ACTION COMICS’ Phillip Kennedy Johnson on Superman vs. Mongul

DC Comics has shaken up the Last Son of Krypton‘s world in recent months. Starting with Superman’s son, Jonathan Kent, becoming the Earth’s new Man of Steel. But what about Kal-El, the original Metropolis Marvel? DC is definitely not shoving him under the rug. In the pages of Action Comics, we follow Clark Kent as he travels to the depths of space with the Authority. It’s a super team that historically has not shared Superman’s values.

Now, in Action Comics #1036, writer Phillip Kennedy Johnson tells the story of what occurs when Superman takes a moral stand on an alien world. After learning of an enslaved race with mysterious ties to Krypton, Superman and the Authority travel across the galaxy to dethrone the new Mongul and liberate Warworld. DC even describes The Warworld Saga as the biggest Superman event since The Death and Return of Superman. We caught up with the writer and asked him about this new phase in the life of the galaxy’s greatest hero.

Cover art for Action Comics #1036 by Daniel Sampere.
DC Comics

Nerdist: Clark Kent isn’t known for “interfering” too much in the politics of other countries, or other worlds. He always stops short of liberating oppressed cultures. But in this issue, Superman makes an impassioned speech to free Warworld’s slave population. What made you decide it was time for Superman to take that extra step at last?

Phillip Kennedy Johnson: I would actually challenge that characterization of Superman. Before catchphrases like “Man of Steel,” “more powerful than a locomotive,” “American Way,” or any of the others were commonplace, Action Comics #1 described Superman as “Champion of the Oppressed.” That’s been at the very core of his character since his first appearance. And over the years we’ve seen him fighting Nazis, fascism, hate groups, etc. His attitude towards authority and patriotism might change from era to era. But Superman’s never been without the inherent need to protect those who can’t protect themselves.

With a situation like the one that’s just unfolded in the pages of Action Comics, Superman has learned that every single person living on Warworld—including a race of people that might share an origin with Kryptonians, and including even the warzoons themselves—are slaves. Superman has never been someone who would let that stand. Once he fully understands the situation on Warworld, he has no choice but to go up there. In my view, that makes him the same character he’s always been.

Superman battles Mongul on Warworld.
DC Comics

Artist Daniel Sempere delivered some incredible pages for this issue. Can you describe your collaboration with him?

From the very first sketches of Superman I saw Daniel draw, I knew his Superman would be one of the all-time great depictions of the character. I love how classic and timeless Daniel’s Superman looks. And how perfectly he captures Lois, and how much life he gives every character on the page. And how much care he puts into every structure in every setting.

Superman arriving on the dystopian Warwold in Action Comics.
DC Comics

Working with Daniel has been the kind of collaboration you always want in comics, in that we’ve been truly COLLABORATING the whole time. We talk a lot about the work. I give him a lot of ideas about how we might do something differently, and he does the same for me. We really understand each others’ strengths now. And we love Superman for a lot of the same reasons. It’s been an ideal partnership, and I can’t wait to work with him again.

Superman has had a bit of a twisted history with the members of the Authority. Here we see him leading them. How do you perceive Clark’s relationship with the Authority and characters like Manchester Black now, in 2021?

Superman and his current teammates, the Authority.
DC Comics

I can’t take credit for choosing the Authority’s roster, that was all Grant Morrison. But they’re incredibly fun to write, especially in the context of a Superman story. To me, the idea that Superman would choose a team like the Authority means that Superman is making a statement. Or maybe that he’s taking on a challenge. He’s chosen characters who collectively make up a version of his own power set, but who are also primarily anti-heroes. Not the A-List, Justice League-esque characters we typically see him with. It’s as if Superman is saying, “I can take anyone and make them the best version of themselves, and I’m going to prove it with this team.” He believes he can help them become the heroes they’re meant to be, regardless of whether their personal histories back that up.

Mongul has gone toe-to-toe with Superman many times over the decades. But for some reason, he’s never quite risen to A-list status like Darkseid or Doomsday. Are you hoping this story finally gives Mongul the proper respect?

Superman, arriving on Warworld as a liberator.
DC Comics

Making Mongul truly threatening, giving him that legitimacy as a Darkseid-level threat, is one objective of my run. I think it’s easy for super-villains to come off one-note sometimes. And that it’s something that creative teams should thoughtfully avoid. I’ve written a long, tragic backstory for this latest iteration of Mongul. And it’s one that makes his perspectives, his motivations, his fears, and the threat he poses very clear. Mongul’s name will command the respect it deserves after The Warworld Saga.

You reveal a big secret about Kal-El’s condition in this issue, one which he’s apparently been keeping for months. Without saying exactly what this condition is, can you describe the genesis of this plot twist?

Grant Morrison, Mikel Janin, Daniel Sampere, and I have been telling two very different stories in  Superman & The Authority and Action Comics. As distinct as Grant’s voice is for Superman and his mythology, and as big and bombastic as the events of Superman & The Authority are, we all wanted the events of that book to “count” in current continuity. Grant and I both made some adjustments to our stories to ensure that could happen.

And that’s the genesis of the condition you’re talking about. One of the most challenging but also most rewarding things about working on a book like Action Comics is that it’s all happening in a shared universe. Many books share elements or characters with each other, and they all need to line up. Action Comics #1036 explains how two such different books can be part of the same story.

Right now, all the attention is on Jonathan Kent’s Superman on Earth. But some people might not understand that Clark is also still Superman, just not on Earth. How do you think Clark being away from his family out in space is going to inform his decisions in this story?

The cover of Action Comics #1035
DC Comics

Clark Kent will always be Superman, and Lois and Jon are never far from his mind, as we’ll see in The Warworld Saga. Superman’s family is his ultimate strength and his ultimate vulnerability, which any villain would be a fool not to exploit. I don’t want to spoil how Jon and Lois will impact our story going forward, but fans of theirs can rest assured that their part in this story’s not remotely done.

Superman felt like he had no choice but to go to Warworld, and that nobody was in a position to free those people except him and the Authority. But the events of The Warworld Saga are going to make big waves on Earth as well. And some of the characters we meet on Warworld will have a huge impact on the Super-family. One character in particular. While Jon is on Earth figuring out what kind of Superman he wants to be, we’re seeing the original Superman as we’ve never seen him before, in the middle of the most epic sci-fi/fantasy story he’s ever been a part of. And eventually, these two stories will become one.

Is there anything you can tease for longtime Superman fans for Kal-El’s future in Action Comics?

I can promise that my fans who have come to expect a certain degree of world-building in my work will definitely not be disappointed. I can also say that both the book and Superman himself will look very different from classic stories of the past. And I mean that in the most epic, exciting way possible. The great Miguel Mendonca from Justice League: Last Ride is joining us in November and December.

And starting in January, my collaborator from The Last God Riccardo Federici is coming onto the monthly series. The way Daniel defined Warworld Rising, Riccardo is defining The Warworld Saga. He’s a once-in-a-lifetime visual storyteller. And he’s bringing every bit of his fantasy, pulp sci-fi, and horror cred to the Superman mythos. This run on Action Comics is going to be a run for the ages, and I’m unbelievably honored to be a part of it.

Action Comics #1016 hits your local comic shop and digital on November 9.

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