Friday, February 3, 2012

Tales from the Long Box: Geoff Johns' Flash (or the rise of Geoff Johns)

In 2002, after an absence that lasted from my early teens into my twenties, I started reading monthly comics. I started with Batman, collecting every issue of No Man's Land and, despite not having a clue what had come before I enjoyed it immensely. From there I branched out into other corners of the Marvel and DC universes. Mostly I stuck to characters I knew like Spider-Man and Superman and the Justice League. I believe it was in a copy of Wizard magazine that I first read about this guy, Geoff Johns who was working his way up through the writing ranks on smaller characters. Stars and STRIPE and the Flash had already been overseen by him and he was knee deep in what would become one of my all-time favorite comics, the JSA. I read the article, liked what he had to say about superhero comics and decided to try out one of his books.

The first book I read with Johns name on the cover was a beat up trade paperback that I got at the library collecting a hand full of issues of the Flash. I remember being struck by the art of Scott Kollins and instantly recognizing that this Johns guy had something different than other writers. His Wally West was an easy guy to identify with, who worked a normal day job and struggled with everyday problems issue to issue. Under Geoff's pen Wally became DC's answer to Peter Parker in a lot of ways. Something I've always felt set the Johns earlier work apart from other guys is that he seemed to write like he had something to prove. He'd take on books like Stars and STRIPE and Flash or the JSA, characters who were second or third tier at best, and he'd turn them into best selling titles.
Geoff's Wally West became the most layered, interesting character he'd ever write because in a lot of way I feel like Johns was imbuing that character with a lot of himself. Wally at the time was the kid with something to prove. Sure he'd stepped out of the shadow of Barry Allen years earlier but he had a hard time escaping that "rookie" label that he'd taken on after graduating from Kid Flash to The Flash. Johns put him in situations and stories that forced the character to grow and mature. Within the first year and half of taking over the title he'd written a story where Wally was faced with the possibility that he'd fathered a child with a police officer who he'd dated years before he met Linda. Though it was eventually revealed to be the child of Weather Wizard the story introduced a human aspect to the character that probably hadn't been seen on so small a scale before. Sure he'd faced down world conquerors and time travelling villains but was Wally man enough to be father to a child?

Herein lies my favorite aspect of Johns as a writer. His ability to tell small, character-motivated stories within the framework of huge, epic super heroic tales. While many people loved his work on books like Blackest Night and Infinite Crisis my favorite books by the man are the ones that deal with characters that can illicit an emotional response from me. A book like Green Lantern: Secret Origin is a perfect example of this. It's a small story about a guy who has to overcome his fear of death and reconcile his relationship with the man he blames for the death of his father in order to become a man. It's best moments are the quiet ones where Hal reflects on the loss of his dad. I've always felt another great example of this side of Johns as a writer is Justice Society #7. I'm not going to go into it here but, in my humble opinion, it's the best work of Johns' career and it's a very human story.

Those stories I just mentioned would all come later, but in the Flash, years before he would become one of the biggest names in comics, Johns was already showing an uncanny ability to write characters that were just as interesting as the giant, action-packed stories they inhabited. One of the great things about The Flash circa 2003 was that Johns started fleshing out the supporting cast. Having already set up Wally as a fully former character (and yes, I know that Waid had already written a wonderful Flash run years earlier) he began working with the secondary characters, particularly the Rogues. Johns took what had formerly been a somewhat hokey batch of villains and turned them into a fascinating presence. Actually rereading his work on the books you'll notice that he started doing this straight away. His first arc features Captain Cold and Mirror Master prominently, and not just as a b-list threat.

From there he continued to play with the supporting cast, creating new villains like Murmur and new versions of older Rogues such as Heatwave and Trickster. He also created a really interesting slew of characters who were sympathetic to the Flash, such as Detective Morrillo. The fascinating thing was to watch these characters continue to grow and interact with each other as well as have their own adventures and tragedies that would weave in and out of Wally's story. Geoff Johns' Flash run is really a textbook example of long-form storytelling.

Johns took over the Flash the same year he started writing comics, 2000. It's twelve years later and he's now one of the hierarchy at DC, shepherding their entire line with the flagship Justice League title and working on best sellers like Green Lantern and (in a call back to his ability to take b-list characters and make something out of them) Aquaman. He's still writing great books, and he still shows flashes of that ability to write something small scale and emotionally affecting. A lot of people claim he's lost a step or two, and while I don't agree I do long for those early days when Johns had something to prove. It always brought an energy to his books that I feel is missing entirely from superhero comics today.

1 comment:

  1. Wow, what a great article. And thanks Geoff, for making comics great for us!