Geoff Johns Talks Big Reveals, Luthor’s Morals, And Villains As Social Commentary In ‘Forever Evil’ [Interview]
If you missed it, the first issue of Forever Evil -- the latest big crossover event taking place across the DC Universe -- started off with a big reveal, one that will have consequences for many of the characters throughout DC Comics. But there's more to it than just that. Forever Evil represents the extreme end of villainous characters; for the Crime Syndicate, there's seemingly no tragic back story to identify, nothing for the reader to relate to or sympathize with. And according to writer Geoff Johns, that gives him an opportunity to explore the depths of other characters, particularly Lex Luthor, while also using this story as a vehicle to make a kind of commentary on social issues he sees as currently prevalent in society.
ComicsAlliance spoke to Geoff Johns about Forever Evil, including what readers can expect going forward, Lex Luthor as the central figure of the story, and villains as metaphor.
ComicsAlliance: Let's start with Nightwing's unmasking. How far back into The New 52 launch did you guys know that this was something you were going to do?
Geoff Johns: This goes back pretty far. I can't give you an exact date but it has been in the works for quite a while.
CA: OK. I feel like unmasking Nightwing means more than any other character outside of Superman and Batman because, among other things, he just has so many personal ties to so many heroes in the DC Universe. But obviously with The New 52 some of those ties changed a little bit, with Teen Titans history being different, and some heroes no longer being around. Was that something you guys thought about when you decided to unmask Nightwing? Do you feel that it has any impact on the moment?
GJ: Yeah. This is my opinion but if you are looking at this in the DC Universe then you are looking at the Justice League as the A-list heroes. Well if you remove the Justice League the top of the heap next is Nightwing for me. He is clearly the leader of the next generation whether he's officially leading the Titans or not but he is clearly the leader of all of the other super heroes. If you take the Justice League off the board I think that everyone is going to look to Nightwing. That was a strategic move on the Syndicate’s part.
If you take Justice League off the board then Nightwing is certainly going to be looked at and manipulated to start to disrupt the rest of the heroes and make them reconsider what they are doing and also take a leader who can galvanize them to get out of the equation and do it in a way that would I think make some people would reconsider, thinking "If these people are going to go after who I am and my family, the people I am close to..." The Crime Syndicate exposes this. You know, heroes aren't going to worry about their life so much as the lives of those that they care about. That is where the idea generated from.
CA: This reveal is going to have a huge impact on the DC Universe. But the New 52 is only two years old, and in a way you are still kind of developing this new universe, so what made now the right time for this big of a reveal?
GJ: I look at Justice League as more of a macro story. I write Justice League, and this is more about that book and the core characters, and Nightwing's among them. Forever Evil is this dark point for me as far as where the characters are struggling and, you know, the Justice League hasn't been as galvanized as they should be which is why the Crime Syndicate was able to do this and the consequences are very dire and Batman is going to have to come face to face with it, with Nightwing and what happened to him and what he is going to have to deal with and the repercussions of that across the DC Universe. And really for Forever Evil and the things that happen with Nightwing, Batman and Lex Luthor and everyone one else in Forever Evil. For me it's kind of like the end of one arc and the next arc being all about turning a corner for the Justice League and the other characters, and Nightwing's revelation and the repercussions of that is going to be something that plays into that.
CA: You made an interesting point about the various Justice League teams not being cohesive. Is this going to be kind of a rallying point for all of them?
GJ: It is. It is going to kind of be a galvanizing point for a lot of different characters but in a different way than we've seen before. They all have to look back. The villains actually unite in tandem before the Justice League and other heroes really unite. Again it is a journey to take the League on, and the heroes are going to have to figure out how to get on the same page really quick and become the Justice League that they need to be. That the world needs them to be.
CA: Let's talk about Luthor for a little bit. Obviously there is going to be some villains who recognize that the situation the Crime Syndicate is proposing isn't ideal. Luthor seems to be the first person to have that realization. So, what is his role in the story going to be?
GJ: He's the main character in this entire story. Most of it is from his point of view. I think he is a fantastic character and one of the most complex characters from the DC Universe. But just because a group of villains who -- by the way, mirror the Justice League. Like, this story is essentially if the Justice League decided to rule the world, this is what it would be. And Lex coming face to face with that and seeing most of the villains going along in chaos and destruction and there’s no -- this is not what he’s ever envisioned. And he comes to the realization I think within issue two about what he needs to do. And there are others like him out there who also agree that the new boss is worse than the old boss. And they have to do something about it.
But Luthor is a complex character. If you look at the opening of Forever Evil clearly he’s still going about threatening people and consuming things and doing it for his own goals and desires. Some of the things he was talking about in Forever Evil #1 are revealed in Forever Evil #2, about why he’s been collecting companies and all this stuff. And Luthor's journey in this -- it’s going to definitely start off with his ego. Because one of his driving forces, obviously, is his ego, and his need to be recognized by humanity. And Superman's kind of gotten in the way of that, but that’s like something he won’t really ever, I think, acknowledge consciously. His journey though through this is, we are going to go deeper into who Lex Luthor is, and the choices he makes, and ultimately what he wants coming out of this. There’s what he goes through, and what he loses, and what he learns to love. He’s going to go through a journey like we haven’t seen Luthor go through. And putting him center stage in an event like this, a story like this, the whole story is really designed for him, and I think that should be clear as it rolls out. But again, Luthor is, I think he’s one of those great, wonderfully complex and unpredictable characters. I think you think you always know what Luthor is going to do, but this is going to hopefully surprise you.
CA: You see a lot of different versions of Luthor over the years. There's Luthor the brilliant but corrupt businessman / Superman antagonist. And there's Luthor the flat out villain wearing the giant power suit taking on different heroes. What are we going to have coming out of Forever Evil? A combination of the two? A different version of him?
GJ: If you look at the Syndicate, the thing we’ll learn more about them is, and you know this is again delving into the dark side of how people think of humanity and all of this stuff. For the Syndicate it’s not about good and evil, that’s too simplistic of a term. For me it started off with, the most basic value in their universe is strength. They value strength above everything else. So that starts to twist how people behave. If they look down on weakness or perceived weakness, or they crush weakness or destroy it, and there’s no room for weakness, then compassion kind of disappears. And you have a society that evolves in a very different way, and heroes, and I uses heroes in quotes, that evolve in a very, very different way. Because the strength is all that matters, at the core values strength and power is what’s important to people.
And when they come to our world and they see our world they think "Why are we taking care of weak people? Why are we wasting our time, why are you guys wasting your time and money on this? Why are you wasting your power on this? You’re not bettering society you’re actually allowing the gene pool to continue to be weak, by keeping this." It’s like a very dark, twisted version of what I think some people actually believe out there. It’s almost like a beyond extreme created view of humanity. And I don’t think Luthor subscribes to that as much as maybe you first think he does. And I think Luthor sees the value of more than just strength and power. There’s a value to a lot of other things in humanity, and that’s really Luthor's journey in the face of something that on the surface could almost be what you think Luthor would value.
CA: I didn't think about it in that sense when I first read it, but there's definitely social commentary and political analogy there. Is that something you were going for?
GJ: We always put stuff in there and whether people catch it or not is up to them. But for me, I feel very strongly that there’s an invading, prevalent feeling of narcissism and cynicism, and strength is being valued over other things potentially in our world right now. And I think it’s great to take a look, look at it through this character who, I mean Luthor’s a bad guy but I think he’s definitely a bad guy with more to him than the destructive viewpoint that some of these tycoons have.
CA: Without revealing too much, what can you tell us about issue 2, and what heroes and villains do you see playing a big role in this story who readers might not expect?
GJ: You’ll see a lot more about the Syndicate and we get to know the Syndicate a lot more. And the Syndicate is -- they are all there for very different reasons; they all have very different personalities, they all want very different things. I think some of the Syndicate secrets will start to come out. You’ll see Luthor recruit his first ally that he’s going after. You’ll see the Teen Titans. And you’ll see the ending hints at what has happened to our heroes.
One of the things I’ve always loved exploring, the reason I am doing this series, is because I’ve always loved, if you know my work you know I love writing villains. And I love exploring villains and different sides of villains, because I think they’re all people. The best villains you understand why they are doing it; you might not agree with it, but at least you understand it, and people become fans of those villains. People think, “Oh I like the Rogues, even though they’re bad guys.” “Oh I like Sinestro even though he’s a villain.” “I like Black Adam even though he’s a villain.” Or “Black Manta is cool even though he’s a villain.” And so those villains all have really interesting sides to them because I think, in the proper circumstances, you can view them as heroes, and part of the fun is doing that. What this Crime Syndicate allows me to do is go to a place that’s extremely dark. For me the Crime Syndicate is so reprehensible, so villainous, each one differently. Like Power Ring embodies just hardness. He’s a bully, but he’s a coward at heart, which most bullies are.
Then you have Ultraman who represents this power is all that matters attitude. And Owlman is all about control, and Johnny Quick, all he does is get glory and thrills out of seeing other people suffer. And the thing that the Crime Syndicate allows me to do is show reprehensible villains and villains that are, you know for me, it's really hard to find any redeeming qualities in these guys. And I think that’s really fun to contrast against characters that I’m, you know we’re all fans of, but we can see them act in a different light and root for these villains in a way we don’t normally do it. Because super villains are cool and they are fun but we're really pushing the edge in making them reprehensible, and making them villains that you don’t like. Villains that you actually want to see get stopped. I think that’s what the Crime Syndicate is allowing me to do. Do you watch “Game of Thrones”?
CA: I'm way behind.
GJ: You know how reprehensible those villains are?
GJ: So, essentially that’s the reason. It's contrasting villainy. Just like there are different grades of heroes, our villains are super complex and that’s what this is all about.