There hasn't been a new Geoff Johns-written comic on the stands since last year's DC Universe: Rebirth one-shot, but that doesn't mean he hasn't been busy. In his positions as President and Chief Creative Officer of DC Entertainment, he has a major role in all aspects of the company, including this year's critical and commercial hit film, Wonder Woman.
But he's coming back to comic books in a big way later this year with Doomsday Clock, the payoff to the major twist ending of DC Universe: Rebirth -- the reveal that Watchmen character Doctor Manhattan had somehow manipulated the very fabric of the DC Universe. Johns talked Doomsday Clock and his career as a whole at a spotlight panel Thursday afternoon at Comic-Con International in San Diego.
DC Co-Publisher Dan DiDio served as moderator of the panel, saying it would be an Inside the Actor's Studio-type conversation about Johns' creative process. In his first question, DiDio asked about Johns' personal interest in comics.
"When we were talking about Doomsday Clock, I was adamant that the first issue come out the Wednesday before Thanksgiving," Johns said. That date is special to him, because he recalls the "joy" he felt as a kid to buy new comics on that day and have the whole Thanksgiving weekend to read them.
Johns said the first comic book that had a profound impact on him was the issue of Batman and the Outsiders where the team discovers Batman's secret identity, and are saddened by the tragic reason why Bruce Wayne became Batman. DiDio asked Johns what character he first connected with as a younger reader. "The Flash," Johns answered. "The truth is, I watched him on Super Friends and thought he looked cool."
Johns told the crowd he gravitates more towards characters on the morally unambiguous side of the spectrum, like Superman. DiDio asked if that's why Johns has never had a run on an ongoing Batman series. "I want to do a run on Batman for sure, because I love the character," Johns said, but he hasn't yet because he likes to focus on characters who "need a little help."
DiDio asked when Johns realized he was a "professional" writer. "Probably the day I signed my exclusive with DC," Johns said. "I like Marvel, but I love DC. I like the Hulk. If we could buy the Hulk from Marvel, that would be cool."
Johns talked briefly about his time writing Marvel books such as Avengers. "It wasn't a great experience because of the management at the time," he said. "Though I love Tom Brevoort, my editor. But at the time, it wasn't really for me."
"The day I signed the DC contract, it gave me some security to know that for the next number of years, I'll be writing full-time at DC," Johns continued.
"He's an inspiration still," Johns said of his former employer and mentor Richard Donner. "It's really inspiring that people remembered him for [kindness]. He is just such a good guy, and working with him, he had his quirks like we all do, but he's genuinely a wonderful human being." Johns said that he and Wonder Woman director Patty Jenkins recently had lunch with Donner.
Johns recalled advice given to him from Donner: "If there's a choice between logic and heart, choose heart."
Naming his comic book influences, Johns listed, "Grant Morrison's Animal Man and Doom Patrol, Mark Waid's Flash, Marv Wolfman, almost everything he's done. John Ostrander. Massively underrated writer, still. He would take characters people would write off. That's when I realized there are no bad characters."
Johns told DiDio that if not for the latter's executive role at DC Comics, "I probably would have stayed freelance." "At that point, Dan was just coming in," Johns said. "Everybody told me and Mike McKone, you're idiots for working on Teen Titans, it's going to fail. Dan was like, 'You're wrong.'" "I can only say they were wrong because I listened to his pitches," DiDio added. "I remember those discussions to this day."
DiDio asked Johns if he'd do anything differently if he were writing Green Lantern: Rebirth today. Johns said no. "You don't want to placate, you want to tell a story you can believe in," Johns said.
"I've had trouble getting back into characters I haven't written for a while," Johns admitted, naming Larfleeze, who he brought back after a year and a half late in his Green Lantern run.. "It took me a day to get back into his voice, because he was such a strange voice, and I hadn't accessed it in so long."
"I'll be honest, Doomsday Clock is a massive challenge, because it's characters I haven't written before," Johns added.
John said he didn't want to call the current DC publishing initiative "Rebirth," because that word meant so much to him due to Green Lantern: Rebirth and The Flash: Rebirth. "The more I talked about what the word 'Rebirth' meant to me, I realized it would actually work really well," Johns said. "I wanted to write an issue that wouldn't just put the heart back into the DCU, but to make people almost cry when Wally West gets pulled out of the Speed Force."
DiDio asked if the Rebirth one-shot was the most emotional comic Johns has written. "It was, because the whole book was about how much I love the DC Universe, and how much I wanted aspects of it back," Johns said. "There were so many great things that were built in the New 52, but there were some things that were lost."
Speaking of DC Universe: Rebirth, Johns said, "I was hoping for a positive reaction, and that people would understand the story I was trying to tell, but I was pretty floored by the reaction." Johns said that while the Watchmen connections got people talking, he wanted the real takeaway to be the emotional center between Barry Allen and Wally West.
"I wanted people to take away the return of the heart and the hope, and see that these characters are the same characters you guys have always loved," Johns said. "I was really, really happy that at the time the special came out, Wally West was the character [people were talking about]."
"If there's one being out there who can mess with time in such a radical way, and challenge hope, I figured Doctor Manhattan was the one," Johns said of the Rebirth ending.
DiDio showed some previously unseen Gary Frank-illustrated panels of Doomsday Clock on the big screen of the panel room, asking Johns for his comments. The first was a sign reading "The end is near." "That's the first panel for Doomsday Clock,"
Another panel was a close-up of a blonde woman. "That's another panel from issue #1. I'll just say that's a new character. And she's in a prison cell." The next panel showed an exterior shot of the prison, after a gate had been broken through. "Maybe she's not in the prison cell." Then an aerial shot of a car with open doors. "Desperation. I know the scene. I know the context of this scene."
"My collaborator and partner-in-crime Gary Frank, he loves storytelling, he's all about the emotion in the storytelling," Johns said of the illustrator he's worked with on multiple projects, including the aforementioned DC Universe: Rebirth one-shot. "He doesn't get a thrill out of drawing characters, he gets a thrill out of drawing stories."
Johns said that Doomsday Clock is a "risky" story for him and Frank to tell. It will be 12 issues long -- like Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' Watchmen -- and "it will take place a year from now in the DC Universe, so when the last issue is out, the rest of the DC Universe will catch up and be affected." Johns made it clear that Doomsday Clock takes place after soon-to-debut DC Comics event Dark Nights: Metal. "You'll see events that will then catch up to what we're doing."
"When you do something as big as Doctor Manhattan, you want to really tell a story," Johns said. "I want to embrace it in a giant way."
More panels were shown: an x-ray of a skull. "Somebody's sick," Johns said, matter-of-factly. Then a Metropolis skyline with the Daily Planet building visible, prompting DiDio to ask if Superman was integral to the story. "He is the story," Johns said. An image of the symbol on Doctor Manhattan's forehead was shown, along with, most intriguingly, an illustration of the Justice League -- Superman, Batman, Green Lanterns Jessica Cruz and Simon Baz, Cyborg, Flash, Aquaman and, front in center, Wonder Woman -- with the famous text, "Who watches the Watchmen?"
Johns acknowledged the readers who believe that Watchmen should not be touched (Alan Moore has famously objected to any follow-ups to the original series). "I believe in the story, and we're going to tell the best damn story we can," he said. Johns said the story celebrates the entire history of the DC Universe.
Wrapping the panel, Johns said that he doesn't want to say very much about the actual story of Doomday Clock, but he ended the panel with this: "I love seeing the smartest man in one world talk to the smartest man in another," "Johns said. "The smartest man from the DC world is Lex Luthor. And that's all I'll say." Johns said he might say the name of the other character he's referring to at the next convention he attends.