Thursday, February 23, 2017

Who is the New Geoff Johns?

With DC Comics Chief Creative Officer Geoff Johns stepping away from comics to fulfill a more comprehensive role for DC Entertainment’s film and television franchises, the role of ‘World Builder’ for the Rebirth universe – DC’s soft-relaunched ‘classic’ universe that kicked off last June – has gone largely unfilled. While it’s true that Johns himself designed Rebirth and the mysteries surrounding the multiversal crisis, he’s yet to write a book since it began. Even the first major crossover event, Justice League vs. Suicide Squad, was handled by The Flash writer Joshua Williamson.

Generally speaking, things have been going well – many titles are enjoying an uptick in sales, some due to a twice-monthly publishing schedule, and the DC Universe feels like it once did as creators bring more and more elements from the past to the present. There’s incredible talent at DC, and it’s to the publisher’s credit that there are so many different voices contributing to Rebirth’s impressive output thus far. That said, this initiative has felt like a ship without a captain onboard, a huge new sandbox filled with awesome toys and no adult supervision.

Rebirth is great in no small part to the engenderment of nostalgia; familiar names that seemed alien or mischaracterized during the ‘New 52’ suddenly felt right again, like DC finally grasped what made these characters work and just let it happen instead of trying to control every single detail. Unfortunately, the high quality of individual Rebirth series belies the absent cohesion, mainly the aforementioned playground metaphor concerning the lack of a ‘brand leader’ to direct the general flow of DC shared universe narrative.

I’m not advocating for a World Builder in the way Johns was or Grant Morrison before him – mainly, there needs to be at least one or two creators whose titles affect other titles outside crossover issues or events, a writer helming a book that speaks to the wider DC shared superhero universe while also telling a cogent story. Marvel’s toyed around the concept over the decades, most recently with Brian Michael Bendis then Jonathan Hickman before the directionless-ness the House of Ideas is currently experiencing (although an argument could also be made for Al Ewing or Nick Spencer at the time of this writing.)

There are a few good options for ‘universal affecter’. Joshua Williamson is killing it on Flash and wrote an exciting, interesting crossover event that didn’t get too big or cave in on its own conceit. Scott Snyder is arguably DC’s most well-known creator, but he’s almost too comfortable in the Batman corner to effectively impact much outside Gotham’s shadow. Dan Abnett writes Aquaman and Titans, Peter J. Tomasi has Superman and Super Sons, Ben Percy is on Teen Titans and Green Arrow – any of these three would be a good choice. But honestly, it comes down to the Justice League, and I don’t say that lightly.

In the 1990s, Grant Morrison wrote JLA and directed the course of DC Comics for years. He followed that up with a giant multiversal saga that spanned three events and a new Superman origin story over a decade (Seven Soldiers of Victory, Final Crisis, Action Comics: Superman at the End of Days, The Multiversity). Similarly, Johns held the reins at DC with Justice League throughout the five years of the ‘New 52’, even going so far as to blatantly ignore the status quo to finish “The Darkseid War”. For the DCYou initiative (the death throes of the ‘New 52’ that started in Spring 2015), Bryan Hitch was also given the freedom to ignore continuity for Justice League of America (an expressed ‘side story’) before he scored the Rebirth volume of the Justice League eponymous title to all-around negative reception because it’s terrible.

A certain level of authority comes with writing the Justice League, the power to change the direction of any one of these incredibly important characters. Whether it’s the effects of a battle or the development of interpersonal relationships, what happens in the League is significant across DC titles and always has been.

With all this said, the clear decision for the ‘New Geoff Johns’ is Steve Orlando.

Orlando began his career at DC Comics with Midnighter during the DCYou initiative, celebrated for its engaging and well-characterized take on StormWatch’s resident badass as well as his tactful representation of Midnighter’s sexuality. He then scripted issues of Batman and Robin Eternal and wrote the Justice League – The Darkseid War: Shazam! one-shot. For Rebirth, Orlando hit the ground running with Midnighter and Apollo (the sequel series to Midnighter) and Supergirl, then co-wrote “Night of the Monster Men” with Tom King through Batman, Nightwing, and Detective Comics in October 2016. What seals the deal for Orlando as ‘DC Showrunner’ is his most recent project: Justice League of America.

** SPOILERS FOR JUSTICE LEAGUE vs. SUICIDE SQUAD AHEAD! **

Justice League vs. Suicide Squad changed how ordinary citizens see superheroes after Maxwell Lord uses his Eclipso powers to possess the League (except Batman) and turns them into soldiers to take control of the entire planet in less than fifteen minutes. More often than not the ends don’t justify the means, and no manner of excuse can shake the distrust and fear ordinary civilians begin to feel in the wake of their protectors turning on them. With Hitch’s Justice League floundering out of the gate, Orlando’s quirky JLA roster is the superhero team we need, and also the one we totally deserve after having to read “The Extinction Machine” (Justice League #1-5.) Batman understands that powerless need to feel empowered, that living in a world with gods watching over them doesn’t mean they can’t themselves be heroes. This is the reason for Bruce’s Justice League of America, a purposely named team with purposely chosen individuals to carry out a purposely designed mission statement.


Mari McCabe (Vixen) brings a level of celebrity to the team, a model and animal activist turned heroine whose take-no-crap attitude is necessary to keep conflicting personalities in line and ready to act. Ryan Choi takes up the mantle of the Atom when Ray Palmer goes missing in the Microverse and Batman comes knocking with an offer to be in the…a Justice League. After she saves the world in JL vs. SS, all Caitlin Snow (Killer Frost) wants is a chance for redemption, so that’s what Batman offers; he secures her release from the Suicide Squad and vouches for her membership. Ray Terrill (The Ray) thought he was allergic to light and lived inside until he couldn’t take it anymore and discovered he was living light – after four years of learning how to become and manipulate light, Ray’s first instinct is to help those in need with his abilities. Dinah Drake (Black Canary) is there to keep the team in check and be the moral center that stays their hand when it harms instead of helps, a role Batman insists any team needs. And then there’s Lobo, a galactic bounty hunter who would probably love Donald Trump, can’t die, and happens to owe Batman a debt.

Each of these individuals brings something different to the table in terms of power sets, personalities, and culture. Orlando recognizes the necessity for relatable characters with diverse backgrounds working together for the greater good, less manifest destiny like the world’s most powerful heroes banding together as planetary defense force and more a collective of people with powers trying to be better. And this is exactly why Orlando’s writing is engaging – he tells stories about heroes striving to improve themselves and find closure in a world where the impossible happens every day. All of Orlando’s work exhibits this theme on some level, and it’s the tone DC needs right now even as it enjoys the financial success of Rebirth, et al.

Allowing Orlando to bring his cunning, organic, character-driven style to Justice League of America shows DC has faith in the man’s ability. The astonishing lead-up to the series included four character-specific one-shot Rebirth issues – Vixen, The Ray, Killer Frost, The Atom – and a collective Justice League of America: Rebirth one-shot all before the first proper #1 issue; this points to DC’s investment in Orlando and this series in general.

With DC Entertainment’s film universe in flux and Bryan Hitch’s Justice League in the toilet, Justice League of America is poised as the publisher’s new flagship title that reflects a more comprehensive theme for Rebirth moving forward, one that focuses on characters and finds common ground through relatable situations.

Geoff Johns did an admirable job directing the ‘New 52’ despite its many and varied flaws. His parting gift to DC Comics was the Rebirth initiative that fused the old with the new by bringing elements from the classic DC universe into the standardized ‘New 52’ timeline, a move that could have been disastrous but as proven to be exactly what the company needed. This healthy balance of new ideas and tradition is a perfect landscape for Steve Orlando to helm a new era of DC Comics that values diversity and inclusion and honors the past while working for a better future.

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