Superman may be the oldest superhero on the DC Comics roster, but there’s still room to add new wrinkles to the cape. The latest evidence came in the form of “Superman” #38, released early last month, where the current creative team of writer Geoff Johns and artist John Romita Jr. added a new power to the Man of Steel’s arsenal — a high-powered solar flare, deployed during battle with newly introduced character, Ulysses.
That solar flare comes with a price — Superman losing his powers for a period of 24 hours. That’s the backdrop of “Superman” #39, scheduled for release on March 18 — a temporarily human Caped Crusader bonding with Jimmy Olsen, who he revealed his secret identity to the issue before. “Superman” #39 is also Johns’ final issue on the series, as the demands on his time as DC Entertainment Chief Creative Officer (have you seen how many TV and film projects they have in the works?) have dropped his monthly comic output down to one title (for now), “Justice League.” Romita steps into the role of both artist and writer with “Superman” #40, and new series writer Gene Luen Yang is set to join the veteran illustrator on the series in June.
CBR News spoke in-depth with both Johns and Romita on the latest “Superman” developments, including how adding a new power to Clark Kent is actually intended to make him more human, the importance of the Daily Planet cast and Superman’s new costume, which also made its debut in issue #38.
CBR News: Geoff, I was surprised to hear a few weeks back that #39 is going to be your last issue of “Superman.” That’s a bit of a shorter run for you — did you always plan on your stint being around that length; the Ulysses arc and then a finale issue? Obviously, your schedule is very busy as Chief Creative Officer with all of DC’s TV and movie projects in development — was it a case of you not necessarily being able to continue on the book further?
Geoff Johns: We always had this first story in mind, and I always have ideas for other things. I love working with John. We did this storyline, and this issue afterward, and it was just, for me, a matter of timing. We’re about to shoot a couple pilots, and we’re going into production on “Suicide Squad” very soon. It just felt like if I’m going to commit to the next arc in the book, it was a very long-term thing. I’ve got some other stuff going on that I can’t talk about. It just felt like it was the right place to jump off, at this moment.
Even though it hasn’t been all that many issues, they have been significant ones, with several major developments. There’s the highly publicized big moment in #38 — the reveal of Superman’s new solar flare power. What was the motivation for both of you in adding to the character in this way? Giving him a new power at all, and this one in particular?
Johns: Working with John, we talked a lot about the character, and at one point, it was almost like a game of [telephone] — John was like, “How about a new power?” I think I misinterpreted the idea of, “Let’s give him a new power,” and I kind of ran with it, and then I went back and I pitched John the idea.
John Romita Jr.: I actually didn’t even say “new power,” I said, “Is there a power that he hasn’t used recently, or in a long time that we can play with?” Just that line, I think the top of Geoff’s head blew off — “Wait a minute! I’ve got an idea!” It developed into this. It was a nice combination of both my ignorance of the character, and Geoff’s great idea. It’s blown into an excellent storyline going from what Geoff has left us with, and it’s great. I’m really happy with it, because it’s something I’ve never seen before with Superman, or heard of — and even a couple of people who are veterans of Superman have said the same thing. It’s different. Which is great.
Johns: I think the thing that I’m most happy about is that the power really is a character moment. It’s not just, “Hey, we’ll pack on another power to Superman’s arsenal of abilities.” Our hope was to create something that would challenge him in not only a physical way but an emotional way. The exhaustive nature of the power — and how it’s tied to his heat vision, so it feels very organic, and, I’m hoping, an organic extension of what he can do.
The other thing is, Superman has really struggled with his humanity — or maybe his perception of the lack thereof. Ulysses really has got the opposite problem — he’s struggling with the idea that he’s human. After this epic battle between the two, and what Clark has endured, he unleashes this power, and I think with issue #39, in a strange way, it’s almost the world giving Clark a bit of a gift. A bit of a release. Issue #39 is supposed to be a reward for Clark Kent for everything he’s gone through with Ulysses. It might be my favorite issue of the bunch, just because it is so character-driven and emotional. We see Jimmy Olsen and Clark connect on a level that we’ve never, ever seen. It’s a pretty wonderful issue that John just, emotionally, knocked out of the park.
It’s interesting that’s your final issue of this run is one where Superman doesn’t have his powers. It feels like that’s sort of summing up a lot of stuff you’ve been touching on — a big part of this run is focusing on the more human side of Superman. Was that a primary goal in going into this arc?
Johns: As a writer, certainly. Always exploring the character and the humanity of the character is the primary goal. Particularly with Superman. For me, what he does, and how he acts, and how he reacts, is second nature — he’s the ultimate superhero, and I love being able to explore him. Without powers, with powers, in whatever scenario it is. The ultimate goal was to really get inside his heart and head, for the good and bad, and explore it.
Romita: The other thing that I was thrilled to death with was, it was not forced. This exploration of his humanity — which is easy to say — this was not forced. It developed from that innocent conversation about finding a new power for him. And I loved that it developed in a really natural progression without somebody saying, “We have to force this in there.” It really worked out so that both of us can say, “Damn, we really developed this the way it was supposed to have been developed.” I could not have been more thrilled. It has blown in to another set of stories that Geoff probably would have gotten to on his own, because his year-long synopsis had gotten to such a great length — it probably could have been three years, from what his treatment was before we even started. Just naturally beautiful, the way it flowed.
Johns: The thing that I really love about it is, it’s not just, “He’s got a new power.” I think we were both surprised by how much attention it got, and it can feel a little flashy, it can feel a little bit gimmicky, but it all came from character, and that was always the intention. The idea that it helps asks a lot of questions and maybe have Superman ask a lot of questions, and is inspiring some other ideas and stories — I’m really excited about that. That’s great.
Along with this focus on the more human side of Superman has been more of a focus on supporting cast members than readers have seen in a bit. In this run we’ve seen Clark back at the Daily Planet — how important was that for both of you to get him back in the setting that he had been deliberately taken out of just a couple of years ago?
Romita: I didn’t really know until I was told, after I got on, that he had been out of the Planet. When I got into my first issue, he was back at the Planet, so I missed that dynamic. I’ve always thought he was with the Daily Planet — I feel embarrassed to say that, but I picked up where he got back. Because of the New 52, the secondary characters were a little bit different from what I remembered, but it seemed pretty natural to me, and I didn’t have a problem with it.
Johns: I really enjoy Superman’s supporting cast. For me, I wanted to get back to it, particularly the Daily Planet cast. With his mother and father both gone, it really left only a few characters that he could interact with. If I wanted a scene where Clark needed to voice a concern about his life and being Superman, it was always with another superhero.
I missed both the Kents and his relationship with Lois. Obviously the Kents were gone, and I didn’t want to repeat what we had done with Lois prior. I looked at Jimmy Olsen and I thought, “Well, that’s something we’ve never really seen or explored.” I thought revealing his identity to Jimmy would lead to some great stories and great conversations, and something new and different, and he would have his own confidant, just like Batman has Alfred — who isn’t necessarily another spandex-wearing superhero. That was important to me. That was why, ultimately, we led to him revealing his identity to Jimmy. He does need someone to talk to; the whole point of the story was, he thought he found someone, with Ulysses.
#39 continues that emotional journey for Clark, and perhaps what he was looking for was right in front of him the whole time. I don’t want to spoil too much, but #39 for me is a very important and poignant issue for him, and for that relationship.
It did feel like something that hasn’t been seen before — which has to be hard to do with characters that have been around as long as Clark Kent and Jimmy Olsen.
Johns: The thing about #39 is, ironically, I think he’s the most Superman he’s been, and he doesn’t have his abilities. Writing him, no matter what scenario he’s in, for me, Superman’s moral compass is strong — he’s just going to be Superman no matter what. That’s just who he is. It’s not about the flight or the new power or anything. It’s just who he is.
“Superman” #38 also prompted the introduction of a new costume — the chances are a bit subtle, but significant — a little more of the classic look, but keeps some of the New 52 touches and adds some new elements. What prompted that visual shift to Superman’s costume?
Romita: That’s a boardroom decision, I think.
Johns: Exactly. I think we just wanted to simplify some of the armor stuff — we tweaked the belt and the boots. We just really wanted to get a little bit back to a sleeker costume, that was all. And it just kind of grew organically — we had this image of him in his armor burning up, and it was a big deal, but his cape still was OK — it just felt like an opportunity. “If we’re going to burn his costume up, why don’t we tweak it a little bit?” And John did.
Romita: A lot of input from a lot of people. [Laughs] I did something and then we came back several weeks later with several people’s fingerprints on it, and it ended up being nice. I’m happy with the way it looks. But again, and I hope this doesn’t sound pretentious, I’m of the mind that Superman is less about his costume, like Geoff said — there’s the big “S” on the front and back, and that’s Superman. He could have a plaid costume and it’s still Superman. I hope that doesn’t sound wrong. You plug in the costume changes slightly, and it’s still a great character.
“Superman” #39 is scheduled for release on March 18.