Friday, December 04, 2009

Geoff Johns Under Consideration

I’ve been reading a lot of Geoff Johns comics over the past few months. At this point, I’ve gotten through the first six volumes of his Teen Titans run, the first two volumes of his recent Superman run and the first four volumes of his Green Lantern, with the Sinestro Corps War waiting next. The success of Blackest Night has brought John even more to the fore of comics discussion than ever before, and has also started a fairly serious backlash against him and his work.

Blackest Night, which quite literally resurrects barely living DC characters in the service of a gory, over the top nostalgic, but violent superhero epic seems to embody all the characteristics that critics of his work point to as his weakness. I haven’t read the work, I’ll check it out once I catch up to that point in his Green Lantern run, but let must just address some of the general criticisms surrounding the series.

One is the incompatibility of superheroes and the dark, violent subject matter of Blackest Night, previous Johns works like Infinite Crisis, or even Morrison’s Final Crisis. I think Morrison’s strong reputation within the critical community makes critics take a moment like Talky Tawnie battling an evil cat soldier of Darkseid of Final Crisis and embrace it as an encapsulation of the absurd joy of the DCU, as filtered through their own perception of Morrison as a cool writer who isn’t bound by nostalgia. Johns scripting the same moment would likely be criticized for dragging a ‘children’s character’ through the dirt and grime of realistic, or over the top, violence.

I think that’s a valid criticism, I love DCU stuff, but sometimes I’ll look at a serious scene consisting of a bunch of people in outré costumes standing around and it feels off. The goal of the writer should to wrap you up in the world of the story so that you accept it, but then I’ll be like why is there a woman with green fire popping out of her head here? It’s goofy, and when played poorly, superhero comics can feel like the adolescent males power fantasies of personal empowerment and scantily clad beautiful women that critics claim them to be.

And, I think the reason that Johns is so often criticized for his work is that unlike virtually all the other big names out there, he’s never done a significant creator owned work. Because Morrison does works like The Invisibles or We3, we realize that his whole world isn’t the DCU, and the superhero work is just one of his many interests. But, Morrison never denigrates the superhero work that he does, and it’s just as thematically central to his overall worldview as his creator owned stuff. But, other creators, like Warren Ellis or Garth Ennis, make a big deal of only doing superhero work as a way to promote their more serious work, to pay the bills. That means that even if Ellis uses the same characters and situations as Johns, there’s an inherent ironic distance to the work, we know he’s not being totally emotionally sincere or invested in the work, and so we’re not either and can appreciate it as “just a bit of fun.”

But, Johns is fully invested, he’s crafted a series of large scale epics in the DCU, and personally overseen the rebirth of a wide variety of characters. And, I think more notably, he’s created a very personal, auteur feeling body of work over the course of his time there. Johns has carved out of his own corner of the DCU in the same way that Morrison did, and it’s exciting to read all his titles as part of one continuum, to recognize the way that Infinite Crisis played out in Teen Titans, or seeing the way that stories from 52 led into his Superman stuff.

There’s people who like stories to be short and self contained, who view a season long box set of a TV show as a burden to be slogged through, rather than a joy to watch unfold. I love massive stories, and the DCU is one of the longest running single stories in the history of the human race at this point. I’m seeing Johns reference stuff that I read in Showcase Presents Legion of Superheroes in his Superman stuff, and that’s exciting. But, Geoff has also carved out his own corner of the universe, telling one long story over the course of his DC work. Geoff’s work all links together, and that makes it a much more rewarding experience than if he’d just written a bunch of disparate stories.

I think one of the core fallacies of art criticism in general is the idea that the most personal stories are the ones set in the real world, with characters who resemble the author, and events obviously drawn from real life. ‘Realism’ is synonymous with emotional authenticity, but I don’t think that a verite approach is necessarily the best way to represent our emotional experience of the world. If you look at someone going through a breakup or other traumatic event, it’s not the outside that’s interesting to watch, it’s what’s going on internally. And, genre, particularly over the top superhero epics, can be a great way to represent traumatic emotions in a dynamic way.

Grant Morrison talked about doing this with All Star Superman, using it as a way to process his own feelings about getting older and processing the death of his father. Is that your immediate take away from the book? No, but it’s that grounding of real emotion and experience that makes the book work and feel real in a way that most Superman stories don’t. I think that’s the best way to do genre stories, to infuse them with something real and then spin that real emotion into something wild and exciting.

I think it’s a mistake to assume that just because Johns is writing with other peoples’ characters, his stories aren’t personal. There’s a consistent set of themes, and worldview, set up throughout his work, a belief in strong, self dependent heroes who will stand up to corrupt authorities and reassert a strong morality that seems to have been lost in society. People accuse his work of being nostalgic, but I don’t think it’s necessarily nostalgic for another era of comics, it’s nostalgia for another era of heroism. For all the violence of his comics, Johns is essentially reaching back to a pre-Alan Moore era of DC, when heroes were heroes unambiguously.

This desire is represented in two characters, Superboy Prime and Hal Jordan. In Infinite Crisis, Superboy Prime is railing about exactly the stuff I was talking about earlier, that desire to return to a more pure era of heroism. Johns presents him as the voice of DC readers, but based on his work, he’s the voice of Johns himself. It’s just that Superboy Prime is a corrupted character, he doesn’t have what it takes to be a hero, and that failure corrupts him into the insane character we see at the end of Infinite Crisis. He’s not meant to be a hero, therefore he has to become a villain.

Hal Jordan, on the other hand, is meant to be a hero, that is his destiny, so Johns configures an elaborate scenario with Parallax as a way to absolve Jordan and return him to his rightful place as the force of will that drives the DCU. Jordan has done things as terrible as Superboy Prime, but that wasn’t his true self, and when he’s returned to life, he feels like a person out of time, a hero in a world that’s grown corrupted and weak. So, he shines as a beacon to the other heroes, and thanks to the way Johns writes him, is continually able to flaunt the rules and still maintain his favored status, because he’s just that good.

What separates Jordan from Superboy Prime? It seems to be the ability to overcome fear via willpower. Superboy Prime is corrupted because he doesn’t have the inner strength, Jordan has that strength and it makes him a hero. But, they’re both essentially reaching for the same thing. All of Johns’s stories take place against a backdrop of legacies, of heroes struggling to live up to the legends that came before them.

His Teen Titans depicts a new generation of heroes trying to live up to the storied reputation of their predecessors, and by extension, you could argue it’s Johns trying to live up to the legacy of Perez and Wolfman. He’s playing the same riffs, and continually referencing those old stories, seemingly as a way to show that this new generation of heroes can do their own version of Terra or Trigon just as well as the original.

Teen Titans is in some ways his most forward thinking work. His recent Superman run feels very conservative, a deliberate evocation of the iconography and setup of the Donner films. Admittedly, All Star Superman uses a similar classic setup and works, but reading “Last Son,” it felt very run of the mill, very much back to basics in a boring way. I liked that I knew what was going on, but on some level, I feel like it’s a testament against the strength of a comic if you can pick it up and find nothing at all surprising in the status quo or approach, no change.

But, Teen Titans did a good job of building a new set of characters and letting them grow and change over the course of the run. And I think it’s a perfect example of the way that a crossover should work. Crossovers have gotten such a bad reputation because they’re overused, and generally disrupt plans for a title rather than enhance them. But, seeing Teen Titans link into the overall Infinite Crisis gives the story so much more scope. The entire fifth trade has a sense of apocalypse hanging over it, an imminent doom that is hitting these characters very hard. Because the series doesn’t have to carry the primary narrative strain, it can focus on the characters, and the Connor/Cassie stuff there was fantastic, a great culmination of their relationship. It’s a story that couldn’t have been executed as well if it wasn’t part of the Infinite Crisis crossover.

And the reason that it integrated so well is that it’s all part of the Geoff Johns corner of the DCU. Morrison has his own pet characters, Rucka has his, and Johns most definitely does. And, within the world he’s carved out, there are very specific authorial tendencies. You can argue that Johns is not as strong a writer because he doesn’t do creator owned work, but you can’t argue that he doesn’t do personal stories.

Teen Titans has a lot of retro elements, but feels more progressive than Green Lantern. At that point, he probably didn’t have the authority to resurrect Barry Allen, so he’s got to work with the new Flash, and he makes him into a compelling character. But, it feels inherently conservative to bring Hal Jordan back and have him show the new guys how it’s supposed to be done. The stories are generally solid, but I take issue with the politics of the book on that level.

But, again, I think people who say that it’s evidence of Johns as a nostalgia guy might be ignoring the fact that these characters are personal to him, to resurrect Hal Jordan is not just about bringing back a character, it’s about bringing back an idea that matters to Johns. His morality and notion of personal responsibility may have been heavily influenced by Jordan and Barry Allen, so wouldn’t bringing them back be the most personal story he could tell?

I think that it’s perfectly reasonable to criticize Johns, I go back and forth between really liking Green Lantern and thinking it’s just a bunch of nonsense aliens shooting colors at each other with no emotional component. Similarly, Titans can be great in its low key moments, but get bogged down in boring fight scenes. So, you may ask why even read superhero comics in the first place if I don’t like fights? It’s not that I don’t like fights, it’s that the fights have to mean something beyond simple spectacle. The act of fighting in a superhero comic needs to be a way for the characters to express what they’re feeling and to play out the emotional conflicts that plague them at their core. That’s what the best superhero comics do, and Johns isn’t always there, but he hits enough to make his stuff worth reading. He's nowhere near a Moore or Morrison, but his work has a lot of exciting concepts and the kind of craziness you can only get from comics.

Next up for me from him is The Sinestro Corps War, the end of Teen Titans and some more Superman stuff. Then, in a little bit, I’m going to go back and tackle his JSA run. Anyone have any particular recommendations on where to go next with his work?


Jeremy said...

Like Chris Sims said, theres two Geoff Johns. Theres the one who grounds his work with brave heroes, fun villains, and a real heart and love to make it it a pretty solid superhero story(his Flash run is great, particularly with Scott Kolins. Love the "Brainiac" arc from Action Comics"). Then theres the other one, who drowns his work with Silver Age retcons, over the top violence, and the cheesy purple prose and expositionary speeches this side of Superfriends(Blackest Night, I'm looking at you).

I do recommend his Flash run, but half of it isn't even in-print with the trades(luckily I have THE POWER OF THE INTERNET). Also, "Brainiac" is probably my favorite in-continuity Superman story since Joe Casey's last few issues of Adventures of Superman.

Two some-what off-topic things.

1. I probably land on that "Season DVDs are a chore" kind of level. I mean, from the few episodes of Buffy I've seen, I really like it. But thats a 144 hours I would have to dedicate to watch it all! My schedule is all over the place as it is, now I gotta fit that into somehow?

2. Will that Morrison's documentary have subtitles. Favorite comic writer of all-time, but Jaysis, yeh feel lik a complete wanker tryna listen. Hell, if you did those kind of subtitles so he sounded like Cassidy from Preacher, it'd be the greatest documentary of all-time.

Patrick said...

Do you have a link to that Sims article? I'd love to check that out, and it sounds like it matches my experience of his work.

Flash is definitely on my list to check out. I've heard that's one of his better works, and I want to catch up on that before going into the new Flash stuff.

As for the box set issue, because I've seen so many TV shows, and don't have that many left I want to watch, I try to savor it when I discover one I really like. Watching Lost earlier this year, at first it seemed like so much to get through, five seasons, but by the time I hit season four, I wished there was even more to go through and didn't want to end.

I guess the way to enjoy it is not to view it as a burden, as something you'd have to fit into your schedule or finish in a certain, but rather just enjoy the episodes whenever you can and watch it for the journey, not the destination.

But, admittedly, I watched most of the long form shows I've seen when I was in college and had huge amounts of free time, now it's tough enough keeping up with what's airing live, and I haven't been catching up on that much stuff on DVD. I've had the last three seasons of Farscape pending for over a year now, the 66 episode commitment too daunting at the moment.

And, the Morrison doc will have optional subtitles. His accent is pretty intense, so they're a must. Perhaps phonetic subtitles will be in there too if you want to perform along and learn Scottish.

malpractice said...

eh not a Johns fan at all. his work kind of sums up everything that bugs me about mainstream superhero comics.

Patrick said...

On one level, I totally agree. I think it's foolish to constantly be bringing back old characters and elements, like Barry Allen and Hal Jordan when, in the case of Barry, only people reading before Crisis would be familiar with the character. So, it just seems retrograde to do so, and there's an inherent conservatism to his work that can be frustrating, particularly when seen in contrast to the wild and progressive ideals of Morrison, Moore or Jack Kirby.

But, I do think that Johns is a great writer of superhero comics, and when he's not trying to resurrect old characters and concepts, he can do fun stuff. Teen Titans was a great book for him because it let him build new characters and expand the DCU.

I guess there's an inherent contradiction in all big two superhero comics between books that shrink the universe and those that expand it. The just announced 'Earth One' graphic novel line is something that shrinks it, telling the same tired Batman and Superman origin stories one more time just because it'll sell, but we don't need yet another version of Superman becoming Superman, we've all seen that story. One of the best things about All Star Superman was how fast Grant and Frank jumped past that part of the story to something new.

Books like that dilute the power of existing characters, and don't add anything new to the universe. They're a spiral to oblivion. But, books like Seven Soldiers or Teen Titans are great for the overall health of the universe because they create new viable characters and concepts. Right after Seven Soldiers, I'd have bought ongoings starring any of those characters, that's how good a job Grant did at making them viable and exciting. That's what writers should be doing, trying to build the universe and make new, or dormant, characters just as exciting as Batman.

And, I do think Geoff has done a good job of that with the Green Lantern universe, bringing a lot of new ideas and excitement to a book that was pretty irrelevant for a long time. But, doing books like Superman: Secret Origin or the new Batman thing are the complete opposite of that.

Rick said...

Sims Talks about it here in his Review of Blackest Night #1

And I find to be in a similar view point on his works, and also another thing that is brought up with Johns is he is completely lacking in any form of subtly

But yeah, His Superman and Flash run are good his JSA and Legion are a hoot but the GL stuff just bores me

Patrick said...

Just hearing the buzz around it, it sounds like Blackest Night indulges all his worst tendencies.

I will say, I'm reading Sinestro Corps War now and really enjoying it. It's really epic, but is arranged in a way that makes logical sense and has a tight enough focus that it doesn't get out of control. It's also a great example of Johns' own 'pocket continuity,' and it's cool to see Superboy Prime and, for whatever reason, the Anti-Monitor show up again.

Side note, does anyone know what the deal is with the reading order for his Legion stuff, I know there was a Legion arc in his Superman, is that before Legion of 3 Worlds? Are they connected in some way?