Geoff Johns: The Best On Offer (1)
“The world he saw rang with percussion. Skeletons snapped. Blood and entrails exploded on a grand scale. He’d stroll through the streets, eat, bathe, weed his rose garden, and it would gather over his head, an insidious halo, as black as dried blood, glittering with the thunder of snapping bones.”
-Dennis Cooper, Closer
Right now the Geoff Johns aesthetic is probably the most prevalent in all of mainstream comics. It rules the roost at DC, dictating more or less the entire line, with Grant Morrison and a few of his copyists providing the only real voice of stylistic dissent. Across town at Marvel there are too many books to share much more than the superhero genre -- and even the most homogeneous of them are a fusion of Brian-Michael Bendis naturalism, Mark Millar bombast, and Stan Lee hokum. If in the history of comics there’s ever been a point when the most prevalent aesthetic hasn't also been the most divisive I'm certainly unaware of it, and the components that make up a Johns comic are no exception to that rule.
Johns’ style seems to have evolved in stages, or at least people’s areas of focus on it have. He started out as one of the hardcore continuity guys, never Frank Miller pop or Alan Moore transformative, but always a writer who could be counted on to know the backstories of the properties he was working with, to understand the character and relationship dynamics that had powered them for decades, and to create stories with a firm basis in both. He was hardly expanding the sphere, but he had a firm knack for writing comics that spoke to the core, the readers who’d been here before and wanted to see more of the same presented in such a way that its sameness would never occur to them. Like pretty much everything else about Johns’ work, this quality carries no inherent positive or negative value -- in fact, it’s quite tricky to even assign a value to. It simply is: if you buy a Johns comic, attention to continuity is one of the parameters the story will operate within.
However, Johns has taken his reverence for what came before to a level perhaps unmatched in superhero history: no mean feat, as those who follow the genre on even the most cursory terms know. The second of Johns’ identifying mannerisms is his interest in the iconic. That’s a word that got bantered about a lot during the middle of last decade as the ideal mode for superhero comics (since this country’s economic collapse, it’s been replaced in that capacity by fresh). Iconic is basically an attempt at alchemy, the distillation of year upon year of backstory into compact form, characters presented as a kind of telegraphing symbol for their own long history. The easiest cross-medium comparison is to music: making a character iconic is a bit like making a dance remix of a song, pruning away the ornamental and the expositional and rendering a single, steady hook that retains the identity of the whole while ceasing to hint at the complexity it might have held in its original form.
Superhero comics as they were practiced from the late 1960s to the early 2000s were anything but iconic. Direct allusion to the thickly layered continuity that powered them both hobbled them and provided them with their greatest point of individuality. For better or for worse, no pulp novel series or TV show ever built a world as dense as the DC Universe. Up to a certain point, Johns seemed happy enough at play in the thickets of past glories that his genre provides, but eventually that seemed to stop being enough. Every truly great writer of superhero comics does more than just exploit the “shared universe” concept: they put their own spin on it, creating stories that change the fabric of the story environment itself, forcing future writers to work within the parameters of their stories. There’s nothing wrong with this.
In Johns, however, that desire was mingled with an equally strong attachment to what he saw as the purest forms of the character concepts he was using, the iconic readings of them that first emerged in the continuity-heavy comics of the high Silver Age and were perpetuated by the on-model renderings of the Super Friends TV show in its various incarnations. Johns’ stock in trade became something between reversion to type and retooling for the future. The “Johns relaunch” was typically composed of a return to something approximating the original idea that birthed the character in the middle years of the 20th century, a dangerous and sexy face-lift for the villains that had played the biggest part in the hero’s early career, and the introduction of darker concepts to the range of story possibilities. Performing a dizzying string of surgeries on bagged-out concepts like Hawkman, the Justice Society, the Flash, and Green Lantern, in a couple of years Johns went from a second-string writer of some note to the savior of many of comics’ most moribund yet potential-rich concepts.
There was a troubling aspect to some of these relaunches, which erased decades of conceptual growth and saddled versions of the characters that were fully and completely intended for children when they were created with uncomfortably adult story material (and occasionally carried an even more vexing hint of racial whitewashing). Though superhero comics have “not been for kids anymore” for a fair few decades at this point, Johns’ reinterpretations made a cottage industry out of ignoring the stories that had passed during those years, moving the characters back to the conceptual ground they operated on during the years when even a thrown punch was an uncommonly savage thing to see in a DC comic. What Johns seems to be doing is going back to the versions of these characters and worlds that were made for children, and seeing how they fare when they have spilled entrails and blown brain matter to contend with.
However, there was never any question of Johns’ good intentions: it was always abundantly clear that he loved his characters deeply, and his audience just as much. Above all else, he made comics designed to serve both well. But for even the most committed fan it’s plain to see that the audience is made up of real people while the characters exist only on the page. At some point it seemed to become more important to Johns that he serve the real people, the ones who lined up for his autograph at panels and wrote hosannas to his name on fan forums and blogs. The basis in continuity receded, and the level of violence became higher and higher, more and more of what sold the books. And the sales numbers got higher and higher. Over the past few years, Johns’ comics have done more than any others to peel back the disquieting aspects of superhero comics and what their fans are really looking for.
To please an ever more passionately divided audience, Johns has made DC’s superhero universe into a venue for unprecedented exercises in exploitation storytelling and conceptual darkness. Under his guidance, the “DCU” has traveled far indeed from the whimsical, consequence-free place it was when the stories whose concepts and frameworks he so regularly borrows from were written. But then, the people who dip their imaginations into it with the greatest frequency and intensity have traveled far themselves. Johns’ writing is writing for children that grew up long ago, a gospel of violence and degradation pitched to an audience whose passion for the material would seem to testify to the deep level it speaks to them on.
Though opinions on the level of craft he brings to his comics vary wildly, Johns is undoubtedly a visionary storyteller, a builder of fully realized worlds completely independent from this one. The list of names who have created cosmologies as fleshed out and imaginative as Johns has in his Green Lantern books is short and impressive: Jack Kirby, Chris Claremont, Dave Sim, Neil Gaiman, perhaps a small handful of others. Furthermore, the conceptual dissonance underlying Johns’ Green Lantern books is almost completely unique: simple, childlike ideas like a spectrum-spanning Rainbow Lantern Corps to complement the established Green one counterpointed by gore-spraying violence on a level rarely if ever seen before in supposedly all-ages superhero comics.
The sheer intensity of this violence is nothing new to genre fiction -- horror and action movies have been spilling gore for decades, and the literary tradition is packed with paragraphs that investigate the human animal’s capacity for destruction. Johns’ bloody sequences are tough to claim as literary and more difficult to see as at all engaged in any investigation of the violence they present, but even then he remains in proximity to an artistic tradition, that of exploitation. At best, exploitation comics use similar precepts to pop art, allowing the simple presence of confrontational content to incite reader response rather than calling it up with a more subtle approach. When the Johns superhero comic presents such content in the middle of stories that require a specific, rigorous engagement from readers, however -- a working knowledge of continuity and backstory, a familiarity with the writer’s previous issues, an understanding of the shorthand “iconic” approach to character being used -- exploitation techniques simply fail, the bluntness and shock of seeing sprayed red losing much of its impact to the immediate thoughts that go to what every dismemberment and vivisection mean in terms of the larger, epic plot.
There’s also a much simpler problem with Johns’ insistence on soaking his characters’ spandex with viscera. The Silver Age stories Johns is so clearly enamored of rarely featured so much as a punch to the face, the strictures placed on the medium by the Comics Code Authority forcing superhero storytelling into a light, vividly imaginative, almost pacifistic mode of operation in which no one ever killed or maimed or even really caused physical harm. There’s an unanswered question raised by Johns’ resurrection of these works, one that won’t go away: why does he feel it’s necessary to add the violence in?