Geoff Johns Explores the Emotional Corps of ‘Blackest Night’
At DC Comics, the long-awaited crossover series “Blackest Night” has finally descended, introducing readers to the Black Lantern Corps, which raises fallen heroes from the dead as murderous, malevolent versions of their former selves.
The Lantern Corps family is a much bigger one these days, thanks to long-time “Green Lantern” writer Geoff Johns. There is now a whole rainbow of Lantern power rings, with each color corresponding to a different emotion: red (rage), orange (avarice), yellow (fear), the traditional green (willpower), blue (hope), indigo (compassion), and violet (love).
As the full range of Lanterns starts to take center stage in the DC Universe, Johns talked to ComicsAlliance about the deeper themes underpinning the series — and the emotional spectrum that powers them.
ComicsAlliance: There seems to be a strong horror element in “Blackest Night.” Do you have any particular influences from the realm of horror either in movies or TV?
Geoff Johns: No, not really. It’s just suspense. I mean, I like Hitchcock. I studied Hitchcock. But I don’t really get into gore. I like the seventies horror films like “Changeling” or “Audrey Rose” or “The Omen,” “Rosemary’s Baby.” All the kind of classic seventies short films, I really got into those and the suspense of those. There’s a scene in “Blackest Night” that’s I think the scariest scene in the book, and it’s just all about suspense and quiet.
CA: Do you think of them as zombies?
GJ: No, they’re not zombies. They’re Black Lanterns. They have intelligence; they have personality. There’s much more to them, as you’ll find out in the series. It’s taking the undead, like “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” took vampires, and making something totally different with them. I didn’t want to do something like, oh it’s Ralph Dibny as a zombie going RAAAWR because it’s not scary. It’s not as scary as him coming in [as a Black Lantern] and talking to Barry Allen in issue #3, which is really creepy because of the way he relates to Barry Allen — they’re old, old friends. But that’s the horror of it. Same with Firestorm. The lighter the characters were, the scarier they are as Black Lanterns.
CA: Where did you originally get the idea of expanding the Green Lantern to this full color spectrum we have now?
GJ: When I was originally working on “Green Lantern: Rebirth” and I came up with the idea that the yellow impurity was actually the power of fear and I mentioned the emotional spectrum in “Rebirth.” There’s fear, which is yellow and green’s the most pure in the center, and from there it just made sense.
CA: Have you had a chance to talk to fans about “Blackest Night”?
GJ: On the panel [during Comic-Con], yeah, and at the signings. Everyone seems really happy. I’ve got more people coming up to me saying they got back into comics or got into DC comics because of Blackest Night than I’ve had on any book I’ve ever done.
CA: What do you think makes it accessible?
GJ: I think you look at the different color corps and choose whoever you want to be, and it’s easy to explain. The dead rise; it’s a pretty simple concept. And the whole series is a meta-commentary.
CA: So it’s a commentary on death and resurrection in comics?
GJ: It’s a commentary on a lot of things. It can’t be a commentary on one thing. It’s not a commentary on just comic books. It’s a commentary on self-discovery. It’s a commentary on cracking open your heart, literally. It’s a commentary on pain and death. It’s a commentary on a lot of things. And people are getting into it. You see people with the shirts on and they just like the symbolism. Even the Black Lanterns, you see people wearing the Black Lantern shirts…
CA: It’s interesting to see what people choose to identify with. Do you know which shirts are the most popular?
GJ: I would say I see mostly reds and blues. But I would also say those have been around the longest, except for green and yellow. And then orange is just for someone who gets the fun of it. If someone wears an orange shirt you can tell they own it, because greed as a character is wacky, and over the top. You see people in an orange shirt own that fun of what it is. I’m just starting to see a little Indigo come in, because they’re mysteries…
CA: I remember even when “Blackest Night” #0 came out it was like “The Indigo Tribe! We don’t know that much!”
GJ: Yeah, the idea was let them be a mystery, and part of that goes to the [nature] of compassion. It’s an emotion that’s a little bit mysterious, and hard to grasp. So I wanted the Indigo Tribe to represent both compassion and being misunderstood and hard to read, hard to figure out. But rage is the easiest thing to understand, because rage is primal. Everyone’s experienced rage or gotten in a huge fight or something. And it’s irrational, but when you’re in the middle of that rage, it makes perfect sense to you.
CA: You just want to keep going go further and further.
GJ: Exactly. And every corps represents what these emotions really are. You look at emotions of rage and love, these really extreme emotions that can make you do things you never thought you’d do. They’re the edges of the spectrum, but as you get into the center, that’s where willpower is. Willpower is all about civilization. This is society, this is how we act. Why aren’t people just running in here, pushing people aside so they can get in? We just don’t do that. We wait in line. We’ve been trained to be like that to hold back and bury all these impulses. Like if you see a guy eating a piece of pizza you don’t just get up and take it, do you? Even though you could. So I want this to make sense, and I want it to mean something personal to me. If people just want to read it because it’s a superhero comic, great. Or if they want to see these emotions through and the struggles these characters are having and how they deal with them, awesome.
CA: You have rage at one extreme of the spectrum and love at the other extreme. Do you think that they’re equally dangerous?
GJ: Not as dangerous — it’s not about being dangerous, it’s about being overwhelmed, because I think love is overwhelming. It’s not a negative; it’s a positive. And I don’t necessarily think that rage is dangerous either, because rage is a survival mechanism. Rage is something that we have in us to survive. Same thing goes with fear. Fear is a survival tool. Avarice is a survival tool. But will, hope, compassion, a
nd love are a mystery. Compassion, where does that come from? Is that survival? Compassion’s not survival. Hope, is that survival or is that growth — intellectual growth, spiritual growth? You start to get on this end of the spectrum and it’s less about survival, and more about evolution.
CA: Right, sort of a Maslow’s hierarchy sort of thing.
GJ: Yeah, for me the emotions that are the most constructive are spiritual. But again, I love the Red Lanterns; they’re badass, and that’s great. You don’t need to know anything else if you want to enjoy them. But this whole journey, and going through these emotions is very personal for me. And I think a lot of other people can relate to it on a subconscious level. If it was just “Hey, I’m a Red Lantern, I fire a red beam just like the green beam” it wouldn’t matter.
CA: They’d just be Stormtroopers.
GJ: Right, it’s not Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers; it’s not Voltron. They’re all different, and that’s why people have responded to them.
CA: Another thing I’m curious to see is how these different colored corps react to each other. Does every corps have a unique interaction with every other one?
GJ: Some colors are attracted to others, some aren’t. Some cancel each other out, some support each other, some just are right next to each other. If a Blue Lantern‘s not by a Green Lantern, he doesn’t have willpower; so he can hope all day long… But if you sit around and just hope for things to happen, nothing’s going to happen. If you hope things happen but also try and make things happen with the willpower of the mind, then it’s very powerful. That’s why the blue ring is more powerful than any other ring when it’s charged up by the green one.
CA: Do you see any of the emotions — or corps — as inherently bad?
GJ: That’s part of the story. Are they necessarily bad or are they just reality?
CA: So is there crossover potential for someone in one of the corps to shift into another one?
GJ: You wield the power you wield. Whatever you wield, that’s what you are, because of who you are and your experiences. But some people could potentially… Fatality was a character who was in the Sinestro Corps, because her home world was destroyed because the Green Lantern John Stewart made a mistake. But the Star Sapphires took her — and they convert people, they believe in conversion — and essentially encased her in crystal, in a cocoon, because they know that everything has a little love in their heart. Everybody does, even the most evil things, except for the completely sociopathic. But the ones who are damaged and lash out like Fatality, who’s gone through all this loss and heartache and become the way she is, still have a spark of love in their heart. So they essentially encase her in crystal and she experiences all these emotions. She’s bombarded constantly by “Do you remember what it was like to love?” and seeing these visions. Eventually it grew over, and it changed her and she embraced love again.
CA: So the Star Sapphires bring people love by force?
GJ: Well, that’s the thing, Star Sapphires want to do it by force. They just do it by force. And that’s why they’re failing right now.
CA: That sort of reminds me of some religious missionaries, where they’re saying “We’re trying to bring you peace and love!” but you can’t just force that on someone.
GJ: But the Star Sapphires also offer the bearers [of their rings] a choice. “Do you want this ring?” I did a Carol Ferris story in a book that just came out, and it’s all about the ring telling her, “This is your choice. This is why I’m coming to you, because you know what it is like to sacrifice yourself and your life for the people you love. You’ve sacrificed everything. You’ve given up your dreams, and now I’m asking you to do it again.”
CA: And she could say no.
GJ: She could say no, but the ring says, “Hal Jordan, the man you love, who’s never going to reciprocate that love in the way you want, is in trouble. Will you once again put aside the needs of yourself for your love of this guy?” But that leads to a whole other arc, where in an upcoming issue Sinestro asks her, “You think he’s going to love you for this? You think you’re going to get something for this?” and she says “No, I know I’m not.”
CA: So, when we talk about Star Sapphires and love, it doesn’t have to be reciprocated love.
GJ: No. On the surface thse things can seem very simple to grasp, but underneath it’s complex. All these characters can get explored in ways that go to the core of who they are. Carol Ferris is just awesome, I love her. Her mother dies, her father opens his airfield and then one of the people he flew with, Martin Jordan — Hal Jordan’s father — dies. So now her father’s a wreck, and over the years he gets sick because of it. It makes him ill, and Carol has to step out of the cockpit — she’d wanted to be a pilot — and take over the family business. And for a while her father’s bedridden and she’s up front making all the decisions.
CA: It seems like love gets inextricably linked with sacrifice of some type — as opposed to anger, which is usually purely selfish.
GJ: It is. Well, it’s also vengeful. Part of the thing with rage is that love and rage are connected in a strange way by loss. I lost my sister when I was 23, and I experienced both. I experienced loss as a hole that will never be filled. You have to learn to live with it; it’s like a scar. It grows over, and it’s never as strong as it was before, but you just keep going. And with rage it’s the same thing — but there’s no one I can direct it to because it was an accident. I couldn’t be angry with anybody but I was angry anyway. I was angry at the randomness of life. And the same thing happened when Mike Turner passed away. I got really mad, and I didn’t have anyone to get mad at. He got through bone cancer so many times, and then it came back and I got really pissed off, like, just leave him alone. But again, there’s no one to say that to. He passed away, and he was one of my best friends. It was really difficult to deal with. And all that emotion, all this experience fuels what’s going on. It’s not a video game.
CA: How much do you see these different emotional responses on as choices? For example, if you’re presented with a loss, there’s a range of different reactions you could have.
GJ: Yeah, a range of different reactions. I think the extreme ones are rage and vengeance, but if you put on this Star Sapphire ring all of that is gone because suddenly you’re overwhelmed with love. And that’s the thing I learned through goi
ng through the grief with my sister is that eventually — I thought of this memory I had of when I would tickle her, and she would say “I’ll give you money! I’ll give you money!” I was never after the money! But it was a fond memory I had of her, and that suddenly filled my heart. And that was a positive thing. And the Star Sapphire ring does a similar thing. It helps you get over the grief, but it does it artificially.
CA: Right, because I was just going to say, why wouldn’t everybody put on the Star Sapphire ring?
GJ: Absolutely. Well, because it’s artificial. It’s not a drug, but it’s an energy that washes over you. And avarice, avarice is such a present force in capitalism and in our society. There’s this restaurant called [unintelligible], have you ever heard of it? You go up there and order fries and you get a plate this big. They’re huge, these huge slabs of chocolate cake covered in walnuts. And all these big cars everywhere and big things and more and more and more, and I thought all of it was almost ridiculous. It’s self-indulgent. It’s funny that people think all this stuff with make things better.
It’s like that scene from “The Jerk,” [where Steve Martin says,] “Oh, this is all I need” and starts grabbing all this stuff for no reason. And that’s why I made the character Agent Orange. He’s over the top. He’s greed. You shake his hand, and say “Well, nice to meet you” and then think “Where’s my watch? It’s gone!” And he’s gone. So for me that was more of a fun character to explore and a fun emotion to explore, because I think avarice is fun. It’s just ridiculous, when you sit down and think about it. I mean, do you need a piece of chocolate cake that big to feel good? It’s a different mentality, just like the news that informs me of what to be afraid of. Like, really, you’re not going to tell me what to be afraid of until I watch your 11:30 show?
CA: My favorite ones are like, “Something in the supermarket could kill your child! Story at 11!”
GJ: Exactly! And most people freak out. Let me tell you something: If there’s really something at the supermarket that could kill your child, it won’t be there when you get to the supermarket. That’s the truth. But that fear is such a prevalant force that you can’t quantify. You can’t measure it. You can’t buy fear in a jar. There’s fear and you instill it in people. And the media does that, people do that, we do it to ourselves too. We’ll drive ourselves crazy, because we internalize our worry, instead of externalizing it and talking to somebody about it who can calm us down. If we go to a friend or family member we externalize that fear. We deal with it. If we internalize everything — this is what the rings do with thoughts. The same thing goes for avarice. Advertising runs the web. It pays for TV. It’s all over billboards. It’s on NASCAR. It’s everywhere. We always want to consume, consume, consume. I go to the candy bar aisle. I like candy bars.
CA: Who doesn’t?
GJ: I go to the candy bar aisle, and it takes me longer to pick out a candy bar than it took me to pick a college. I look at it, and, true story, I look at all the candy bars and I say, “Well I like Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups”, but they have white chocolate peanut butter cups, they have dark chocolate, with nuts, ones that are inside out… And then Snickers has eight Snickers. Mint Three Musketeers bars… all these different things and I’m overwhelmed by it. I want it all. I want to try it all! Did you ever see Supersize Me?
CA: It was frightening.
GJ: Yeah, but it’s the same thing. That’s instilling avarice in us. That’s training us to be gluttons.
CA: So to be gluttons is also to have an expectation of, not just our needs being met, but our instant desires.
GJ: Yeah, as a temporary fix. It’s a temporary fix. It’s a band-aid on a bigger problem. if you’re eating all the time, consuming, wanting this, there’s probably something you’re not dealing with. It’s probably something you’re not feeling, and it’s completely off track. The trainer from “The Biggest Loser,” Jillian Michaels, who’s extremely intelligent, extremely smart, does a radio show that’s really fascinating to listen to, because a lot of that stuff she says is really about emotional baggage.They’re not dealing with their problems, and they’re going to gain the weight right back if they don’t deal with what’s making them do this, what they’re hiding behind. And that’s again another metaphor for the rings.
CA: I think that a lot of people carry around their pain, but with them, they actually wear it on the outside.
GJ: They literally wear it. You’re right.
CA: Comics obviously address a lot of serious topics these days, including social issues where a lot of readers are able to see their real-life experiences acted out and addressed through these characters indirectly. Do you see this as something similar, where you’re more literally tapping into these emotions?
GJ: The thing I like about DC is it’s more metaphorical than literal. Marvel’s more literal. 9/11 happened and they were all there. In DC, it’s just metaphors for that kind of stuff. The Iraq War has metaphors throughout the DC universe. Social issues are very tough, but it goes beyond social issues to personal issues. I’m dealing with personal issues in “Green Lantern.” This might resemble terrorism or stuff on the eleven o’clock news, but it’s also a personal issue. I don’t know if you ever read “Sinestro Corps,” but at the end of it there’s a bit where Hal Jordan tells Coast City, “You have to back away. You need to leave.”
And he tells his brother, who he’s never had a good relationship with — his brother’s the exact opposite of him. He’s a family man. He sells insurance. He worries a lot. Coast City was destroyed, and it got rebuilt. And nobody came there except Hal’s brother and a few other people, but it was fairly empty and Hal goes to his brother and says, “You need to leave.” And also across the city, “Everyone needs to evacuate now.” And his brother says, “We’re not going anywhere.” And his sister-in-law says, “We came here because we believe in you. Why would that change?”
And meanwhile people are in their apartments putting green cellophane on their lights and Kyle Rayner says, “Hal, you’d better check this out.” And there are green lights in all these buildings and the whole city is glowing green just to say, “We’re staying here. We believe in you.” And so Hal flies up to beat the thing. And this is exactly what the whole series is about. They had nicknamed Coast City as Ghost City, but now it’s Coast City the city without fear, because New York evacuated, Chicago evacuated, but Coast City stayed.
At the end of the story you pull back and see “Welcome to Coast City” and the out road is empty and the in road is jammed with people and moving trucks. Everyone wants to go to the city now and be part of something special: Green Lantern’s city without fear. That’s representative to me of a step forward in society and it’s something Green Lantern made happen. It’s not about stopping aliens, it’s about a personal win for him after facing death and Parallax and all this bulls–t he had to go through to get to this point where the city is– it might never be what it was bef
ore, but it’s stronger than it ever was. It’s healed.
CA: Do you feel like metaphor is a more effective storytelling method than addressing things literally?
GJ: I just prefer that. I think people come to my work and see superheroes and say, “good superhero books!” And that’s fine, if that’s all they want. Superheroes were born in comics. Detectives weren’t, vampires weren’t, teenage drama wasn’t. Superheroes are the only thing that was born in comics, and that’s something to celebrate. It’s the only thing that comes from comics and it’s fun, and so I like using superhero stories as metaphors…
“Flash” is another book that to me is a personal book, because it’s about speed, the destruction of speed, how we’re always on our iPods, always drinking all this coffee, always shooting up, we want things to download faster. It’s a quick connection? I want a quicker connection. We get so wrapped up in that, so wrapped up in everything and trying to get information as fast as we can. And that’s something that can remove you from your friends, your family, the reality of things. You get so caught up in this life of “go go go.” You ever been with somebody who’s always thinking, “Where do I have to go next?” And they’re always a little spacey. You’re always, “I need more time, more time, more time.” You’re cramming in more and more things, trying to go faster and faster.
CA: I feel it’s easy for that to happen when you get so plugged in on the internet… I’ll have people around me talking to me, but I’ll be half-ignoring them because I’m trying to think about and do twenty things at once. It can really affect your life if you can’t stop.
GJ: And that’s what Flash is going through now. That’s what it’s about. And I can bury that underneath Flash running around doing cool tricks, but all that stuff is supported with emotional resonance. That whole thing comes from the fact that Barry Allen is always late. He’s always late, so instead of it being a joke, let me turn it into a character trait. Let me turn it into him learning. By the end of the series — I don’t want to spoil it, but at the end of it, the last scene is all about that. Sometimes you need to stop.
CA: But with his power, if he can be run around and do things without the people he’s with noticing, is he really there with them?
GJ: Exactly. Is he really connecting with them? And also, he still wants more time. He’s that fast and he still wants more time. So that means that as fast as we can go, we’ll never have enough time. There’ll never be enough time for all we want to do.
CA: I remember talking with someone about deadlines once and I said, “What if there were more lead time?” And they said, “If we had more lead time we’d just use that too, and we’d still be late.”
GJ: And if they said, “Laura, we need a blog post in ten minutes,” you’d do it. And if they said an hour, you’d do it in an hour. It might come out a bit different; it might be exactly the same. For me that’s another area I’ve personally explored in my own life because I’m a workaholic. I love to work. I love to write. And so I have to explore my life through a lot of this stuff. I go, how the hell’s he going to deal with this? How’s he going to figure his life out until I figure my life out? How’s he going to slow down? And Hal Jordan’s the same way in Green Lantern. How’s he going to deal with all this stuff?
CA: Especially as a superhero, there’s the added responsibility — he could be saving people while he’s at dinner with his girlfriend. And can you put that time aside to do that?
GJ: Exactly, and he can’t. That’s stuff that underpins what I’m going to be doing, instead of being on top of the layer, preaching. It’s going to be disguised as a superhero book. But this is all my process of what goes into writing. It’s for the readers to get it out of the comic, but they don’t have to. But it always will be relevant. It’s like the theme of overcoming fear. It’s not like ten years from now it’ll be, “Fear is over now, everybody. Congratulations!” You know what I mean? And that’s why characters like Green Lantern can always be relevant if you explore a theme that makes them relevant.