When Words Collide

Mon, October 26th, 2009 at 2:28pm PDT | Updated: October 26th, 2009 at 6:19pm

Comic Books
Timothy Callahan, Columnist/Reviewer

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THE GEOFF JOHNS TEN

Last week's CBR's own Chad Nevett and I had a little debate about Geoff Johns vs. Warren Ellis. Sparked by a COMICS SHOULD BE GOOD column then raging across the blogosphere from his blog to mine, the discussion that began as a question about whether or not Chad preferred cynicism to sincerity devolved into a discussion in which Chad championed Warren Ellis and criticized Geoff Johns, while I defended Johns's work.

I think Warren Ellis has written some great comics, and I'll talk more about that next week, but after the blogosphere-shattering conversation from last week, good Mr. Nevett challenged me to come up with a Top 10 list of the work of Geoff Johns. His (not-so-subtle) implication was that I might be able to rattle off a Top 5 for Johns, but, after that, the pickings get slim. Ellis's work, he might say, could easily fill a Top 10 list, while Johns just hasn't produced enough quality work.

He's wrong. Not only has Johns written enough good comics to warrant a full-blown Top 10 list, but I'm going to go beyond that with this list. I'm going all the way to Top 10-point-two-five. Take that, Nevett!

THE TOP 10.25 BEST GEOFF JOHNS COMICS OF ALL TIME

10.25 "52"

If I were ranking "52" overall, it would be higher on this list, but I'm just talking about Johns's ¼ contribution to the book when I place it at the still-impressive 10.25 slot. Sure, we don't really know which writer wrote which pages, but we have heard reports that even though the writers collaborated on sections and produced the scripts collaboratively, as the series progressed they entrenched themselves deeper and deeper into their own sections of the story. So we know Morrison worked on the mad scientist stuff and the space adventure bits. We know Rucka did the Question and Montoya pages. We assume Waid did much of the Clark Kent/Metropolis stuff. And it seems like the Black Adam and Booster Gold plotlines belong to Johns.

And the Black Adam and Booster Gold story arcs were some of the best stuff in "52."

10. "Blackest Night"

It may be too early to rank "Blackest Night," but that's not going to stop me. If you count the prologues and tie-ins, "Blackest Night" has already had a wide-ranging impact on the DCU, and although most of the tie-ins are just more of the same (i.e. "oh, a loved one is back from the dead, trying to kill me, and I am sad as I punch away at my problems"), the central Geoff Johns-penned series is a viciously fun spectacle. Subtle, it is not, but Johns knows how to milk the drama for all its worth, and he creates some unsettling situations in just the first few issues. He sometimes gets a reputation for his use of shocking violence or gore, but when Johns writes violent scenes, they matter to the story. They include powerful emotional underpinnings that make the violence painful to the reader. That's the point of the violence, and though it may not be pretty, it resonates. "Blackest Night" is full of that stuff.

9. "Infinite Crisis"

I don't consider "Infinite Crisis" a successful story, mostly because it gets derailed by too much focus on Superboy-Prime and turns from a Batman/Superman/Wonder Woman story into a story about this whiny supervillain running rampant through the DCU. But when this series came out, it re-engergized the entire DC line, and its promise of the return of the multiverse (a promise that wasn't fulfilled by the end of the series, but was followed up by the events of "52") gave the DCU a much-needed spark that helped produce a lot of other great comics over the past half-decade.

But if this comic isn't successful in and of itself, why would it be #9? Because of the strength of issues #1 and 2, and the sacrifice of Conner Kent. The death of Superboy was powerful, and those opening two issues put the recent history of the DCU in perspective. Batman's verbal smack-down of Superman in issue #1? Genius. The explanation of why Alexander Luthor, Superboy, and Earth-Two Superman busted back into "reality," because they, too, were sick of seeing crappy DC comic book stories? Also genius.

That the rest of the series didn't quite live up to that potential doesn't make those first couple of issues any less great.

8. "Final Crisis: Legion of 3 Worlds"

This is admittedly a sentimental pick, but this poor excuse for a "Final Crisis" spin-off is one of my favorite series of the past year. Yes, it has nothing to do with "Final Crisis," and it becomes less of a Legion story than a Superman/Superboy/Kid Flash/Superboy-Prime battle, but it's a jam-packed thrill ride of a miniseries. It's excessive, even more excessive than "Blackest Night," perhaps, but that's what makes it so much fun. It has so many characters, so much going on, and yet it maintains a relatively simple through-line. I've heard people say that this comic is completely incoherent for anyone who isn't a die-hard Legion fan, but I think that's ridiculous. The series is simple, at its heart, with just a lot (and I mean a lot) of decorative flourishes in the form of ten bazillion Legionnaires.

The again, I'm a Legion fan, and I'm probably biased.

7. "Avengers"

Johns, the writer who IS the DC Universe these days, has only done a few things at Marvel, but his most significant work, by far, is his short run on "Avengers." Supposedly, Johns included too much plot per issue in his "Avengers" scripts and he was asked to take a single issue's worth of story and decompress it into two. But even if that's true, his "Avengers" run is the best of that incarnation of the series. Yeah, I said it. It's better than the Busiek/Perez run, which has warranted a series of hardcover collections. And it's certainly better than anything that followed up until the series was blown up and disassembled by Brian Michael Bendis, who, admittedly, gave the series a fresh spin.

Johns's "Red Zone" arc alone is enough to give this series the number seven spot on his Top 10.25 list. Even if it is a bit too decompressed.

6. "JSA"

Johns's first major extended run on a series was the continuation of the James Robinson/David Goyer series which brought the "JSA" back into action in the DCU. Though Johns would later follow it up with a "Justice Society of America" comic in post-One Year Later continuity, it's really his pre-OYL "JSA" that's the comic worth reading. While the "Justice Society" comic suffered from a too-large cast and a focus on longer story arcs that didn't lead to satisfying conclusions (like the Gog stuff and the Kingdom Come Superman stuff), Johns's "JSA" had great moments with Black Adam, the man formerly known as Nuklon, and, perhaps best of all, a Per Degaton time-travel epic that epitomized the "old-school DCU meets the heroes of today" feel that worked so well in this series.

5. "Flash"

Johns has a reputation for fragmented, jumping-around narratives, excessive violence, and a fetish for obscure continuity references. But anyone who has that attitude about his work has probably not read his "Flash" run, which is none of those things. Johns's "Flash" does a few things wrong -- it stumbles a bit in the last half of the run, around the issue #200 mark -- but it does so much more right: the Rogues' Gallery becomes redefined and possibly better written than it ever had been in the past, Wally West's emotional struggles balance with superhero action in an almost perfect ratio, and the series starts to feel like it has real dramatic weight, which it didn't for years previously.

It's a challenge to make a series about a speedster feel like its something weighty and substantial, but Johns did it with Wally Wast in "Flash."

4. "Action Comics"

What a disaster this was at first. The delays on the Johns/Donner opening arc killed this series for me, and killed my interest in Superman for a little while. But then the Eric Powell drawn Bizarro arc came along, and it was cute. Not great, but fun enough to make me interested in this series again. Then, when Johns brought back the Levitz Legion and sent Superman into the future, and Gary Frank's hyper-detailed artwork accompanied the script, I fell in love with "Action Comics." Though the Brainiac story didn't quite live up to the cosmic heights of the Legion tale, it was sad to see Johns and Frank leave this series for yet another retelling of Superman's origin.

But, you know what, if "Superman: Secret Origin" ends up being half as good as "Action Comics," it will still be worth reading.

3. "Teen Titans"

Geoff Johns run on "Teen Titans" was so strong that even the two abysmal issues by Gail Simone and Rob Liefeld couldn't kill its momentum. Those two issues tried, with their terrible artwork and I-don't-even-know-what-was-going-on storyline, but Geoff Johns gave this incarnation of "Teen Titans" so much life that that brief diversion was just that -- not enough to derail the Titans train.

Johns took the flavor of the classic Marv Wolfman "New Teen Titans" and then reconfigured it for the present day, using a cast of characters who knew they were "Junior Justice Leaguers" with the potential for a whole lot more. He captured the friendship between the characters with style, and gave them a look into their own ominous futures. The "Titans of Tomorrow" arc is a chilling look at who the heroes might become, and though the series took a nosedive after Johns's departure, his run will stand as the definitive Teen Titans series of the decade. As well it should.

2. "Adventure Comics"

Only three issues into "Adventure Comics," and I'm already placing it as his second-best series of all time? Yes. It's that good. I don't even care that much about the Legion of Super-Heroes back-up tales (and you know I love the Legion), but the Superboy main feature is some of the best stuff Johns has ever written in his life. This is a great pastoral superhero series, and the pacing captures the feel of a character trying to re-engage with a world that has changed in his absence. It's not decompressed storytelling, but it's also not the hyper-speed of some of Johns's other notable work. It's a leisurely comic that's more about character than it is about plot, and Johns is a plot guy through-and-through, so it's impressive to see how well he pulls the character-centric stuff off.

Issue #3's conversation between Conner Kent and Tim Drake captures the essence of the characters as well as anything you've ever seen before. Good, good comics.

1. "Green Lantern"

Johns has built the most stable structure in the DCU around the saga of Hal Jordan. But it’s a structure filled with major conflict -- ridiculously major conflict -- and it’s a cosmic romp unlike anything superhero comics have seen since the Kirby days (or at least the days when Jim Starlin was at his peak). The stakes are high, the cast of characters too numerous to count, and the plot has grown incredibly complex, with moves and countermoves, but Johns has managed to keep it all balanced and move from one major storyline into the next without losing inertia.

It helps that he knows when to slow down and when to speed up, so the adrenaline-infused events of "Green Lantern: Rebirth" were followed by some character building as the ongoing series launched. The explosive "Sinestro Corps War" epic was followed by the some breathing time allowed by the "Secret Origin" arc. And now we're in the midst of "Blackest Night" and the war of Many Lanterns, which promises to have even bigger repercussions for the DCU. This is powerful storytelling, deftly handled, and Johns will be remembered for his "Green Lantern" work for a long, long time.

That's it for "The Geoff Johns 10." Next week: Can I come up with a Ten Best for Warren Ellis? Indeed, I can.

In addition to writing reviews and columns for COMIC BOOK RESOURCES, Timothy Callahan is the author of "Grant Morrison: The Early Years" (which explores "Zenith" in great detail) and editor of "Teenagers from the Future: Essays on the Legion of Super-Heroes" anthology. More of his thoughts on comics can be seen every day at the Geniusboy Firemelon blog.

Follow Tim on Twitter: gbfiremelon

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TAGS:  when words collide, geoff johns, green lantern, blackest night, adventure comics

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