Tuesday, January 17, 2006

But It Always Lands Buttered Side Down

I made this point on the Marvels and Legends blog a few weeks ago in the comments section, but I feel it bears repeating. So Calvin Pitt can probably skip this entry. Kay? Kay.

Geoff Johns is a a piece of toast.

Let me explain.

I like Geoff Johns. I've never met him in person, but he seems a decent sort and obviously he's a good enough writer to be handed the reigns of comicdom's most venerable universe. He sells a lot of books, has a way with sorting out convoluted continuities and generally doesn't pee in the punch bowl while doing it.

Geoff Johns is comfort food.

See, let's say your stomach is rumbly. Something's not quite right. A little nausea, a little of the urpies. Maybe you've downed your fourth pizza today, maybe you're nervous because you have a big meeting at work to sell the CEO on the idea of the Bumper Dumper. Whatever. The point is, you need a calming influence.

So what do you do? You make some toast in an attempt to calm the rebels waging war in your lower GI. You eat the toast, and everything's better.

Geoff Johns is toast.

Here's the thing about comfort food: it's guiltless, and you generally eat it to make you feel better. There are times when you MUST HAVE comfort food, because nothing else will do. But you don't want to eat it every day, and you certainly don't make it for dinner if you're trying to impress friends. At the end of the day, toast has its place in your life, and it's a solid stalwart in times of need.

But comfort food is rarely outstanding. Toast alone does not a great snack make. But if you add a few ingredients to the toast, it can become nothing shy of culinary brilliance. A little butter, a little jam, maybe even a pickle and some cheese, and you've got a decent sandwich.

Geoff Johns writes competently, can tell a story, and does a decent job with characterization. I just don't think he's (so far) done anything worth raving about. (No, not even JSA. He's made it readable, not great, and those are two very different things.)

Let's go back to the stomach analogy. Let's say your tummy hurts. We'll call that "continuity" or "poorly written comic that should sell more because of the characters involved but doesn't". You eat some toast, which we'll call "Geoff Johns". After awhile, the tummy starts to feel better, returning to normal. And that's fine.

But you can only eat toast for so long before you'd like, say, a salad, or a hamburger, or something that has some actual flavor to it. (We'll call that Grant Morrison, Kyle Baker, or Mark Waid.) And you remember what it was like to eat something that really made you think, "Man, that was a good meal."

(On the flip side, Frank Miller has turned into the week-old meatball sandwich you left in the fridge but have convinced yourself will still be good after a few minutes in the microwave, then spend the next two days regretting it in a variety of stomach-content-expelling ways.)

There's a reason why Johns was handed the DCU but Morrison is Supreme Director of Ideas and Magick, or whatever the hell title they handed him. Johns I think is an above average writer, but hasn't taken the next step, which I think is taking chances, doing something different, and pushing the envelope. I think the dearth of great writing in Big Two comics today elevates Johns' rep higher than it probably should be.

And a lot of us who read comics like comfort food. I know I do. (Hell, that's why I read superhero comics from DC and Marvel). But I'm starting to feel sort of a rote, middle-of-the-road, groove to Johns' books that just tastes bland at this point. He needs to shake out of the groove and do something...else with his comics. I can't quite put my finger on it, and I don't want this to seem like a hatchet job, because I really do think he is one of the better writers out there. But when was the last time you picked up a Geoff Johns comic and thought, "Maybe something will take me completely by surprise?"

I think Geoff Johns has a brilliant story in him somewhere. Infinite Crisis will not be it, because Infinite Crisis is a giant plot device, as pointed out on Comics Should Be Good.

Personally, if I was DC, I'd take him off of everything after this Crisis hoo-ha is over with and give him Starman. I think his Golden Age sensibilities fit perfectly with the character. And the character's not so property-driven that he'd have to conform to merchandising rules or cautions about how the character is depicted, so that DC doesn't have to worry about kids carrying lunchboxes that depict a child-abusing paranoiac stalker. (URP---sorry, looks like that meatball sandwich is coming back for round 2.)


Maybe it's hoping too much to expect anything new from DC or Marvel, but that's the easy way out, and I don't believe that, either. So, come on, Geoff! You can do it, man! You're in as close a position as anyone at DC to write your own ticket at this point and take some chances!

And I'm really getting tired of toast.


Blogger CalvinPitt said...

For the record, I think I would probably enjoy a week old meatball sandwich I put in the fridge.

I think Frank Miller is like that huge hoagie Homer had, that he kept eating, even after it had been sitting behind the radiator, causing Homer to get sick, so Aunt Patty had to take the kids to Duff Gardens, with hilarious consequences.

Best sandwich-related mishap episode ever!

7:03 PM  
Blogger kelvingreen said...

Johns I think is an above average writer...

I think the "above" is superfluous here.

I think the dearth of great writing in Big Two comics today elevates Johns' rep higher than it probably should be.

Sadly, yes.

I don't think he's a bad writer, just very average. But very average writers shouldn't be given the DCU as a whole to play with*.

I really think that people are forgiving Johns a lot of flaws and weaknesses just because of what's going on in the DCU, rather than his particular handling of it, which must appear haphazard to any halfway objective viewpoint.

Put him on something small and personal and he'll probably excel (even I quite liked his Flash work), but DCU Head Honcho is beyond his abilities.

*(Just as writers who work best with small scale character-based dramas shouldn't be given cosmic crossovers and the Avengers to play with...)

7:18 PM  
Blogger Jhunt said...

Just one comment:

No one gets Starman unless his name is James Robinson.

I think we can all agree on that.

9:11 PM  
Blogger Chris said...

Jhunt, in a perfect world, you would be absolutely correct.

But you know DC's going to give it to someone in less than a year or so, and if it's not going to be Robinson (and it won't be, because God hates us), give it to Johns and let him work on a smaller, more intimate and less corporate scale. I think he's the least likely to ruin the memory of James Robinson's Starman, unlike Rucka or Willingham.

Not that anything ever really could.

In fact, you know what? You're right. Let's just leave Starman be.

9:50 PM  
Blogger Jake said...

I like Geoff Johns. I've never met him in person, but he seems a decent sort...

Not to be a name dropper, but I have met Geoff Johns and you've pretty much hit it on the head. He's a really nice guy and the artists I've talked to who've worked with him don't seem to have anything bad to say about him. He sticks with tried and true methods and plays well with others.

To use your own analogy, Johns may be toast, but Warren Ellis and Garth Ennis and Mark Millar are all fancy dishes that may be the most delicious thing you ever ate or may be disgusting. I've rarely screwed up a piece of toast (sure, a few pieces have been burned when the toaster malfuncted), but I've thrown away entire pans of lemon glazed chicken because I let the sauce congeal or cooked the chicken too quickly and it dried out.

To expand the analogy, when you go to a Chinese resaurant and order Sweet and Sour Chicken, you pretty much get the same thing everywhere you go. That's Johns. If you order House Special Pork or Happy Family or Hunan Shrimp and Carrots, you can get radically different things that may be much better than the Sweet and Sour or much worse. Those are the others.

Now to make a baseball analogy (yes, at this point I'm just seeing how many of these I can do), Johns is the singles hitter batting .340 right behind your lead off guy while Ennis is the guy how bats .270, but is always a threat to put it over the fence and even when he strikes out three at bats in a row, the other team gets nervous about his fourth plate appearance.

From an acting standpoint, Johns is Morgan Freeman and Ellis is Sean Penn.

Okay, I'm bored with analogies.

In relation to Kelvin's saying "average writers shouldn't be given the DCU as a whole to play with," you're probably right, but I think you even acknowledge the DCU is in need of repair. Johns is the safer bet to fix things versus giving the project to someone like Alan Moore or Grant Morrison who would do something bigger and more spectacular, but would also have a greater chance of collapsing and making things even worse than they already are.

11:28 PM  
Blogger Chris said...


Thank you for completing what should have been my follow-up. You're spot on about Ellis, Morrison, Ennis, Moore and others. The risk/reward factor is higher on both counts with that bunch. The victories are spectacular, but so are the flameouts.

I guess my point behind this post was threefold:

1) To remind everyone that (as you and I have discussed) the absence of badness does not necessarily make greatness.

2) To point out that in a fix-it situation, Johns is the man to call.

3) To say that I think enough of Johns to want him to raise the bar, because I love great comics and I think he's capable of it...he just hasn't done it yet.

Nice analogies, by the way. :-)

12:24 AM  
Blogger markus said...

I agree with the evaluation of Johns, but disagree with the comparison to Moore et al..
Even in their poorer works I see two things Johns seems to lack: (a) superior or at least conscious craftmanship and (b) ambition. Johns on the other hand seems content to keep producing the same kind of stories using the same means.
As for giving him something else, why on earth would you want to do that? The man has been in the business for quite a while and hasn't produced a single GN of his own or shown any ambition to revive a neglected character or somesuch. At this point it's IMO irrelevant whether he can not do it or simply is not interested, but until Johns himself has a major change of heart I think putting him on anything other than the most formulaic, bog standard title would be a serious mistake.
On that note I find the invocations of "he could if he were given the chance" more than a little odd, almost to the point of groundless optimism, because the man has to my knowledge shown no indication that he could or that he would.

8:52 AM  
Anonymous Jer said...

"I think Geoff Johns has a brilliant story in him somewhere."

He certainly does - it was "Stars and S.T.R.I.P.E." and if it had sold well enough, it would probably have continued to be great. Its the only project he's done that seemed to me to be a work of love instead of an exercise in how much continuity he could reference/rewrite.

Johns is really at his best when he's away from the "core properties" and can play with continuity while not feeling shackled by it. Stars and STRIPE was perfect for this because there wasn't much continuity there for him to be tied to, but enough to give the book grounding and for Johns to play around with.

For the record, I think Johns would be lousy on Starman. Because he could never make it his own. Everyone would compare his run to Robinson's, and I doubt that Johns would actually break out of Robinson's shadow on that particular book.

9:32 PM  
Blogger kelvingreen said...

To point out that in a fix-it situation, Johns is the man to call.

Tsk. Busiek.

All this stuff you guys are saying about Johns being a safe pair of hands is how I view Busiek; sometimes spectacular, but never truly bad. But Johns has produced, and still does produce, bad work.

If I had to give someone the task of fixing the DCU, it would be Moore or Morrison. If they were unavailable, or considered "unsafe", I'd go for Busiek. Johns would be well down on the list.

11:49 PM  
Blogger kelvingreen said...

By which I mean that to me, Busiek is an average writer who occasionally leans toward greatness, whereas Johns is an average writer who occasionally leans towards suckosity.

11:51 PM  
Anonymous Steven said...

I agree with your analogy, but disagree with your conclusion. Yes, Johns is toast, well made, toast, that isn't going to offend anyone nor excite anyone too much, and that is exactly why he SHOULD be given the task of organizing the DCU.

Because if every comic you buy is a meal in Planet Krypton, then Johns in his role as meta-writer, would be the side of bread. (and Morrison would be the olive oil, making Waid and Rucka the salt and pepper, which kind of works, when you think about it). Now you may have ordered a Simone Salad with a side of Byrne, or a Robinson steak. But no matter what you order, you will always get bread. So shouldn't that bread be a) good but also b) not so distinctive that it can't go with everything on the menu?

9:18 PM  
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