Saturday, May 25, 2013

Building a Franchise: The End of Geoff Johns' Green Lantern

The 500th issue of Green Lantern, and Geoff Johns' last
This week's giant sized Green Lantern 20 saw the final issue written by Geoff Johns, the creator who revitalized the moribund Lantern franchise in what was the first step in his rise to the creative top of DC Comics. The book is that rare thing in superhero comics: an ending. You get the ultimate fates of multiple human and alien lanterns of all spectra, and some rather specific hints of what is to come some years down the line. Johns pulls this off by doing the issue from the future, in flashback. These elements really have that Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow kind of feel to it, but you have to slog through the final chapter in Johns' latest Lantern crossover whatsit first.

Johns' run with the franchise is marked by the deft way he brought the greatest Green Lantern, Hal Jordan back, energizing one of DC's coolest concepts in a way that hasn't been done since the re-creation of the character at the dawn of the Silver Age. His run is also marked by neverending crossovers and tiny retcons in what ultimately transitioned the book from superhero work to expansive space opera. (Well, it's always been a space opera, just one where Jordan murders half the universe.) His introduction of the Sinestro Corps and the elevation of Sinestro to one of DC's best villains was the critical and popular turning point for many, including myself. I have never really been into the DC Universe in the way that I have been the Marvel Universe, but my first exposure to Johns' Green Lantern - the epic spacewar crossover The Sinestro Corps War - had me hooked. I read everything that came since Rebirth, and became a devoted monthly follower of the franchise, a DCU first for me. I'm a sucker for space sci-fi, and the Green Lantern books - like its contemporary, the criminally out of print Abnett & Lanning Guardians of the Galaxy in the Marvel Universe - told fun outer space action adventure tales largely removed from the shared universe it inhabited. Johns would introduce the full spectrum of heretofore unseen Lanterns as his Green Lantern books began to build their own distinct mythology.

But Johns would again and again go to a familiar formula of introducing a retcon which would trigger some massive crossover. Blackest Night, which focused on c-list DC characters coming back from the dead and a massive war of the various Lantern colors, was the largest of these, encompassing the entire DCU in the process. My frustrations with the quality of the story (it just wasn't very good, at all) as well as having to put up with yet another Event Series (this time in a shared setting I had no affinity for) pretty much put a nail in the coffin of my DCU reading. I was wary of the increasing complexity of Johns' space opera and of ceaseless crossovers. I love space operas, I really do, but Johns' tired formula just wasn't doing it for me.

Shortly enough, though, the editorially mandated last-second clusterfuck that was the DC New 52 happened, and with it the opportunity for me to try some new DCU books, including jumping back onto Green Lantern. For better or worse, like the Bat-family of books Green Lantern actually kept its prior continuity, and with it the ongoing space opera. There would be more tired crossovers, and I'd like to think Johns had some great design, but honestly it always felt like yet another yet another. The latest storyline, Wrath of the First Lantern was the yet-anotheriest (hey, it sold books, so why stop?) and hardly felt like the end of an influential and apparently distinguished run. But it is the final chapter by Johns and once we get past the requisite and frankly incomprehensible nuttiness made bearable by the usually amazing art of Doug Mahnke (and about a dozen others for good measure), we get the various unexpected endings.

Johns, April 2009
(At this point I was going to summarize the proceedings of Wrath of the First Lantern but I just realized I wasn't really paying attention and probably couldn't recount it even if I was. So here's a picture of Johns I took from the JHU signing/panel we ran a few years ago. He's kindof dreamy in that boyish never-takes-his-hat-off kind of way, and honestly, he's a really nice fella.)

The endings were somewhat refreshing. Johns clearly loves the characters. But naturally, the way superhero comics generally work, those endings are valid for as long as anyone decides not to change them, which won't be long. Next month gives us new creative teams across the board on all the Lantern books (five titles in a market that once couldn't sustain one, if anything the most obvious metric of Johns' success), and with the fresh voices a chance at doing something different. I have been saying for some time that I would really like a Green Lantern book where a Green Lantern went out and did Green Lantern stuff - explored deep space with funny looking aliens, defended the whole sector from any number of varied and high concept threats in nice short arcs, original voices, original ideas... but then I realized that that was a pipe dream and not representative of any previously established status quo. As far as anyone familiar with the character in recent years, including myself, a Green Lantern book where a Green Lantern goes out and does Green Lantern stuff is just what Johns has been giving us. I hardly expect much different going forth. DC has been shown a formula that has worked, so why break it? And with rare recent examples (almost entirely from Marvel), different doesn't necessarily sell as much as the same old shit. Superhero comics are entirely predicated on the same old shit. Like in all the shared universes from all the major publishers, their responsibility is maintaining an IP, not creating art, and its not exactly like Johns is being completely extricated from the franchise - he is the DC Chief Creative Officer, after all. 

So we get to the end of an era, one that saw an almost forgotten space hero elevated to the A-List complete with multiple merchandise lines (Collect all seven nine rings!) and a blockbuster movie. Sure the movie was a bomb, but it wouldn't have happened in the first place without Geoff Johns. There are many ways to thank someone, and in this issue DC goes to the odd step of spending page after page with canned congratulations from their various contracted talent and several others. It reads like employees thanking their boss for being a genius when he was only doing his job... which is exactly what that is, actually. He did it well, with help of course (stand up and take a bow, Peter Tomasi) but there was nothing revolutionary to it, certainly not to the level we see here (Johns even got a Hollywood party). When creators die they don't get this much praise in print. The best creative minds in comics that actually deserve such effusive praise can't even get a gig. This guy got an executive position, an exclusive contract, plus carte blanche to do as he pleased ultimately producing safe, pedestrian superhero work on a bunch of titles that sold very, very well for which he is well payed. Do we really need the fellatio?

Next month, new creators producing executive-mandated stories while committing unpaid rewrites to bend to every tiny last second editorial whim all in the vain hope that someday various underlings can be cajoled into thanking them for page after page. Or, a bold, original vision. Or maybe, just maybe, a Green Lantern book where Green Lantern goes out and does Green Lantern stuff.

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