Sunday, March 27, 2011

Geoff Johns to rescue Aquaman...?

So I guess DC's most popular writer, Mr. Geoff Johns, is going to be writing a new Aquaman series of undetermined length, with an unnamed artistic team.

I think that's pretty great news, as an Aquaman fan, and I'm honestly quite surprised to hear it.

Now, I've been thinking DC should probably have Geoff Johns write Aquaman for about five or six years now. After taking on first The Flash (a long stretch on the title with Wally West in the red suit, followed by the recent Barry Allen revival) and then Hawkman (in both JSA and then a short-lived Hawkman monthly) and then Green Lantern Hal Jordan, Johns demonstrated not only skill but, more importantly, success at being able to take a tired, sometimes even retired Silver Age great and making them work again.

I'm not going to argue that the comics cited above were always great ones or anything—I only read his Flash run sporadically, and dropped Hawkman pretty quickly, and Green Lantern is a book I love sometimes in spite of itself—but they all strove to communicate the writer's affection for a character and concept, and did so effectively enough that the characters usually seemed more relevant, cool and exciting, and the market (mostly) supported them.

Let's review...

THE FLASH: Geoff Johns took over the Flash book in 2000 with issue #164, with the art team of Angel Unzeta and Doug Hazelwood (and covers from Brian Bolland). His run was long and influential, reinventing old villains, inventing plenty of new ones, and generally fleshing out The Flash's world, with the help of Scott Kolins and Howard Porter, two artists who stuck around for quite a while. Johns himself wrote the book through 2005, making it about five years even.

The title didn't survive his departure. It was canceled in with issues #230, to make way for a new Flash title starring a new Flash (Former Impulse turned Kid Flash turned Flash IV, Bart Allen, hyper-aged into young adulthood) and written by some guys who worked on an old, semi-forgotten Flash television show—that lasted only 13 issues. So then DC brought back Mark Waid, a long-time Flash writer who preceded Johns on the book, who in turn brought back the Wally West Flash, now the father of two super-kids. His run resumed the numbering of the previous series, but only lasted 17 more issues.

Finally, in 2009's Final Crisis, Grant Morrison brought back the Silver Age Flash, Barry Allen, after the hero having been dead since 1986, a fairly controversial move at the time (Wall West, the third Flash, had been the Flash for literally an entire generation of time at the point at which the Silver Age Flash came back to resume the role). That was followed by the six-issue Flash: Rebirth series by Geoff Johns and Ethan Van Sciver and the current Flash ongoing series, starring Barry Allen and written by Johns once again.

The title is set to be canceled shortly, after the events of Flashpoint, a big company crossover/event series spinning out the events of the series, although it will presumably be relaunched with a different writer shortly after that.

Looking back at the last ten years of Flash comics, it looks like the franchise has yet to really recover since Johns left it the first time, as DC has been relaunching it with different lead characters, different creative teams, and different concepts on a regular basis ever since.

HAWKMAN: In 2002, after reintroducing the original Carter Hall in the pages of JSA and mostly making sense out of his complicated origins and giving the character a new premise, Johns launched a Hawkman ongoing title with the superlative creative team of Rags Morales and Michael Bair. Johns left after 25 issues, with the writing team of Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray keeping the book going until #49 in 2006. At that point, the title changed its name to Hawkgirl (but kept the numbering), Walter Simonson and Howard Chaykin took over as writer and artist, respectively, and it lasted 16 more issues. The title far outlasted any previous attempt at a Hawkman or -girl monthly.

The characters lost their way a bit in the years since, with Jim Starlin among those who have messed with their origins a bit, but despite the fact that the monthly didn't last, the two Hawks have been front and center in the DCU ever since, with the pair serving on the JSA for a while, Hawkgirl temporarily joining the Justice League, and both characters often appearing in various crossover and event stories. Johns returned to the characters in Blackest Night, where he killed them off once again, and then again in Brightest Day, where they were given one of the four or five major plot-threads running through the book.

GREEN LANTERN: I would say it's pretty much impossible to overestimate the value of what Johns did with this franchise for DC. Unlike Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman, Green Lanterns is a character who hasn't always been able to support his own title, and in the mid-nineties the Hal Jordan character had become so unpopular DC decided to turn him into a super-villain and, when fans rebelled to the move, to eventually give him a heroic death, while the ring passed to a new character.

After a few years of messing around with both the new Green Lantern Kyle Rayner and, especially, Hal Jordan—who even did a stint as The Spectre, carrying his own book by that name for a while—Johns and Ethan Van Sciver brought Hal Jordan back to life in 2004 in a six-part Green Lantern: Rebirth miniseries.

In the process, they made the other, retired Earth Green Lanterns official GLs again (making four GLs total, five if you counted the Golden Age GL), and brought back the Green Lantern Corps and many elements of the Silver and Bronze Age comics the character once starred in that had since fallen by the wayside.

After that, Johns and a series of different artists launched a new Green Lantern monthly in 2005, a series that is still ongoing, and is currently up to issue #64. Since then, two regular, ongoing Green Lantern spin-off titles have launched, Green Lantern Corps in 2006 and Green Lantern: Emerald Warriors in 2010.

The Johns-directed franchise also featured a very popular event series, Sinestro Corps War, followed by Blackest Night, which DC expanded to include their entire line, and the current Brightest Day limited series and branding exercise, which is somewhat derived from the concepts Johns introduced during his Green Lantern run.

Today, Green Lantern is one of DC's most successful titles, and the character and concept is the only one that seems to be dependably popular with direct market fans and able to sustain line expansion, with the perennial exception of Batman.

Aquaman, a character who has had trouble keeping a monthly series going since writer Peter David left the 1994 volume of the series in 1998. That series was canceled at issue #75 in 2001, surviving about 25 issues and two different creative teams after David.

The next attempt was made with a new volume of the series written by Rick Veitch and mostly drawn by Yvel Guichet and Mark Propst, an attempt that gave Aquman a magic water hand, a new costume and a haircut, and restricted him to fresh-water adventures. After only 12 issues of that, writer Will Pfeifer came in with artists Patrick Gleason and Christian Alamy in 2004 to give Aquaman another makeover and set his adventures in "Sub Diego," a portion of San Diego that sank into the sea. Pfeiffer lasted about 9 issues, and then a few more writers were called in to bring the book all the way up to issue #39.

At that point, its name changed to Aquaman: Sword of Atlantis, although the numbering remained the same, and writer Kurt Busiek and artist Butch Guice introduced a new, younger "Aquaman" character and played up the fantasy elements of the premise. Busiek stuck around ten issues (Guice even fewer), and writer Tad Williams and artists Shawn McManus arrived to keep the book going eight more issues, until it was finally canceled in 2007.

Like the Flash franchise, then, Aquaman has been doing little more than flailing, rarely settling into a single creative team or a single take on the character for an entire year, only Aquaman's been flailing for longer—well over a decade at this point.

And like the other three characters discussed above, Aquaman is a Silver Age stalwart in need of some tender loving creative care, of the sort Johns and co-writer Peter J. Tomasi have been lavishing on him and the other stars of Brightest Day. That's the only reason I'm really surprised to hear Johns is doing an Aquaman comic—it seemed like DC had decided that rather than do an Aquaman: Rebirth, they would have Johns and Tomasi do it along with a Martian Manhunter: Rebirth and Firestorm: Rebirth within the pages of Brightest Day.

I suppose it's also sort of surprising in that Aquaman is not only a relatively unpopular character, he's a historically difficult one to make work for very long, and it thus seems like an incredible challenge with poor odds for Johns to take at this point of his career. I'm glad he's doing so though. I think it shows quite a bit of creative chutzpah, and a willingness to challenge himself and lend his considerable popularity to a franchise that needs it.

Let's face it, DC would be foolish to not let Johns do whatever he wanted for the company at this point, and he could totally be writing a Batman book right now if he wanted to, which comes with guaranteed popularity, sales and, thus, royalties and prestige. (Hell, the Bat-office is just giving away Batman vanity titles these days). Instead, Johns is apparently going to take try to rehabilitate Aquaman.

If we look at Johns' past efforts at character rehabilitation as a guide, then if Johns fails, at worst, Aquaman could end up like Hawkman—getting a relatively short-lived monthly, but also a popular, consistent "take"—and, if it succeeds, then in five years time we could be reading three Aquaman books a month and looking forward to an Aquaman feature film.

Now if only Grant Morrison would take on Wonder Woman...

Oh, before I quit babbling about Johns and Aquaman, while reading and thinking about Johns efforts on Hal, Wally/Barry and Hawkman, I've noticed a few patterns. Essentially, Johns Batmans up the franchises by a) Making the city and/or setting a unique, highly individualized city that contrasts sharply to other DC locales, but has as much personality as a Gotham or Metropolis or Opal (Johns may have learned this trick from the Batman franchise, or he may have admired the way James Robinson built his Opal City in Starman), b) creating colorful villains and working to make the older villains seems more outrageous, more deadly, more evil and more motivated (Busiek already beat him to The Fisherman during the Sword of Atlantis run), and c) working to give the character a deeper supporting cast (this seems well underway in Brightest Day, where Johns created a new Aqualad and continues to give Mera increased prominence).


Nick Ahlhelm said...

I would argue his city building on each franchise almost always seems more inspired by Robinson's work on Starman than anywhere else, but that may just be that Robinson is one of the few creators of the last couple decades to set out and make a fully realized city in his comic.

One quick correction, Chaykin only DREW the first few issues of the Hawkgirl run. Walter Simonson wrote all of them with Renato Arlem being the later artist if I remember correctly. Great stuff too.

Jacob T. Levy said...

I vastly prefer Waid's Flash to Johns', and Ostrander's Hawkman to Johns', and Kesel's Superboy to Johns', and either the reboot or the threeboot Legion to Johns'. I expect to prefer PAD's Aquaman to Johns'. I don't much like what he's got in his bag of reinvention tricks.

But he has the clout to make his revisions stick (except who the hell authorized that Jim Starlin Hawkman thing?). Getting the "popular, consistent take" is worth a lot in terms of universe-building. He seems to have that Stan Lee or Gardner Fox magic-- the ability to really generate a character conception that can stick, that can persuade both readers and other writers that this character *in this form* is worth spending time with.

Kid Kyoto said...

Aquaman again? So what's the over/under odds?

18 issues? Maybe?

Sorry to be cruel but Aquaman has become a punchline for so many fans I can't see it working.

corey said...

But what will Johns write about? He's already reset Aquaman's status quo to the Silver Age, as well as dismembered him. Those are the only two tricks he knows.

Kid Kyoto said...

most importantly what hand will he have? Hook hand? metal hand? Water hand?

I hope he gets a wooden hand this time, then he just needs a fire hand and he has all 5 Chinese elements.

Mario Di Giacomo said...

I posted my thoughts on Aquaman over at my blog:

In brief, he's a better adventurer than superhero.