My wife, Holly, came home the other week with my comics (she sometimes goes to the comic shop for me if I’m working and she isn’t) and said “I really enjoyed that Final Crisis one.”
This surprised me, because Holly hasn’t been hugely impressed with Final Crisis so far, even though she likes Grant Morrison – but also because Final Crisis wasn’t out that week. But Final Crisis: Legion Of Three Worlds was, and it was that that she had read. And she was right – it was good. Not great, but a very solid, entertaining comic. And, amazingly for something I’d expected to be incomprehensible continuity-porn, accessible to new readers.
It was then that I realised that I actually like Geoff Johns. That was a hard realisation for me to come to, because it went against everything I believed about comics.
Until relatively recently I would have named Geoff Johns as the writer doing most damage to comics. Not the worst writer, but writing terrible comics that were everything that holds the medium back. In 2004 and 2005 I read a few issues of his Flash and JSA and found them to be just awful – tedious grimungritty stuff with villains doing drugs and saying naughty swears to show how grown-up they were, combined with an overawed reverence for the mid-80s work of Roy Thomas and Marv Wolfman, which Johns seemed for some reason to consider worth slavishly emulating.
In short, they were simultaneously so continuity-obsessed that only those with a PhD in DC Comics history could possibly understand them, soapily melodramatic, utterly convinced of the specialness of tedious twelfth-string superheroes and ‘legacy characters’ like the thirtieth Rex The Wonder Dog or whatever, overly obsessed with dismemberment, and so ‘decompressed’ that there might be an actual event in a single ‘arc’ if you were lucky.
This opinion was confirmed for me by the couple of issues of Green Lantern: Rebirth I read, as well as by Infinite Crisis which was just terrible. At that point, the name ‘Geoff Johns’ was one that I had an almost Pavlovian reaction to – my views on him were probably similar to Dave Sim’s on Hilary Clinton.
However, as the more attentive and eagle-eyed of the readers of this blog may have spotted, I have a similar reaction, but in reverse, to Grant Morrison, who I consider easily the most interesting creator working in mainstream comics, and who I would probably put in a ‘top ten all time comic creators’ list. So when it was announced the two were going to collaborate on 52, I nearly split in half with the pain of deciding whether to buy it or not, but the presence of Mark Waid and Keith Giffen, both of whose work I have often enjoyed (though rarely loved) swung it for me.
52 was by turns fascinating, wonderful, dreadful and hilarious. RIght from the start it was fairly obvious who was writing which parts, who had come up with which concepts, and how the collaboration worked. And as I’d predicted beforehand, the parts Johns wrote were on the whole the weakest – the Luthor/Everyman/Infinity Inc/Steel plot and the Black Adam bits. (I still think the best thing to come out of 52 though was Ralph Dibny’s blog). But they weren’t terrible, merely weaker than the surrounding material. And I remember reading that a couple of individual lines I enjoyed were Johns’.
At the same time, I was picking up his collaboration with Kurt Busiek on the Superman titles, Up, Up And Away, because I was planning on reading Busiek’s solo run on Superman which was immediately going to follow it. And it was really good – just exciting, funny, good superhero comics, much denser and eventful than the norm. I put this down to Busiek, who I’ve always quite liked, but I was now of the opinion that Johns wasn’t necessarily a terrible writer so long as he was collaborating with someone else.
I still dropped Action Comics as soon as Johns began writing it with Richard Donner, though, but picked it up when Busiek started doing his fill-ins as Johns and Donner’s story went completely off the rails and for about a year Busiek was writing both Superman titles. I still think Busiek deserves more respect than he’s got for the way he handled a whole host of problems with the Superman line, none of which appear to have been of his making, and turned out reliably good Superman stories week in, week out. But when Busiek’s fill-ins stopped appearing and Johns came back to the title, it remained on my pull list out of inertia, and was actually quite good.
I also picked up the first issue of Booster Gold out of curiosity, because I always liked the character, the concept of the series appealed to me, and it was following up one of my favourite parts of 52. And it was fun!. Not great art or anything, and obviously still hopelessly mired in DC continuity, but having fun with it.
And now, reading the (pretty good) Final Crisis: Legion Of Three Worlds and the (not all that good, but certainly not terrible) Final Crisis: Rogues Revenge, I have reluctantly to come to the conclusion that Geoff Johns has, over the last couple of years, become a good, competent writer of entertaining superhero comics. I’m not the only one who’s had this change of heart, too – a number of people I read who’d previously dismissed him seem to be coming round to the same viewpoint.
That doesn’t mean I’m going to rush out and buy everything he writes or anything, but it’s one of the only cases I can think of where someone who was successful and not very good has actually bothered to improve – normally if someone as awful as Johns was a few years ago becomes a success, they coast or get steadily worse until they turn into Rob Liefeld. It’s even possible that if Johns keeps improving, he’ll go from being ‘quite good’ to being positively interesting. I can only imagine it’s the positive influence from Grant Morrison, who seems to have taken Johns under his wing just as he once did with Mark Millar, but with notably better results.
I still wouldn’t recommend Johns’ work as anything other than light entertainment, and not even especially original light entertainment – I won’t rush out to buy any of the titles he writes that I don’t already read. And I’ve written in the past about how one of the real problems in comics is our continued acceptance of the merely competent and OK. But I think he should be given a lot of credit for becoming competent and OK…