The last time we talked to Geoff Johns, he warned his fans that "evil is relative", citing that phrase as the theme behind his current mini-series, Forever Evil.
Now, the writer is even further blurring the line between good and evil in the DCU, as Superman villain Lex Luthor joins the Justice League in April's issue #30.
With today's release of the cover to Justice League #30, Lex Luthor isn't the only surprising new face on the team – Johns also added Captain Cold, Flash's gritty, street-level nemesis. But perhaps more surprising are the faces that are missing. There's no Superman, no Flash and no Green Lantern (although the "boy-in-a-man's-body" hero Shazam is now officially part of the team).
The changes to Justice League spin out of events in Forever Evil, which ends in March. In the mini-series, Lex Luthor leads the fight against evil after most of the world's superheroes are incapacitated by an outside threat. He gathers together a team in Forever Evil — one which includes Captain Cold and Batman — which presumably leads to his April role in the Justice League.
Forever Evil appears to be changing a lot about the DCU, from the formation of a new Justice League United (based in Canada), the return of Wally West to The Flash, the end of the Teen Titans title, and of course, the anticipated harm to Nightwing as the title's creative team changes.
They're all part of what Johns warned us was coming. The DC chief creative officer said, "come April the DC Universe will be a very different place leading into and throughout 2014. The first phase of the New 52 is drawing to a close and as Forever Evil wraps up a new phase begins — one that will see the introduction, and re-introduction, of a lot of characters, concepts and a decidedly new center to the DC universe."
Lex Luthor appears to be the answer to that prediction, but his new role also brings up a lot of questions. What does this mean to the future of the Justice League? How does Batman react to Lex? What happens to Wonder Woman and Superman's relationship? What happens to the Justice League ties to A.R.G.U.S.? How does this tie into other changes in the DCU?
Newsarama talked to Johns to get some clarification and hints regarding those questions and more — and the writer shared something that should make Ted Kord fans happy (and further fuel those rumors about Booster Gold's return).
Newsarama: Geoff, the first thing on this cover that stands out is Lex Luthor. Is this the result of them seeing "real" evil in Forever Evil, and Lex Luthor doesn't look so bad?
Geoff Johns: [Laughs] That's part of it. But I think evil is very relative.
Nrama: Last time we talked, you told me that was really the whole theme of Forever Evil. Are you continuing that theme into Justice League?
Johns: Yes… well, it continues on, but it evolves into something different. As Forever Evil wraps up — and I don't want to totally, obviously, spoil the ending of it all, but things lead to Luthor feeling like he is the world's greatest hero and that he belongs with the world's greatest heroes, and he's going to give it a go, despite the fact that he doesn't have a code name, and he doesn't have any experience being a superhero.
Ultimately, that's a big part of what he's going to deal with in Justice League, is what happens when he has an arch-enemy, or when he's going to get attacked by somebody, and they hit him on a personal level?
When he puts himself out there, it becomes very clear to him that he's going to experience things, when he's on the Justice League, that he never really considered.
I always knew he was going to join the Justice League. Then I was in Brazil for a convention awhile back, and I spent a week with Ivan [Reis] and Joe [Prado], who obviously are amazing. That cover is beautiful. And Rod Reis, the colorist, was there too. And we talked a lot about Justice League and where we're taking the book.
And one of the big things for me is that the Justice League has been the "world's greatest superheroes" that are defending the world. And ultimately, they need to push past that.
Luthor brings the ambition to the team that they actually desperately need. It's ambition to do more than just fight villains and aliens, but also asking, shouldn't we be changing the world? Why should we be listening to them? We should be doing things differently. The world should be different.
And they might not totally agree with Luthor's ideas, or the way he approaches things — which isn't a surprise — but they might agree with the content, the actual leaning behind it.
So it really is driving the Justice League to evolve and change and galvanize in a way they probably don't expect.
But the humor, and the tension, and the story lines that Luthor helps bring to the team are going to be a lot of fun.
Nrama: You know, I was going to ask you if you think the Justice League can benefit from Lex Luthor, and you've answered that with a resounding "yes." But are you saying that the benefit is that they've been reactive in the past, and now they're going to be proactive?
Johns: I'm always hesitant to say "proactive" because that means "we're going to hunt down super villains," and that's not what this is about.
I think it's about challenging things that they're told, challenging things they're asked to do, challenging the people that are telling them, you know, "this is who you are and this is your role in the world."
Well, no, we're going to find our own role, and this is who we are, and this is what we're going to do.
And so it's going to be more of, I think, a theological question to them, and a bit of a… you know, I talk a lot about themes for my books, and "what's our personal responsibility" is part of this. You know, collectively, what's our personal responsibility as the Justice League? Is our personal responsibility just to stop that guy who hijacked a super tank? And make sure he doesn't hurt anybody? Or does our personal responsibility go beyond that? Do we need to use our powers in ways that we might not have considered?
And Luthor brings a lot of those questions with him — asks a lot of those questions.
So does Shazam, on a different level.
Nrama: Very different, I assume, since he's actually a kid.
Johns: Yeah, but it's part of the same idea, because as soon as Shazam's on the team, he asks a lot of questions. What do you guys do up here? What do you do when you're not doing this?"
So Shazam brings a kind of innocent look at what the Justice League should be, whereas Luthor brings, I guess, a more ambitious and slightly ego-driven viewpoint on what the Justice League should be.
But the questioning starts to happen. And the League's going to move forward, answering these questions and determining how they're going to work together, even when they don't want to work together, because tensions will rise with Luthor on the team — and, as you can see over on the corner [of the cover], Captain Cold.
And there are some big heroes missing, like Superman. And Flash.
So there are going to be a lot of interpersonal dynamics that are going to alter and change.
Nrama: Batman seems to always have a plan, so one would think he's going along with this and scheming the whole time. You said earlier today that neither Batman nor Lex allows the other to be "leader" of the team. But how would you describe their interaction? Can they work together?
Johns: Well, you've got two guys that have massive, massive egos, and are used to being the alpha dog, with both Batman and Lex. And in Forever Evil, maybe Lex had the upper hand. Post-Forever Evil, they're not sure. That could be on even ground.
And you've got, between these two guys with huge egos, you have some that have no ego, like Wonder Woman, who's trying to keep the peace and make decisions and help lead the team.
For me, Luthor adds so much drama to the center of what the Justice League's all about. He's the perfect character to put on the team at this point, because he's going to challenge them.
Nrama: Where are Superman, Green Lantern and The Flash?
Johns: You'll find out when you read the book!
Nrama: I assume Superman wouldn't serve on a team with Lex Luthor, nor would Lex want to serve on a team with Superman.
Johns: Yeah. But you'll see exactly how that plays out.
Nrama: In this first issue you write in April? Or is it something that happens at the end of Forever Evil?
Johns: In April.
Nrama: How does the evolution of this Justice League into this a team with Lex Luthor contribute to the formation of Justice League United, and its move to Canada?
Johns: That, you'll have to ask Jeff [Lemire]. But I can say that, post-Forever Evil, there's a lot of blame that's going to go around for what happened. And ultimately, why it happened.
The JLA, essentially — you know, we had A.R.G.U.S. form the JLA to watch the Justice League, to play watchdog on the Justice League. But they were infiltrated by one of the Crime Syndicate. They unleashed the Crime Syndicate. They were manipulated.
And a lot of the blame falls on them. They weren't united. They weren't the team nor the heroes they needed to be.
So the Justice League's going to galvanize in a different way, and it's going to operate independently — or try to operate independently, as best it can.
Nrama: How does the team's ties to A.R.G.U.S. change now?
Johns: Well, they've had a tie to A.R.G.U.S. through Steve Trevor, and then ultimately, Amanda Waller. But post-Forever Evil, someone comes in and is like, OK, you're not in charge of this anymore. I'm in charge of this. You're still the liaison to the Justice League. So you know, I mean, if we don't need a liaison, maybe we won't need to deal with you.
It causes a lot of friction with the new head of A.R.G.U.S. — and his field agents… who are some superheroes who you'll be very familiar with.
Nrama: Ah ha. OK, so that may be where we'll see some heroes working. But just to clarify, this new head of A.R.G.U.S. is not Lex Luthor.
Johns: No. No. Lex Luthor will have nothing to do with A.R.G.U.S. He's the one saying we should cut all ties. We should be a completely independent team. We don't need their approval. If anything, they need our approval.
And, you know, for once, Batman might agree with that.
Again, there's so much fun in this.
Nrama: And I assume, a lot of humor as you explore the tensions between the team members.
Johns: Yeah, you put Lex Luthor and Batman in a room, and it's instantly interesting for me as a writer, for me to play with. And you put another character there to watch? And interact? Whether it's Shazam, who's like… you know, eating popcorn and enjoying these two guys going at it, or it's Wonder Woman, who gets in the middle of it, or it's Aquaman, who takes Batman's side, but then maybe, ultimately, says, "well, Luthor does have a point."
There are just a lot of great dynamics in there.
There are a lot of characters who are going to come into this, and a lot of the fun comes from perspective.
You've got Shazam, who's exuberant and a little innocent and naive, but also, like, ready to go. He's just ready to unleash some power.
But, like, man, "it's sooooo boring up in the Watchtower; don't you guys have any… like, what do you guys do up here?" You know, "Do you have an X-Box?" And they're like, "We don't have an X-Box." And Cyborg shrugs and says, "Actually, I've got one right here… in my shoulder."
Nrama: Of course he does. But I want to return to something you said earlier, about how Lex Luthor will come up against a villain or threat that is personal to him. Is that the first threat the Justice League faces?
Johns: The first threat they face in the Justice League is really going to grow out of Forever Evil, but it's going to be — through the first arc, we're going to see a new team of would-be heroes become the League's enemies in the first arc. So we'll see some new adversaries for the Justice League and for Lex Luthor in that.
Nrama: Further emphasizing that evil really is relative.
Johns: Yes. Well, you know, they claim to be good guys, so we'll see.
Nrama: I know you love the Flash Rogues. How do they react to Captain Cold joining the Justice League? Is that something you'll show?
Johns: Yeah, they have a lot of drinks and get really drunk. They assume they get a get-out-of-jail-free card. You know?
No, they think it's golden, but Cold is in way over his head, you know? He's the guy that goes to the Watchtower, after he teleports into space, and you know, he's sick for 10 minutes.
But I think Captain Cold brings — again, it's like, personalities. As soon as I start to put these characters in a room, they have these reactions. They have to work together.
I've talked a lot about it with my editor, Brian Cunningham, who's fantastic.
But the stories have to be big and exciting as well. And we're going to have a lot of mysteries. We're going to have a lot of mysteries this year, through the characters and through some enemies that are watching them. Some threats that bubble up. Some are personal. Some become personal.
One of the big things for me is going to be — it's always been — team dynamics. When I worked on JSA, all the varying personalities were great. You had different generations that had friction, that had different ideas, but you still had a great superhero team. And same with the Green Lanterns, really, because Green Lantern turned into a team book, with a lot of those other Lanterns.
But we've been talking about how we can make this different. I love the "Big 7." But I also wanted to really shake it up and… what's the next evolution of the Justice League that we can have a lot of fun with? And where characters will challenge what the Justice League means. And why it exists.
The biggest character that could possibly do that — when we were talking about this, like, two years ago — who's the biggest character that could challenge what the Justice League means if we put him on the team? And who has the weight so people will listen?
And the only one was Lex Luthor. Out of every character in the DC Universe, the only character that had the weight and the power and the voice and the status — and also the ability to challenge the team to redefine who they are and what they were doing this for — was this guy, Lex Luthor.
Forever Evil is, ultimately, a Lex Luthor story. And everything in there is reflecting who Lex is, and what he's going through. And we continue to learn more and more things about him that we might not know, and he's going to continue to experience things and do things that are surprising, I think, to even him — especially us.
There are a couple things that Lex goes through that I haven't even mentioned that will completely change and shade why he's on the Justice League. And what the story's going to be all about.
Nrama: No way you can mention it now?
Johns: No, let's just say that there's another element that happens with Lex Luthor in it that's going to change and shade this.
Nrama: The Wonder Woman/Superman relationship — how does this change in the Justice League affect that?
Johns: You're going to follow that in Superman/Wonder Woman. We'll still see it play out some in Justice League, obviously — it's part of the shared universe — but yeah, Superman is not going to be a full-on League member for the immediate future.
Nrama: In any League?
Johns: Ummmm… I can't say anything beyond Justice League.
Nrama: How does the formation of this new Justice League team tie into the "five years later" changes we're going to be seeing in Futures End, the new weekly that starts in May?
Johns: I don't think it does. I don't know. I know we're doing something with them, but we haven't really sat down and gotten into that yet. It's probably too early.
Nrama: It was reported by someone that you told an audience in Brazil that you had a comic you were going to write that spins out of Forever Evil. Was that report correct?
Johns: I can't talk about any new projects right now.
Nrama: But did you say that in Brazil?
Johns: Yeah, I've got something new later this year. But right now, I'm really focused on Justice League. And Gary Frank and I are past the halfway point of Batman: Earth One, Volume 2. And I'm really busy on The Flash. And, I mean, we're shooting four pilots this season. We've got Gotham and Constantine and The Flash, and we're still shooting Arrow. So it's a busy season.
Nrama: Yeah, very busy for you. Congratulations on all those, by the way — I know you're instrumental in making them happen, and you're writing more than one of them.
Johns: Thanks. But yeah, I've got a new comic book project down the line, and we'll be talking about it soon.
Nrama: OK, then final question. I know you like to do those "teaser images" at the end of issues — hints about what's coming up in your books. Can you give me one sentence like that now? A peek into something we'll see after Forever Evil in Justice League?
Johns: Ted Kord returns to the DCU in Forever Evil #7, and plays a role in Justice League post-Forever Evil.