For those of you joining us, welcome to the first installment of my new column, Dial H for History! In other words, I will take a look at current comic events, and give a retrospective look, while occasionally giving My Two Cents (now adjusted for inflation) on what this means.
And perhaps there isn’t a better thing to discuss than the announcement that Geoff Johns will be leaving JSA.
Indeed, on the message boards of Johns’ site Comicbloc, the mastermind behind Green Lantern and Infinite Crisis left the following words:
Why am I leaving?
I have more stories to tell, and the characters are endless, but that’s also true for the DC Universe. I’m ready to move on to some other challenges like returning to THE FLASH and SUPERMAN: SECRET ORIGIN. And I am also obsessed with making sure that GREEN LANTERN, BLACKEST NIGHT and everything around it is the absolute best it can possibly be. …and that’s only part of 2009. There are some new projects on the horizon.
Of course, Johns wasn’t always the wunderkind of the DCU. But it was the Justice Society that helped bring him there.
Geoff Johns jumped into JSA (ugh, try saying that three times fast) after the surprise success of his miniseries Stars and STRIPE, which chronicled the adventures of Courtney Starsmore and her superhero stepfather Pat Dugan, the original Star-Spangled Kid. But while this story was more of a sleeper phenomenon, JSA would bring Johns to the top.
To recap on the history: James Robinson and David Goyer had recently reunited the superheroic forebearers of the DCU in the new iteration of JSA, following a JLA-JSA crossover written by the rising superstar Grant Morrison. (Morrison, in my opinion, was key in Johns’ maturation as a writer–but more on that later.) With old guard members like Alan Scott, Jay Garrick, and Ted Grant teamed up with new blood like Jakeem Thunder, Sand, and the android Hourman, it seemed like a top-heavy team to counterbalance the pop mythology of Morrison’s Justice League.
However, there was something missing in all of this: a sense of humanity to balance out all the brawn.
Enter Geoff Johns.
Of course, he was still new at this, and much of the current scope and style that he is currently known for was there only in a rough stage. With his background still firmly in film, some of the writing now comes off as somewhat verbose, as if the marriage between image and word wasn’t quite there yet. (This, of course, may have also been some of Goyer’s influence at work.) But what made this series such a strong contribution was how it enriched the mythos of the DC lineup — current stalwarts such as Dr. Mid-Nite were introduced under Johns’ run, and legacy versions of Sand, Mister Terrific, and Star-Spangled Kid were taken from other books (The Spectre and Stars and Stripe, respectively) and given room to grow.
But these accomplishments were dwarfed by what I feel are the two characters most impacted by Johns’ touch: Hawkman and Black Adam.
For those of you who remember, Hawkman had a weird origin. Or should I say, “origins.” He was a Thanagarian police officer who came to Earth (with his wife, Sheyera, in tow) to stop an interstellar criminal. Or was he a Thanagarian spy? Or a reincarnated version of an Egyptian prince? Or was he just an archeologist named Carter Hall who had his mind twisted by a meteorite known as Nth Metal? Or was he an incarnation of a strange Hawkgod?
Actually, what Hawkman was was a bit of a misfire. Most characters had experienced successful “reboots” to their mythology following the Crisis on Infinite Earths — Batman with Year One, Superman with Man of Steel, and Wonder Woman in her self-titled series by George Perez — but poor Hawkman was left out in the cold. Several years went by, and no one knew what to do with him… and then, suddenly, he became the new Aquaman of the company, with several conflicting origin stories occurring nearly simultaneously. If you’re into continuity, you would have popped a blood vessel trying to make sense of it.
But Johns established his trademark as a man who used continuity to his advantage. His answer to the Hawkman question was simple: it was all of these. Hawkman was a man reincarnated again and again and again by his proximity to Nth Metal, destined to find his true love and then die again. Not only did this clear up much about the character’s history, but gave him a dimension that was not previously found in his stories: this is a man who knows his life is a tragedy, and often falls under his own rage because of it. And for Hawkman, that was some pretty deep stuff.
It was in JSA that Johns also got to work with a character with whom he would eventually become synonymous: Black Adam. Of course, Adam wasn’t always the anti-hero we’re used to–he had flip-flopped so many times on the good-evil axis that he more or less faded in the wash. But Johns explained the inconsistencies in one of his first stories, while giving Adam a demonstration of power so fierce that readers would give him his respect again: it was a brain tumor. Wreaking with his mind, the tumor was a perfect explanation for his seemingly out-of-character transitions, and would make him a devastating wild card that was a powerful mix of Marvel’s Namor and Doctor Doom.
But Johns earned a new distinction for his handling of the characters, shared only by rare writers like Dan Slott or Fred Van Lente: that he could fix continuity problems and make broken characters readable again. This allowed him to stretch the limits of what could be done with characters and legacy heroes, that omnipresent trope in JSA’s pages.
Perhaps one of the most memorable scenes in his run, at least to me, was the pathos between Hourman Rex Tyler and his son, Rick, as the father and son only had one hour to reconnect in a four-dimensional time bubble. However, Rick eventually used much of his hour escaping to the time bubble after he was slashed across the abdomen. Nearly bleeding to death in the time bubble as Dr. Mid-Nite struggled valiently to save him, the tension between father and son became palpable, until the android Hourman–oftentimes written as a bit of a cypher–became the hero of the hour, taking the “bullet” meant for Rex to allow the men to have a normal, happy life. I don’ t do the scene justice, but the power is certainly on the page.
As Johns continued with his world-building, the higher-ups at DC soon gave him the keys to the castle, as he experimented with the Flash, rebuilt the Teen Titans, and upset the status quo with Infinite Crisis. But it was clear from several interviews after the fact that this last project especially was rough on the writer, and in the middle of it all, JSA was ended… but would soon come back even stronger than before.
I feel, in many ways, the Infinite Crisis marked a turning point in Johns’ career as a writer. Indeed, the very structure of the series seemed to be perfect for DC’s rising star: 52 weekly issues, composed by the best and brightest–Grant Morrison, Greg Rucka, Mark Waid, and Johns. In the series, Johns’ baby Black Adam became a king, a hero, and finally a mass-murderer–meanwhile, heroes like Booster Gold became saviors of the Multiverse, and established a brand-new platform for their continuing adventures. But even more important was the specialties that each writer brought: Rucka brought the depth, Waid brought the emotion, and Morrison brought the style. (At least in my opinion.) And I would speculate that Johns learned a lot.
Following Infinite Crisis, much of Johns’ work gained a streamlined, experimental flow to it. Certainly, there was still his trademark pantheon-building–a pursuit Morrison had once perfected with JLA and then abandoned for more postmodern pursuits like Seven Soldiers–but Johns seemed to take more risks with his characters. The JSA was reborn, operating under a bold, but necessary mission statement: “The world needs better heroes.” In many ways, the series began to resemble Claremont’s X-Men, in terms of a multigenerational pseudo-academy for a new generation of heroes. (Teen Titans, Johns’ other big work at the time, exhibited a similar riff on the Marvel team, complete with stoic leader Robin, scrappy swordswoman Ravager, stalwart companion Cyborg, and the demonic-looking Kid Devil.)
With new legacies such as Judomaster, the werepanther Wildcat II, and Starman as well as the new stati quo for Liberty Belle, Hourman, and Damage, the series established a great balancing act between individual story arcs and team action–especially when the specter of the DC’s apocalyptic Kingdom Come came into the mix, as the DC’s original superteam is currently fighting to stop it. Stories such as the deformed Damage’s battle with Zoom, the man who maimed him, were perfect character pieces, with lasting physical and emotional effects on several characters.
But now, as we reported today, Geoff Johns is saying goodbye for the title that made him a star. It’s a shame to see him leave, as he made Jay Garrick, Alan Scott, and Ted Grant the real Trinity of the DCU: the three patriarchs that established the mythos. Geoff Johns made classic cool again with the JSA, and at least for this reader, he will certainly be missed.