Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Wednesday Comics: In Praise of Geoff Johns


Ray Bradbury once said in a talk that we should never be ashamed to declare our love. Hopefully what we love defines us more deeply and sharply than what we hate. And I love the writings of Geoff Johns.
Briefly, I can trace the evolution of my favorite writers from Frank Miller’s shock, Alan Moore’s genius, Peter David’s humor, Mark Waid’s character development, and James Robinson’s totality of excellence. All of these writers have talent beyond my wildest hopes. But even in their company, I hold above them Geoff Johns.

The first time I noticed Mr. John’s work was in Stars and S.T.R.I.P.E.

As a Starman fanatic, I picked up the first issue because of the crossover of character and talent from my favorite book. I must admit, the character herself did not grab my attention and I continued to pick up the entire run more out of habit than enjoyment. The comic followed the story of Courtney Whitmore, a 16-year-old girl whose mom has gotten remarried to Pat Dugan and moved them to the quiet town of Blue Valley.  Courtney finds out that Pat used to be a sidekick to the original Star Spangled Kid, when she finds one of the Kid's cosmic belts.  In order to annoy her stepdad, she takes on the mantle of the Kid.  In order to protect her, Pat puts on his Special Tactics Robotic Integrated Power Enhancer, or STRIPE.  The series is about their adventure fighting crime and each other.

But in the very last issue I was struck. Courtney, who had fought and bickered so bitterly with Pat accidentally called him “Dad.” I remember re-reading that page over and over. I could not understand why I was affected so deeply. It was only upon reflection that I realized that I had fallen in love with this book without even realizing it. And it was only upon the last issue that I discovered that there would be no more Blue Valley adventures.

But with this loss, I decided to take note anything and everything that he wrote. I look back on his work with JSA and once again saw his talent and imagination flourish. I imagine one of the toughest parts of writing a team book is making sure everyone has a unique voice. With Mr. Johns, I understood all the characters and their necessity in the dynamic. The evolution of Black Adam was one of the most natural and tragic evolutions I’ve read in comics.

But I cannot bring up JSA without talking about its scope. I noticed a pattern in John’s grand schemes: Create a problem, make the odds so overwhelming that there is no possible way the heroes could win, plant the seeds for the next epic in the middle of the conflict, and then have the JSA overcome the enemies against all odds through their own natural strength, both in power and character. None of the amazing victories felt forced. I remember thinking with each disaster, “How can they get out of this?” only to be thoroughly pleased and surprised by the ingenuity of my heroes. It is here that I must thank Mr. Johns for one of the most important gifts he gives readers of his stories: a sense of wonder. The closest approximation I can reference is the feeling I first had reading a comic book as a child and wealth of imagery and story that leapt out of the page on and opened a whole new world.

When Geoff Johns took over The Flash, I am sorry to say that I dropped the book. Mark Waid had done the impossible: he made Wally West the one, true Flash. Jumping into the Wonderland story, I felt out of sorts. I did not have the patience to appreciate that Johns was not interested in making a brief spectacle, but he was laying the foundation of a larger world. Ever since reading Starman I have been partial to this type of storytelling, where the supporting characters are so fully realized that they can carry an issue without the hero ever appearing. Everyone knows what a joy it has been to finally see the Rogues (the Flash main staple of villains) as they should be. Again, here is part of his genius: Mr. Johns does not have to re-invent the character. He simply finds what makes the character good and shows it to us. Len Snart (Captain Cold) is a guy who does bad things, but you could see yourself sitting down and having a cup of coffee with him (as Wally did). Hunter Zolomon murders Wally’s unborn children, one of the most heartbreaking moments I’ve ever read in comics, and yet somehow we pity him. That moment of tragedy in the Blitz storyline brought my feelings so low, only to have the elation of Rogue Wars conclusion erase the sadness of it.

When I heard that Hal Jordan would be resurrected, I balked. Life is cheap if death is meaningless, I thought (how many times has Nick Fury died?). I also feared for my favorite Green Lantern, Kyle Rayner. I worried that Hal rise would be Kyle’s fall. But beyond that, returns almost always felt cheap or contrived. And once again, Geoff Johns did the seemingly impossible. The key, I believe, was that he did not create out of whole cloth the reason for his return. I remember reading the explanation of Hal’s early gray hair, and I was thrilled. He had taken a simple character detail that had been added to an arc he had nothing to do with and he made it feel as if it was a clue to a mystery that was pre-ordained and only now being revealed. He brought order out of seeming chaos. He made each Green Lantern unique. Kyle offers something that Hal does not, as do Guy and John. But my favorite moment was in the last issue. Mr. Johns summed up everything that made Hal Jordan the greatest Green Lantern in a single line. When asked by Parallax why he doesn’t just quit, Jordan defiantly, honestly responds: “I don’t know how.” He will never give up. He is the hero we’ve been waiting for.

The weaving of chaos into order was even more masterfully done with Infinite Crisis. While Crisis on Infinite Earths was greater in length, Infinite Crisis was more personal. As with the Rogues, I felt for the villains, even the murderous Superboy-Prime. But I feared for the heroes. In issue six, my heart raced at the thought of losing Dick Grayson, my favorite character in comics, or any of the ones who went to confront Alexander Luthor. Connor Kent had the same effect on me that Courtney Whitmore had. I hadn’t realized how great he was until he was gone. But his death solidified in my mind the nature of a hero. There has been much talk, as there had always been, about DC vs. the Marvel Universe. There are merits and faults in both. But look at Infinite Crisis vs. Civil War. In Civil War, the heroes are aimless and without moral compass. They are children who’ve found daddy’s gun and don’t know what to do with it. But with Connor Kent, we saw that the strength of a hero is not his super-power, but his uncompromising moral strength. Superboy died a man of steel, not in body but spirit. And with his death I knew that DC was the place where I could find the true heroes of my childhood.

Finally, I would like to speak of the Sinestro Corps War. I looked forward to this for many reasons, but chief among them, it answered the question: why only 1 Sinestro? If the bad guys had the capability of creating a yellow power ring, why not an entire corps? (This of course does not count the anti-matter corps from GL 150). The first issue alone deserves massive praise. Johns once again raised the stakes and the peril to the point with the great heroes feeling like mere hobbits in facing Nazgul (pardon the Tolkeinism). Johns had lined up the most formidable and fearsome force I have ever read: Sinestro, Cyborg-Superman, the Manhunters, Parallax, and finally the dreaded Superboy-Prime. I had dug in for an uphill battle. But that last page knocked my socks off: the revelation of the Anti-Monitor! I shouted out loud an expletive that I rarely let fly. And then I immediately re-read the entire comic. Mr. Johns once again surprised me by making me a child again of wide-eyed wonder. He and Pete Tomasi, scribe of the Green Lantern Corps, continued on to write the Star Wars of the DC Universe. I pulled for Kyle against Parallax. I grieved for Jack T. Chance. I cheered when the 4 Earth Green Lanterns recited their sacred oath. And I was inspired by the people of Coast City and their courage.

And even better I can see that this is just the beginning. What a gift to know that the best stories are still to come! And again we should marvel at how the scope of the Green Lantern mythology has enlarged under his care. As I said earlier, why not more yellow lanterns? But the natural question that I should have asked: why only green and yellow? Johns answered the question I never asked but should have. What wonders await us in the months and years ahead!

I have attempted to be brief, but it is hard to limit my praise for Geoff Johns. I did not want to go take more time talking about his take on our beloved Superman, how he brought back Barry Allen, and all the rest.

Being a huge Star Wars fan, someone once asked me why Star Wars was so important. I answered that as a child, Luke Skywalker taught me what a hero should be: someone who did what was right despite the odds, despite your failures, and despite the personal cost. As a child, these icons help shape your view of the world and how to act in it. As I’ve grown older I've found that too many stories today tell me that there are no real heroes.

But Geoff Johns believes in heroes.

And he reminds me that I do too.

Thank you, Geoff Johns, for everything.

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