At “Greenest Night,” the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund and Comic Book Resources’ co-sponsored celebration of Geoff Johns and his nearly decade-long run on “Green Lantern,” fans and colleagues alike gathered to recognize the accomplishments of the acclaimed writer and DC Comics Chief Creative Officer.
But while the fans who wandered Hollywood’s Bardot nightclub during last Friday’s event knew Johns primarily through his work, writer and head of Marvel Television Jeph Loeb has been a friend for decades. Loeb spoke with CBR during the event, recalling their first meeting in “Superman” director Richard Donner’s office.
“I had come in order to pitch Dick Donner and was so thrilled to meet Dick. There was this guy — [Marvel Studios President of Production] Kevin Feige was there too, so it was this weird moment in time,” Loeb recalled. While he was there to discuss a potential TV show, upon meeting Johns, Donner’s assistant at the time, the two “really hit it off.”
“[Geoff] said, ‘Come on back to my office,’ but his office was a supply closet that he had sort of commandeered. He didn’t really have an office: He just put in a desk and a chair — and it was a high school desk, it wasn’t even a full desk! And then everything around him was supplies!” Loeb laughed. “I was like, ‘Dude, you don’t really have an office, do you?’ He was like, ‘No, it is an office!’ Periodically, you could hear Dick yell for him through the walls.”
Writer Sterling Gates, current writer on DC’s “Vibe,” began his own career as Johns’ assistant and also reminisced with CBR about his first meeting with Johns, at the 2006 WonderCon.
“My buddy was super drunk. I had to get him food because he was super drunk. So we went down to the lobby of our hotel, and Geoff was there with [then DC editor] Steve Wacker,” Gates laughed, recalling his friend’s enthusiasm at meeting the two.
“Geoff was very gracious and cool. They were going to the same diner we were going to, and it was very awkward for me because I was sober and my buddy was a wasted chatterbox. We walk into the same diner talking about comics, and they go to get their table, but the tables are super close together. I turned to my friend and held my menu up and was like, ‘If you talk to them while we eat, I will kick your ass!'” Laughing again, Gates said that at the end of the meal, he had the waitress bring over Johns’ check, paying for his future boss’ meal.
“I came up to Geoff and said, ‘Hey man, sorry my friend is wasted. I paid your check, our bad.’ Geoff was like, without missing a beat, ‘Do you need a job? You said you just moved to Hollywood — do you need a job?’ I said, ‘Yeah, that’d be great!'”
Gates was hired on “Blade: The Series” as a writer’s PA [production assistant], eventually becoming Johns’ assistant once the show was cancelled. Seven years later, Johns helped Gates sell his first stories to DC Comics. “I started writing for DC, and that was that.”
While Gates worked as Johns’ assistant, he got to read nearly all of the writer’s scripts, including his favorite, the Batman/Green Lantern team-up in “Green Lantern” #10.
“I finished the issue and was like, ‘This is great — do you have plans for Batman in this book?’ He told me the story about the Sinestro Corps ring appearing before Batman and saying, ‘You have the ability to inspire great fear,’ before trying to latch onto him.” Waving his hands for effect, Gates continued, “I threw my arms in the air and was like, ‘Oh my God! That is the greatest fucking thing I ever heard!’ And he was like, ‘If you think that’s awesome–‘ and started telling me about his plans for ‘Sinestro Corps War.'”
As for Loeb, who eventually founded and ran a studio with Johns called the Empathic Magic Treehouse, there is no one story that defines Johns. Rather, it’s Johns’ willingness to collaborate and give feedback that has made the biggest impression on the “Hush” and “Long Halloween” writer.
“It’s so funny, because if you ask him, he’ll tell the story the other way around, but we always had each other to just come in and say, ‘Can I run something by you? Does this make sense? I have this scene, but I don’t know how to end it,'” Loeb said. “Even though we don’t share an office anymore, we still do it.”
This willingness is what marks Johns as a truly great writer in Loeb’s eyes, and what will ultimately make the job of Robert Venditti, the next writer to take on “Green Lantern,” that much more of a challenge.
“The thing about comics is, it’s one continual serialized epic. It doesn’t ever really end. Even thought Geoff’s leaving ‘Green Lantern,’ that story doesn’t stop,” Loeb explained. “There’s going to be a ‘Green Lantern’ #21 that starts right after that. That next writer will have to take all that Geoff did and carry it forward, and I’m not talking about continuity. I’m talking about understanding who you’re working with and the characters.”
Looking at Johns’ breadth of work, Loeb continued, “When you have somebody who is like Geoff, who has so defined for the past nine years who Hal Jordan is and what the ring is, that whole world and universe, you can’t not acknowledge it. You can take it in a new direction, but that’s the challenge any writer has when they come on, whether you write movies or television or animation or comics. You’re working with something that pre-exists you. You’re not creating whole cloth.”
Laughing, Loeb claimed Johns writing ability is actually just an outreach of his cooking prowess. “He’s an extraordinary cook, and in a weird way, I think that’s how he writes. His ability to blend flavors in food is what he does when he tells stories. He sees things that have been done in the past, takes a little of that and creates something brand new. It’s Geoff Johns.”
Gates believes that what kept Johns afloat when so many doubted him was his command of character and understanding of what makes them universal appealing.
“I think that’s Geoff’s strength: distilling characters down to very basic ideas that people can latch onto and creating point of view characters people want to root for and want to follow in their adventures.
“I look at my time working for him as a writing apprenticeship,” Gates continued. “I called it comic book grad school at one point because I was a 23-year-old kid when I moved to LA, and once I started working with him everything he taught me was about character and how to write strong characters people want to read.”
Working with Johns was not always a serious matter. With a sly smile and furtive glance around the room, Loeb recalled having to drive a drunk Johns home from a party once, trying to keep him occupied while they made their way back home.
“This is how geeky we are: I started picking out members of the Justice Society and I’d be like, ‘Mister Terrific is really lame! Anyone could beat up Mister Terrific!’ Suddenly, he’d light up, his brain would come on and he’d go, ‘You don’t know what you’re talking about — this is what’s great about Mister Terrific!'” Loeb laughed.
“I managed to get him to home and to bed and out of my car this way, so the JSA saved my car is the moral of the story!”
Like the fans who packed the Bardot Friday night, Loeb and Gates see Johns as more than just a friend or employer but as a fundamental part of their lives.
“When Geoff was talking about how comics create a bond with people, that’s it. When you have those stories, those legends, those characters, it’s a shorthand you can use with people. Once we started sharing the same place, we saw each other every day and it became about family and life and all those things,” Loeb said, adding that even when the two began working for the industry’s two big competitors, “We just stayed friends through it all.”
Gates concurred with Loeb, chuckling as he spoke about his time working for, and with, the writer.
“He’s gone from my boss to my friend, and I consider him part of my family. My mom considers him part of our family,” Gates laughed. “He went to Oklahoma with me years ago to do a signing, and he saw where I grew up!”
“He means a lot to me, and I consider him my brother. It’s been a great experience to work with him for seven years.”