Talking JSA With Willingham & Sturges

When fans discovered superstar writer Geoff Johns was leaving "Justice Society of America" - a title he'll have written for twenty-five issues, plus nearly ninety issues of its predecessor, "JSA" -- many likely considered dropping the best-selling DC Comics title from their pull lists.

But lo and behold, if DCU Executive Editor Dan DiDio didn't score himself a dandy of a replacement -- actually two replacements -- with Bill Willingham and Matt Sturges, the writing team behind Vertigo's hit "Jack of Fables" as well as "House of Mystery."

CBR News checked in with Willingham and Sturges for a lively conversation and discovered each had their favorites of the JSA, and found both were eager to follow Johns on the popular team book despite fears they might be throwing their careers "in the crapper."

CBR: Were you looking at writing a superhero book together as your next project?

Bill Willingham: No, I wasn't. The thing is, the conversation between me and DiDio when I was offered it and the conversation between Matt and DiDio when he was offered it were separate things. For a while, we had that confusion of which one of us was actually offered the gig. It was like that guy who asks seven different girls out to the prom. I was thinking this could be a sleazy thing to do to us. And then, of course, later on they cleared up that "No, no, no, no. of course not. We want both of you."

Matt Sturges: And when Dan talked to me about it. He asked me, "How do you fell about the JSA?" And I said, "I love the JSA." And he was like, "Great." And then he just keeps on walking [laughs]. I didn't have any idea about what he was talking about. I never really thought that he was asking me if I wanted to write the JSA.

Are both of you comfortable being treated as a two-headed monster; with Dan DiDio expecting both of you to realize he was asking both of you to work on "Justice Society of America" together?

BW: I don't think of it as a two-headed monster. And I don't think of it as a married couple -- although that is some of the snickering that is going on about this. I think of it as Buddy and Sally from "The Dick Van Dyke Show." A team of funny, intrepid writers who head off to the writing room and get that next episode of "The Alan Brady Show" together. And sometimes you get Rob as a solo act on his own to do something. When you dealt with Buddy and Sally, you always got them together. It's practically one name - BuddyandSally.

MS: Can I be Morey Amsterdam, at least?

BW: I want to be the one that lies on the couch and just spins out ideas and you can be Sally, who actually slaves at the typewriter and does the work.

MS: I had a feeling it was going to be something like that.

Do you have your favorite JSA members already figured out?

BW: Almost imagine that "Justice Society of America" is two books written simultaneously. Because Matt and I did, almost like a softball team, choose up players for our sides. "These are my favorite characters and these are the ones I want to concentrate on or take the lead on."

Who did you pick?

MS: I am a big fan of Stargirl. I think she's pretty cool. I have long been a fan of Power Girl and I have wanted to write her for a long time. And I would love to say something inappropriate but this is CBR. I think those would be my main two. I am really fascinated the Magog character. We'll have to see what happens to him.

BW: It worked out almost complementary to each other because even though I don't dislike Power Girl, the character hadn't really inspired me. I started right off telling Matt that I don't really have a handle on this character yet. I didn't have an idea of what to do with her that would make her unique and outstanding. And Matt said, "Oh, I do."

But my favorite characters, first and foremost, are the three old dudes: Jay Garrick, Alan Scott and Ted Grant. As a rapidly approaching old dude myself, I just like the challenge and the no-end-of-interesting-story-ideas that come from three powerful superhero guys who might be a bit past their prime. Who could be, and could certainly justify, close to hanging up the capes, the masks, the tights right now. They've certainly done their part. It's time for the younger guys. And yet, they still have that sense of duty to keep going. To hand off good training and good values and everything else to the younger generation that's coming up in the same team. So those first.

Obsidian. I love that character. Mostly for the untapped potential in my mind and the stories I have been dying to tell that only that character is right for and has never been covered and I'm going to be eternally thankful to Geoff Johns.

Let me digress a little bit. Agreeing to take over "Justice Society of America" from Geoff Johns is a whole lot like if DiDio approached us and said, "How would you like to throw your careers in the crapper right now?" It's almost the same decision. It's foolish to agree to follow him on this. And yet, we're going to do it.

MS: It's like which is more foolish, following Geoff Johns or saying, "No." It's a toss up.

BW: The nice thing is -- and the other way of looking at it -- it's almost a perfectly safe choice. If we fall flat on our asses, if we fail miserably, we get a free pass because everyone will say, even the readers -- who know more about the comics industry then we do -- will say, "Well, you're following Geoff Johns." So we get a free pass if we fail. But if we succeed - oh, the glory of that.

But to get back to your question, I am thankful to Geoff Johns for doing what I would consider to be a huge favor, and I have no idea why he did it because it was way before any notion that we would be coming up, but he took Obsidian sort of off camera, off stage for a long time. He made him kind of a do-nothing background character, a sort of force inhabiting the brownstone as a security system. He was that little set of numbers that you go "boom, boom, boom, boom," and that was his role. Not a lot has been done with the character. He was evil for a while. Geoff took Obsidian and let him lay low for a while so when we take him to the forefront again, it's brand new and fresh and invigorated. What a wonderful gift. So Obsidian is going to be a major focus for me. As a matter of fact, so much so, that he appears in the very first panel of the very first issue.

So there was the old guys, and Obsidian... oh, and Liberty Belle. I love that character.

MS: If you get Liberty Belle, I get Hourman.

Now you're going to look like a married couple again. Readers will think you are just writing each other into dialogue.

BW: Oh, thanks for mentioning that.

And remember, there are gradations to this. There's not a character on the team that I don't think is interesting and full of potential.

MS: I just called you other day, foaming at the mouth, about wanting to do something in particular with Alan Scott. So we definitely have our favorites and probably one of the ways we'll be doing it will be voicing our favorites and writing scenes with those characters but that doesn't mean we're not going to have input on everything that happens.

Are there plans to have any members leave the team? You probably don't need any new members considering there is already about 86 people in the Justice Society.

BW: It's a pretty fully staffed team. It's not like we're saying, "This would be a great book if we could add a few more important characters."

MS: Actually Bill, you haven't seen the editorial mandate. We have to get the membership up to 100.

BW: Well that's only 50 each. That's doable.

No, there are some definite plans but they would all give away some important plot points.

So there will be a roster shake-up?

BW: The roster will be an important aspect of the first storyline. Let's just say that.

MS: They wouldn't have needed two writers if there were any plans to cut the membership too significantly.

Who are villains in your first arc?

MS: All of them.

BW: And that's absolutely true.

MS: Every one we can possibly get our hands on.

BW: Every one they will let us use and in some cases, when they weren't available, we'll just create new villains.

Can you tell us who the artist is yet?

MS: I don't think they have officially chosen one yet.

BW: They have run some samples by us but I don't think, until one is chosen, we should be naming names.

Why is "Justice Society of America" a good superhero book for you both to write? Is it the humor elements? Does it have similar pacing to that of "Jack of Fables?"

MS: I think what makes it a really good fit is that the JSA is a team composed not only of a lot of different members, but a lot of different viewpoints. And it's very character-heavy. It's not just people who go out and hit other people and the fun and exciting tactics of how that works which a lot of team books are and that's great. But to me, the core of the JSA, which has always made it special or different, is that these are characters that fell like family to the readers. And any family has a lot different ways of looking at things. And there is a sense and a feeling of all of that stuff. And so I think Bill and I have a lot in common but we also disagree on a lot of things too. But one thing that we definitely agree on is putting character first and foremost in our stories. And keeping a range of drama and light-heartedness.

BW: I ran into a thing on an earlier series, and I won't indict any particular editor or anything, where the notes back were, "Don't you have a few too many light-hearted moments here? Because this is supposed to be a very dark and grim thing." And I said, "Yes. And that's because I have had to up the number of humor or light moments because it's so dark and grim."

You set up the tragedy with the comedy. If it was all dark, grim, woe is me, unrelenting, then it loses any of its dramatic power. And pretty soon the readers would very likely say, "Yeah, I get it, you're depressed, you're grim, you're gritty. I've seen that. Done that. I think I am going to go and find something else."

You take moments of humor, black or graveyard, or whatever we are calling it these days and you think, "Okay, light-hearted things are okay." So when the big, heavy hand of fate and crushing despair comes, it comes as a bit of a surprise again.

That's a philosophy of writing that Matt and I both share. Just like a football game where you have to have a good running game to set up the passing game. You need both to have either.

MS: And "Justice Society of America" is doubly so because to make that particular book work, you have to give the characters room to shine, because these are beloved characters. And people want to see them not just as superheroes beating other people up but as human beings.

BW: And there's the family aspect, which is important too. It's not the Justice League. Or the Justice Commando Squad. Or the Justice Machine. It's the Justice Society. It's a family. You know that family that everyone has experienced at least once growing up, they will fight like cats and dogs amongst each other, but if you come up to one of them, suddenly you're facing all of them. It's very much like that in my mind. With all of their squabbles and petty things, the Justice Society will always come together.

Bill Willingham and Matthew Sturges begin their run on "Justice Society of America" with May's issue #27. The writers invite interested readers to head over to www.clockworkstorybook.net for more news about their continuing and upcoming projects and to ask them questions directly.

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