Graphic Novel Friday: Blackest Night: Interview with Geoff Johns
Aside from the vuvuzela-esque drone of swooning Eclipse fans, it’s been a fairly quiet summer at the cinema. My money is still on Christopher Nolan’s Inception, but until then, the blockbuster is alive and cranked all the way to 11 in comics.
The action reaches its four-color peak this July with Blackest Night, and on the cusp of the event’s release next week, mastermind Geoff Johns walked me through the seven-book, universe-spanning colossus. Clocking in at over 1,700 pages, the Green Lantern-centric story promises surprisingly bloody thrills with ramifications that will affect the foreseeable future of stories at DC Comics. Long-dead heroes and villains rise from the grave and stalk the living, while power rings splinter to form a full spectrum of color-coded super-heroics. As we discussed the event, Geoff opened up about the timelessness of characters like Sinestro and Hawk and Dove, the delicate balance of introducing new characters in the DCU (and the rewards of seeing them take off), and what lies beyond Blackest Night, including his top-secret Batman project with artist Gary Frank.
(A full transcript follows the podcast.)
Amazon.com: Before we get into your comics, let’s talk about your recent job promotion. In February, you were named DC Comics’ Chief Creative Officer. Was this a goal for you, to take a step up from writing to a top-level approach at DC?
Geoff Johns: I had been asked by Warner Bros. to consult on their theatrical movies for a while now, and when Diane Nelson formed DC Entertainment, she came to me and asked if I’d be interested in working on all the stuff outside the comics. So, my focus has shifted to working with Warner Bros. and with Diane on the film, TV, animation, and video game projects based on our DC characters.
Amazon.com: In this new role, are you still going to be so hands-on with events like Blackest Night, where you are orchestrating them across the company as well as writing them, or is it going to be more of a directorial approach?
Geoff Johns: Dan Didio and Jim Lee are the publishers now, and they’re in charge of Editorial. My focus is clearly on everything outside the comics. I still write Green Lantern and Flash and Brightest Day right now, but that’s about the extent of what I’m doing in comics. I’ll still be writing two books once Brightest Day is over—probably about two books a month, maximum, because of my schedule. But I love writing comics, so I hope to do that for a long time.
Amazon.com: There has been the Green Lantern oath that has long made reference to a “blackest night” in a figurative sense, but as far as I know, you’re the first writer to turn it into an actual event. Can you give some insight into what this series involves and what fans can expect?
Geoff Johns: Blackest Night is really about life versus death. It’s about the nature of the universe, what life is about, how we struggle to find purpose in life and ask the question “Why does life exist?” But it’s really—on the super-hero front, it’s about black rings coming down from the sky and raising the dead.
Amazon.com: How did this series evolve as you worked so closely with the Green Lantern books, beginning with Rebirth?
Geoff Johns: I looked at the Green Lantern mythology, and it’s always been about overcoming fear and willpower, so I wanted to go back to that emotional core. And when I started to explore it--what they’d created for the Green Lantern Corps in the past is this great emotional foundation of a character who’s chosen to be a Green Lantern--and really bring that to the forefront. And make it all about emotions--the positives and negatives of emotion, and how we can use emotion as our strength and our power.
Amazon.com: You’ve introduced several characters in the event who play into that emotional spectrum. What’s it like to introduce new characters into a universe with such a rich history?
Geoff Johns: Well, you know, it’s hard to get new characters to stick, but I think it’s definitely possible if they’re unique, different, because there are so many niches in the DC Universe that are full--like if you want to create a great mystic character, we have so many, like Zatanna and Doctor Fate, The Spectre. You’ve really got to find a personality and an M.O. for a character that doesn’t exist. Because the other Lanterns are based on emotion, like Larfleeze, Atrocitus, and Saint Walker, that emotional core pushes them in a totally different way.
So, you get a character like Larfleeze, who’s a bit 1930s, 1940s Daffy Duck and Uncle Scrooge rolled into one--a bit of a Looney Tunes character, a bit of a modern day hoarder--so it’s a character that doesn’t exist in the DC Universe. And he’s funny; he’s dark and funny at the same time. The same thing could be said for Saint Walker, that he’s a bit of a monk, an inner-galactic space monk or priest [more] than he is a superhero. They’ve resonated with people because they embody things, like “All will be well” is Saint Walker’s motto, and “All will be well” is important to remember in life. We can get caught up in these little things, like Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff, and [Saint Walker] is a character you can look up to and aspire to be. I think any time a character can resonate with you emotionally it gives him lasting power.
But the Lantern Corps, because the various characters are based on emotions, it really allows you to fully embrace what that emotion is about and turn it inward on your own self, like “What do rage and anger mean to me, personally? Why do I let it take me over at times? What does love mean?” I think that’s why the new Lantern Corps have stuck, because they help to reflect back on yourself and your own emotional journey in life as they represent the kind of hyper-realized, cartoonish, super-heroic and super-villainous embodiments of those emotions.
Amazon.com: Larfleeze in particular resonated with fans. Are there plans for him coming up?
Geoff Johns: Yeah, he’s actually going to be Green Lantern [issue #] 56 and onward and sporadically through the series. He’s a part of the mythology now. And then this Christmas I’m hoping--fingers crossed--that I’ll be doing a Larfleeze Christmas Special. And that’s about him, basically--in the upcoming issue of Green Lantern, he finds out about this fantastic being that lives on Earth called Santa Claus. When he doesn’t give anything to Larfleeze, Larfleeze goes looking for him, and that’s the type of character that’s fun. You can’t really do that with any other character in the DC Universe.
Amazon.com: Can you talk a bit about the scope of Blackest Night?
Geoff Johns: The scope was originally just going to be in the Green Lantern books, but Dan Didio really, really wanted to open the scope--he felt there was a lot of story potential in other books in the DC Universe--and make Blackest Night its own series. I’m glad he did that because I wouldn’t have had the space to tell the other stories, like building Mera up, a character I think has resonated with a lot of people, and allowing the other Lanterns to interact with the DC Universe, like Lex Luthor and The Atom. I’ve been really fortunate.
Amazon.com: Do you have any advice for fans who are reading this event for the first time? If someone picks up Blackest Night and the Green Lantern and Green Lantern Corps tie-ins, is there a way to read all three in tandem while still keep the story spoiler-free?
Geoff Johns: It’d be very difficult, because the books are pretty tightly plotted. I think if you read Blackest Night, and then you could pick up Green Lantern and Green Lantern Corps and the other books--they could kind of give you more of the story. You know, more events that happen and how characters got to where they are. But Blackest Night itself--you need to read that first.
Amazon.com: It seemed like in the Green Lantern book, you got a little bit more of the back-story on Sinestro.
Geoff Johns: Yeah, Sinestro has turned into, I think, a great, great character in the Green Lantern mythology. He had a great basis already, and all we did was explore it further and push that relationship with him and Abin Sur and Hal Jordan. He’s become arguably one of the most popular DC villains in the past five years, and I think he’s only going to get more popular in the mainstream when we see Mark Strong as Sinestro next summer [in the Green Lantern film]. But he’ll be a focal part of the book from here on out. He’s Hal Jordan’s Lex Luthor or Two-Face. He’s the most complex villain Hal has because of that past history of Sinestro once being Hal’s mentor and now his enemy.
Amazon.com: Was this a goal for you when you started on the Green Lantern books: to bring Sinestro into greater visibility?
Geoff Johns: Yeah, because of the potential of him as a character and his relationship with Hal Jordan, we knew from the first time I got on the book that Sinestro was going to be a major player in the Green Lantern story, or he should be.
Amazon.com: Two characters I think you are doing something slightly similar with, although on a much smaller scale, are Hawk and Dove. One of the first comics that I read by you was JSA: Darkness Calls, where you made great use of them, and I don’t think I’m spoiling anything by saying that Dove plays a role in Blackest Night. What is it about these two, at best, B-list characters that has kept them in your back pocket now for almost ten years?
Geoff Johns: I love--I always loved Dove. I thought she was a really compelling character, and her and Hawk’s interaction was terrific. I wanted to use this opportunity to push characters. In Blackest Night, we had Flash and we had Green Lantern, who are already very well-known, and while the spotlight was on these two, I wanted to move into the spotlight characters like Mera and Dove and some of the other ones we used to introduce them to readers who might not have read about them before. I knew we had plans post-Blackest Night for both Dove and Mera, with Hawk and Aquaman as well. I really love Dove, and I saw it as an opportunity to push her into a bigger role in the DC Universe.
Amazon.com: Hawk and Dove have been through several iterations throughout their history, some great, some kind of off-the-wall. Do you have a particular era that you are a fan of?
Geoff Johns: I just like the base concept of one person who embodies war and chaos and the other who embodies order, peace. I just think that dynamic really works, and it’s been there for most of them. I think there was one iteration that wasn’t connected at all to Steve Ditko’s concept, but just that concept itself and having those two characters balance [out] each other--it’s going to be timeless because war and peace is a timeless topic.
That’s what I like about these characters: overcoming fear is timeless. As human beings, as long as we are feeling emotions, as long as we are in a society where things aren’t perfect, we’re always going to have to overcome fear. That means getting out of bed in the morning; that means getting on a plane; it means going for that new job--whatever it means, that’s important for a character. If that character is timeless, that character will survive. The core concept of Hawk and Dove...always looking for the concept that will make that resonate with people, and I think Hawk and Dove can do that.
Amazon.com: We touched on the Green Lantern call-to-arms earlier, but there is another phrase in there--“brightest day”--that also comes into play. You’re dealing with themes of darkness and light, but is this next event as clear-cut as that, like a flip-side to Blackest night?
Geoff Johns: Blackest Night was all about overcoming death, and Brightest Day is all about embracing life. Some of these characters, like Aquaman and Martian Manhunter--Peter Tomasi and I have plotted this all out, and really we wanted to make it a journey of all these characters embracing life and learning to live again, and what that means to them. And redefining them in the process. A lot of the stories, when you read it, you’ll notice that they actually go back to the very origins of the characters. That’s not by accident. It’s because we wanted to remind people and also introduce people to these characters who might not know them. It’s also because every story comes from the beginnings of these characters. So, not only will you see the beginnings of these characters in a different light, but you’ll also see these characters moving forward with a new purpose in life. And that’s what it’s supposed to be: embracing life and, by the end of it, finding a different path and heading off into the DC Universe.
Amazon.com: Probably one of the most important upcoming books is your Batman: Earth One, which is an original graphic novel.
Geoff Johns: Batman: Earth One, it’s a very--Gary Frank and I wanted to do a very different take on Batman. In every incarnation of Batman, he’s always been a pro. He’s always known exactly what he’s doing, and we wanted to rewind that clock a bit and meet Batman when he’s not very good at his job. So, it’s a little more fun than your normal Batman book. It’s a bit quirky. It’s still a Batman book, though, so it’s got that, you know, “Dark Knight.” It is very different from anything you’ve ever seen, and because it’s so far off, I don’t’ want to spoil too much about it.
Amazon.com: Is there a pub date for it yet?
Geoff Johns: No, none that I know of.
Amazon.com: And you’re collaborating again with Gary Frank.
Geoff Johns: It’s great. Gary and I are one of those very rare teams that I think you connect with--something happens when we write. I actually lift the dialogue out of my books when I work with Gary. If you look at anything I’ve done with Gary, there’s no narration. His work speaks for itself. His emotional beats, I like to let those breathe--you know, let the acting act. He’s a brilliant storyteller, though, one of the best in the business by far, and I’m incredibly lucky to be partnered with him.
Amazon.com: Sounds like fans have a lot to look forward to: Blackest Night in July, Brightest Day, your continued work on Green Lantern, and then Batman: Earth One. Thank you so much for taking the time out of your busy day to talk with Omnivoracious.
Geoff Johns: Thank you, man. Any time.