Looking Back at JSA with Geoff Johns
When Geoff Johns joined the creative team of JSA back in 1999, the fledgling comic book series was just finding its voice. The team was in flux, with James Robinson leaving the series to co-writer David Goyer.
Johns stepped into that co-writing job while still a young unknown for DC Comics, but as he became solo writer of the title and built up a base of fans over the next decade, he brought a group of unused characters with him into the limelight, giving names like Mr. Terrific, Hawkman and Black Adam an important role in the DCU.
And although that volume of JSA ended with issue #87, the writer brought in a whole new audience of fans by relaunching the series with artist Dale Eaglesham in December 2006, making Justice Society of America a Top 10 seller and introducing readers to a new group of young recruits.
With last week's Justice Society of America #26, what will most likely be referred to as the "Johns era" of JSA came to a close, and Newsarama talked to the writer about his departure, his final issue and the characters who meant the most.
Newsarama: Back when you first started on JSA, did you have any idea you'd be on it this long, or even any hopes that you'd have a long run on the comic?
Geoff Johns: Not really, no. I remember, originally, David Goyer and Peter Tomasi called me because James had to bow out of JSA. James was really instrumental in me getting a job in the first place with Stars and S.T.R.I.P.E., which he supported since day one when I told him about the idea. I was obviously excited because Star-Spangled Kid, who is Stargirl now, was on the team. And I had been a fan of Goyer's and I loved the JSA, so it was a tremendous time to come aboard.
NRAMA: You started with issue #6?
GJ: Actually, I unofficially started on issue #4. Goyer had done most of issue #3. And I came in and co-wrote issue #4. Then Goyer wrote most of issue #5, and we officially started on issue #6 together. I owe a lot to David Goyer, as I do to James. We wrote the first two years together between his insane film schedule and me working 90+ hour weeks for Richard Donner. I wouldn't have traded that insanity for anything.
One of the first things we did was bring Black Adam in, then we brought Dr. Mid-Nite in, Mr. Terrific, and those characters. Mr. Terrific had only appeared once or twice. When I started writing Mr. Terrific, I immediately loved that character. And he became a big focus for me in the run.
NRAMA: Mr. Terrific in particular?
GJ: There was something about Michael Holt that really spoke to me. I’m thrilled he’s become such an important character in the DCU.
NRAMA: Before Paul Levtiz wrote his story arc that finished up the last volume of JSA, your final issue on that run was issue #81. With that issue, like this final one, you also focused on Stargirl. Your fans know Courtney was originally inspired by your sister, and as you mentioned, she's what kind of brought you into this series. Is that why she's now twice been the focus of your exit from JSA?
GJ: She's just my favorite character in JSA. Stargirl's one of my favorite characters to write. So when it was my last issue, I just think, what do I want to do? And I want to focus on her. But when I wrote issue #81 on the last run, I knew it was my last issue of that series of JSA, but I knew I'd be back. I set up the Liberty Belle story in that issue and I knew I would return to the characters.
NRAMA: Much of last week's final issue concentrated on how much Stargirl has grown up. Do you think you've grown as a writer over the years along with her?
GJ: Yeah, I hope so. I'm very proud of the body of work that JSA and Justice Society of America are together.
NRAMA: What do you think the biggest lesson was that you learned from writing JSA?
And I remember when we brought in Jakeem Thunder. Originally, he was JJ Thunder in JLA. That was a character I really wanted to use. I liked what Grant did in JLA with the character. And I thought we could have him grow as a character in JSA, and he certainly has. I think he benefitted a lot from being in the book.
But we were always looking for new characters. Atom Smasher and Black Adam were two characters that I really loved that I spent a lot of time on developing. Black Reign was a highlight for me, especially for those two characters. Hawkman was a character, obviously, I spent a lot of time with too, bringing him back in Return of Hawkman.
Originally, Hawkman was going to be a crossover with Mark Waid's JLA at the time, but he didn't want to do the crossover because he had his own stories going. And because Hawkman was going to join the JSA, we decided to do it ourselves. That was when the book really took off, I think. That's when people finally said, OK, the book's not going to get canceled.
NRAMA: Was there ever a threat of cancellation before that?
GJ: Well, you're always aware of that possibility. But I remember that Wizard made a joke about how JSA would be canceled by issue #12. And then a few years later, we were "Book of the Year."
NRAMA: And you had just come off a comic that had been canceled, right?
GJ: Yeah, Stars and S.T.R.I.P.E. was canceled. And originally, it was going to cross over into JSA in the Extant storyline. We had plans for that to cross over, but we were canceled before we could. I had come off Stars and STRIPE being canceled, but I felt lucky just to write one issue of that. I was happy that the series got to go over a year. Mike Carlin was my editor then, and he was fantastic.
NRAMA: You mentioned a couple of storylines already, but what are your favorites in your whole run on Justice Society of America?
Funny enough, though, issue #26 is one of my favorite issues of all the 100-plus issues I've written. It's what the JSA is really all about. You strip away the villains, the powers and the superhero slugfest, and it's really about this family. Some are quirky, some are seasoned, some are rookies, some are angry, some are excitable. They're all these different personalities, and they're like a real family.
NRAMA: What is it that holds them together so well?
GJ: The JSA holds them together. That's the whole point of the book. That's something Dale and I would talk about with our editor, [Michael] Siglain. We would all say over and over again, "We want to see the moments and the stories and the characters that you wouldn't find anywhere else."
I remember pitching the pancake breakfast scene to Dale, which you saw in Issue #9, which is one of my favorite issues too. And he loved it, because it's something you don't see in any other superhero book. That's what we wanted to do. We wanted to carve out a niche for JSA. We always said it was Norman Rockwell superheroes, and I think that last issue encapsulated that perfectly. I know Dale and I are really proud of how we ended our run on that book. We didn’t want it to be like any other book, even though at first glance it looked like another superhero team.
NRAMA: In this last incarnation of the team, it seemed like a lot of the characters were missing something or needing something. That became an important point in the Gog storyline, but it also seemed to be indicative of their need for the JSA. This was the one place that accepted them despite the scarring or problems they had.
GJ: Yeah, and that became more important, I think, in the second run. In Justice Society of America, when we had the first arc, it introduced Hourman and Liberty Belle going to talk to Damage. And Mr. Terrific and Power Girl going to talk to Cyclone. You saw them helping them hands-on.
But I think the premise of "the world needs better good guys," and the JSA taking the responsibility of helping those that can be better, is really powerful, and there's no other book like it. It has a unique purpose in the DCU. And JSA, before this book, people never thought they'd have their own book again. And now it's a book that stands on its own. It has tons of characters in there.
NRAMA: You've certainly helped sales.
GJ: Well, yeah, it sells. And that's great because that means the JSA continues on. It's great that the book found an audience, and that characters like Jay Garrick and Alan Scott and Ted Grant continued to find an audience. And new people discovered the JSA.
NRAMA: You've mentioned Stargirl as a favorite. But do you have any favorite characters in the JSA, or do you just love all of them, Geoff?
GJ: Oh, my favorite characters to write in the JSA are Stargirl, Mr. Terrific, Jay Garrick, and uh... then when Hourman came on the team. And I really enjoyed when Power Girl came on the team, I loved writing that JSA Classified story with her. And out of the new breed, in the new series, Citizen Steel and Starman are really fun. And of course, Atom Smasher and Black Adam. I mean, I really like writing them all. Oh, and Jakeem Thunder's really fun to write. It's like, as soon as I start to think about them all, I just love writing them. They're so different. This was the problem since I wrote the book with David. There are no bad JSA characters.
NRAMA: I knew you'd end up naming them all.
GJ: [laughs] Yeah, I start going down the list and I could rattle them off forever... Mid-Nite, Sandman, Hourman, and Liberty Belle's great to write. Hawkgirl was awesome when we had her. I actually really miss writing Hawkgirl and Hawkman. I thought Hawkgirl was fantastic to write, but they swiped her from me.
NRAMA: How was it to finish up with Dale Eaglesham after such a long run of artists on this book?
GJ: Dale was great. I worked with some brilliant collaborators. Steve Sadowski, who was the first artist. Leonard Kirk. Don Kramer, and then Dale. And each for about two years. And Rags Morales worked on some issues too. There's so much going on with the JSA, with so many characters, it's really a hard book to tackle artistically.
Most recently with Dale, he captured, for me, a real humor and humanity. There was a real humanity in what Dale did with these characters and the body language. They would come alive. He's perfect at acting. He knows how to make all the characters act. So you see those great shots of Starman leaning into Mr. Terrific, or how stiff Citizen Steel is because he's uncomfortable all the time, or Damage, who's a little bit crunched down and defensive, like he's about to take a shot at you. Everyone had a real distinctive way about them, so I knew I could deliver a script asking for character focused moments and character focused issues. JSA #26 is full of those, and you see what an artist like Dale can accomplish. Dale's the absolute perfect and only guy for the relaunched Justice Society of America book.
GJ: In the cowboy hat?
GJ: Yeah. [laughs] I've never put on a cowboy hat, but for some reason, I think because Dale's Canadian and I live out west, he must think I'm a cowboy. Yee-haw!
That's the whole team there. That's me, Dale, Dale's wife Louise, Harvey Richards, and Mike Siglain. They're all in there.
NRAMA: Why does Stargirl have to wear her braces another year?
GJ: Because they’re not ready to be taken off yet.
NRAMA: Somebody said she's not growing up as fast as they thought. So when you say "they're" not ready yet, do you mean her teeth? Or is there some deeper meaning to that?
GJ: Well, obviously, there's a deeper meaning in all the stuff I do. But whatever you see in it, that's the meaning.
NRAMA: Nothing related to her not graduating with you?
And I won't be away from a character like Stargirl for very long.
NRAMA: Do you think you'll be writing these characters again?
GJ: I really would like to revisit Stargirl, in some kind of solo form. And any JSA guys would be really interesting to write in a book that focuses on just one of those characters.
NRAMA: Looking back at your JSA run, are you able to pinpoint one accomplishment of which you're most proud?
GJ: I think just the fact that the book and the characters are relevant. I'm proud of that. JSA has been standing up there right next to all the other team books on the stands. And JSA is the only one that hasn't been there all the time. You've got X-Men, you've got JLA, and now you've got JSA. And I think that surprised a lot of people. It’s hard to imagine JSA wasn’t around for all those years.