No one loves DC Comics more than Geoff Johns. Nobody. You may think that you love characters like Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, The Flash, Green Lantern, Aquaman, and countless others with every fiber of your being. And you may very well love them, but Geoff Johns loves them more. And that’s precisely why he wants to save DC Comics.
Editor’s note: This interview contains spoilers for DC Universe Rebirth #1.
Today saw the release of DC Universe Rebirth #1, a sprawling 80-page one-shot that drops some major bombshells on the DC Comics canon. Many critics — Nerdist included — are praising the book for its thoughtful storytelling, metatextual commentary on the last several years of DC Comics storylines, and for injecting a renewed sense of hope and optimism into the DC Universe. That last point in particular, about hope and optimism, is Geoff Johns to a tee, and emblematic of not only why he is the Chief Creative Officer of DC Comics, but also tapped by Warner Bros. to spearhead DC Films alongside WB executive Jon Berg.
Comic books have been an integral part of Johns’ life for as long as he can remember. While he also read Marvel titles growing up in Detroit, Michigan, he always found himself more drawn towards the larger-than-life characters that inhabited the pages of DC Comics. In the early 2000s, Johns made the transition from reader to writer, penning a mini-series called Stars and S.T.R.I.P.E., which followed the adventures of the second Star-Spangled Kid and an armored robot named S.T.R.I.P.E.. After that initial foray into comics writing, he became a co-writer on JSA (a.k.a. Justice Society of America) and became the main writer on The Flash, Johns’ favorite character. Over the next decade, Johns became one of the company’s most integral figures, writing everything from ongoing series to spearheading massive company-wide crossover events like Infinite Crisis. His eight-year run on Green Lantern not only reinvigorated the character, but also remains the essential version of the character in the modern era to many readers.
Don’t Call it a Reboot
That is precisely why co-publishers Jim Lee and Dan DiDio came to Johns when they had the idea to relaunch the entire DC Comics line. Again. For the second time in five years. To understand why this is a big deal to both Johns and comic book readers, one must understand the New 52. Back in 2011, DC Comics made a bold decision: they decided to press the reset button on their entire universe. The initiative, known as the New 52, effectively erased entire storylines, characters, and decades of established continuity in one fell swoop. While the relaunch was not without its merits — most notably Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo’s dynamite run on Batman — one could not help but feel that something was missing from the DC Universe. The initiative was intended to give new readers a convenient jumping-on point, but there was a sense of loss, a vacuum created by the erasure of decades of storytelling. This newer, younger, fresher-faced version of the DCU may have attracted some new fans, but it alienated many more.
Five years into their grand experiment, DiDio and Lee realized they needed to shake things up once again. It was something that threw Johns for a loop, initially. “I was writing Justice League, but I don’t run editorial and publishing, so when they came to me and said, ‘Hey, we are planning on ending everything at 52 and relaunching everything with a number 1 again,” my initial reaction was ‘Why?'” Johns told me as we sat in his Burbank office.
Why, indeed? To make matters worse for Johns, DiDio wanted to call the new initiative Rebirth, a revelation that Johns described as a “bombshell.” And understandably so. In 2004, Johns wrote Green Lantern: Rebirth, a six-issue limited series that reintroduced Silver Age Green Lantern Hal Jordan into the DC continuity after he was killed off in the wake of Ron Marz’s 1994 storyline Emerald Twilight. Johns followed that up in 2009 with The Flash: Rebirth, another six-issue limited series that followed Silver Age Flash Barry Allen’s reintroduction to the DCU after returning from the dead in 2008’s Final Crisis.
“That word means a lot to me,” Johns told me. “I feel ownership over that word, because of Green Lantern Rebirth, and Flash Rebirth.”
After doing some soul-searching, Johns realized the answer had been in front of him all along — and that this could be an opportunity to do for the DC Universe what he did for Hal Jordan and Barry Allen all those years ago.
“I came back to them and I said, ‘What if I did a special that was [about the] DC Universe?'” he explained. “I could essentially take a look at the line as a whole, because I felt that there are things that made DC that were lost.”
What exactly was lost, according to Johns? “Legacy, open optimism, sense of history, most importantly relationships between characters,” he told me without missing a beat. “I felt that a lot of the heart for me had kind of gone missing. I wanted to try and restore it, and essentially make DC Universe Rebirth a love letter to the DC Universe and the fans and to everyone that loves these characters. ”
Johns may sound boastful or overly confident when he offers a personal money-back guarantee for those who don’t enjoy DC Universe Rebirth #1, but there is trepidation underlying that braggadocio. As one of the most public faces of DC Comics — and now DC Films — Johns has to project an outward aura of confidence. But in person, he is not arrogant or aloof; rather, he is one of us, which is to say a diehard fan, one that happens to be given the opportunity to steer the narratives of characters for whom he cares deeply.
Although he wrote Rebirth #1 by himself, it was meant to kick off the company-wide Rebirth initiative, and to do so he sought the insight of his fellow editors, writers, and creators. “The mission statement was to kind of look at the playing field again,” Johns explained. “I sat down and talked to all of the editors and the writers, together and individually, about the characters. We just talked about characters. We talked about DC Universe and we talked about iconic heroes, and caring about one another, and caring about the world, and their relationships, and the sense of hope, even in the face of adversity. Really trying to grab back onto that optimistic, historic, legacy-driven universe again.”
Bleeding on the Page
So, when it came time for Johns to pen Rebirth, it wasn’t something that happened overnight or even easily. In fact, Johns spent several months writing the 80-page, single-issue behemoth. As American sportswriter Red Smith once said of writing, “You simply sit down at the typewriter, open your veins, and bleed.” Johns may not have used a typewriter for Rebirth, but his lifeblood is all over the pages of Rebirth, and his deep-seated passion for the DC Universe is unmistakeable.
“I spent a lot of time thinking about what I missed in the DC Universe, and what I think the DNA of DC is, and how to bring some hope, optimism, and positivity, and point the compass in the right direction as far as heart goes,” Johns said. “That was the main goal for Rebirth.”
In other words, Rebirth is not a reboot. That is something that Johns has taken great pains to make clear. Rather, it is a course correction, a righting of the ship before it crashes into the rocky shoals ahead.
“I’ve never been a fan of reboots,” Johns declared. “I’ve never been a fan of erasing all history. I like using everything, and this was an opportunity to put all the pieces back on the board, with no limitations. I didn’t want to see rules like ‘No old characters,’ or ‘No one can be married.’ It just feels ridiculous to put rules on the DC Universe, because the DC Universe is way beyond rules.
The DC universe is all the great creators that are working on it, and doing stories they believe in, and with these great characters, and the idea was just to open it back up again and give it a sense of an epic feeling, and a sense of anything could happen.”
Anything Can Happen
Case in point, one of the book’s biggest triumphs is its reintroduction of Wally West, the third man to bear the mantle of the Flash. For a generation of readers — including Johns and myself — Wally West is the definitive version of the Flash, and the Scarlet Speedster we grew up with. But then, in the wake of Flashpoint, he was gone.
In the New 52 canon, he never seemed to exist at all. Just like that, a beloved character was excised from history — which made his return all the more impactful. When I read the panel revealing Wally West, decked out in his classic Kid Flash garb, I was alone in Johns’ office. “Oh my god,” I yelled out to no one as I pumped my fist in the air. I felt slightly embarrassed by my reaction until I witnessed a co-worker do the exact same thing earlier this morning in our office.
I couldn’t help myself when Johns came back in the room after I had finished reading the 80-page issue. I told him that, pardon my French, this is fucking huge.
“Yeah, it is fucking huge,” Johns replied with a laugh. “I will keep that. You can bleep them out later. I do think it’s funny–the whole idea was–I grew up with Wally West. I think the misconception between Green Lantern: Rebirth and Flash: Rebirth might be that I grew up with Barry Allen and Hal Jordan, while I actually grew up with Wally West and John Stewart, and none of those series–Flash: Rebirth and Green Lantern: Rebirth was ever about just bringing back Hal Jordan and Barry Allen. It was about putting all of the characters back.
Because I love all of the characters! I want every single character on the board to play with, and to tell stories about, because they’re great. Everyone has their favorite, and that’s why I love the Jaime Reyes and Ted Kord team-up. I think it’s fun to see and it’s cool, and I love seeing Ryan Choi and Ray Palmer interact. I really love the legacy aspect of it.”
Above all else, legacy is a term that Johns keeps coming back to, and is indicative of what he and many other readers felt was missing from the DCU in the New 52 years.
“To me, Wally West–and I think everybody that’s been a real DC fan for a while–is the epitome of legacy,” Johns explained “He is the legacy success story at DC, and the misfortune of having him absent in New 52 was personally my good fortune, because I got to tell the story of bringing him back. He is the heart and soul of legacy when it comes to the DC Universe. I think it’s really important, too. I wrote him for six years. He was–I grew up reading his book. He was the one comic I never dropped, was the Wally West Flash comic. Every other book, I’d kind of come and go, but the Wally West comic I always bought.”
Being Brutally Honest
The return of Wally West isn’t just fan service for longtime readers who felt that a piece of the universe they loved was missing. It, in and of itself, is a gauntlet laid at the feet of the past five years of storytelling, a mic drop to remind us that the DC Universe can and should be better than it has been. While DC Universe Rebirth #1 is by no means mean-spirited, it doesn’t shy away from acknowledging the publisher’s missteps, allowing Wally to serve as a proxy for the reader and, to a certain degree, Johns himself.
“It was a joy to be able to bring him back in such a positive way,” Johns told me. “I really wanted people to connect with him, because he’s desperately trying to reconnect with the DC Universe just like a lot of us are. Being candid, I think some people would argue, but I think it’s good to be honest about where the books haven’t worked, and where the characters have fallen down, and what the DC Universe is missing. I hope it all comes true in the special, but I think acknowledging mistakes isn’t a weakness–it’s a strength.”
And that’s precisely what it becomes. By copping to some of these missteps in the pages of the comic, Johns gives the reader a sense of catharsis. They aren’t saying that the last five years were for nothing, but they are being honest with readers in a way that feels rare for a corporation as large as DC Comics.
One of the most telling instances of acknowledging the errors of the past comes early on in the book, leading to the big reveal of Wally West’s return. The moment itself is triumphant, but it is preceded by a heartbreaking piece of narration. Trapped in the Speed Force, Wally is doomed to bounce around the time stream, desperately trying to establish an emotional connection with his friends and family to tether him to the real world. “Because right now I’m worse than dead,” Wally tells the reader. “I’m forgotten.” Those nine little words may not seem like much, but they are a scathing indictment of what many people see as one of the biggest problems with the New 52. It gave the DCU a shiny new coat of paint, but that gloss covered up the beautiful tapestry of characters, story, and history beneath.
In another scene, we see an elderly Johnny Thunder, a former member of the Justice Society of America, who Wally visits through the Speed Force in the retirement home where he is effectively imprisoned. “Find the Justice Society!” Wally urges the wizened old man. “It’s all I’ve been trying to do,” he replies tearfully. As Wally disappears into the Speed Force, orderlies burst into the room in which Thunder has barricaded himself, dragging him away while he sadly cries, “I didn’t mean to throw you away.” Now, in context of the story this is a sad enough scene already, but it also speaks to how the New 52, in making essentially all of its characters youthful twentysomethings and thirtysomethings, discarded its older generation of heroes, particularly the members of the Justice Society of America, the Golden Age precursor to what would become the Justice League.
Perhaps the most damning instance of this metatextual shade throwing is when Wally West comments on the degradation, destruction, and outright erasure of long-standing relationships between core characters. Former lovers like Green Arrow and Black Canary became relative strangers; Aquaman and Mera, the married rulers of Atlantis, were rent asunder because marriage was perceived as being too old; and Wally West being trapped in the Speed Force for ten years meant there was no way in hell that he could be married to the love of his life, Linda Park. The loss of these important character connections was devastating to Johns.
“My motivation for writing comics has always been like this: I love Aquaman and Mera, I want other people to love Aquaman and Mera. So how do I get people who have never read Aquaman or given Mera a chance? How do I express my love through story, and try to connect with these readers?” he explained. “This is the most literal version of that I’ve ever written. I cut my heart out and put it on the page with Wally West. I’m hoping that it connects with all–with every reader. It’s supposed to be inclusive of everybody, whether they’ve read comics for a month, or for 20 years.”
In Rebirth, it is explained that some mysterious entity had removed a decade from the timeline in the wake of Flashpoint, which had a ripple effect that changed everything. In a moment of alternately cheesy and lugubrious narration, Wally says, “I realize that it wasn’t ten years that was stolen from us. It was love.”
“As kind of cheesy as that can sound–or as earnest as that can sound, I think it’s true,” Johns explained. “The thing that we respond to are character relationships. I don’t really care how many times Deathstroke has fought the Teen Titans. But I certainly care between those characters, and those relationships are the foundation of the greatest version of the DC Universe.
I was having a hard time emotionally connecting with [the Teen Titans] again. The whole thematic about Rebirth the Special is connection, and reconnection, and not reconnecting from your head and following the story, but your heart, and caring.”
That emotional reconnection is best exemplified by a tender moment in the comic where Wally West decides to make one last effort to find an emotional anchor in the real world: his mentor Barry Allen. Seeing Barry surviving and thriving as the Flash gives Wally a modicum of peace and allows him to accept his fate: to be torn apart by the Speed Force, fading into the annals of history, forgotten by all those he loves. “Every second is a gift,” he tells Barry and his body begins to disintegrate when suddenly Barry whispers, “Wally?”‘ Barry manages to pull Wally from the Speed Force, wrapping his young ward in a tearful embrace. “How could I ever forget you?” Barry asks. Johns asks. We all ask. It’s a triumphant, immensely heartening moment that exemplifies exactly what Johns and DC hope to accomplish with Rebirth. This isn’t a reboot. It isn’t trying to erase the past. It’s trying to restore what was lost, to unite the past and the present to create a better future for both these characters and the readers who love them.
The Next Adventure
It may come as a surprise to some, but for the first time in nearly two decades, Geoff Johns is taking a break from comics. As DC Comics’ CCO, Johns has been involved in far more than just writing comics. In addition to writing and producing for Arrow and helping to shepherd The Flash to television, Johns was part of a brain trust tapped to plan out the burgeoning DC cinematic universe. To add to his workload, Johns is currently co-writing a solo Batman film alongside Ben Affleck. Now, with Johns’ new position running DC Films, he’s going to have his hands full. Too full to handle the rigorous demands of writing comics on a monthly basis. As such, Wednesday’s releases of Justice League #50 and Rebirth #1 will mark his last comics work for a while.
“I’m going to take a bit of a break,” Johns told me. “I’m excited to see what everyone does with the books. I can read them as a fan, you know. I’ll come back with some stories at some point, but for now, I feel like Rebirth is my love letter to the DC Universe, and I’m very grateful and appreciative that I’ve been able to write these characters and these books, and play in this universe for as long as I have. I will continue to do so, but for now, it’s time to pull back a little bit and let–and see what everybody else does, and read them as a fan. I’m really excited about what they’ve got in store. At some point, I’ll come back with a story.”
And just like that, everything has changed. This single issue feels like a thunderclap, reverberating across the entire DC Universe to let readers and creators alike know that the status quo has changed. This isn’t a world of doom and gloom. This isn’t an inherently cynical vision of what superheroes can be. This is a canvas full of possibility with some of the most iconic characters on the pop cultural landscape. Geoff Johns poured himself out on to the page in DC Universe Rebirth #1, and the results are staggering. He may be taking a break from comics for now, but to paraphrase Barry Allen, how could we ever forget you?
DC Universe Rebirth #1, written by Geoff Johns, and illustrated by Gary Frank, Ethan Van Sciver, Ivan Reis, and Phil Jimenez is in stores now.
Images: DC Comics
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