On April 1, 2009, Manhattan-based comic book fans gathered in the cramped basement of Jim Hanley's Universe to witness a birth. Well, more precisely, a "Rebirth."
Critically acclaimed and reader revered writer Geoff Johns ("Action Comics," "Green Lantern: Rebirth") traveled from the West Coast to the East to work on his upcoming "Green Lantern: Blackest Night" at DC Comics headquarters - but much like the scarlet speedster he writes so well, Johns divvied up enough time between his plotting duties to speak with iFanboy's Josh Flannagan about the newly released "The Flash: Rebirth" in front of a select group of New York readers at the JHU Underground.
"The last few years have been a little bit this way, that way," Johns admitted about current events in Flash lore. "I'm looking to kind of bring that whole universe back up in similar fashion to ['Green Lantern: Rebirth']."
From the outset, even Johns had to admit that the reintroduction of Barry Allen into the DC mythos was a hard pill to swallow for Flash fans that grew up with Wally West in the uniform - which is why he's being careful to show just who Allen is as a character. "Part of 'Rebirth' is going back into [Barry's] past and seeing who he was before the lightning," Johns explained. "Just getting into all the minutia and the bigger things of who this guy really was, because all we know is that he's a big hero that sacrificed himself [in 'Crisis on Infinite Earths'] - we hear that all the time. But he's still human; he's still a guy. Part of 'Rebirth' is peeling back all of those layers and seeing the man behind the uniform."
In Johns' eyes, Barry is a departure from Wally in that he has no moral grey - everything is black and white, more like Batman than the current Flash. "His line of good and bad is very solid and doesn't blur," Johns declared. "That's something that Barry has; just this almost archaic sense of justice, and it comes from being a forensic scientist. The fact is, you're guilty or you're not guilty - there's no in between for him. That's something I'll be exploring a lot with Barry."
"He doesn't sound like he's a lot of fun," Flanagan quipped at the writer.
"He's not!" Johns laughed. "I think he's a very intriguing character right now, but he's a little standoffish to everybody. He's not a man out of his time, but he's a man [where things have happened without him]. He's trying to find his way. I think the story of 'Rebirth' is really about the rebirth of his humanity more than anything else."
While Johns had previously left The Flash for, err, "greener" pastures, the DC superstar alleged that he'd always hoped to return to the fastest man in comics. "Flash is my favorite character. He always has been. When I first left the book, I was very happy with how it went overall, but there were certain things that I'd wanted to do," Johns admitted. "['Rebirth'] is sort of like coming home. It felt like the last time I'd [written 'Flash'] I was laying down in a single room, but now we've built a house."
If the new Flash franchise is like a house, then "Rebirth" artist Ethan Van Sciver is the model roommate. As Johns pointed out, things tend to get a little "manic" when the two are collaborating, as they did on "Green Lantern: Rebirth." "Whenever I get together with Ethan, we crack our brains open and we talk about this stuff," Johns said. "With 'Green Lantern: Rebirth,' there's so many things [Ethan put in] that the reader will never ever see that are there. There's this one little panel in 'Rebirth' where Hal as Spectre takes Black Hand's hand away, you see his hood over it, but his hand is actually Parallax's hand. That's the first hint that something's different. Ethan's always putting these hints of storyline - in fact, everything in the story is in issue #1. If you had a magnifying glass out, you could decode it. He's a genius in a very bizarre way."
Bizarre can be good when you're course correcting one of the most time-honored deaths in superhero history. That might be a daunting task for some writers, but Johns embraces the challenge with open arms. "There's always pressure when you're working in continuity. There's a lot less pressure if I wanted to just do an 'Elseworlds' Flash story. But I like challenges," he said. "Bring it on. I'd rather try than not try. I'd rather be ambitious and try to tell a story that I believe in. I kind of thrive on challenges."
If you're going to face adversity on a regular basis, it's best to have a plan. Luckily for Johns, he's a meticulous strategist when it comes to preparing for complicated storytelling - "Blackest Night," for example, has been in the works for four years. "I plot far ahead in my monthly books," Johns revealed. "It's not that hard when you have all these ideas. You write them down and go, 'Oh, that's going to take fifty issues.' You just start building and things will change and grow, but I like to plot long-form."
But even plotting some of the most prominent books of the last several years - from "Infinite Crisis" to the "Rebirth" twins - is a cakewalk when compared with "52," the first of many weekly comic book series from DC. "After that book, it was like detox. We all went to Vegas [when it was over]. It was awesome. Forgot about comics for a few days..."
"Forgot pretty much everything," Flanagan suggested to laughter.
"You do need to take a break every once in a while," Johns continued, stressing the importance of mental health when pursuing a comics writing career. "But whenever I'm like, 'Oh, I'm gonna go away for a week,' and I start driving, I immediately start writing stories in my head."
As the panel opened up to audience questions, Johns revealed some interesting personal tidbits, including that "L.A. Confidential" screenwriter Brian Helgeland is his greatest inspiration as a writer and that he prefers political and spiritual non-fiction to prose. It wasn't long before the conversation turned back to his comics career, specifically Johns' tendency to collaborate with other writers.
"I like collaboration because it's fun. This should be a fun job, comic books; for me it's the best job in the world," Johns said. "The '52' writers were some of my favorite writers prior to that. Grant Morrison is definitely my favorite writer in comics. He's a huge influence on me and a very good friend of mine. Greg Rucka's the same way, and Mark Waid. I like them because their writing style is so different - they approach stories so differently."
Johns spoke for a while about how he originally broke into the comic book industry while working with "Superman" director Richard Donner. "I was shooting a film with Donner, I was just out of school," Johns said. "I met a bunch of people from DC and I gave them a tour of the set, fetching Richard Donner's coffee and spilling it on myself. They said, 'Hey, do you like comics?' I said, 'I've been reading them all my life,' and they said, 'You should pitch us something if you have any ideas.' I think they were being a little more polite than anything, and I was so busy that I thought that if I came up with something, I'd pitch them something.
"A year later, I had 'Stars & Stripes,'" he continued. "I had the idea, and I met with James Robinson in L.A. I'd met him actually before at a con when I was in college - I was probably 19 - and I loved 'Starman.' We were talking films for about a half an hour to an hour and we became friends ... I came up with the idea for 'Stars & Stripes' because I wanted to create a superhero for girls, because I felt like the DCU didn't have a lot of superheroes for girls. Supergirl, Wonder Girl, Bat Girl - nobody had their own legacy. I wanted to create somebody who my sister - who had passed away a year earlier - I wanted to create something that she would've liked. So I came up with the idea for 'Stars & Stripes' about a girl who finds out that her stepfather was a sidekick to a superhero, so she becomes the new version of his old partner to make a match. It's a stepfather/stepdaughter superhero team. I pitched it to James and he really liked it. He gave me some pointers, I turned it into the guys at DC, and they really enjoyed it. Mike Wieringo drew a picture of the Star-Spangled Kid, first picture ever; I have it framed in my office. So I pitched it. It was supposed to be a miniseries, but they turned it into a monthly and that was it."
Before the success of his pitch, Johns had thought about writing comic books in stride, but his film career prevented it from becoming reality. "Being an assistant to a director is not easy," he said. "It was like a ninety-hour per week job. That was fine, though. But when I had some downtime, I thought I'd do 'Stars & Stripes' just for fun. Then James left 'JSA' and I met David Goyer because they wanted to ask me on 'Star-Spangled Kid.' Goyer said, 'Hey, James left, do you wanna co-write 'JSA' with me?' I hadn't even had a comic out yet. I was like, 'I guess so!' So I got into it and I learned a lot from writing with Goyer. Then 'Stars & Stripes' got canceled and I said, 'Oh, that was fun. I'll just co-write 'JSA' with Goyer.' And then I got a call saying, 'Hey, do you wanna write The Flash?' And he was my favorite character, so I said sure. I turned in my first script and they asked, 'Do you want to stay?' And I said sure!
"From there, that's when I really focused on it. I was really enjoying it. I was balancing working for Donner and writing 'The Flash' and 'JSA' and some Marvel work in between, then I got offered Hawkman," Johns continued. "Eventually, I had to move on from Donner, which was very hard because he was like a dad to me. I signed with DC so I could focus my energy. I felt like I really wanted to dedicate myself to the DC Universe."
Once everybody in the room had learned the story of Geoff Johns' birth as a comic book writer, the attention focused on some of his specific memories throughout his career. He talked about one of his new favorite characters, Agent Orange, who he describes as a cross between a dirty Muppet and a Looney Tunes character. As for his most painful moment as a writer, Johns said that he got quite emotional while killing off Superboy in "Infinite Crisis," though he loved Connor's dying words of "Isn't it cool?" after saving the world.
Johns also gave an ominous tease that "The Flash: Rebirth #3" carries an emotional weight on par with Superboy's death. That suggestion may have been teased a bit more than Johns would have liked when one fan brought up an interesting point: whereas Wally West once wanted to fit into Barry Allen's shoes, will Barry now want to fit into Wally's? Johns cracked a smile, looking a little taken off guard, as he informed the fan: "You kind of hit on a bit of a scene in issue #3. You'll have to read it, I'm sorry. But you're close."
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