Johns, Romita & Janson Seek to Inject Optimism Into "Superman"

With DC Comics' New 52 era nearing its third birthday, the publisher sought to bring major focus to its flagship character this summer with the new "Superman" creative team of writer Geoff Johns, penciler John Romita Jr. and inker Klaus Janson. It's a notably high-profile crew, but instead of taking the surely tempting opportunity to relaunch with a new #1, things kicked off in June's #32 -- with both the prior numbering and past storylines shaping the series going forward.

In their first two issues, the new team introduced Ulysses, a friendly yet mysterious superpowered individual in the tradition of past Superman-esque characters, dubbed "The Last Son of Earth." In this month's "Superman" #34, Johns, Romita and Janson are set to debut The Machinist, a new villain responsible for technological attacks on Metropolis. And in slightly slower paced news, recent "Superman" installments have also reunited Clark Kent with The Daily Planet team -- including iconic supporting characters Perry White, Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen.

SDCC: Superman Soars at Comic-Con International

CBR News spoke in-depth with Johns, Romita and Janson inside of DC's press suite at Comic-Con International in San Diego, speaking in person about major matters like Superman's desire to connect with other people, injecting optimism back into the character, the long-term prospects of Ulysses, the need to keep creating new "Superman" stories and how social media fits into all of this.

CBR News: The last time we talked "Superman" was in the months before the first issue was even out -- now there's two out there in the world, and you've all been working on the series for a while. How are you enjoying this ride together?

John Romita Jr.: I'm enjoying it more now, after we've gotten through a couple of issues. I was nervous, and now I'm happy to see the results, and realize that we can even get better than what we've done. That's even more exciting.

Klaus Janson: I think that happens with all new projects. There's a certain amount of trying to feel each other out, trying to figure out what we're doing. But I think we're at the point now where we're all really looking forward to the next couple of issues, and building on what we've done already. We can feel and sense that something big is happening here.

John, it's interesting to hear you say you were nervous -- you've certainly drawn a few comics before. Were part of the nerves going to DC for the first time?

Romita: That was only self-imposed. I second-guess myself at the slightest things. I get nervous about things that aren't really that important, but I can't stop myself from overthinking. Especially when you sit at a desk for 12 hours in a row -- your brain starts to collapse on itself. "Oh, my God -- am I going to make a fool out of myself drawing this character?" It was short-lived, and fortunately played itself out within a couple pages of drawing the first issue. I felt much more comfortable after that.

With this new run, clearly you've introduced a lot of new elements, but you've also embraced a lot of familiar things, both storyline-wise and visually. Was it easy to find a starting point of what you want to say with Superman in 2014, to find that entryway into such a famous character?

Geoff Johns: The most universal way into any story is through just the fact of the human condition; being alive, and emotion. Superman's story is timeless. His rocket can land here today, or it can land here 70 years ago. But the way into this story was looking at the stories that have been happening the last few years on "Superman." Saying, "What's Clark Kent experienced?" He's experienced quite a bit. And looking where he is in his life right now. He works at his apartment. He doesn't work for The Daily Planet anymore. There's no one that knows his secret identity, except another superhero.

When we started talking about the book, and I started thinking about all these scenes, where Clark Kent would be able to talk about everything he's experienced, I had to have Batman or Wonder Woman or Green Lantern there. I realized, "Wow, he doesn't really have that many people he talks to anymore." So right away it was, "We've got to bring that Daily Planet cast back in," because they're important to Clark Kent. They're his friends, and he doesn't have friends he grew up with -- he doesn't have cousins or family, or friends from high school. Pete Ross? He's been out of the picture forever. There's no one that really has been a constant in Clark Kent's life since he was a kid, because his parents aren't around anymore, either. To bring Clark back into a world where he can connect with people and friends was the first thing, and then the other side of it was, if we want to explore his isolation and his loneliness, and how he can channel that into something good, let's introduce a character like Ulysses, who in a lot of ways struggles with the same things Clark does, but Clark has the ability to help him overcome it -- or maybe Clark can't overcome it himself.

Janson: You know what I really liked about that scene in the first issue that you're referring to, was just how succinct it was, and how specific. With such a small amount of dialogue, you were able to convey exactly what you're talking about -- his entire situation, his entire personality, his entire emotional state. I have to hand it to you, it was terrific.

Romita: I agree with that. People ask, "How do you draw this a certain way? How do you tell a story?" I have the same question. After all of these years of working with writers, I want to know exactly that point. You get this broader story, you get the emotion of the personal stuff and the action, and you get it succinctly. That's amazing to me. More amazing than the artwork, sometimes. I have this block -- "How would I do that? How do I get this part of the story conveyed in dialogue without overtelling it?" [Johns'] dialogue is brilliant. His dialogue tells stories.

Janson: The tendency is, if you are a writer, you want to write. I think it's a measure of your restraint -- and let me say virtuosity -- that you're able to write in a very succinct way. I think that was a brilliant scene.

Johns: I knew I didn't want to do narration, for a lot of reasons. Covering artwork, one. But also, it just feels a little bit too easy, because it's exactly what Clark's thinking, and he doesn't really learn anything, because it's all internalized. I wanted all of that out. I wanted to have the reader experience Superman with us, and be with him, and learn things through their interactions like real people. There will be no narration. The fact that you guys can convey the emotions you can in the panels -- I can pull back on all the dialogue, because I don't have to say anything.

Romita:You have to be a little bit of an actor to be an artist.

Presumably, creators of your caliber wouldn't be interested in a "Superman" gig unless you were able to bring something of your own to the character. From what's been seen so far just in the visuals, there are those New 52 elements of the Superman costume, but it also looks very classic. The story appears to be working in the same way. What was the approach of blending all of that together into what we've been seeing in the first couple of issues?

Janson: It's a process. We're developing that. We're seeing what emerges. There's no preconceived idea when you come into a new project that you're so rigid about. You have to be willing to see what happens, and how the three, four, five people that are involved in the art and the story meld, and work together -- and then build, on top of that. I don't think any of us are that invested in any preconceived ideas entering a new project like this.

Johns: We made our first issue as accessible as possible. Superman should be for everybody. Anyone, whether they've read comics for 30 years, or never read a comic book, should be able to pick our first issue up, and feel emotionally connected to the character and want to read the next one.

Romita: I didn't consider this until I started working on the character: This is the first superhero, he's been around so long. One of my raison d'êtres in comics is to try something I've never done before, or be different than what I've done in the past, or try to do something that hasn't been done by artists before. Nearly impossible to do. Not just because of my contemporaries, but the people before me -- the Romitas, and the Kirbys, the Buscemas, the Kuberts -- you can't get better than that.

Here's a character that's been done a million times by fantastic artists, fantastic writers. How do you come up with something new, and something different? It's a problem that exists forever, and it's only going to get worse. [Laughs] Guys that start this in 25 years, I pity. [Johns] has come up with this great premise. Visually, is the only question here. The costume is pretty much limiting. He's got the cape, he's got the blue, he's got the S's on both sides -- what do you do with that? You play with it. Jim Lee played with it nicely -- this is a segmented costume, and it's a nice combination of things. But I'm still stunted. How do you go beyond what's been done before? You just come up with quality, and pray that it's different.

I knew there was an intimidation factor, because the character is so storied. But getting on it, and then realizing, "This has been done before -- I've got to come up with something different" -- [Johns] helped out with that, and then [Janson] helped out with that. The style we have on "Superman" hasn't been done before, and I think that helps, in a big way.

The new characters that we've brought into it -- Ulysses is a home run as a character, I can't say it enough. And the villain, The Machinist, is a nice take on a villain. I'm thrilled. I didn't expect it to happen so easily and so quickly, but that's what you get when you work with great collaborators.

As noted, Ulysses has played a huge role in the first two issues, and there appears to be a lot of enthusiasm from the creative team for the character, and a lot of work put into him. I'm not asking you to spoil anything, but is the plan for Ulysses to stick around the DC Universe long term?

Johns: His story's going to continue, and there are a lot of stories that will build off of it, too. I don't want to spoil everything, but we're spending a lot of time on the character, because the character's very important to us, and Superman, and the world, and the story we're telling. I can't really say much more than that.

Romita: To say that the character's going to be around forever would take away from the storyline. To say that he's a limited character would ruin the storyline. There's more to it -- it's a nice grey area.

Johns: Everyone working on this is such a pro. Everyone on it -- from [editor] Eddie Berganza to all of us, and [colorist] Laura Martin -- everyone's invested in making this the most high quality book we can possibly make. I couldn't be prouder of what we've done so far.

Romita: I just think, ultimately, [Superman is] a more difficult character to do, because of its storied history. That's my opinion as an artist. [Superman]'s been done to death, so to speak -- now, do something better than the guy before you. That's not easy to do.

Johns: This is issue #32, #33. We're not doing a #1. We don't have a hundred covers on our book. We really want to just do the "Superman" book. We want to do the best "Superman" book we can. We don't want to rely on gimmicks and tricks. We just want to rely on the quality of the book.

You've all done a wide variety of different things in your career -- written and drawn a lot of major projects -- and are now on the longest-running superhero. Among a number of people in the comics industry, there's a notion that creators should focus on new things, new ideas. The three of you are investing heavily with your time and effort in Superman, and doing new stories.

Johns: And new characters. When we sat down and talked, we were like, "We don't want to do another Brainiac story." We're introducing Ulysses and The Machinist, and the mysterious character that's been watching Superman. We've got a lot of new stuff, and that's what we wanted to bring to the book. If we're going to do Superman, let's make sure we stay true to the core and utilize the best of the core -- but also, it's got to feel new. We've got to have new characters. They have no idea where we're going to go with this story, and that's good.

Romita: I have a question along these lines: For a character that's been around so long, the fanbase of the character, do they want to see a return to the old villains? Do they want to see a nice smattering of the old villains and new villains? How do you find a balance?

Johns: I think people love good stuff. If it's a good Brainiac story, they'll like it; if it's not, they'll be like, "I'm bored of Brainiac." If it's a good new character, they'll enjoy it, if the new character doesn't work, they'll say, "I want Brainiac back." That's my take on it. As a fan, I always liked new stuff -- if it was good.

And vice versa. Bringing back a classic villain, and exploring them in a brand-new way, or reinventing them -- in "Green Lantern," Sinestro had been around forever. But to really crack into the character, if there's a classic Superman villain that we can get into -- and there's one waiting in the wings a bit -- that we can crack open and explore in a brand-new way that will redefine the character, then that would be worth pursuing.

So it's definitely something you're not opposed to doing, it's just not your focus right now.

Johns: Yeah, absolutely.

To put an even finer point on it, for all three of you, why do you think it's important to do new Superman stories, 76 years in?

Johns: I think we're doing kind of the best of both worlds, in my opinions.

Romita: It's a balancing act.

Johns: We wouldn't want to come on and just re-tell a classic Superman story in a modern way.

Romita: And also, just adding a new character, to do it right, and come up with a character like Ulysses -- that's pretty amazing to me.

Johns: And to take the time and the pages and the scenes that we need to really make the character fully fleshed out so he feels as real as Perry White or Clark Kent.

As to why Superman needs more stories told -- maybe we've read a lot of Superman stories, but there's a kid out there that's 12 years old that's picking up the new Superman comic that's never read it before. And that's super-important. Superheroes -- I like to call them "good junk food." On the surface, they look like they're candy and they're popcorn, but I think they embody ideals that all of us get drawn to. Especially Superman. You know exactly how Superman's going to act. I think he's one of the easiest characters to write, because you know exactly what he's going to do.

I think it's important to keep these characters alive, because they do inspire people. Especially this one. This is the most inspiring super out there.

The whole idea of calling this storyline "The Men of Tomorrow" is to inject that optimism of tomorrow back into Superman, because it's been a little bit lost. He's been a little bit more of a brawler and a tumbler. We want to get back to -- not in a corny way or a campy way -- but the whole storyline is designed around what it means to be "The Man of Tomorrow." And it's not evident yet, and it won't be evident until we're through with the storyline. But that's why it's important to keep telling new stories with this character.

Janson: One of the things I really like about Superman is that he is one of the few remaining characters who has a brand of idealism. In an age of when everybody is very cynical, and producing a lot of work that's very gritty, and grey, and dark, I think it's kind of nice to have a character that is hanging on to a certain amount of idealism. I personally can identity with that, and I find it affirming, and reassuring.

Johns: I agree. Again, it's not campy or anything, but we are going to do a Superman story. You can't plug and play this storyline we're doing right now with any other character. You can't put Batman in there, or anyone else. It is strictly a Superman story. And quite frankly, if you could [tell it with another character], it wouldn't be a good Superman story.

Janson: I think you're being true to the character, and that's why it can't be plugged in to another character.

That did seem intentional from the first two issues -- a more optimistic take on Superman, and also an emotionally vulnerable Superman, which is interesting.

Johns: Well, a human Superman, which is what we've always talked about. Everyone's like, "He's so powerful, I can't relate to him." Are you kidding me? He's the most relatable character ever. He grew up on a farm, he doesn't have a lot of friends, feels isolated, he can't tell everybody what his secrets are. He's a great character. He feels overlooked -- who hasn't felt overlooked, or wanted to connect with people? All social media is, is people wanting to connect with other people. That's all it is. Because people long to connect with other people. And Superman is the embodiment of that. He's more relevant now than ever.

"Superman" #34, Johns, Romita and Janson's next issue, is scheduled for release on Aug. 27.

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