Interview: Geoff Johns on the Return of Brainiac in Action Comics
Writer Geoff Johns is best known for re-imagining some of the most beloved heroes in the history of the DCU.
With his work on such books as Infinite Crisis, 52, Green Lantern, Booster Gold, Teen Titans and Justice Society Of America, Johns has “re-booted” some of DC’s most beloved classic heroes, including Hal Jordan, Booster Gold, Power Girl, The Teen Titans and The JSA.
But Johns’ ability to restore characters to their original glory does not stop with DC’s greatest heroes. No, he has left his mark on the villains as well, creating and revamping some of the scariest villains in DC’s arsenal. From his work on The Sinestro Corps War, and his run on The Flash he has placed Sinestro, Superboy-Prime, Cyborg Superman and The Rogue’s Gallery of The Flash back atop DC’s roster of its most dangerous bad guys.
Now Johns is reintroducing the most evil super computer of all, Brainiac, in the pages of Action Comics. Along with artist Gary Frank, the new arc, entitled “Brainiac” begins in Action Comics #866, in stores today.
First appearing in Action Comics #242 as a bald, green-skinned humanoid, Brainiac is the machine responsible for destroying Krypton and shrinking the city of Kandor down to bottle size. This five-issue arc will attempt to reintroduce the character who is arguably one of Superman’s most dangerous enemies back into the DCU.
I had a chance to speak to Geoff Johns about the new arc in Action Comics and the experience of working with his mentor, Richard Donner.
COMICMIX: For starters, tell us about the upcoming “Brainiac” arc in Action Comics. What can fans of the book expect?
GEOFF JOHNS: Gary (Frank) and I are reintroducing Brainiac. The character has been around for a while now but he’s kind of been in a lot of different forms. Our goal was to create a villain that represents… well, we actually say it in one of the issues. For us, Luthor represents the worst of humanity and Brainiac, for us, will represent the worst in extraterrestrials. So we’re building off that. We want to introduce a Brainiac who is frightening, powerful and a little bit mysterious. We also wanted him to be very unsettling, very alien and feel different then the other adversaries that Superman has. The idea is to make Brainiac one of the villains that Superman dreads when he has to face him, rather than just another slot in a long line of villains. I think our first issue has a real creepy vibe to it and Gary did a really great design on him.
CMix: You mentioned that there have been several different interpretations of Brainiac. As a writer, how do you tackle that and make him into one recognizable character?
GJ: Well, there are a lot of great things that people have done with Brainiac, a lot of great elements that have been added to him over the years. There’ve been a lot of stories that have been more action driven then emotionally driven with Brainiac and the idea is to tie him a little closer to Superman on an emotional level. We address everything that Brainiac has done before this, so it’s all pretty seamless I think. But every story that Brainiac has been in has happened, so we’re just building off of that. We’re taking everything from the past and reintroducing some elements that we’ve come up with, as well as the general take we’ve come up with for Brainiac.
CMix: In your mind, what makes Brainiac such a great villain? Why has he endured so many different interpretations over the years?
GJ: If you look directly to the Brainiac that’s been seen throughout the years, you realize that Superman really is a man of two worlds, Earth and Krypton, a world of alien and human. I think that’s why there is something that really appeals to Brainiac, because you have that alien connection. You have Superman staring at an alien and on one hand he’s saying, “This is what I am”, and on the other he’s saying, “This makes me more human.” So it’s a really cool mirror to look into for Superman. This is what I could have been. If I weren’t raised on Earth, would I be like this? Would I be this cold and sterile? Would I be this alien, this bizarre? I think that’s why Brainiac has endured so long. He’s a really interesting character.
CMix: There have been rumors that this run of yours on Action Comics will line up with James Robinson’s run on Superman, can you tell us anything about that?
GJ: In June, James and I both start our new arcs. James starts his arc on Superman called “Atlas,” which reintroduces Atlas and also starts to build up the supporting cast of Metropolis. At the same time, I’m doing “Brainiac,” and my first issue reintroduces the supporting cast for the Daily Planet beyond Lois and Jimmy. So we’ve been working together to build out, in the Superman universe. Then coming in October after “Brainiac” and “Atlas” are concluded, the books are all going to be linking up, including Supergirl. There will be some more announcements about Supergirl down the line but there is a big storyline that we’ll be telling in the last quarter of the year in the world of Superman that builds off of the things that happen in “Brainiac” and “Atlas.”
CMix: Was that important to you or to DC to have all Superman books link up?
GJ: It’s important to me. I love working with James and it’s important to me that the Superman Universe feel coherent. James and I have different writing styles but we both have the same take on the character and we’ve been very eager to work together. The idea had always been to get the books up inline. We want to get them linked together even closer than Green Lantern and Green Lantern Corps.
CMix: With a character like Superman, who is so well known and has been around just about as long as superheroes and comics have been, is it hard as a writer to find a fresh outlook on the character?
GJ: I think he’s still relevant. He’s always going to be relevant — what he represents, the inspiration he shares with people and the moral compass that he keeps — because his morals are never going to be wrong. So he’s never going to be a character that you shouldn’t look up to or respect. But I don’t find it hard to write Superman comics. I think he’s a pretty easy character to write because you know when you’re writing Superman what he would do and what he wouldn’t do. It’s pretty simple compared to some other characters. There are a lot of different interpretations of say, The Flash. How far will he go? What would he do and what wouldn’t he do? With Superman you pretty much know if you’re going down the wrong path.
There is less grey area with Superman. But that doesn’t mean that you don’t have grey areas within that, within his character, within his logo, within his motivations, within his struggle to fit in. He’s never going to feel like he fits in 100 percent. He just never will, ever. He has a wonderful life and he’s happy with what he has, but he’s still going to be an outsider no matter what. I think that’s inherent to his storylines that there is a touch of that in everything — at least in the storylines that I’m working on.
He’s trying everything he can, he’s doing the right thing, he’s obviously a really great guy but he’s never going to feel completely comfortable being exactly who he is. There’s always going to be that thing in the back of his head that says that he’s not like everybody else. I really like that, it makes me feel for the guy. Especially in the upcoming arc, “Brainiac,” there’s going to be some stuff that’s pretty heavy for him to take on and work through. But at the same time he’s Superman, he’s always going to do it — and do it with a smile and a punch that’s going to knock somebody out.
CMix: With this arc, do you get to delve into more of the history of Krypton?
GJ: Yes. Actually, the first scene in the first issue is a flashback to Krypton being attacked by Brainiac and General Zod defending it.
CMix: Artist Gary Frank really seems to have a grasp on how to draw Superman in an original, yet iconic way. What’s it like collaborating with him?
GJ: He’s fantastic. Gary lives in Italy but I still talk to him two or three times a week at least. Collaborating with Gary is something I’ve wanted to do since we worked at Marvel several years ago. When Superman came up and it just worked out, I was ecstatic. And I’m even more ecstatic because the stories and the characters that we’re working on, I’m really proud of them. There is a lot of collaboration between the two of us and he’s come up with so many great designs and wonderful moments. He really understands Superman as a character, so he’s always in the mindset of making sure that he is presented correctly, that the body language is right. And his lines are clean. He’s one of the cleanest artists that I’ve ever worked with. His details and facial expressions are amazing.
It’s really cool to write the Daily Planet scenes now. The Daily Planet scenes are always the most fun for me to write, and for him they’re the most fun to draw. When I turn a script in, he’ll actually skip ahead to the Daily Planet scenes because he loves them so much. He loves dealing with the characters, the emotions and the fun of it all because the Daily Planet is a really fun place to be. Gary brings that stuff out and inspires me to continue that stuff and push it as far as it can go. I couldn’t ask for a better partner on the book, I just couldn’t.
CMix: You started off in the business as Richard Donner’s assistant and eventually co-wrote an arc of Action Comics with him. Could you tell us what that experience was like and a little bit about your relationship with him now?
GJ: He’s been a big part of my life for a long time now. He taught me a lot of things about writing, production and life in general when I worked for him. We grew really close and obviously he’s my mentor. I started writing comics when I was working for him, and he loves comics, so he would see the stuff that I was working on. It was funny because he would see Alan Scott and say, “Oh, Green Lantern.” He knew the old guys, the really old guys, because he read that stuff when he was young. That was really fun to see.
So working with him was just a pleasure because I got to take everything that I learned from working for him, and from writing comics over the last several years, and then work with him on something. It was a real personal experience for me on a lot of levels. It’s a dream come true to get to work with him. Superman: The Movie is my favorite movie ever! Dick is one of my favorite directors of all time! And to be able to work in tandem with him on something like Superman is cool. When that hardcover comes out, that’s going to be the thing that I give to anybody who asks me what I do. I’m really proud of that book.
CMix: Did you ever have a Twilight Zone type moment, when you realized that you were writing about Superman and General Zod with Richard Donner? Was it kind of surreal?
GJ: Yeah, I have a lot of those moments, because I really do have one of the greatest jobs in the universe. And to get to do that with a guy like Adam Kubert and then Richard Donner, it was just pretty amazing. I’m very, very fortunate.
CMix: As a fan of Superman yourself, what direction would you like to see the Superman film franchise start to go in?
GJ: I would love to see Superman go up against Brainiac. It’s that simple. There’s stuff in this “Brainiac” arc that I would love to see on the screen. But I’d love to see a real, emotionally charged epic where he can actually go up against a villain who can hold his own against him and actually make Superman look weak. I want someone who can scare Superman and really is a threat to him. The only (movie) villain that he ever fought that really came close is Zod. Since then, on screen, he’s never really battled somebody who could go toe-to-toe with Superman. That’s what I want to see and I want Superman to overcome that challenge.
But I also want to see Superman fight someone that’s going to mean something to him. I don’t know how much Doomsday means to him on a personal level. So I’d like to see it be somebody who has a personal connection to him, so that Superman has a stake in it. I want to see a great Superman movie that still has the warmth and the heart that the original one has. That’s what I would like to see.
There are a lot of things that I like about all of the Superman films, but I do miss having him go head-to-head with a guy. I don’t know when the last time we saw two guys who can fly or take a punch that could send them through a few buildings, really going at it. It would just be cool to see that. But I’d love to see Brainiac, definitely Brainiac.
Action Comics #866, featuring a story by Geoff Johns and art by Gary Frank, hits shelves today.