The last time Geoff Johns wrote a solo Superman title, the focus was often directed toward revamping and revising existing characters. But working with John Romita Jr. on his upcoming run on Superman, the writer is looking forward instead of back — introducing new characters and threats to Superman's world in a storyline called "The Men of Tomorrow."
"Working with John, it was just all about going into a new place for me creatively," Johns told Newsarama. "There's a lot of baggage involved in, hey, you're going to write Superman. This is really more about, 'Hey, you're going to do Superman with John Romita Jr.,' and that changes everything for me."
Johns compared their upcoming run on Superman to the Batman run that featured Jeph Loeb and Jim Lee — although neither creator is saying how long they'll be working together on Superman. (Romita had told comicbook.com in August that he was only planning to sign a one-year contract with DC, because his creator-owned projects would be gearing up after that time.)
However long the story runs, Romita and Johns seem excited to talk about the story's kick-off in June with Superman #32. Johns said he's writing a particularly fast-paced story, because the writer knows he's working with an artist who's one of the best storytellers in the business.
With Superman #32, readers will start being introduced the "Men of Tomorrow," which serves as the theme for the team's story.
But who are the Men of Tomorrow? Johns would only reveal three of them — Superman, Ulysses, and the Machinist — although he said the "Men" will also include "all these other characters we're going to be introducing."
Newsarama talked to Johns and Romita about their approach to these "Men of Tomorrow" and why "new" is the key word for their run on Superman.
Newsarama: John, Geoff, I'm sure you guys have gotten to dive into the series now — John you're already drawing the script?
John Romita Jr.: Yeah, everything is going well in this script. I'm really enjoying this.
Geoff Johns: Well good!
Nrama: You know, something that stuck out to me that you've mentioned in past interviews is that you both want to do something new — something you haven't done before. And at the same time, you've said that you're sending Superman into the unknown. How much have your own feelings about the project influenced the theme of the actual story?
Johns: I've obviously written the character before — I've never written the actual Superman title before, which is a thrill. But for me, I went back and read everything, and re-read everything that had been done to Superman in the New 52. And really, working with John, it was just all going into a little bit of a new place for me creatively.
I mean, there's a reason that the classic tropes of characters stick around decade after decade. It's because they're very well built, and there are some things with Superman, you know, immutables, that you really want to celebrate and re-affirm. And then there are other things that you want to explore in new ways.
I love Bizarro and Brainiac and Lex Luthor as much as everyone else, but with John Romita Jr., you know, this is the time to carve out new territory. And that's really what my approach was, as soon as I got the gig.
Romita: I have to jump in and pick up what he said toward the end of that answer — "to throw Superman into new situations" — because ultimately, for a character that's been around for 80 years, you have to come up with something different. And that's nearly impossible. So you have to throw him into something that's different, and then pray that there's at least something that you can elaborate on that's different.
With the writer, that's one thing. And then with the artist, artist's can look more repetitive than writers can. Because a writer can very easily play with his words and at least alter the dialogue.
With an artist? It's right there in front of you! "Wow, that's a face he's done a thousand times before."
The reason I ended up getting on Superman, which is ironic, because it's the oldest character and the most fun character, is to try something new and different.
If you get stale as an artist, suddenly you're passé and you're stale. And there's a little bit of ego in that. You want to stay around as long as possible.
And to come to the point where you do something different, it plays into what Geoff just said — throw him into something, a new situation. And I remember the first words out of my mouth were, "Can we do anything that hasn't been done before?" And I expected to get laughter over the phone from these guys. And they didn't. They said, "Let's try something."
And about an hour later, Geoff calls up — or a day later — and said, "I have an idea." Because I mentioned, can we manifest something out of Superman that hasn't been done before?
And all of the sudden… Boom! Something happened.
It probably is because the two of us have never worked together. We've never even come close to working together. And maybe that small… "vive la différence" — the difference between the two of us comes up with something different. Maybe? I don't know.
Johns: Yeah, I think that's right. I mean, it really does come down to, how do you approach what you do? And there's a lot of baggage involved in, hey, you're going to write Superman.
This is really more about, "Hey, you're going to do Superman with John Romita Jr.," and that changes everything for me.
And like John said, let's throw something new at him. We've got to put him in a situation and confronting things that he's never seen before, to get something new out of him — that's what we want.
Nrama: One of the new characters that's been teased quite a bit is Ulysses, the "Man of Tomorrow." Can you speak to the concept and design of that character?
Johns: The broader storyline is called, "The Men of Tomorrow," and that's basically Superman and all these other characters we're going to be introducing.
Ulysses is the very first one, and there's a hint of another in there.
I don't really want to spoil what Ulysses' backstory is, but he's a character that's going to come crashing into Clark's life. And Clark can relate to him in a lot of different ways.
Part of that drive is that, in the New 52, he doesn't really have anyone to talk to about anything. There's nobody, unless they wear a mask too.
And really, this storyline is going to deal with a lot of that.
But Ulysses is representative of that entire piece of Clark's life.
Romita: I'm loathe to give away anything, so I'm going to stick to the generic part of this. Coming up with a name — actually, most names, you tend to want to be descriptive in the name — but this is not descriptive for the physical.
But the process of getting the character designed was really a group hug here, because everybody had to have a say in it. I'm coming from a different stratosphere, as far as designs go. I'm so counter to the spandex outfits, unless it's a really quality design. We end up going slightly in that direction anyway.
We just went by committee, so I would come up with a design, and the we got input from everybody. I designed boots and gloves, and Geoff said, "that looks a little bit '80s-ish." He was right about it, so I said, let's try this. We came up with a design that had a hand from everybody else, the design ended up being a really quality design.
And the colorist, Laura Martin, we throw a suggestion to her, and she comes out with a great color scheme. It was a group design. I'm really proud of this character. I'm really happy with the character.
I say that we want to come up with something new and different — I don't know if it's something new and different in the eyes of people that have read books for as long as I've been in the business, but I'm happy with it. It's a fresh look at a character. And it ends up begin a little different physically, visually. And that's at least part of what I'm trying to do.
Now the rest of it is to handle the character in a different manner.
Geoff made a couple of comments to me about some pages I sent in, that is different from the stuff he's gotten before — that's what he was alluding to. And there it is — that's the two of us having not worked together before. And something comes out of it.
So here's a character that's been done forever, and we're coming up with something a little bit different.
Johns: Ulysses is really the main first character we're introducing, but there will be more.
But the thing I love about what John's done, in the design, and then the way he fights and the way he moves and what he does, it's very unique to the character.
He feels already fully fleshed out when you read that first issue.
Nrama: Is the Machinist the main villain the arc? And can you tell us anything about how that character evolved as a concept and visually?
Romita: Oh, let me get into this one real quick, because I get such a kick — I was almost embarrassed at one point, and then I was thrilled.
The original name of the character, they told me we have to come up with a different look. And then a couple of different images from various sources gave me an idea. I threw a sketch back at them, and Geoff comes up with an alternative name.
All of the sudden, we've moved from the original villain, and now we have this very cool character.
Again, the same thing I said about Ulysses is, a group of guys get together, you come up with a design, boom, boom, back and forth, and it's all of the sudden a quality character.
And I'm really happy with that mentality of designing, because no artist can come up with something right off the bat, unless you're very, very lucky with something that's outstanding.
The input from Geoff and [DC Editor] Eddie Berganza was nice. I'm really happy with that. And this character ended up being very different, and that's what I was trying to do. That's what everybody wants.
Johns: The character Machinist evolved from the original seeds of ideas into this really great character. I don't want to totally spoil what his role is and how big it is in the story, but he is a brand new villain, and you'll get a better look at him soon.
He has a connection to Superman, in a twisted, dark way that will unfold over the storyline.
The Men of Tomorrow, I kind of look at it as an uber-storyline, like Jim [Lee] and Jeph [Loeb]'s "Hush" on Batman.
The Men of Tomorrow means a lot of things. And it means Ulysses and the Machinist and Superman and all sorts of other things.
The goal is to create the new, and the Machinist is, already for us, a really fun character to explore.
Nrama: Although you're making it clear that the "Men of Tomorrow" applies to these various characters, I get the feeling this theme also applies to the fact that you're looking forward? Creating the new, in Superman's world?
Johns: Yeah, "The Men of Tomorrow" is really about exploring new characters, putting Superman into positions he's never been in before, and having him face things he's never faced before — and at the same, trying to stay true to the core values of Superman. He's an optimistic, positive character. And he's got a great supporting cast. So we want to celebrate that and spend time with them, and at the same time, introduce these new things.
I'm really, really proud of what we've done, and what we've got ahead. We worked very, very hard, and we spent a lot of time talking and working on this to make sure that this was the… if we're going to do one big story for Superman, how are we going to kick it off?
And this is the way we wanted to kick it off.
And those first three pages, four pages, will tell you everything you need to know about this character and his connection to Superman, and then you'll be into the story.
Romita: That's the way to write.
Hey, listen — you go see a movie, and you spend a half hour listening to story build-up, and then you start falling asleep. I did that with Godzilla on Saturday night. My eyes were fluttering for the first half-hour — "where's the monster? I want to see the monster!" And Geoff does this thing where, boom, you have backstory, you have quality story, inside of four pages, and then you're on the freeway already, just after a quick on-ramp.
That's the way to write. That's quality stuff.
Johns: I think, working with John, this is a once-in-a-lifetime chance. I wanted to hit the ground running and utilize everything he does so well right off the bat. And storytelling is close to the top of that list. And the amount of story I think we get in those first couple pages is pretty insane.