Green Brain Comics Builds Community With Geoff Johns

Thirteen years ago, inspired by a happy coincidence of tag-team coloring some leprechauns while listening to Cypress Hill, Dan and Katie Merritt changed the name of their comic book shop from Comics Plus to the more memorable Green Brain Comics. Located in the eastern part of Dearborn, Michigan, not far from the birthplace of the automobile, Green Brain is a pillar of the community, giving back whenever possible and helping grow the greater worldwide comic book community.

Following a year of relaunched titles from DC Comics, most retailers are gearing up for an onslaught of #0 issues throughout the month of September. Among the first of those anticipated issues is "Green Lantern" #0 by DC Entertainment Chief Creative Officer Geoff Johns, who will make a rare appearance at Green Brain on Friday, September 7 to sign copies of the zero issue along with other items fans provide for the scribe to autograph.

Citing a great relationship with the Arab American National Museum, also located in Dearborn, as the catalyst for this event, the Merritts met with Comic Book Resources to discuss how this event came to be and its importance to Green Brain, the local community and the comic industry as a larger whole.

The origins of Johns' appearance at Green Brain stretches back to 2011, just before the premiere of the "Green Lantern" film starring Ryan Reynolds. In order to prepare for expected conversations with local media outlets regarding the hero, Dan researched Green Lantern, his adventures and the movie. As part of the large swath of research, Dan went to Wikipedia and discovered "Green Lantern" writer Geoff Johns was not only from Michigan, but was also Lebanese American.

Dan contacted then-Arab American Museum librarian Kristen LaLonde with the information, and through the museum, the pair made contact with Johns in 2011 to try and put an event together. However, without an angle or a concrete plan for an event, Johns, Merritt and LaLonde agreed to keep an open dialog and check in from time to time.

An opportunity presented itself next at C2E2 2012. LaLonde participated in a panel, dedicated herself to learn more about the comics culture and eventually introduced herself to Johns. While speaking with LaLonde, Johns provided a peek of the pencils for DC's New 52 Free Comic Book Day issue. He pointed out the Arabic tattoo on the masked Green Lantern's arm. This is where everything fell into place. "We saw this as the angle," said Dan. "Really, we've been putting together the proposals and the details since then. "

In spite of his hectic schedule as DC's Chief Creative Officer, Johns has made the time for the trip, which includes much more than just a two-hour signing at Green Brain. While in Michigan, Dan says Johns will "spend some time with family, spend some time with us [and] spend some time with the museum."

Katie added that all of the finer details truly fell into place at the last minute. Given that Johns is the CCO of a very busy organization perched on the edge of an extremely busy time of year, the Merritts found that the situation added an extra layer of communication given the demands on Johns' time.

The Arab American National Museum features a pair of events with Johns on Saturday. The day opens with an invitation-only writer's workshop targeted at teens -- something Dan Merritt stressed would only be open to the younger generation of fans.

"The specific age range is approximately 11-15," he said. "This is not an age range that is going to comic stores," Dan hopes the workshop will help foster the next generation of comic creators -- people aware of the comic art form, appreciate it and can contribute to it in their own way. " That's the heart of any community outreach program. You're doing something for everybody, including yourself."

The workshop will be followed by a public presentation in the auditorium. According to The Detroit Free Press, the public event will be on a first-come, first-served basis with seats for approximately 200 guests and will include a slideshow and question and answer session with the "Green Lantern" writer.

"The museum is very interested in appealing to Geoff for inclusion into the exhibits," said Dan. "The museum itself is very focused on Arab Americans contributions to our society." In fact, the museum contains mini-exhibits on several key Arab American players in American history. Names associated with the museum include Jamie Farr, Helen Thomas and Casey Kasem.

"That's the great thing about being American. You're American first," Dan said, noting that the public in general doesn't consider whether you're Arab American, African American or Native American when it acknowledges contributions to American culture.

While Green Brain has had its fair share of comic creative talent make appearances -- including David Petersen, Guy Davis, Scott McCloud and Paul Storrie -- Katie Merritt said Johns is "pretty much the biggest name we've ever brought in." However, part of the draw for the Merritts is the added benefit of helping the local community.

"It's the community building [with the museum]. It's helping them out and they're helping us out. ... The event at our shop is targeted at the comic fan, whereas the events at the museum are targeted more at the cultural fan," Katie said. "[This event] is bringing both of these interests together at the same time. It's community building, it's awareness building. ... We do a lot of community work in the city of Dearborn alone, but to be part of this is big for us."

Dan Merritt agreed with his wife about the mutually beneficial community building, further mentioning they want to continue to pay it forward. "We're doing our thing to pay it back, because we wouldn't be there without the community, but we're also helping to create a new customer base," he said. "We want people to realize what comics are, not assume what they are. And the idea that this is a superhero-based event, but we have a growing [number] of graphic novels in the museum's library that don't have anything to do with superheroes that are created about the culture, by the culture. I think it's horrible to call it self-serving, but we're doing it with the added value to turn more people on to the medium. To just curl up in a ball and subsist on your niche clientele is a lot more self-serving."

In fact, Katie Merritt says a lot of thought goes in to the community building aspects of their store's events. "We take the time to make our events more community friendly or donate books that would otherwise go into our clearance, so it's not like it's costing us out of pocket money to be community involved," she said. "A lot of it is hands on, a lot of it is time intensive and not necessarily money intensive."

Local fans planning on attending the signing will have to purchase "Green Lantern" #0 on Wednesday, September 5 in order to get one of 125 tickets to guarantee a place in line. Fans will be limited to two items to be signed by Johns to help maximize the number of people able to meet him.

While the event is just as much about building community as it is about comics, Dan Merritt mentioned part of the draw of comics like "Green Lantern" #0 is its step into a wider range of diversity in modern comics.

"I want something on the rack that will appeal to everyone," he said. "The amazing strides that this industry has made to diversify product over the last ten years is something that is awe-inspiring and I don't think it's ever been done under pretension or corporate mandate. Nor do I think Baz is either. I think it happens organically, and regardless of criticism, I think it is something that is going to continue to happen. The more diversity we have in the store, the better for the industry. And the better for humanity, because eventually everybody's going to find a comic that's going to appeal to them."

Once this event is over, after they've had the chance to decompress over a pitcher of beer, Dan and Katie intend to refocus on the other events they champion, like Kids Read Comics and Dan's work as vice-chair of the East Dearborn Downtown Development Authority, a government agency that advocates, directs and manages revitalization and economic growth through redevelopment projects, collaborating with stakeholders and supporting and promoting Dearborn's businesses.

For the immediate future, however, Green Brain has been working to make this event a brightest day for the community of Dearborn, the national Arab American community and the global community of comic book readers to fondly remember for a long time.

Green Brain Comics' signing with Geoff Johns will take place Friday, September 7.

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