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Between the Panels: Writer Geoff Johns on Loving Monsters, Being Grateful, and Taking the Big Swings

“Between the Panels” is a bi-weekly interview series focusing on comic book creators of all experience levels, seeking to examine not just what each individual creates, but how they go about creating it.

Few creators’ names have been as inextricably linked to one publisher as much as Geoff Johns and DC Comics. Since breaking in as a writer back in 1999, Johns has not only written high-profile book after high-profile book, but was a key player in bringing DC’s characters from off the comics pages to screens big and small.

First off, the basics…

Your specialties (artist/writer/letterer/inker/etc.): Writer

Your home base: Los Angeles, CA


Fanbase Press Contributor Kevin Sharp: Why comics? What’s beyond your love for this artform?

Geoff Johns: That’s a great question, and there are a lot of answers. Where does the spark come from? Why do I love comic books? I loved drawing as a kid, I loved art. When I first found comics in a substantial way, I was probably about eight or nine or 10. [That’s] when I really got into reading, and I loved drawing the characters, so it was interactive for me. I loved the stories, the characters, the art— I would draw them and draw my own characters. I’ve got sheets and sheets of my own characters, many of which have entered the DC Universe. Flash villains like Girder and Plunder; even Geiger at Image is based on an old idea I had. When I read comics, most of which I first was kind of exposed to at my grandmother’s house in Detroit in the attic—my uncle’s old ‘60s comics from DC and Marvel mostly—that’s where the spark was ignited.

KS: You’re someone who has experience writing and working in other collaborative media, so does this form offer you something that maybe others don’t?

GJ: I wanted to draw comics for a long time, until about high school where I got more into film. Then in college, I studied filmmaking. I still took some art classes, but I was [more] into directing and then I got more into screenwriting. I was in a film class where we were directing our own 10-minute movies. I wrote my script and then my friend asked me to write a script for him, and then some of the other students asked me to write their scripts; suddenly, I found myself writing all the scripts, and I really enjoyed working with somebody who was visualizing something. Ultimately, I wanted to write film and TV and comic books, and the reason that comic books have continued to be a passion for me is that I love working with artists. I love the creative process of it. I love the medium. I love breaking up pages. I love writing panels. I love coming up with the characters. There’s something magical to me still about comic books. Why I keep doing it is I love the people I work with and that we generate something that’s tangible. Even now, all these years later, there’s nothing quite like it. That’s why I work with the same artists a lot, because once you find a great creative partner, it’s magic.

BTP GJ Monsters b04

KS: Before you discovered those comics in your grandma’s attic, what other types of media were you consuming that lit the creative spark in you?

GJ: There were kids’ books I was reading, like Scarlet Monster Lives Here. I remember that book so vividly. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The Phantom Tollbooth. There was this Monster Gallery coloring book I loved that was all these Universal monsters—the Fly, the Morlocks. I was introduced to all these interesting characters. There was a series of “how to draw” books I would get at the Detroit Public Library, and they were just the most magical art books. I wish I could find them again, because I would go there and check them out and love them. At the same time, they had these collections of comic books, these big hardcovers of Superman and Batman comics [“from the ‘30s to the ‘80s”].

Then on TV, there were Saturday morning cartoons. Obviously, the Super Friends. Smurfs. Dungeons & Dragons. There was a great cartoon called [Adventures of the] Gummi Bears that had no business being as good as it was. I had an Atari 2600 and [games like] Donkey Kong. I loved King Kong; I don’t necessarily know when I saw the film, but I loved the character. Godzilla, of course. I’m sure there’s more that I’m just not remembering right now. Mostly genre stuff.

KS: Were you a big movie kid at all before you got interested in them as a career?

GJ: I remember watching in the theater Clash of the Titans, Empire Strikes Back, Max Dugan Returns— I still love that movie and just watched it the other day. That might have been the first movie I ever saw. Raiders of the Lost Ark. There was a terrible movie called Treasure of the Four Crowns, which I absolutely hated.

KS: In 3-D!

GJ: Oh, that was in 3-D. We made my dad take us; it was such a bad movie. It was the first time I ever felt bad asking him because my dad wanted to see a different movie and my brother and I insisted on the other one. It was such a terrible film. My dad bought a Betamax machine when I was probably about 12 or 13. There’s a movie called The Twelve Tasks of Asterix that was based on the very famous and iconic French comic book, and another movie called Condorman by Disney that I loved and watched a hundred times—we had those both on Beta. In Detroit on Channel 50, there was what was called “Creature Feature,” and they played an old monster movie every Saturday. We would catch that a lot. I really was into Universal monsters when I was younger. It’s probably why I like characters like the Hulk and the Thing and Solomon Grundy, because they’re like these monster characters.

KS: Because you and I are of a similar era, I’m wondering if you saw one of my favorites from back then: Hero at Large with John Ritter.

GJ: I love Hero at Large! It was a great one for me, one of my earliest films, too.

KS: In all of this content you were enjoying, can you recall when you first became aware of the writer’s hand in storytelling? Either in comics, books, or anything else.

GJ: I’ll never forget it actually; it was such an impactful moment for me. I never thought about who made anything. I thought about drawing sometimes, but I never thought about who the artist was. I had read stories I liked. There was a great issue of Batman and the Outsiders [#13], a single issue about the Outsiders discovering who Batman really was and how it emotionally affected them—That’s why he’s Batman, because he watched his parents die. Because, yeah, people just think Batman’s this guy in a suit and he kicks ass, but to know why he does it would really be impactful. But the first real time I became aware of the writer was when I read Incredible Hulk #335 [in 1987]. I’d just started collecting comics; I was 14. I picked this issue up and I was so blown away by the story, the dialogue, the violence, and the like. It was such an impactful story to me at the time, and I remember thinking to myself, Who wrote this? I always skipped the credits. But at 14 years old, I went back and I saw it was Peter David. From then on, I was a big fan of his work, particularly on Hulk, which was just near the start of his run. The gray Hulk was just getting up and running, and I thought it was so bizarre that the Hulk was gray, having grown up with the Hulk being green. That’s another show I remember watching as a really young kid, and being frightened when he turned. My brother and I had to hide behind the couch until he was turned because it was so scary, the transformation. [laughter] But yeah, it was really that issue #335; from then on, like I remember looking at credits. I started to want to know who wrote the books, and that’s when I became very aware of the writers.

KS: Before we leave your childhood behind, I wanted to ask you about your creative life. You mentioned you liked to draw a lot and you were designing superheroes. Is there a particular “big deal” art project from back then that stands out for you now?

GJ: It’s so funny you ask that, because I just found it. I hadn’t seen it in at least a decade, probably more actually. There’s a group of art that I thought I’d lost. It was in a folder, a portfolio folder, and I found it literally a month ago. I drew cartoon characters. I would draw Popeye and dinosaurs and I created these little reptilian creatures. Then I started drawing more superheroes—that was when Marvel’s Handbook and Who’s Who were out. My friend Paul Deisinger — who I named a character after way back when — and I would draw our characters. I had this Marvel Comics puzzle that was like a collage of all their characters. I was in this after-school art class, probably in junior high, maybe 13, 14 years old, and I did a collage of all the characters I’d created in that same kind of style—not copying it, just remembering this [puzzle] and drawing all these characters together. It’s penciled and inked and colored, and there are a few characters on there that have made their way into the DC Universe or my Image universe. There’s gotta be a hundred of them on that board, maybe 75, but back then that was my greatest achievement. It was a super cool thing to accomplish.

KS: When you were making your decision on college and what your major would be, what kind of career trajectory did you envision? Did you make a conscious choice to set aside the dream of being an artist to turn fully toward cinema?

GJ: I was still trying to form exactly what it was going to be. There was a moment I thought maybe I’d go to the Kubert School, go study to be a comic book artist. But I had gotten more into film at that point. There was a great filmmaking class in my high school I took for two years; I can’t believe that this public school had that, but it was such a great class. Mr. Gibson was the teacher’s name, and I met some friends in there that liked film, too, and that really became kind of my passion. So, when I was looking at colleges… Michigan State University has the largest comic book collection in the world, and they also had two comic book shops on campus. My passion for them and my love for them definitely influenced where I went and what I studied, [but] my freshman year I was a member of the filmmakers’ club, and then I was president of it, I think, my last two years of college. I was still drawing, too, a little bit. Then, I stopped spending as much time drawing and spent more time shooting films and studying film and writing screenplays. By sophomore year, through doing it all, I really redirected my focus and said, “I want to write.” I was 19, 20; that’s when I knew I wanted to strictly focus on writing more than anything else.

KS: Was the idea of working in comics kind of always simmering under the surface of the other things you did?

GJ: I always wanted to work in comics, I just never thought I’d work in comics full time. I never thought comics were going to be such a huge part of my life. When I actually sold Stars and STRIPE, I was working with Dick Donner and I thought I’d write comics on this side, you know? I found I really enjoyed it. They asked me to do a story arc on Flash, then after I turned in my first script, they said, “Do you want to stay and just write the monthly book?” This was back in the era where people were writing books for a long time; you’d get uninterrupted runs that weren’t rebooted every five minutes.

BTP GJ Beast d0d
Art by Justiniano

KS: What did that time look like for you creatively? You were “in” comics but not fully in, at least right away.

GJ: Back when I worked for Dick, I asked him stuff all the time. When Lauren [Shuler-Donner] was about to produce X-Men, it was like, Oh my god, superhero films exist. But my screenplays were horror and sci-fi and comedy. I never wrote a superhero spec. I never thought I would do much superhero stuff in TV or film, because it didn’t really exist that much. When I started writing comics, they quickly took over because they kept offering me books and work, and within two years of starting to write comics, it was suddenly my full-time job.

KS: If there’s a parallel Earth where Geoff Johns ended up as a horror filmmaker or sci-fi filmmaker who read comics as a hobby but never actually worked in the field, do you think that would’ve been a satisfying career path for him?

GJ: Yeah, absolutely. I think there are so many different pathways that would’ve been fulfilling, but I’m really grateful for the one I’m on because I know it’s the one I’m supposed to be on. There was something about DC particularly when I was growing up that just resonated with me. And to be able to kind of become such a big part of that universe and create so many storylines and characters in that universe, to add to what gave me so much joy is really special. I get a lot of people now who grew up reading stories or runs that I wrote at DC, just like I did with Mark Waid and John Ostrander and Keith Giffen and Peter David. It’s such a privilege to be able to hear that—that’s all I really ever wanted, to connect with people who shared the same passion and interests that I did. I’ve never really thought, What if? I feel like I’ve done exactly what I’m supposed to do in many ways, particularly when I was making Stargirl. This might sound a little bit, I don’t know, spiritual or cosmic, but I often thought that in many ways I was supposed to fall in love with these comics and get the experience I’ve gotten and do what I’ve done, so that I could make Stargirl for my sister. Because it felt so special to do that show with the people I worked with, and it turned out exactly the way I wanted it to turn out. I’m so proud of that show. I was so blessed and grateful for the experience and a body of work that’s there and will always exist.

KS: Which you’ve also achieved in comics, right?

GJ: Jeph Loeb said to me, “You’re always gonna have Sinestro Corps [War].” When it came out and did really well, it was like, “You’ve got to appreciate that, be grateful for that.” I really am. Probably because I’m older and had the experience, but being on the set of Stargirl, I was so aware of the gratitude I felt and the shape of destiny that brought me there, that gave me the experience to be able to do it.

KS: Your comics career is too vast to cover fully in the time we have, so I’ve chosen a few titles from different points to kind of treat as a “memory album” of the times that you made them. I’ll toss a title at you and just tell me anything that comes to mind — something you’re proud of, something you regret, whatever. First up is a miniseries called Beast Boy from back in 2000.

GJ: Oh my gosh. It was so early on in my career; I’d just started to write for DC and I was asked to pitch Beast Boy. I remember Ben Raab, who I didn’t know, pitched a mini series, as well, and the editor said, “Can you guys work together on this?” He was in LA and we had a great time. It was the first time I co-wrote something. Ben still remains a friend; I really loved working with him. We had a whole pitch for Titans West. I forgot about this! We had written a Teen Titans Secret Files that set up Titans West as a series, because we loved obscure characters—Beast Boy, Dial H for Hero, Flamebird, Bumblebee, all these other crazy characters. Maybe Hawk and Dove, who I loved from the Rob Liefeld and Karl and Barbara Kesel run. But yeah, Beast Boy‘s been a big part of my life for a long, long time. That series started it all.

Art by George Perez

KS: How about Avengers? Fans may tend to forget about your Marvel credit.

GJ: Oh man, Avengers. Tom Brevoort, wonderful editor, one of the best editors I’ve ever worked with. Amazing guy. I remember the things I loved about it. I loved the arc with Olivier Coipel, “Red Zone.” That was so fun. I love Black Panther and Red Skull, and to have Black Panther take out Red Skull— that’s a pretty iconic moment still. It’s also the first time I worked with Gary Frank and Ivan Reis, so it was a very special run. My regret was it got cut short because I signed with DC. I think it was shipping twice a month, and that was hard to keep up, so there’s a lot of different artists on there. But I got to work with Gary and Ivan, and I brought them to DC — sorry, Tom. [laughter] I really wish I would’ve had more time there. It would’ve been fun to develop the characters some more.

KS: Let’s jump to Last Son and your chance to work with your old boss.

GJ: That was great. Dan [DiDio] had come to me and asked me if I would do Superman and I had said no many times. Just like they asked me to do Batman a lot, and I just always said no, because I felt like those characters were so big and they didn’t need me. I always felt like, well, no one’s going to write Booster Gold and no one’s going to write Aquaman, so let me go to the characters who need it. But finally Dan came to me and he said, “I’ve got Adam Kubert for Superman and I want to do something really special.” And I said, “If Dick [Donner] will do it with me, I’ll do it.” It felt at that point full circle. To go to Dick and talk about it, he was like, “Let’s do what I would’ve done if I did another Superman movie.” General Zod had never really been in the comics as a big villain, which I thought was insane. We brought in Zod and Non and Ursa, who had never been in the books. It was just a joy. Adam’s art was great. Then, Gary came on from Marvel, and we worked together on Superman and the Legion of Super-Heroes. That is still one of my favorite arcs I’ve ever written.

KS: You’re a Legion fan, as well?

GJ: I love the Legion. I love that take, the kind of the Paul Levitz adult Legion. In the emotional context of Superman having friends when he was younger, I thought that was such an important thing—that the reason the Legion meant so much to Superman is because when he was Clark, he had nobody until he met [them], and there were all these other kids who could fly like him. Suddenly, he was not alone.

KS: There’s a Gary Frank splash page from your Superman: Secret Origin series, of Superboy flying with the three original Legionnaires [Saturn Girl, Cosmic Boy, Lightning Lad] that for me so perfectly captures the joy of the whole Legion concept.

GJ: Yeah, yeah. I love that page so much.

KS: Well, you’ve cued up the natural transition to Legion of Three Worlds.

GJ: Oh, George Perez. Clearly, again, as a comic fan, I’m so lucky and grateful for the people I’ve been able to work with. I’ve worked with so many of my heroes in comics, and George Perez was one of the biggest. I mean, everyone knows what a master George was, and he became a really good friend of mine. Legion of Three Worlds… I’ll never forget, I’m writing the scripts, and I get this email from George and he says, “Can we talk?” I was full script. He goes, “You’re writing these full scripts how I draw. There’s all these characters on the page, tons of panels.” Because I always try to write for my artist. And George says, “But I want to do that. I want to break it all down and there’s too much here. I’m getting overwhelmed.” So, what I did is I started to write plot style. I would write it and then I would remove “panel one,” “panel two,” “panel three.” I’d still keep it exactly the same as I would write a script, but I’d remove all the panels so that he would be able to lay it out. It was so funny because he actually added things—he added characters, he added panels, he added moments. Then, I would dialogue it afterward. He would call me and be like, “We didn’t put this Legionnaire in and that Legionnaire didn’t go in. I’m gonna put this one in.” I said, “Great.” [laughter] So, it was a really interesting process, because I had kind of reverse-engineered what a George Perez script would look like if you wrote it down, but it’s not at all how he works. That was a great learning experience for me. What a lucky lottery ticket I drew, to be able to be a comic book writer who worked with George Perez on a book as epic as that. Wow.

KS: Last one, and I chose this because of the size of the swing you took: Doomsday Clock.

GJ: That was such a challenge. Gary and I are still proud of that book—it’s a beautiful book. I’ll never forget, I was on the set of Wonder Woman and [Gary] was up in England, and we’re walking around the set outside for an hour or two to decide whether or not we were going to do it. Because DC never pitched it; no one ever came up with the idea. I pitched it to Dan. I really wanted to contrast Watchmen and DC. The reason I wanted to do it is, I felt like Watchmen is absolutely the best and most wonderful graphic novel ever written—I don’t think anyone will probably ever top it—but Superman is the best character created in superhero comics. So, I wanted to kind of contrast the best character with the best story, and if Watchmen could influence everything around it, could Superman influence everything around him? Ultimately, that’s what the story’s all about. That was a lot of work. It was really hard for both Gary and me. 30-plus pages an issue, 12 issues. A lot of expectations, a lot of roadblocks, a lot of “you can never do this.” We did it because we had what we still believe is a great story to tell, about choices and about cynicism versus optimism. I feel like you’ve got to believe tomorrow’s going to be better; you’ve got to believe in the goodness of people; you’ve got to look for the good in everything first. The bad’s easy to see. There’s always good in everything, and you’ve got to hold onto that because if you’re just focused on the negatives and the cynicism and the bleakness, you’ll get swallowed up by it.

BTP GJ Clock 69b
Art by Gary Frank

KS: Was it challenging in any way you didn’t expect going in?

GJ: The scheduling was frustrating for us, because we had started the book and they moved us up to launch, like, four or five months. We lost all our lead time. Then, it was hard to recover from that since the issues were 30 pages and we didn’t want anyone else drawing the book.

KS: As we get toward the end, let’s hit a few lightning round topics of the type that might be debated inside a comic store. For Geoff the fan, not Geoff the writer or the DC employee: JLA or JSA on the same Earth or different Earths? What’s your preference?

GJ: Oh, same. I like the history, but again, I grew up really post-Crisis. I like the same Earth, because I like the generational aspect of DC Comics.

KS: The best Richard Donner film not titled Superman?

GJ: The Goonies.

KS: I’m assuming you saw that first run.

GJ: Yes. And I got to be there [when] we did the commentary for the DVD way back when and had the old cast there. I got to know all the actors really well; I still know them and am friends with them. It’s such a great film.

KS: You broke into comics in the ‘90s. Choose any decade earlier than that when you think it would’ve been fun to work in the industry.

GJ: Well, I like the ‘80s when DC went through Crisis and rebooted everything, and the stories got a little more character-based rather than concept-based. The ‘60s was fun because they were reintroducing all these crazy characters. But probably the ‘80s, post-Crisis. I think that would’ve been a really fun time; it felt like there were so many new takes on characters like Flash and Wonder Woman and the Atom and Green Lantern. They were rebooting them for the first time since the Silver Age—it almost came in these waves of the ‘40s, the ‘60s, and the ‘80s. Every twenty years.

KS: Your favorite alternate Earth from the OG DC multiverse, not the current version?

GJ: Probably Earth-3. I like the Crime Syndicate a lot. The thing I really loved about the multiverse originally was that all the Earths were incredibly different. Earth-S and Earth-X and Earth-4, the characters were vastly different. They weren’t, like, “Bruce Wayne got bit by a vampire on this world” and “On this world, Bruce Wayne got a Green Lantern ring.” It feels like the Earths now are much more derivative than the original multiverse.

KS: You can write one story for any artist in the history of comics who you haven’t worked with, and, to avoid having to play favorites, we’ll restrict it to people who’ve either retired or passed away.

GJ: That’s so hard. I never got to work with Curt Swan. I would’ve loved to have done a Superman story with Curt Swan. He is, to me, a definitive Superman artist. That’s why I loved All-Star Superman so much— Frank Quitely has such a kind of Curt Swan-y Superman. And Grant Morrison, of course, is a genius. Man, I love that book.

KS: Imagine a hypothetical Comic Book Hall of Fame, into which you get to add a plaque for a book of your choice. Any era, any comic you think represents the medium at its best. What’s your pick?

GJ: Well, I mentioned All-Star Superman. That’s a perfect story. JSA: The Golden Age by James Robinson and Paul Smith is a perfect story. There’s a few others out there, but when I’m thinking about DC superheroes, those two are examples of what I think are perfect books.

KS: To take a moment away from comics…. If I could hook you up to a Matrix-style machine and download any skill or ability at expert level. This can be something that you’re already kind of good at, or something you have no aptitude for, but either way you’d be an instant expert. What skill would you like to have in your repertoire?

GJ: I would love to be a master cook. I worked in a restaurant for four years [as] a cook and I love cooking, so I’d love to amp up those skills instantly. I’ve always wanted to take cooking classes. Or being a multiple language speaker and speaking any language would be so fun.

Art by Mikel Janin

KS: Finally, the floor is yours to let fans know what you have out now and have coming out either in the near future or farther over the horizon.

GJ: Sure. Justice Society of America is monthly. We just wrapped up Stargirl: The Lost Children; I’m sure the collection will come out soon. The trade for Junkyard Joe from Image comes out in June. Gary [Frank] and I are about to start the next chapter of Geiger, so we’re working on that, too. I’ve got a few other books, but they haven’t been announced yet, so I don’t think I can talk about them.

This interview was edited for length.

Kevin Sharp, Fanbase Press Contributor



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