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If Geoff Johns were a superhero,
he would be Everywhere Man. As the writer of DC Countdown, The Flash and Green Lantern (just to name a few), he is one of the hottest in the business and shows no sign of slowing down. The man who controls the destiny of many in the DC Universe sat down with CF to share his recipe for success — modesty and hard work — and how creating legacies can be just another day at the office.
You used to work in the film industry, and you studied screenwriting. How much of that carries over into your comic writing?
Probably 85 percent of it. In terms of structure, it really is similar. The formats aren’t that different.
Are you influenced by any screenwriters?
My favorite screenwriter is Brian Helgeland, who wrote “Assassins,” “L.A. Confidential” and “Mystic River.” I love his stuff. He’s probably the one screenwriter who, I have his scripts and I follow. I think he is terrific, I think Frank Darabont is a great screenwriter. Those are the two guys I like the best. I like William Goldman’s classic stuff (“Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” “All the President’s Men,” “Misery”). Those are just a few that I really like.
Depending on which company you are writing for, does the script-writing or format change?
There’s no set format for a comic book script, and Marvel and DC work really differently. DC traditionally uses a full script, which means a panel description, panel breakdowns and dialogue all in one script, so you do the entire script and turn it in. Marvel traditionally uses what is called plot style, where you would write a paragraph of what happens on the page and then ask the artist to draw it and choreograph themselves, then you get it back and add the dialogue, so it’s a two-part process. Now it’s pretty much open to what you want to do. Marvel works with full script too.
Say you’re a writer and you want to submit a script. Is there something editors look for?
“The DC Comics Guide to Writing Comics” (by Dennis O’Neil) outlines the format that you need to know. It’s like “The Screenwriter’s Bible” (by David Trottier), same kind of book. But you would want to have a full script done so they could read your dialogue and know that you know what you’re doing with the comic.
What was the reaction you got when you first told your family that you were leaving the film business to write comics full-time?
Well, I haven’t left it! I still write for TV, I wrote a pilot for Fox this year, I wrote one last year, and I’m involved in a couple projects for TV. So technically, I didn’t leave it. It’s just that with writing in TV and film, you get a lot less of your work produced. In comics, your work is constantly in production. For every script I’ve ever written for comics, with the exception of maybe one, and that’s just because the artist hasn’t drawn it yet, and I don’t know if he ever will, has gotten made. Whereas with TV and film, you can work and work on projects. For example, I worked on two pilots, I produced one or two other pilots, also a couple other features, but sometimes they don’t come to fruition.
So it’s like an instant-gratification thing going on?
Right. You write something, and four, five months later, it’s out.
With as many books as you write per month, what kind of goals do you set for yourself?
I do a script per week. Come into the office around 9 a.m., leave at 7 p.m. I can usually get a script done in five days. Sometimes longer, sometimes shorter.
How do you maintain that discipline? Do you ever get writer’s block?
Not really. The thing is, I worked in an office on the Warner Brothers lot for four years, so I’m used to going into an office every day. And you know, I don’t have an Xbox or anything here. That would kill me.
So the key is to not have a lot of distractions?
You say that you have the plot of the story figured out long before you start writing. How much of the actual story details do you have worked out before you even write the first line of dialogue?
A lot. The plotting, breaking down the pages and panels is done before you even get to writing.
When you actually start writing, does the plot change?
Yeah, it always changes. It’s almost like sketching. You do a rough sketch, then go back in, harden up the lines, focus and sharpen it up. It’s the same way with writing, you lay out your plot. I don’t think I’ve ever had a plot that remained exactly the same, from plot to script. Things change, suddenly you’re there and you take a panel out, or you write a new scene.
Do you know who the artist is going to be when you start a story?
Most of the time I know, yeah.
How does that affect how you write a story?
If I know the artist I’m working with prefers to do rough panels on a page, and they just tell a story better that way, or the opposite, I have to try and tailor the story to their strengths. Like Howard Porter, who I worked with on The Flash, he draws really great big action shots, so I like to make sure I get a couple real powerful scenes. He draws great energy, and he draws it so well. I try to look at what they can pull off, and focus in on that.
So you would say it’s important for a writer to have knowledge of what the artist’s strengths are?
Yeah, and sometimes you get paired with someone you’ve never worked with, and it takes you a while to figure out their creative response, but the communication between a writer and artists are often pretty open. I talk with the guys I work with a lot, I tend to try and figure out their perspectives and where they’re coming from. It’s a team effort, with the artist and writer and a dozen other people involved in it. It’s a collaboration, and it’s really important to keep that together to get book in synch. The thing is, if you work with the artist and talk to them enough, tell them your goals for the story, what you’re thinking and how you see the world that the characters are in. Then you can start to write in shorthand, because the artist is always going to be two steps ahead of you as far as the visual story goes. I don’t have to describe the city or what type of city The Flash lives in. We’ve already gone over it a hundred times, so it’s nice to have that type of relationship. And it can also happen with details. The guy I work with on Green Lantern, Ethan Van Sciver, knows the story from beginning to end, so he goes in there and subtly will add something in the background that will actually add something that means something to the story, so it’s nice to have that depth to it.
Are you ever unhappy with the rendering of a panel, so that you would have to go back and change it?
There’s been a few instances, sure, where you’re looking for a different image, and a different emotion on a face or something that you have to go back and change. But it’s the same thing when an editor goes back and changes a script, or an artist. You know, I’ll tell the artist I work with, “If you have an idea that you want to add, let’s talk about it, it could be really nice.”
Do editors have a lot of influence over stories, or are they more hands-off?
You pitch the editor a story, they say yes or no, and then you go off and break down the story and get notes back.
How important is it, when writing a character for DC, to have a really good knowledge of all the characters in the DCU?
You don’t need to know all the characters but you should know all the history of the ones you’re writing for. If you’re writing for Teen Titans, you obviously need to know all of them – who they are, what motivates them, what their histories are, and also what stories have been told.
Do comic writers, like screenwriters, need to have an agent?
So, then how does the (way better than) average comic writer ever get noticed?
It’s hard. A lot of writers today come from different fields now. They come from film or TV, or novels. Or, one guy I know, Will Pfeifer (Aquaman), was writing for a newspaper. A lot of writers who are coming in now have already gotten their chops elsewhere. They’ve already proven themselves as storytellers. And they come in and learn the format of comic book writing and get in that way. It’s really, really competitive now. Between DC and Marvel, they probably put out 120 books per month, mainstream. If you want to do mainstream books, the best thing to do is start writing.
What else should writers know about the business of comics?
There’s no easy path. You have to make your own path. Whether that be working in TV, or writing a book or working at a newspaper, or self-publishing your own comic book or working at Image, a lot of the guys who write mainstream books now come from a small press background, where they did their own books for a couple years, then get work at DC or Marvel. If you want to go toward that, it’s a good way to go. The thing about DC is that they’ve got lots of options, imprints like Vertigo and Wildstorm, open for comedy or drama.
From your Web site and your message boards, it seems like you’re pretty in touch with your fans and fans of Green Lantern. Do the fans and the feedback that you get ever influence your writing?
Well, most of the time it’s already too late because you write six months ahead. There have been occasions where I’ve interacted with fans and they’ve enjoyed something or they really want to see a certain character or whatever, and I’ll listen to that. But, you take constructive criticism there like you always take it. I’m always trying to work on my plotting and characters, and if something doesn’t work, work to make it better. It’s like baseball, you’re not going to hit a home run every time. You hope to at least hit a triple and hope for a home run. But you’re always trying to get better, figure out why this story worked and this story didn’t work. You look at a few stories and try and improve your game.
You have to. Once you stop looking at yourself saying, “How can I make this better?” or figuring out what you would have done differently, or what you’re going to do next that’s different – once you stop doing that you’re gonna suck. Look at the great directors, too. I mean, even Hitchcock made movies that just didn’t work. Everyone has their off days, for one reason or another sometimes a project just doesn’t click, a story doesn’t come to life the way you want it to, but on the other hand when it does, it’s a great experience. You’ve got to keep trying to improve yourself.
Did you ever see yourself as a comic-book writer?
I always liked comics, and I thought about writing them, but I moved more toward film and TV when I got into college. I really didn’t get into comics until about four years after college.
So, inasmuch as you take influence from the writers before you, what is your feeling about writers whom you might be influencing right now?
I’ve never thought about that! I don’t think I’ve ever been asked that question. If there are kids reading comics and are influenced by that, cool. Hopefully they take away the right stuff to take away. I’ve never really thought about that, but that’s a pretty cool thought.
Everyone says, “Oh, Geoff Johns. He’s had such a fast rise.” But in reality, you’ve been writing for a long time, writing for a while. Do you have any advice for writers who are just writing and writing and trying to get somewhere?
If you want to be a writer, be writing. You know, I can’t tell you how many people I talk to who say that they want to be a writer, and they say “You know, I really want to be a writer, but I don’t know how to get into it.” And I ask what they’re working on and they say, “Oh, I haven’t written it yet.” If you want to be a writer, and you know you don’t want to do anything else, you’ve GOT to go out there and write. If you want to be a screenwriter, write a screenplay. Don’t stop. If you want to write comic books, write a comic book! There’s no one out there saying you can’t write an issue of Batman. Go out there and do it. If you have a story idea, and you want to become a writer, and that’s what you want to do, then go for it. There’s nothing holding anybody back. It doesn’t cost anything to write. Just sit down with a piece of paper and a pencil. Or a computer, most people have computers. That’s the key, you’ve got to go out there and do it. You’ve got to really want to, like anything else.
—Interview by Amber Mitchell