When DC Comics officially announced the new creative team for “Superman” back in February, the company decided to shake up things in a big way: not only would Chief Creative Officer Geoff Johns write the character in his solo book, he would be joined by none other than legendary artist John Romita, Jr. for his first ever book at DC.
Now the creative duo are poised to shake things up just as much narratively, promising brand new characters, brand new villains and a refusal to rely on the “same old, same old,” in Romita’s words, when it comes to Clark’s status quo.
With about a month to go before their run begins in “Superman” #32, Johns and Romita spoke with CBR News about what they hope to accomplish on the book, dispensing with familiar foes and frankly addressing both their detractors and their own concerns for the Man of Tomorrow.
CBR News: At this point we’ve seen previews of the first few pages of issue #32, which has Clark walking into the Daily Planet, with Jimmy and even Titano. With this first arc, do you want to bring back the classic elements of Superman — put the band back together and go from there?
Geoff Johns: It’s actually a little bit of the opposite. I was fortunate enough to land this with John, taking on the “Superman” title for the first time — I’ve never written this book. I went back and read everything that had been done in the New 52; I’m obviously familiar with all the other Superman stuff. John and I talked about it and John really is the impetus of, “Let’s do something new!” I want to do something new too; I love Brainiac and Parasite, but we’ve seen Superman take these guys on and we already know the reasons of why he’s taking them on. We want to do something new while still staying true to the core of the character. There are some great supporting cast members in Superman’s world that are undervalued sometimes, like Perry White and Jimmy Olsen, and that stuff we absolutely want to bring in these great elements, those classic parts. But at the same time our goal is to do new stuff. Our goal is to challenge Superman with new threats that he’s never faced before, new antagonists and introduce new characters like Ulysses that will resonate with Superman but are a mystery and are unfamiliar.
The storyline is called “The Men Of Tomorrow” and really that’s kind of an umbrella for the big story we’re doing it. I equate it to like Jim [Lee] and Jeph [Loeb’s] “Hush” where there are a lot of core elements of “Superman” in there, core characters and classics. We want to stay true to that character because I want to reaffirm what Superman believes in and the optimistic hero he is. At the same time you want to introduce brand new things, and that was really important to John and myself, to introduce things like Ulysses and the Machinist and what’s coming up because there are elements I think you get a lot of value out of that have been around for 75 plus years, but then we want new things. We want people to not know what to expect from what Superman’s going through, and for Superman to feel things and experience things and overcome challenges that are brand new to him. Our theme for this whole thing is really “entering the unknown,” and that’s what John and I are both doing.
John Romita, Jr.: The irony of this to me is, in my own personal show I’ve been in the business long enough that I’m conscious of trying to do something different only because it’s very easy to get stale as an artist in this business. Especially since everything spectacular has been done before; all of these great artists before me and even the guys who came out the same time as me, it’s kind of like coming up with a new melody as a song writer or musician. How do you come up with a new melody? [Laughs] How do you come up with something novel? It’s flooded! So you’re conscious of doing something new — and here I am, jumping on a character that’s been here for 75 years. That’s exactly not a good strategic move on my part! [Laughter]
But I’m with Geoff, who’s also conscious of this, and the fact that the New 52 is a new wrinkle on characters. It’s ironic that I’m trying to do something different and I’m using the oldest character, but the fact is that Geoff is conscious of trying something different, and that this is all an unknown. It’s an unknown quantity me doing it, and then me working with Geoff, we’ve never worked together before. It applies to the storyline; it’s an unknown storyline for Superman. I got very excited about the fact that it would not be same old, same old. Even with Titano, as you mentioned, it’s ironic again that it’s not the same old bad guys, it’s a different take; you have to see how Geoff used Titano, it plays towards the main villain.
Johns: For me, when I went back and read and tweaked a bit in the New 52, there are some things John and I wanted to adhere to as far as the emotional traits of the character and some of the world around him that we think explores the character in great ways. But really it is all about the unknown, it is all about the Men of Tomorrow and what that is — and that’s Superman, Ulysses, Machinist and all these other characters we’re going to be introducing both in Superman’s personal life and the antagonists he’s facing and the heroes that he interacts with. We want a lot of new stuff because Superman really doesn’t have that many people to talk to anymore! [Laughter] His parents are dead and Lois Lane doesn’t really know him. They really fundamentally changed that aspect of Superman’s character. That, right away, every time when I was just brainstorming I thought, well he’s going to have to go talk to Batman or Wonder Woman or somebody else. We really wanted to explore what that was like for Clark and how to rectify that, in a way. It’s not going to be completely clear, but it’s part of the storyline in who does Superman confide in? Who can he confide in? That’s where the germination for Ulysses came from. Ulysses, I don’t want to spoil who he is or where he’s from or what his back story is, but you’ll know from the first couple pages everything you need to know about him.
Talking about Ulysses and the Machinist and the idea of the Men of Tomorrow, it sounds like they go part and parcel with wanting to bring in new elements. So as the writer and artist, how do each of you go about creating new, challenging foes for Superman — someone who, as you guys said, has been around for so long and has been done by so many people?
Romita: I’ll start with the visual. There’s always panic about how to design something and coming up with something that people aren’t going to laugh at and go, “Oh, that’s been done a million times!” As a matter of fact, at one point I drew a design on Ulysses where Geoff said, “Those boots and gloves look like they’ve been done before.” To me that’s a big red light. I appreciated that because he was spot on and we ended up coming up with something better. The design ended up being a group of ideas; Geoff came up with a name, threw an idea of what he had in mind, I start designing a character, I threw it back to him and the editor and get a reaction. We ended up coming to a good design, a quality design, and I’m really happy with it. The whole idea is to do something different, and yet it’s almost impossible to do something different, so you go in with the intent and hopefully you get lucky. I don’t know if we got lucky but I think by design, so to speak, we end up with a quality design! [Laughter]
Johns: Yeah, and for me coming up with the character — and there’s more than one, we’re going to introduce a lot of characters — but coming up with a character like Ulysses who is more a supporting cast character than a real antagonist, it’s how do we create someone who can connect with Superman who can only live in this book? We want to tell stories that can only be told in “Superman.” That’s a challenge I think for a lot of people but any time I have a solo book it has to be that. If I can just take Ulysses out, plug him into another story and it works then it’s not a Superman story. This character is specifically for this. There is not another way this character can exist outside the world of Superman. He doesn’t resonate, he doesn’t emotionally connect to anyone else like he would Superman; there’s a lot of aspects of this character, because the character, like Superman, was sent away from his own world when it was going through disaster and grew up somewhere else, and Superman meets someone with a similar experience. There are a couple of big twists to that, but really that’s where the idea started. You have to create characters that can only really emotionally resonate to Superman and him and his world for them to feel like they belong. His character, I think, certainly does.
With that it seems like you’re dealing with Superman’s isolation while at the same time you’ve got this idea for a character who shares similarities with him, and possibly more. What is the most important theme or idea you two wanted to play with coming onto the book?
Romita: Oh boy. In all brutal honesty and all humility, I really had no idea! I think that’s exciting; it’s looking into a situation where there’s a fear of the unknown, and that actually plays into the story! The fact that I hadn’t done this before, that I hadn’t worked with this writer before, on account that it’s been around forever, it’s a paradox but I embraced it because I wanted to see if there was anything that could be new and different. And we ended up getting there, just out of the dynamic of working with somebody I hadn’t worked with before. Two disparate sets of ideas and then we come together with a similar drive towards getting to that different stuff. I was conscious of trying to do something new and different, panicking at the thought of working at a character that’s been around so long and is so storied. Then reading the synopsis of the whole story, and Geoff explained to me over the phone months before he sent the synopsis, it suddenly made me feel comfortable.
And then working on the character — there’s a cape, and I’ve done capes before. There’s this gigantic power and I’ve done gigantic powers. So I began realizing I’m not changing businesses, I’m not changing jobs; I’m changing stories, I’m changing characters. It’s tearing me apart: I want to do something different, but if I really went into a whole new business, if I went into advertising I’d probably be having anxiety attacks every morning! [Laughs] So I’m in the same business. I wanted to try something different — got something different, panicked because it was completely different, then settled back down with a writer who’s brilliant, and now here we are coming up with really cool designs. So the emotional roller coaster that I was on was exhilarating, it really was, and we ended up doing quality work. I’m really, really proud of the way this is coming out.
Johns: I am too, I mean I couldn’t be prouder of this book, and also that first issue is something you can hand to anybody. I believe, and it’s how I approached Superman when I was on “Action Comics” with Gary [Frank], I really believe that Superman is such an accessible character. The thing I love is it’s a once in a lifetime chance to work with John. I honestly never dreamed I’d have the chance, and I still can’t believe I’m this lucky! [Romita laughs] But the one thing I want to make sure we did was create a story we can hand to anyone. I can say, check this out, this story in “Superman” #32 is a comic anybody can pick up and that’s whether they read comics or not.
Earlier you mentioned “Hush” as a comparison — is there a quintessential Superman story or take that influences the way you approach this or the way you two talk about Superman together?
Romita: Oh boy. [Laughs]
Johns: You know, I’m inspired by so many different things, not just comics but things outside of the comics that involve Superman — and don’t involve Superman — for this storyline. It’s got a bunch of “Twilight Zone” in our storyline. I think it feels very original. Again, I’ve seen Superman fight Brainiac, I know what that’s about, I know how those all play out. This is a creating a story where, again, we wanted to enter the unknown and play with that. Creating a story that brings unknown elements in helps us carve our own path. For me, I’m inspired by all the great qualities of Superman. He’s got to be the superhero who everyone looks up to. He has to believe in a better tomorrow when other people don’t. It’s very simple stuff that he has to hold onto that he is special not just because he can fly or throw a punch that can knock a train through a building, but he’s got to be a character that inspires people and that just has values that rise above the rest. He’s a very compassionate character, and he’s very tough, too. For me, those classic elements, I can’t point to a specific run, but those are the things I take from Superman that has to be in the story.
Romita: Now how am I supposed to follow that up! [Laughter] Honestly, the very thing I didn’t like about Superman was that he was perfect. And here we are, working on the imperfections of the character, and that’s important. What you do is raise the level of the villains, so to speak, and make it more difficult for him to succeed. Then you suddenly have an imperfect character. So if he gets beaten up by a guy who’s a little bit stronger than him, that’s a solution to it — but that’s too simplistic. So Geoff comes up with a storyline which goes through the process I’m happy with, which is him exploring the very thing I was concerned with about the character: Superman is introspective about this. Like Geoff said before, he has nobody to talk to! That’s the very thing a character like this should have, “Oh my god, I am this! Now who am I going to talk to? I can’t talk to the bartender down the block!” And Superman can’t beat up muggers — Superman has to come up with super muggers, he has to fight super muggers!
Romita: So you adjust. It really is a limitation, this guy is so powerful you have to come up with something that works those limitations, and Geoff had that in mind. I was worried about that and then my fears were allayed, and I think that’s what we’ve come to with the new character, which is Ulysses. I won’t go into anything beyond that, but it perfectly applies to what I was worried about which Geoff had in mind. And there’s so much more to the character than this that it’s a natural progression. With Superman, who is he going to talk to? What is he going to do with himself being what he is? You can’t just have him win all the time, you know?
Johns: The other thing is too, people always say, “How do you challenge Superman?” Well, it’s not just physically but obviously that’s a part of it. There’s a core of who he is and what he believes in, and I think that’s what we’re going to do with this arc with Ulysses and the Machinist and everybody else. Hopefully people will be interested, but the cool thing and the big selling point is that it’s the unknown. It’s John Romita Jr. at DC Comics doing Superman for the first time, and us creating stories and villains that you’ve never seen before! We’re putting every bit of passion into it and really believe in it. I hope people enjoy it. We want to put Superman on top of the New 52 — our goal is to make this everyone’s favorite solo book!
Knock everybody else out of the competition?
Johns: We just want everybody to be excited about it and we want people to be excited it’s coming out every month.
Romita: And you know what, there’s a group of people who are going to roll their eyes over this, that I’m working on Superman — but they would roll their eyes if I worked on “Spider-Man” again. Those are the people I want to open their eyes and have them say, “Wait a minute, this is something new and different!” You tend to try to please those you possibly can’t please. I know that’s totally counter productive, but that goes with the line of thinking, “I have to try something new and different,” and then I have to try and please people who think I’ve never done something new and different. It raises the bar for me. It keeps me invigorated. As long as there are other artists I admire and emulate, or at least I’m trying to, there’s people who are reading things that are skeptics and I have to try and prove myself to them — it keeps me on my toes.
Johns: You know what? Come in skeptical! Superman is a character that some people don’t love. I love the character, I could write him forever, but come in skeptical, that’s okay. Just give us one issue and that’s all. I think we’ll earn your trust and your time and your investment in one issue because I really believe in this first issue and I really believe in what we’re doing. And Superman deserves it! He deserves the best, he deserves to be on top and our goal again is to put Superman back on the map with this.
“Superman” #32 flies into comic shops on June 25.