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After Justice League and Aquaman, Geoff Johns returns with his most personal project

The writer of comic books, films, and TV shows digs into his new series, Stargirl

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Susana Polo is an entertainment editor at Polygon, specializing in pop culture and genre fare, with a primary expertise in comic books. Previously, she founded The Mary Sue.

In Hollywood, writer-producer Geoff Johns has brought Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, the Justice League to the screen. But in comics, he’s best known for something very different: Taking characters you always thought were kind of dumb and rocketing them to prominence.

Take Warner Bros.’ Aquaman, for which Johns shared story and producer credits. The James Wan feature drew significantly on Johns’ 2011 run on the character with artist Ivan Reis. Over the course of its 2018 release, Aquaman outsold The Dark Knight Rises at the box office.

Johns’ latest project, Stargirl, feels like the ultimate expression of his superhero work on and off the page. Premiering on May 18 on DC Universe and a day later on The CW, the series isn’t just about a deeply obscure group of DC Comics characters. In a one-on-one with Polygon, Johns said that showrunning his first series was all about getting as hands-on as he could with a character of huge personal significance.

The cast of Stargirl on a poster, including STRIPE the robot exosuit, Pat Dugan, Stargirl, Doctor Mid-Nite, Wildcat, Hourman, and various villains. Image: Warner Bros TV

Johns created Courtney Whitmore, aka Stargirl (played by Brec Bassinger), with artist Lee Moder in 1999, modeling her looks and personality after his late sister Courtney, who had died three years earlier in the tragic crash of TWA Flight 800. Courtney came into existence with a fictional legacy as well — the title of the Star-Spangled Kid — and an adult sidekick in the form of her new stepdad, Pat Dugan, who just happened to have been the original Kid’s sidekick. (By now, he’d built himself a cool robot exosuit.)

That linked her to a very particular corner of the DC Universe, one that Johns’ has returned to over and over: the Justice Society of America. His recent Doomsday Clock series with Gary Frank was in part a vehicle to return the 1940s-era superhero team to modern DC continuity. The Justice Society is full of folks you probably haven’t heard of (Wildcat, Doctor Mid-Nite, or Hour Man) and others whose names you would only recognize from very different contemporary reboots of their characters, like Green Lantern, the Flash, or the Sandman. Stargirl plans to bring the Justice Society to the biggest audience they’ve had in half a century.

Polygon sat down with Johns to discuss everything Stargirl, from the Hollywood experience that lead him to the show, to the superhero genre’s endless cycle of reinventing itself for new generations.

Polygon: Let’s start with a big one: Why the Justice Society of America?

Geoff Johns: That’s a great question. I think it’s a question you should ask about every character people care about, but to the Justice Society of America ... I’ve always loved those characters. I fell in love with them after reading some wonderful stories, like James Robinson’s The Golden Age and Starman. I’d known the characters prior, I always enjoyed them, and other stories too. But those were the books that really got me excited about them as as people, behind the masks.

The thing that always appealed to me about the Justice Society was the history behind them; that they were the first wave of superheroes in the DC Universe, and that they felt more grounded and a little more low tech and [from] an era of certainty of who the bad guys were. It’s just had a kind of a nostalgic feel to it that made everything seem a little simpler, and you knew who the good guys were and the bad guys. I liked that there was some kind of anchor to the whole DC Universe, from the Justice Society. I’d always been drawn to them.

And also there hadn’t been a lot of stories in the Modern Era with those characters. So I always found them fascinating to explore and dive into. And I wrote [the Justice Society] myself for about nine years and enjoyed every issue of that because of that. There are so many cards to turn over and different sides of the personalities and interactions and history that you could go through.

I’ve always been drawn to the characters because they were the first superheroes ever, and so they had to figure it out. That was always fun, to read the original stories, and the stories about their beginnings that were retold, where they had to figure it out, and the next generation was the same way. So when the original guys, Jay Garrick, Ted Grant, and Alan Scott formed another Justice Society when we worked on the book, it was all about doing that again and ushering in a new era a new, a new generation, seeing characters try and sometimes fail and sometimes succeed and grow and change.

And it felt like you could actually have growth and change; Alan Scott had kids and they were heroes in their own right, and these characters aged and some died. I don’t know, the whole history of it just felt both iconic, but also ever evolving.

It’s almost like you were adapting the Justice Society to a new era, just like adapting any comic for the screen.

Yeah, I mean, I’m more interested in in stories about — like, I love the original characters, but myself I’m more interested about the mix of generations. That’s to me what the Justice Society is about now — about the next generation. It’s not about a story set in 1942. Although those are great, my favorite version of the JSA is when we have the original members alongside the new generation.

Members of the Justice Society at a press conference in JSA #6, DC Comics (2000). Image: David Goyer, Geoff Johns, Marcos Martin/DC Comics

One more thing about the JSA that appeals to me is that it had versions of the Flash and Green Lantern that were strange and different than the ones I knew. And they also had characters that I thought were incredible, that they’d never done new versions of. [With] Hourman, Doctor Mid-Nite, and Wildcat, there were never Silver Age reboots, like there were with the Flash and Green Lantern.

I was fascinated by that. Why didn’t we do any new Hourman way back? Why didn’t we do new Doctor Mid-Nite when they were really relaunching everything in the Silver Age? Those characters got a little more locked in the past than the Flash and Green Lantern.

Even though I’ve known the Justice Society characters for years, watching the first episode of Stargirl felt a little bit like I was being introduced to a reflection of other superheroes, not an original team. They all fall into very pure superhero archetypes. Is that classic comic book tone something you wanted to bring into the show, and maybe present up against other superhero stuff currently out there?

The tone that we all set out to do was the tone of both Stargirl and Justice Society of America [comics]. That tone is colorful, it’s unafraid to embrace the superhero aspect of it. It’s having a tie to the past but it’s definitely looking forward, and as you watch more episodes you’ll see that happen as Courtney recruits her friends into this new generation.

We tried to stay true to the spirit of the comic. I think the best comics and shows and films and everything, stay true to the spirit of the comic book. You look at Doom Patrol, and what Jeremy Carver and the team are doing on that, it’s so right out of Grant Morrison’s crazy Doom Patrol, which was obviously heavily influenced by, and born out of, the craziness of the original run of Doom Patrol when it was first introduced.

And this Stargirl focuses on the core JSA heroes from yesterday, and also introduces this new group of characters that are going to take these legacies into tomorrow. There’s bridges between characters that have been around for both of these different areas. But the tone of it all ... like you say, Wildcat or Doctor Mid-Nite feel like reflections, or archetypes. It’s kind of like if people haven’t seen Casablanca, go watch Casablanca, and you’ll see so much stuff that you’ve seen in other movies since then, because it influences so many things. It’s really fascinating watching Casablanca after you watch so many other films, because it feels familiar, but it’s where all that stuff was born. And I think a lot of times when you work with the Justice Society, people can feel they’re both familiar and completely new.

Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman on a poster for 1942’s Casablanca. Image: Warner Bros.

So the Justice Society is the Casablanca of superheroes.

Well in some respects! It’s a pretty classic team, it’s all relative, but the fact that they were the first superhero team. There’s just such a great history there.

You’ve been bringing superheroes to the screen for a long time, do you think it’s gotten easier to stay true to the comics over time? Has it gotten easier to pitch things like “He gets his powers from a wizard in a subway cave?”

It certainly has. There are a lot of reasons for that. People who grew up with this stuff love it and want to see it on the screen, and technology. I always say that one of the reasons superhero stories are so wonderful and resonate so much is that if you can tell a real story with relatability and emotion, the superhero sheen over it, the superhero action and color, it just enhances that story. It reflects what is true and what we can relate to, but it makes it a lot of fun to watch.

Courtney Whitmore/Stargirl and Pat Dugan in his STRIPE exosuit spring across the page on the cover of Stars and STRIPE #1, DC Comics (1999). Image: Lee Moder/DC Comics

I remember when we were first doing Stars and STRIPE, and someone had called me about a TV show. And one of the conversations was Well, we can’t do [Pat Dugan’s robot, STRIPE]. So will it just be Courtney? What would the show look like? Because making a robot would be impossible. Building one or doing CGI was just not feasible. But now with technology, and with people having a lot of familiarity with superhero stories, you can do everything. You can adapt anything. If Doom Patrol can get adapted as well as it [was], I think you can do anything.

Do you think that there are things that superhero movies and television will never be able to replicate from comics?

Yeah, one of them is pacing. When you read, you read at your own pace. That’s something that I think is really interesting. It’s just a different medium, right? So there’s things things within it that just won’t translate exactly. Like reading a novel or seeing a film based on a novel.

A lot of people will say, Well, you know, I like the novel better. And the novel, again, you’re reading at your own pace, you’re imagining your own voices, you have more time. There’s all sorts of characters in comics that you’ll never be able to translate directly. In Stargirl, certainly, we didn’t try to replicate panel for panel a storyline, because it’s a different medium.

But you know, things that [movies] will never be able to do? There’s aspects of comics that probably won’t ever be perfectly replicated. Comic books are an art form, they’re just a different kind of way to tell a story. People are worried about comics and the future of comics, but comics are going to exist forever because they are an art form. Graphic novel storytelling can evolve and change and the focus might shift and the way people consume them or read them might change, but comic books will always exist.

You’ve worked on a lot of comic book film projects that have really different varying tones, shading from realism to classic comic book ideas. Is there a project that had an especially challenging process of figuring out where it would exist on that spectrum?

It’s a good question. There are always challenges across the board in everything you work on, anything from a comic to a film to a television show. You try and learn from them or stay true to the character. It’s always a challenge. It’s a challenge on every level.

You mentioned the wizard’s in cave in Shazam!. I think David Sandberg captured the tone of who Shazam is really wonderfully, because that movie captures the spirit of who Shazam is in the comics, a fun character about family. In a similar way, like I mentioned Doom Patrol, it’s all about tone and capturing tone, I think for people it can be really hard.

Around the same time Stargirl was announced, you announced that you were pulling back from your work on the DC films slate. Was Stargirl one of the next things that you wanted to do after that transition, or a holdover?

I really wanted to focus my time on writing and production. I always have been a writer and I always wanted to focus myself on writing. And the first thing I wanted to do, diving back into writing full time, was Stargirl. I was working on the pitch for it, I had the opportunity to pitch it, I pitched it, and it was what I wanted to do.

I’d never showrun before and I was working with fantastic people and learned so much from everybody. I moved to Atlanta for six months to be there for production; I really wanted to dive in completely in this project. It’s a lot different than tangentially working on a project, or working at a place where there’s 30 projects going on. It’s just a very different thing.

When you work on a comic book or you’re writing a script, you’re really in there every second, every day, and I wanted to recommit myself to being there, because I wanted to make Stargirl the best possible Stargirl show I can make it. And that meant finding and hiring and working with the best team and dedicating every bit of my creative energy to it. It just takes complete dedication. The only way I was gonna be able to do that was to get back to it full time.

So the show’s coming out. What are you working on right now?

Three versions of the Joker stand at one end of a table. In the foreground, Batman’s gloved hands pull three jokers from a deck of cards. Promotional art for Batman: Three Jokers, DC Comics (2020). Image: Jason Fabok/DC Comics

Well, in front of me, I’m actually just going through the dialogue on Three Jokers, which is a comic project that I’m doing with Jason Fabok. He’s finishing the last pages of that up right now. And that’s what literally is in front of me as we speak. It looks beautiful, too, Jay did a wonderful job on it.

And that’s your series that’s about three different eras of Joker through, I think three different characters? Barbara Gordon, Jason Todd, and?

It’s Bruce [Wayne], Barbara, and Jason. And it really is about their respective different perspectives on the Joker and how the Joker has damaged each one of these people. And how they’ve reacted in turn, very differently.

When Jay and I were talking about this; if we were going to do a Batman/Joker story, we wanted to examine something different, because there have been so many that are brilliant, wonderful stories that have been done in comic books and outside of comic books, and we wanted to look at it from a slightly different angle and have a slightly different focus. Bringing in characters; focusing on Bruce and Barbara and Jason and the scars that they carry with them, both internally and externally, from their encounters with the Joker.

There’s no other entity or villain or antagonist out there that has affected characters in Batman’s world like the Joker, and [we wanted] to contrast them and see how Barbara Gordon learned and healed and got stronger and was so driven because of it, and to see how Jason Todd was broken and still broken and driven in a very different way because of it, to contrast all of that together. And to do story about healing and scars.

Ultimately that’s what these characters are doing as they combat crime, they’re trying to heal their own wounds [and] at the same time prevent others from happening to other people. It just became a very fertile ground for us to do a story and it was a lot of fun. It was a very emotional and tricky story, I hope people dig it when it comes out.

With schedules still up in the air in the direct market, is that still expected this summer?

Yeah, I mean, Jay’s going to be done with the last pages of issue #3, which wasn’t due out ‘till August anyway. So the book is ready to ship, it’s whenever DC decides that it’s the right time. It’s complicated out there right now. Whenever it’s the right time, the book will be ready for when people head back to the stores.

Even just in the first episode of Stargirl, it’s clear how good Luke Wilson is at nailing the emotion of some really comic booky stuff. When did you know that he was “it” for the show?

I wrote it for Luke. I’d never met him before but I was a fan of his since I saw Bottle Rocket and I always pictured him as Pat Dugan, because he has that very down to earth, relatable, grounded, trying-to-do-the-right-thing-but-maybe-not-always-capable-of-doing-it [thing]. There’s a humor to him and a heart to him that is approachable. He just felt like Pat Dugan to me, he always did.

Geoff Johns and Luke Wilson on the set of Stargirl. They’re standing in front of a red and white restored classic convertible, the show’s version of the Star Rocket Racer. Image: Jace Downs/Warner Bros. Entertainment

So I wrote this with him in mind, and I sent the pilot to him, and a letter, and he read the script and liked it, and we met and talked about it, and talked about him coming on as the a role. We had a great conversation, and we kept talking, and then he signed on. It was really a dream come true to get him because he had been in my head forever. And he’s a pro, he can deliver anything and when he starts talking about the history of the JSA in subsequent episodes, you’ll see, it feels so real and natural because of the way he believes it and the way it happened in reality to him. And he brought that to the show.

All these superhero shows, comics and films, they all have a lot of lore and mythology that you go through and it only works really well when it’s delivered, or it’s believed, emotionally, and he does that. And he is great with [Brec Bassinger], they’re great together. He’s funny, she’s funny, they have a good dynamic and that dynamic evolves and changes quite a bit through the first season. But he was always my dream pick for Pat Dugan, it was a miracle we got him.

And you got to put him in a giant robot, so.

Yeah, exactly. That giant robot’s real too. We have a 15-foot robot on set. You can climb up in it, if you ever get out to Atlanta. You can literally sit in the pilot seat, close the doors; it’s really cool.

Well, maybe someday. Not right now, but!

Kids love it when they when they come see it. A lot of crew brought their kids to come see it.

Is there a comic or a character that you still dream of writing you haven’t gotten to yet?

I really enjoyed writing Barbara Gordon. She’s been a lot of fun to write. I’d love to write a solo story with her, I think she’s a great character. I don’t know. I’ve written so many characters that ...

I love Hulk, I’ve always loved the Hulk. I have a Hulk story I’d like to tell someday. But I’m really happy with the characters I’m working on right now. I don’t know if ... to do a Stargirl show with the JSA is kind of a brass ring for me. That to me, is everything. It’s just fun to work on, it’s full circle for me. It means a lot to my family, personally. It’s been a dream. There’s a bunch of characters out there that I would love a crack at, but beyond the ones I mentioned there’s no one that is on the top of my list.

Under a sniper’s crosshairs, Sgt. Rock cradles his bleeding arm. Surrounded by fallen American and Nazi soldiers, he cries “Looks like... I’m the only one left! The last... soldier!” on the cover of Sgt. Rock #306, DC Comics (1977). Image: Joe Kubert/DC Comics

Actually, there’s one character, and group of characters, that I’d like to do a story with: Sergeant Rock [and Easy Company]. I never really got into the war comics of DC. They were before my time; there’s a huge library of them, and they’re incredible characters, and Joe Kubert’s art in that was phenomenal. I don’t know if you’re familiar with the characters at all, but they’re really rich and and I’ve got a story idea for them that I’d like to try sometime.

Ironically, before I started reading a bunch of Stargirl comics for this, my quarantine comics project was “You know what? I’m gonna figure out what [teen supervillain turned government bureaucrat who is also a skeleton] Mr. Bones’ deal is.” And I was shocked to realize it was totally relevant, it introduced me to Infinity Inc. [a superhero team made of the teen children of the JSA] for the first time, and that’s totally relevant to Stargirl.

That’s hilarious. And I mean, it’s crazy, there’s — like, Infinity Inc. — there’s so many characters out there, like... I love Batman and the Joker as much as anyone, but it’s so much fun to find these characters like Mera [queen of Atlantis], or Booster Gold, or any of them that haven’t been done as much. Because you find new things in them and you can surprise people.

When Ivan Reis and I were going to do Aquaman, people told us we were wasting our time. And we loved working on that book, because, again, people knew the character, but they didn’t know him that well. I think working on the Z-list; that’s more fun to me than the A-list most of the time.

That feels very much the same considerations that you make when you’re adapting something for a new audience. You’re taking a character people kind of know, but they don’t actually know, and figuring out how to present them in a new way. Sometimes I think superhero comics themselves are just a process of constant adaptation.

Yeah, yeah, it is. And the thing — again, it’s super complicated. When you’re working on a comic as a writer, you’re writing it and you’re working with an artist and your editors and you’re collaborating and it’s a really tight group. As you get on bigger productions, there’s a lot of people involved, and I always find that the the fun thing to do, like with Stargirl, is when you’re cracking into ‘OK, for fans and non-fans, how do we introduce the concept of the Justice Society to people.

Because you’re right, when you see Wildcat — A lot of people have never heard of Wildcat or seen Wildcat — he’ll feel derivative even though he’s not. Even though he’s been around since 1940, he just will, because there’s so many cat characters. And look, we could have made a choice to go a different way and been, like Let’s make Wildcat different, but again we wanted to stay true to the roots.

Because people will see Wildcat [...] and people who don’t know him will be like Is that Batman? or they’ll have a different reaction to that. Because like you said it feels familiar, but it’s not what you’ve seen before. But the key really is if you connect with Courtney and Pat and these other characters.

Brec Bassinger as Courtney Whitmore/Stargirl in Stargirl.
Courtney discovers the powers of the Cosmic Staff in Stargirl.
Image: Warner Bros. TV

I’m excited for you to see Yolanda Montez [the second Wildcat], and be introduced to Beth Chapel [the second Doctor Mid-Nite] because we took our time — [we had] an amazing, amazing team in the writers room — we took our time introducing these characters, and really focused on the emotion of them.

Becoming these heroes is what they need to help in their lives. Each one of them is struggling with something, and the powers and legacy [of their new roles] either will help it, or exasperate it. They’ve got to decide which it is. Courtney’s real superpower is finding the potential in people, and seeing it, like she sees it in Pat. Pat doesn’t even see the potential Courtney sees in him, himself. And her helping unlock that with these other kids, emotionally, so by the time you do get to know Yolanda Montez and the new Wildcat, you in turn get to know Ted Grant, the original Wildcat, through her, because she starts to get interested in who he was. All these layers come out.

We could slap a costume on 10 people that is exactly like it is in the comic books. But unless you care about those characters and those people, [then] it’s fun for us, but for the majority of the people that are watching the shows and films — it just won’t resonate, it’ll just be eye candy. The thing that we’ve really tried to do with [Stargirl] is, when we introduce these characters we introduce the person behind the mask and you really understand who they are, what they want, what their struggle is, and how this can help or hurt that struggle.

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