, Michigan, Johns initially found work in the film industry as a production assistant to the original 1978 Superman director Richard Donner. His connections (and a pitch for what would become Stars and S.T.R.I.P.E.) quickly allowed him to transition into the world of comics. Starting with acclaimed runs on such titles as JSA and The Flash, Johns took the DC Universe by storm, instigating major changes (the dramatic death of Blue Beetle Ted Kord in Countdown to Infinite Crisis) as well as helping to resurrect old, familiar faces, including fan favorites Hal Jordan in Green Lantern: Rebirth and Silver Age Flash Barry Allen in The Flash: Rebirth.
The current scribe behind numerous books in the DC roster, including Justice League, Justice League of America, and Aquaman, Johns wraps up one of the definitive runs of his career today with issue #20 of Green Lantern.
Beginning his tenure with Green Lantern: Rebirth in 2004, Johns not only pumped up the mythology of the Lantern universe with the concept of differently-colored power rings, but also transformed the series into one of DC’s most popular titles through such acclaimed events as the Sinestro Corps War and Blackest Night.
Johns’ current (and final) story arc, Wrath of the First Lantern, finds Hal Jordan and his arch-nemesis Sinestro trapped in an otherworldly area known as the Dead Zone. Meanwhile in the world of the living, Volthoom, a malevolent being who served as the First Lantern, threatens the universe. In the following chat with Paste, Johns discusses concluding his beloved Green Lantern run, his affinity toward underdog characters, and the upcoming, highly-anticipated Trinity Wars event series.
Paste: We’re coming up on your final issue of Green Lantern [Ed. – Green Lantern #20 releases today]. How are you processing that so far? Has it been emotional?
Johns: I think I was more emotional when I talked to Doug Mahnke — we’ve been working together for so long — about ending the run and why the story made sense. The most emotional process was writing it, especially the last ten pages. The last ten pages are absolutely beautiful. I have the book in my hands now. It turned out really nicely and there’s some nice stuff in it looking back at Green Lantern, which is cool. It feels good though. I’m proud of the final issue. I’m proud of the work we did and I’m excited for what we did to be built on by the next crew. Just like we came in and built off a foundation, I think the next crew will too.
Paste: What made you decide it was time to wrap up your run?
Johns: It happened organically. To be honest, I’ve never thought of ‘where would I end this book?’ because I enjoy writing these characters. You can do so many different stories with them. But it’s always been about Hal and Sinestro, and this story in particular was focused on specifically what Hal and Sinestro go through emotionally and, ultimately, where they end up. It just felt like, ‘this is it, this is my last story,’ because it encapsulates everything we’ve done since Green Lantern: Rebirth and it just made sense. It’s an exclamation point on the end of the larger story of Hal Jordan’s journey of self-awareness and return through Green Lantern: Rebirth all the way to Wrath of the First Lantern.
Obviously, my run’s been about emotion, and tangible emotion, and emotion personified by characters and threats, with a lack of emotion personified by Nekron [in Blackest Night}. It just made sense for me that (Hal Jordan would go) up against this entity called The First Lantern that was literally empowered by the Guardian’s discarded emotions; the emotions they shed long ago because they thought emotions would be a distraction and a danger to their roles as protectors of the universe. In their eyes, law needed no emotion. They shed those emotions, but it also made them forget why they were doing it, and they’ve kind of been running on autopilot. They’ve made mistakes. I think the Guardians always forget why they do it and those emotions, those ancient emotions, literally come back and threaten to undo the universe and undo everything that they’ve built. Having Hal Jordan once again face that and Sinestro on the side, organically, the story felt like the right time to go. The book is still doing really well; Green Lantern is one of the top-selling solo characters in comics. We’ve had a nice run — let’s call it a day and end on a high note.
Paste: The amount you’ve added to the DC world has been staggering, with the introduction of the emotional electromagnetic spectrum in Green Lantern or Hunter Zolomon (Zoom) in The Flash. In the case of Lantern, you’re dealing with this complex mythology while also writing several other books at the same time. How do you keep all those plotlines and all those worlds in your head without going insane?
Johns: What’s your favorite thing to do, Mark? What’s your passion? Are you a sports guy? Do you read books? Are you a film guy?
Paste: Movies and comics, yeah.
Johns: So you probably absorb a lot of knowledge — you probably remember things that no one else does. If you really love something, you just kind of fall into it. For comics, I love these characters. Particularly, I’ve always been attracted to the DC Universe, so juggling these characters is something I’ve done since I’ve written comics. When I’m working on each story, as long as I have an idea of who [the characters] are, why they do it, and what the world is, than juggling them isn’t something I struggle with as much as I do deadlines.
Paste: One of the things I’ve always admired about you as a writer is your ability to orchestrate these big event series from Infinite Crisis to the Sinestro Corps War to Blackest Night. In your opinion, what’s the key to creating a great comic event and what separates the good events from the poorer ones?
Johns: Well, the event has to be about something other than superheroes getting together and fighting a bad guy. There has to be some kind of emotional core to the story; it’s got to be saying something more than just, ‘hey, it’s going to be superheroes fighting a monster that’s going to destroy the universe.’
I’ve always tried to maintain a very specific through-line, whether it’s focused on Hal Jordan or Superboy or Sinestro or The Flash. I think the key to an event is to have the scale and the scope, but have that main emotional through-line — know what your focus is and who your main character is. For me, I always like to play with characters that are not in the spotlight. Like, let’s move Mera into the spotlight in Blackest Night. Before Blackest Night, when Mera showed up, people were like, ‘who is this?’ or ‘why is she there?’ But by keeping her in the center and really exploring her, it made her feel different and unique; not only did we have a great adventure with our main heroes, but we can also show some of the lesser-known characters. I really thrive on that stuff. I love taking a character that has been written off and push them into the spotlight.
Paste: Definitely. In the course of your career, you’ve displayed a love of revitalizing characters people have forgotten or been written off. You brought back Hal Jordan after his controversial exit, you helped bring back Barry Allen and—although he didn’t technically die—you helped Aquaman transcend the joke he was for several years to become a real badass. What is it about you that enjoys bringing these characters back?
Johns: I love the challenge of it. Mike McKone and I were doing Teen Titans. Teen Titans was going to be cancelled in six issues; no one cared about the Teen Titans. We tried to figure (it) out: ‘The book has worked before. How can we do our own modern version of that? How can we re-introduce those characters and find an audience?’ I love looking at characters that — like I said before — have been written off. I love writing Superman and Batman. They’re really fun to write, but there’s something exhilarating about taking Shazam, cracking him open, showing a new side of him, and seeing if people will gravitate towards the character.
Or we introduce weird characters, like Larfleeze, and think, ‘well, maybe we can introduce someone off the mark.’ Or, we take villains like Black Adam and Captain Cold or Black Manta. I love all those villains and peeling back the layers; can we show the readers a new side to these characters and not necessarily characters that they like? They might know who Aquaman is, but they’ve never really solved the character. They might know who Sinestro is, but they have never really understood the character, or cared to understand the character. Maybe there hasn’t been a lot there to understand. I think Sinestro’s at a point now where he’s one of the most popular characters in Green Lantern — he’s certainly one of the most popular characters we have.
Paste: Wrapping up here, what can you tell us about the upcoming Trinity Wars?
Johns: Sure. We’re working with Jeff Lemire on it and artists Ivan Reis, Mikel Janin, and Doug Mahnke. It’s a crossover between Justice League, Justice League of America, and Justice League Dark. It really takes those three teams and looks at the difference between these Justice League teams and their roles in the DC Universe. The death of a hero sparks a tension that grows into a confrontation between these heroes. It develops into a murder mystery. We try to call it an epic action-murder mystery because it’s going to be a bit of a thriller, but also have the big, bombastic action. I think on first blush, you look at the image they sent out, and it looks like it’s a war between the superheroes, but it’s much more than that, even though that’s in there too.