When word went out that this season of The CW's long-running superhero drama "Smallville" would feature an episode co-starring members of the legendary DC Comics superteam the Justice Society of America, comic fans everywhere knew only one man could be building the story behind the scenes – DC's all-star scribe Geoff Johns. While Johns helped establish the team's resurgence in the DC Universe by co-writing the "JSA" title from the end of the '90s through its 2007 reboot as "Justice Society of America," the writer also wrote the "Smallville" episode "Legion" last season, which introduced the Legion of Super-Heroes into the Superman-themed drama's expanding cast of supporting superhero players. In advance of tonight's 8:00 PM Eastern and Pacific debut of the two-hour "Absolute Justice" episode, CBR News caught up with Johns on how he brought his considerable knowledge of the JSA to bear in the form of co-starring heroes Hawkman, Stargirl and Doctor Fate.
Aside from his high-concept action epics like the current chart-topping "Blackest Night," Johns is perhaps best known for his ability to weave decades of comic history seamlessly into character-driven stories, and as the CW's previews have shown, "Absolute Justice" contains more than a few comic Easter Eggs. "Everything was in the script," Johns explained of items including Green Lantern's lantern. "I wrote as much detail as I could, and then we talked about every single prop. We talked about the car that Sylvester [Pemberton] drives and the Star-Rocket Racer, what that would be. And they were great about it. I tried to put in as much as I could because this is the live-action JSA. I don't know when we'll get another chance to see the live action JSA, so I wanted to do as much stuff as possible – the painting, the table...everything.
"And there's tons of stuff throughout the whole episode. In dialogue there's mentions that make you see that there's really a society behind all this. These three guys aren't the only members. There's a big history behind it, and quite frankly what you guys have seen – even though they've shown a lot of it – there's still a whole lot more. I'm excited for people to see it because comic fans are going to go ballistic, and people who are just fans of 'Smallville' I hope are going to become fans of the JSA after this."
The story hook that Johns and the series producers employed to get new fans on the JSA page involves the death of longtime society member Wesley "The Sandman" Dodds. "It's a little bit like how we relaunched 'JSA' way back when," the writer said. "There's an adversary that is targeting the JSA, and the JSA hasn't been active in a very, very long time. What this essentially is is a story about legacy. It's about what the JSA was and through this story what the JSA becomes – what it means today. In the comics, it means ushering in the next generation with guidance from the original heroes that started it all."
And the heroes present in the episode do prove a mix of old school and next generation team members. Aside from Tom Welling's Clark Kent and Justin Hartley's Green Arrow, the JSA members present include Michael Shanks as longtime JSA Chairman Hawkman, Brent Stait as the enigmatic Doctor Fate and Brittney Irvin as Johns's own creation Stargirl. "Everyone's origin in the story is the origin in the comics," Johns promised. "There's not a lot of delineation there. There's a few things that have been altered and changed for both Stargirl and Doctor Fate, though Hawkman's is pretty much the same. Though generally speaking, they're right out of the pages of the comic books. With Doctor Fate, Kent Nelson is at a different place in his life. So he's a slightly different character than he was in the comic books."
Asked whether writing big name heroes like Superman for the younger-skewing "Smallville" was any different than penning their comic adventures, Johns said, "It feels exactly the same to me. That's how I approached it. I wrote Clark like a young Superman, and I wrote Lois like...well Lois is Lois. She doesn't necessarily have a 'younger version.' But I wrote this just like I wrote the characters in the comic. Stargirl and Hawkman are exactly the same. Doctor Fate I had a slightly different take on that is a bit of an amalgam of Doctor Fate and my take on Starman in the comics."
Though Stargirl's involvement in particular was a point of pride for the writer as he launched his solo DC writing career with that character's original series over a decade ago. "Stargirl is obviously a super important character for me – a character I created when I first got into comics and the first character I ever wrote. To see that character come so far and be animated with 'Justice League Unlimited' and made into toys and now in live action, it's amazing. And Britt did an amazing job. My favorite scenes are between her and Allison [Mack] – Stargirl and Chloe. They really define the difference between the JSA and JLA pretty poignantly for me. And you also really see Stargirl come to life when she talks about how she got involved in the JSA and why. It's really great. I can't wait for my parents to see it, to be honest."
The origins of adapting the JSA to "Smallville" came after Johns successful guest spot writing last season. "I guess it started when we talked about the Legion episode. They did exactly what they usually do on Smallville, which is evoke the costumes with colors and stuff, but they don't really go all the way. But this is a different type of thing. When we talked about the Justice Society of America, it's like they're a different generation. Their costumes work because they were from the generation before [Clark and his allies]. So when we were talking in the costume design phase, I made some suggestions about where it could go, and Brian [Peterson] and Kelly [Souders], the show runners, just embraced it completely. 'If we're going to do the Justice Society of America, let's embrace it completely. Let's go crazy and do the costumes and do the museum. Let's do everything, and let's stick closely to the source material.'"
Johns boned up on this season's "Smallvile" story involving the best-known Superman villain General Zod, although the writer explained that any fans who haven't been following along won't need to worry too much about the larger show story encroaching on this two-hour episode. "They sent me all the scripts so I could catch up and see where they were taking it, and on the first day I actually just sat there as they talked about the whole season and where they were going. Then it was a matter of where in Clark's arc did this fit and make sense and what was he going to take away from it. Otherwise, it touches upon what's going on in the season and pushes Clark where they've been taking him, but it stands alone at the same time. I didn't have to make it part of a continuing story. It got to be its own thing."
The expansion of "Absolute Justice" from a single "Smallville" installment to a "two-hour movie event" did free up both Johns and the production team to give the JSA the big screen feel they felt the legends deserved. "When Brian and Kelly decided to make it a two-hour episode, that opened up the door for everything," Johns said. "We were struggling in terms of budget, and they were building all these costumes that are expensive to build – Hawkman and Doctor Fate AND Stargirl – and building the sets like the Brownstone and all that. By turning it into two episodes, it not only allowed the story to get bigger, but it allowed our budget to become bigger. Now all the costs from the props and sets and effects are spread out. There's always an issue when working for TV as compared to comic books. I think the first draft of the script I wrote was twice the budget [it could feasibly be]. I'm not used to writing for a budget, so we had to go back in and make decisions as to which things were important and had to be cut, which they do in every production, but with comics I can afford that luxury. Being live action though is so great. You don't have sound in comic books. You don't have motion. You don't have real human emotion, and so it's a trade off."
Helping shape the story once Johns finished his script were both "Legion" director Glen Winter and Superman himself, Tom Welling, who's taken a much more active role behind the scenes of the show in recent seasons both directing episodes and earning a co-executive producer credit. "Glen and I worked with on 'Legion,' and he's fantastic. He has an amazing visual eye. And I remember talking to Tom in one of the production meetings about Doctor Fate and the difference between Kent Nelson and Nabu and what Doctor Fate represented, and he grabbed onto it right away. He was somebody who embraced the material and read all the books and got it for what it was, just like everybody else on the show. That's one of the reasons I was so happy because the Legion episode had gone over so well because I said, 'You've got to do the Legion rings' and 'This is why this works.' This time, everybody was geared up to go full on, and that included Tom. It was a lot of fun to work with him on this, and he's obviously taken a much bigger role in the show over the years."
And ultimately, Johns has good feelings about the growing awareness of DC's characters in the Warner Brothers film family, saying that with the creation of DC Entertainment as its own entity, more and more heroes will be jumping from the page to the screen like the JSA in various places. "That's the dream. That's the hope," Johns concluded. "I love Batman, and I love Superman, but I can't wait to see 'Green Lantern' [as a movie]. I've been working on that and hopefully Flash and these other movies, we'll see them come out. The hope is to see all the DC characters reach the mass public. They're aspirational and inspirational, and they're heroes who I think a lot of people would not only enjoy seeing and meeting but would also learn something from. JSA is all about family and why family's important, and Green Lantern is all about overcoming your fears, and the Flash is all about how you get knocked down then get back up and keep moving forward. All of these heroes embody something that's good for us. I think DC heroes stand heads and tales above the rest, and I can't wait to see what the years ahead unfold. I hope it's something big."
"Smallville: Absolute Justice," the two-hour movie event premiers tonight at 8:00 PM Eastern and Pacific on The CW.