Putting Geoff Johns (writer), John Romita Jr. (penciller), and Klaus Janson (inker) on Superman sends a strong message to the cape-comics marketplace. At its core, that message seems to be “we’re not fooling around with the Man of Steel.”
Whether clad in T-shirt or Kryptonian armor, Superman has been the face of the New 52, in good ways and bad, since the 2011 relaunch. A Johns-written, Jim Lee-drawn Superman was part of the first New 52 comic published, namely the first issue of Justice League. Therefore, it’s eminently appropriate for one of DC’s highest-profile writers to take on its flagship character in his eponymous series. Likewise, art by longtime Marvel stalwart JRJr and veteran inker Janson is also appropriate to Superman’s central position in DC’s superhero line.
However, Johns also comes to Superman with a certain set of expectations, starting with his anticipated tenure. Writer/artist George Pérez and finisher Jésus Merino kicked off the current series, but they didn’t stay long; and for several months Superman struggled to find a consistent creative team. Incumbent writer Scott Lobdell came aboard with issue #13 and is scheduled to stay at least through April’s issue #30. That’s a year and a half, give or take a Villains Month, and it’s allowed Lobdell to leave his mark on Superman’s adventures. Moreover, Lobdell arrived about two-thirds of the way through Grant Morrison’s run as Action Comics writer, so for about a year, Lobdell has at least offered some consistency while Action tried to lock in a creative team. Johns has just come off two years writing Aquaman -- not to mention multi-year runs on Green Lantern, Action, Flash, JSA, and Teen Titans -- so it’s not unreasonable to think he’s got at least a couple of years’ worth of Superman in him.
Of course, we might have said the same about Superman Unchained, Scott Snyder and Jim Lee’s take on the character, which will end up being a nine-issue miniseries. There’s no guarantee that Johns, Romita, and Janson won’t all be off Superman after nine issues. However, I think the aforementioned two years’ worth of plots will materialize, keeping Johns on the book even if he has to work with other artists. (His Action collaborators included Adam Kubert, Eric Powell, and Gary Frank.)
More to the point, this is Johns’ opportunity to harmonize all the disparate elements of the New 52 Superman into something credible, coherent, and forward-thinking. Basically, it’s a chance to do for Superman what Johns has done for Green Lantern, the Flash, and Aquaman: convince readers he’s cool. Supes is the face of the New 52 in large part because the changes to his costume, personality, and background tend to be brought up whenever readers gripe generally about the relaunch. Johns is now in a prime position to roll back many of those changes, using the same kind of continuity-fu that blamed Hal Jordan’s temperament and hair color on a giant yellow space-bug. I don’t think it’ll go that far, mostly because DC has so much invested in the New 52 that restoring the red briefs would be like waving a white flag.
Instead, Johns’ new challenge will be to take what Morrison, Pérez, Lobdell, Snyder, Greg Pak, et al., have contributed to the new backstory, and use it to craft Superman adventures that might somehow be palatable to readers turned off by uneven and/or unappealing portrayals. In Lobdell’s most recent issue (Issue 27, drawn by Ed Benes), Superman used the Parasite to siphon remnants of Brainiac’s mental abilities out of Lois. It brought her out of a coma, but naturally it was risky, and when Lois’ boyfriend Jonathan called Supes on it, he replied “I don’t have to explain myself to you.” To be sure, Supes was reluctant to explain what he did because Coma!Lois knew Supes’ secret identity, and the siphoning took care of that -- but even in the New 52, and even agonizing over his decision, Superman’s not supposed to be rude.
Similarly, Johns is at least partially responsible for another unpopular New 52 development, the Superman/Wonder Woman romance which started in Justice League. If he’s so inclined, Johns could blame some of Supes’ erratic behavior on being poisoned with Kryptonite (in the run-up to “Trinity War”); but that doesn’t have the comprehensive simplicity of a giant space-bug. Oh, but I kid the space-bugs!
Johns’ tradition-friendly treatment of continuity-rich characters like Hal, the Flashes, and the Justice Society does make me think he’ll go for a more “timeless” version of Superman and friends. This may not mean dumping Diana, fast-tracking a Lane/Kent wedding, or giving Clark his Daily Planet gig back -- at least not right away. However, writing Superman definitely allows Johns more space to develop the characters beyond what Justice League permits. Again, readers expect Supes to act a certain way, regardless of the trappings.
Still, it would help if those trappings didn’t feel quite so scattered. Morrison crafted a sweeping storyline which stood largely on its own. Lobdell has tried to build on his fellow Super-writers’ stories while trying to establish new elements like Dr. Veritas and the “Clark and Cat, Online Journalists” status quo. Pak seems content for now to lay off the world-building (aside from a nifty new take on Lana Lang), and we’ll see how influential Snyder’s contributions turn out to be. While you don’t bring on Geoff Johns just to massage continuity points, certainly it wouldn’t be out of place, and Johns will have a lot from which to choose.
Besides, it’s nothing new to the history of Superman. The mythology expanded steadily right from the beginning, until by the ‘50s and ‘60s the books were full to bursting. The 1986 revamp chucked a lot of that, but replaced it soon enough with new characters and situations. The same cycle just started anew in September 2011, and it’s playing out now, albeit perhaps in a less-coordinated fashion than in the days of Mort Weisinger, Julius Schwartz, Mike Carlin, or Joey Cavalieri. Johns shouldn’t feel obligated to connect all the New 52 dots, and I expect he’ll introduce a good bit of original material. Nevertheless, I’d be surprised if his Superman doesn’t stitch together what’s been established over the past couple of years.
All this time and I’ve barely mentioned the artists! Perhaps most importantly for the future of Superman-the-comic, the combination of Johns, Romita, and Janson speaks to the ideal of a marquee superhero creative team matched with the marquee superhero. Romita and Janson are excellent draftsmen whose power comes from a very minimalist approach. In fact, their work strikes me as a lot less “busy” than other big-name Johns collaborators like Ethan van Sciver, Gary Frank, Ivan Reis, or David Finch. Nothing against those artists, but Romita and Janson seem to be closer stylistically to Powell, the Kubert brothers, Doug Mahnke, or even Carlos Pacheco (who worked with Johns on the first several issues of the Green Lantern regular series all those years ago). In any event, they’re exactly the sort of professionals you’d want if you were picking a high-profile creative team for a high-profile series. Instant name recognition never hurts. For that matter, neither does the notion that a longtime Marvelite’s first major DC work is on DC’s flagship character.
Ultimately, though, Johns’ return to Superman may end up having the biggest influence on the character going forward. Johns comes to Superman under circumstances significantly different from when he took over Action Comics in 2006. Back then he was also paired with big-name collaborators (co-writer Richard Donner and artist Adam Kubert), but the Superman books, like the rest of the superhero line, were regrouping in the wake of Infinite Crisis. It was another round of creative-team turnover (Kurt Busiek and Pacheco were starting on Superman), but it felt more like regrouping than picking up the pieces, and I don’t remember anyone asking Johns to be a calming, orderly presence. Besides, back then Johns wasn’t Chief Creative Officer, or a crossover talent specializing in translating DC characters to other media. Today his name carries a bit more weight, and that shouldn’t be discounted when gauging his impact on Superman. In that regard he’s like JRJR, choosing to do Superman because “it’s Superman,” and how could he not?
It seems like every few years -- if not more often -- we superhero readers discuss how to Do Superman Right. To paraphrase Elliott S! Maggin, there is a right way and a wrong way, and the distinction doesn’t seem that hard to make. For many Superman fans, certainly the news that this creative team would be coming to Superman gives them hope that the Man of Steel will be done the right way. (No doubt the reverse is also true.) At the very least, Johns’ history with the character, plus his tendency to stay with a series, should produce a run that is rooted both in modern and classic Superman lore, and lasts long enough to inform future portrayals. If Johns stays two years, odds are he’ll write the milestone 50th issue, and who knows where Superman will be by then. Maybe not back in the old duds; maybe still single; but hopefully familiar to a broad range of readers.