Johns & Lee Bring Character To "Justice League"

Warning: The following story contains mild spoilers for "Justice League" #1, on sale now.

When it first debuted in 1960, DC Comics' Justice League did a lot of things right. It combined the best-known characters of the publisher's superhero world. It gave off waves of imaginative story twists. It galvanized the superhero genre in a way that soon had competitors popping up all over.

But despite those triumphs, the original issues written by the legendary Gardner Fox have long had one point against them: all the heroes sounded the same. A common complaint from modern comic fans looking into the Justice League's history has been that Green Lantern is written simply as Superman with brown hair, who's just Aquaman with black hair and on and on. The team was largely a blank slate of archetypes.

This time around, things will be different.

That's the message coming from DC's current CCO Geoff Johns and Co-Publisher Jim Lee, who as of midnight Wednesday are spearheading the relaunch of the entire DC Universe comics line with "Justice League" #1 -- the first of DC's New 52 titles. In the buildup to a late night signing fest at New York City's Midtown Comics, CBR News sat down with the writer and artist to discuss their goals for "Justice League" from issue #1 on. The creators described how character is king in this latest gathering of the world's greatest heroes, how the villains -- including Darkseid of the New Gods -- will be bigger and badder than ever before, what they wanted to pay forward to the rest of DC's new series and what they got back in return and their longterm goals for developing "Justice League" as a continual best-seller.

CBR News: "Justice League" #1 is, I think, the first origin of the Justice League we've ever seen where the team doesn't get turned into trees...

Geoff Johns: The story's not over yet! [Laughter]

Jim Lee: Yeah, and I don't want to spoil anything coming up.

Johns: Honestly, we're trying to -- rather than retell a story that's already been told, we're going to do an original story with the greatest heroes and villains.

When the two of you first started to talk about the task of introducing this team and the DCU, did you zero right in on Batman and Green Lantern since they've been at the forefront of DC's biggest stories the past few years?

Johns: For me, it was all about making the book as accessible as possible and as fun as possible. Batman and Green Lantern represent complete opposites. Batman is all about planning and shadows, fear and subtlety. Green Lantern is all about bravado and courage and light and really not being subtle. So putting those two characters together, even though they're each super-recognizable, was what I was interested in -- Batman being hunted, hunting somebody -- and then having Green Lantern come in to screw it all up.

Jim, did you have a lot of specific ideas for what you wanted to draw in the book?

Lee: No, I think we just had discussions more about characters we liked. We talked a lot about the eras we collected, and really, my experience was much more limited than Geoff's, but luckily it involved all the iconic members so I feel like I'm tapping into that childhood nostalgia from back in the day when they'd release those 100-page issues for 60 cents. But I also have a real appetite for creating new characters. I think part of the concept behind September is forging new ground and creating new characters, and having such iconic characters gives us a great stage to introduce new concepts and new characters and have them become immediately important to the DC Universe. That's something important. It's part of our mission statement. Our mission is to take all the characters in the DCU and keep them as vibrant and important as possible. Creating new concepts aids in that.

Johns: It's one of the reasons why Batman and Green Lantern have been so successful over the past few years. In "Batman," Grant [Morrison] has introduced so many new characters, and we've introduced a ton of new characters in "Green Lantern." And those characters have become very popular, very quickly. You've got Larfleez, Damian Wayne, all the Batman Inc. guys and all the Lantern Corps -- those are all new characters.

Lee: And when you do it well, it feels like they've been around forever.

Johns: Yeah! Like with Atrocitus. You never think twice about him being a Green Lantern villain.

Lee: We know that introducing a villain in "Justice League" means that it has to be a big, bad ass villain. I think that's something that every fictional universe needs more of.

Well since you bring up villains, we know Darkseid is coming.

Lee: I like that! "We know Darkseid is coming." It's like "Winter Is Coming." [Laughs]

Since the New Gods have been off the table since Grant wrote "Final Crisis," how did you guys approach those pieces of the puzzle? How do you make one of the biggest pieces of DC's villain mythology feel as big as the relaunch needs?

Johns: Yeah, the Parademons are completely different from anything you've ever seen. You don't really know about them yet, and there's a lot more to them than what's been revealed in the first issue. And we're playing Darkseid differently than he's been played before.

"Justice League" is more than just a new book on its own -- it's the first of all the New 52 launches. Was there a way in which you wanted your work to set the standard for what you expected from the other creators working on the line?

Johns: I think both Grant and Rags on "Action" and Jim and I on "Justice League" are laying the foundation for "Year One" -- the very first things that happen. So that's different. But also with "Justice League," I wanted to make it as accessible as possible for anybody who wanted to try comics for the first time. You don't need to know anything to pick that book up and enjoy it.

With over 200,000 copies ordered, it appears a lot of folks will be picking it up whether they've read comics before or not. That's a massive number. What kind of pressure does that put on you guys moving forward?

Johns: We just want to make every new issue better than the last. #2 is better than #1. #3 is better than #2. That's the goal.

Lee: I try not to get too worried or anxious about things I have no control over. The first issue is done, and like Geoff said, the second issue is better than the first and the third better than the second. I feel like we're really building off of what we established. Even drawing, compared to the very first pages I did -- which while fine, still felt a little static and reserved -- now when I'm penciling the characters, I feel like I'm really drawing as opposed to just constructing figures. It's hard to describe, but it's now done on a much more subconscious level than when I first started drawing the Justice League. When you first start, you go, "How big is his belt going to be? How much taller is this character than that one?" But while that was all done on instinct, now it's been internalized -- how the characters pose and their attitudes. As I've read more scripts, I've gotten a better sense of the personalities, and that helps define them whether they're standing, resting or fighting.

Johns: It really is all about personality for us on "Justice League." It's character first. So often, they've been portrayed as gods, but we wanted to ground them as people.

That was one of the surprises of the book -- there was a lot of humor worked into the dialogue between Batman and Green Lantern. So many times when we've seen those two on the page, it's ended up with one decking the other. Did you try to step away from that angsty quality on the whole?

Johns: I just wanted balance. I'm writing my books very differently than I have in the past. This, "Green Lantern" and "Aquaman" all have a different feel as I'm trying to make them as accessible as possible for people and make them fun. And that needs touches of humor. These characters would get on each others' nerves. I go, "Well, if they would, they're going to!"

Lee: They're strong personalities.

Johns: They are. And when Superman comes into the mix and everybody else comes in, I want the Justice League to be interesting. I want, when they say, "Hey Batman and Green Lantern, go check that out," for it to be that you can't wait to see them together. Hal rolls his eyes and Batman says, "I'll do it myself." Then Hal says, "No, I'll do it with you" and then he makes a Batman with his ring and they go off. [Lee Laughs] For me, a lot of the fun is in seeing Hal Jordan's bravado play off of Batman.

Lee: He's got a real swagger.

Johns: Yeah! And a smile and hints where he apologizes to Batman once in the first issue where it's a subtle idea that he knows he's flawed, but he also goes, "I've got this ring and it can do anything, so back off." I love that he has that attitude. There are a lot of scenes coming up where you watch the team play off each other, and it's surprising. When Flash comes into the mix, or Wonder Woman, you don't know what to expect. Moving forward, the fun of the book should be these characters interacting and taking on the challenges they have to because otherwise, the world is screwed.

Which characters have been the ones who have surprised you the most once you put them in that dynamic?

Lee: I think Aquaman -- certainly, with the way Geoff is handling him in the solo book -- is a different take that acknowledges what everyone knows about the character but serves as a unique foil within the line-up of the Justice League. I'm going to pull out my Dungeons and Dragons here, but Superman is like "Lawful Good" and Green Lantern is "Chaotic Good" and Batman is maybe "Lawful Neutral..."

Johns: Nerd! [Laughter]

Lee: But it's a real mix, where the fact that they all have such distinct personalities makes them so much easier to draw because you can instantly tap into who that person would be in real life and draw that pose.

Johns: The goal is for you to get to know these characters in a way you never have before and feel like you understand Green Lantern and you understand the Flash. Then, when those two get together, the Flash is always like, "What'd you do?" [Laughter] "You must have said something to make him mad." And Green Lantern goes, "No I didn't -- well, maybe I said something, but he shouldn't have gotten mad. He's sensitive!" There's this great interplay between all the characters. You can't put Superman and Green Lantern in a room and have the same dynamic you'd have with Batman and Flash. Flash and Batman in a room kind of galvanize each other because they start talking about forensic science and getting geeky, and Hal goes, "What are you talking about, you nerds?"

Lee: [Laughs] Barry seems very much an innocent to me.

Johns: He is. He's the guy that really believes in good. He's always going, "Can't we get along?"

Lee: He's the most virtuous of the bunch.

Johns: And Superman's a little stand off-ish.

Lee: He's much cockier than people are used to seeing.

Johns: He's super-powerful, and he knows it. Wonder Woman is probably the most confident of them all, and she's also the most interested in this world. She was the most fun to write in issue #3. So it is all about personality first. I think that falling in love with the characters is why you're going to want to keep reading the book.

One of the other big themes of the book is the idea that this is now a world where superheroes aren't trusted by the public yet, and that seems to hold true for some of the other titles in the relaunch. Did you talk about redefining that tone of the whole DC Universe and what being a superhero is like?

Johns: "Justice League" is really the story of where the world "superhero" comes from and the origins of the DC Universe and, as Jim says, the tone of it. Our universe is different. It is the "Tomorrow can be a better place" universe where the public embraces its heroes.

Lee: But it doesn't always start out that way.

Johns: It doesn't. You have to earn that trust, and I think part of the fun of this is seeing how the word "superhero" manifests.

You each have a lot of other things on your plate besides making monthly comics right now. With the hard deadline of day-and-date digital, has it been difficult for you to make the time and really feel confident in getting this book together?

Johns: It's a challenge, but it's like -- day job and night job.

Lee: And weekend job!

Johns: And on the airplane job! [Laughter]

Lee: I've cut back on a lot of signings and conventions, which is unfortunate because I love going out and meeting the fans, but the pages don't draw themselves. I keep reminding myself of that, and I try to spend every moment I can at the drawing table. Even if it's only an hour -- and an hour to me represents like one panel -- you string enough of those hours together that you can turn in something in and get you towards the eventual goal of getting the issue in. I've been much more Draconian and strict with myself, and it makes a big difference. I think part of late books is that you put things off, but now I'm forcing myself to stay up to finish that "one page a day" goal.

You've been talking a lot while hanging here at Midtown today, about books in the New 52 you're excited for. Have each of you read all 51 other books at this point in their final form?

Johns: I have a couple left to read, still.

Lee: Yeah. Overall, it's been really interesting to see. You can say to someone, "Paint this wall blue," but 51 different painters will all give you something different. It's been interesting to see how all the creative teams have internalized our goals and done their own spin on what we're trying to achieve. There've been some really pleasant surprises. I was telling another reporter how "Red Hood & The Outlaws" has been a real fun surprise for me, and "Frankenstein" is great.

Johns: "Frankenstein" and "Animal Man" both are great.

Lee: I've never been a huge Creature Commandos fan, but I was able to read that first "Frankenstein" issue and really get it and want more. It's not just about monsters. There's a lot of heart to it and a lot about Frankenstein's character. It makes you look at that mythology in a new light.

Johns: And then all the usual suspects are great, like "Batman." But with those books, where someone like you knows it all so well already, you'll find books deeper in the catalogue that will be much more of a surprise.

One last thing I had to ask about "Justice League" #1 for Geoff: at what point did you decide to call Jim up and make him draw a Michigan State football scout into the book?

Johns: Didn't you do that on your own?

Lee: Oh, it was in the script.

Johns: Go Spartans! [Laughter]

Lee: You actually have to check it out, because in the preview I did it one way, but then I went in and changed it slightly so you can't tell.

Johns: [Picking up book] It still looks like Sparty.

Lee: Don't say that! For the record, this does not look like any existing trademarks. [Laughter] It's tricky. When I drew it, I had my artist hat on where I wanted to be faithful to the script, so I drew the logo. But then when it came to proofing the image, I made changes to the colors and the logo on the hat. That was the Publisher's hat going, "You can't use this without clearance!" I wanted to be true as an artist and faithful to the team while also following the publishing guidelines we have as a company.

"Justice League" #1 is on sale now from DC Comics. Stay tuned to CBR News for everything related to DC's New 52.

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