The Geoff Johns Literalism Method: A Primer
Geoff Johns is quite possibly the single most successful superhero comics writer in the business today, with an almost alchemical ability to transform any struggling franchise or character into a top-tier title ripe for spinoffs and multimedia exploitation. It’s a feat the writer performed not only with Green Lantern, but also with DC Comics’ The Flash and Justice Society of America. The “New Geoff Johns #1 Issue” is a market force to be reckoned with, and this past September he began to do it again with the New 52’s Justice League and Aquaman.
What is it that Geoff Johns does so well when it comes to revitalizing characters? It’s very simple: reduce the character or team into a single core idea and rebuild every aspect of the mythology around that idea. I’ve termed this “Johnsian Literalism,” and it’s an approach that’s becoming more widely used.A character’s location, family, friends and villains should all reflect or refract an aspect of that core idea — a crystalline, fractal concept that extends itself into every narrative tendril of every story. In order to see how Johnsian Literalism has been applied throughout the course of Johns’s work, let’s examine how it has functioned his most successful franchises and speculate about the formative influences that helped him develop this distinctive approach.
This distinction between denying fear and overcoming it was central to the first 25 issues of Johns’s GL series. All of his villains suffered from or were themselves manifestations of fear. Hal’s hometown, Coast City, was consumed with fear in the aftermath of an apocalyptic attack by genocidal aliens in the ’90s. Hal had a fearful brother with children whom he’d raised to be afraid of the world. The monster Parallax, itself the living embodiment of fear, conspired with longtime villain Sinestro — repositioned in Johns’ run as a kind of Space Osama Bin Laden — to assemble a corps of space terrorists, who of course use fear as their primary weapon, to screw with Hal Jordan and his space cop friends. The villains fed off of fear, Hal Jordan tried to get in touch with his own fear, and everyone around him was fearful or inspiring fear.
The theme of fear is in the very core of the comic and extends out to every interaction of the characters, and the result was one of the most successful superhero reboots of the modern era. Indeed, Johns’ work on the series, particularly on The Sinestro Corps War, was held up as the model for the rest of the DC line, and continues to be an influence in the wake of the New 52.
Justice Society of America (2006): Family
Interestingly, the next time Johns used the technique was on a book he’d written before: Justice Society of America, previously known as JSA. Johns had worked on JSA with screenwriter and film director David Goyer, but returned with that crucial new Geoff Johns #1 Issue and an entirely new direction that recalibrated the franchise on a single axis: family.
Characters like Wildcat, who’d previously been eternal loners, were given long-lost children. Hourman and Liberty Belle were not only engaged, but actually got married (relatively rare in superhero comics). Even villains like Black Adam were searching for their own families. Some surrogate families were formed, like the sisterly bond between Stargirl and Cyclone. Ultimately, the Justice Society were just that, a society; they hung out together, ate together, lived together.
That familial relationship was at the core of every single story Johns told with the rebooted team. He pushed the book into the top ten consistently, which is notable enough on its but the last volume, JSA, hadn’t sold anywhere near as well despite also being written by Geoff Johns. It wasn’t just his name that led to the title’s new success, it was the new approach.
Johns took over The Flash with 2009’s The Flash: Rebirth. Like Justice Society of America, it was a franchise he’d written before but in an entirely different way. The book was drawn Ethan Van Sciver, echoing the hugely successful approach to Green Lantern. After the Silver Age Flash, Barry Allen, returned in 2008’s Final Crisis by Grant Morrison and J.G. Jones, Johns picked up the narrative ball and ran with it, reimagining Barry Allen and the Flash’s world around the central concept of speed and the necessity to sometimes slow down and appreciate life.
This involved changing Barry’s backstory: after his resurrection in Blackest Night, Professor Zoom travelled back in time and killed Barry Allen’s mother, framing Allen’s father for the crime. Thus, the post-Final Crisis Barry Allen was a slightly different character from his previous incarnation; now haunted by the vestiges of memory of a life with his parents he didn’t have, the “cold case” of his mother’s murder — of which his father was unjustly jailed — drove him to pursue forensic science to ensure the validity of verdicts.
However, Barry was so focused on his goal that he couldn’t slow down and appreciate life. The setting of Central City also reflected the hero; Johns explicitly portrayed it as a place that never slowed down, deliberately pointing out the city’s dependence on coffee and the hurried approach the law (other than Allen, of course) took to solving cases and moving on to new business. It was Get It Done Fast, Methamphetamine City, and the book’s core theme — the need to slow down and enjoy life — built itself in the center of this new Barry Allen and expanded to the rest of The Flash’s world. His extended family was something he needed to slow down and appreciate; justice was something you needed to slow down to get; patience, and accepting what you have, is more important than haste.
Johns’s final Barry Allen story, this summer’s event series Flashpoint with Andy Kubert, saw Allen attempt to change the past and resurrect his mother but instead nearly destroy the entire world. At the end, before he re-attempted to change the past and stop himself, The Flash has a conversation with his mother where she reassures him that her death is okay and that Barry needs to accept that she’s going to be gone.
The New 52 (2011): Green Lantern Accepts Emotion, Aquaman’s a Fish Out of Water
This brings us to Johns’s three New 52 titles: Green Lantern, where the central concept has evolved from accepting fear to accepting emotion in general; Justice League, which actually avoids the standard Johnsian Literalism approach by moving the focus from theme to character, and Aquaman with Ivan Reis, which features a classic Johnsian Literalism approach: Aquaman is a fish out of water.
Aquaman’s origin as a half-human, half-Atlantean product of a forbidden love between an underwater princess and a fisherman forms the core of his character; stuck between two worlds and popular in neither of them. The surface dwellers of the DC Universe don’t take him seriously; his fellow Atlanteans consider him an outsider. He isn’t at home anywhere, feeling like an awkward outsider in basically every situation — it’s possible this will also color his experience in the Justice League, but he hasn’t shown up in that title yet. It seems likely that as the series and its scope increases, that theme will progress even further out; his wife, Mera, is already in a similar fish-out-of-water position, and it can be expected that the new villains, the Trench, will somehow tie into that theme as well.
Johns mastered this approach and made it very popular in superhero comics. Variations from other writers include Ed Brubaker and Matt Fraction’s Immortal Iron Fist and Jason Aaron on Ghost Rider. They utilized aspects of the Johnsian approach to extend the legacies of their characters into millennia-spanning epics and create entire worlds around the main characters and their themes, like vengeance in the case of Ghost Rider or accepting responsibility in the case of Iron Fist.
But now that we’ve established Johnsian Literalism as a successful and recurring technique, we must ask how did the technique develop? The evidence of David Goyer’s influence in shaping Johns’s approach to writing is extremely convincing, especially if you look at much of Goyer’s recent film writing, such as on Blade or Batman Begins.
The theme of blood — both literally and metaphorically (i.e. ancestry) — runs through much of the Blade films. The vampires themselves are elitist about being “pure-blood” vampires as opposed to converted ones, Blade is haunted by his blood, and the hero’s love interest is even a hematologist. Blade fights the “Blood God” at the end of the first film, and kills the villain by injecting him with a compound that makes his blood explode.
Similarly, Batman Begins focused on the theme of fear, as anyone who’s seen the film and read ComicsAlliance’s Cinematic Batmanology probably knows. Bruce Wayne had to overhome his childhood fear to become a figure of fear and inspire fear, but a different fear from that inspired by his antagonists Ra’s al Ghul and the Scarecrow, who reveled fear, rather than using it as a weapon like Bruce did. Considering the long run Goyer and Johns had together on JSA, it’s certainly possible that Goyer’s heavily thematic approach informed and influenced the more refined Geoff Johns take. The pair also worked together on the short-lived Blade television series for Spike TV.
Whether or not Goyer was a definite influence on Johns, the similarities between their styles, as well as the successes they’ve inspired, are undeniable. Johns has pioneered an approach to taking over a character’s mythos that has changed the superhero landscape and provided a model for young writers to map their efforts after. Johns managed to create a framework for managing a character’s history and mythology that still encourages creative storytelling and building on existing continuity. The market reaction has been resoundingly positive, with the highest sales for Green Lantern, Justice Society of America, Flash and certainly Aquaman in years.
Will a new project that uses his trademark Johnsian Literalism replace Green Lantern when Johns’s work on that title finally comes to an end? Will Johns eventually apply this approach to Justice League? It’s hard to say, especially since his schedule seems pretty filled up right now between three ongoing DC titles and his work as the company’s Chief Creative Officer, overseeing the DC brand as it develops in film, television and other media. But judging by his construction of Aquaman so far, Geoff Johns hasn’t dropped the technique, and it’s likely to not only continue but expanded further and, as the way this kind of idea transference works, perhaps inform a new successful approach by another creator.