HEAT VISION

New 'Superman' Writer on His "Epic" Comic Plans

Superman Action Comics
Julian Totino Tedesco/DC
Phillip Kennedy Johnson opens up about his inspirations and ambitions for DC's Man of Steel when he takes on the character in March.

The Man of Steel starts a new era in March 2021, with a new writer taking over both Superman and Action Comics for the first time since 2018.

Phillip Kennedy Johnson’s run on both series begins with his first issues forming a two-part story titled “The Golden Age,” which brings Jon Kent, the grown son of Superman, back from the 31st century to save his father’s life — and help Superman solve the mystery of what’s behind this latest almost-deadly attack.

Johnson, known for The Last God, Empyre: Captain America and Last Sons of America, takes over the titles from the outgoing Brian Michael Bendis. Though he's new to the titles, Johnson previously cut his teeth with the two-issue Future State: Superman — Worlds at War miniseries and related special issue, Future State: Superman — House of El, both of which take place in the future of the property.

As Johnson explained to The Hollywood Reporter, both of those projects offer clues to where he’s planning to take the Last Son of Krypton, but his ambitions for Superman are even larger than it first seems, with an “epic” storyline already on the horizon. The future direction of Superman, fittingly, seems to be up, up and away …

Let’s start with the obvious question. Who is Superman, to you? Your Future State: Superman — Worlds at War series touches on this, but Superman is a character that means a lot of things, and a lot of different things, to different people. As the new writer in charge of Clark Kent and his entire world, who is your Superman?

My North Star when writing Superman, the thing that I always try to remember, is that his powers are not the point. They should serve to illustrate how utterly selfless and incorruptible he is. Superman is the figure of absolute power who wields it with absolute compassion and humility. He’s the man with the power to conquer the universe who would lay down his life for the least of us.

For me, that was embodied perfectly by Christopher Reeve’s depiction in Superman: The Movie, and that’s still the voice I hear in my mind, even in the context of giant space epics and intergalactic revolutions. In 2020, people need to believe that such people can and should exist, and that truth and justice are still ideas that deeply matter. I want everyone to see the Superman that I see, to believe in him and to aspire to be him.

You’re taking on both Superman and Action Comics after the Future State event, where you’re writing the Worlds at War mini and a House of El one-shot, both of which offer up significant world-building in terms of a potential future for the Man of Steel and his extended family; should those be considered signposts for where you’re planning on going with the two series?

Yes, actually. DC’s Future State event offered a ton of flexibility — with the establishment of a new DC Multiverse and the nature of telling stories set in the future, there was an inherent freedom to do literally anything we wanted. But I really wanted the stories in Worlds of War and House of El to count, to inform everything that comes after.

That doesn’t mean everything that happens in Future State is a promise that will definitely happen in a monthly title, but it does mean that we put real effort into tying the Future State: Superman stories together, and to foreshadow elements of the upcoming monthly books.

House of El takes place at a moon-based city called Sanctuary, which grew out of the Fortress of Sanctuary seen in Marguerite Bennett and Marguerite Sauvage’s Future State: Kara Zor-El, Superwoman No. 1. Some of Superman’s descendants in House of El are of a never-before-seen alien race that will be introduced in Action Comics, and the events of Action will hint at a future in which both Future State: Superman — Worlds of War and House of El are possible. Nothing was thrown into Future State for no reason, it’s all meaningful.

You’re going to be taking over writing chores for the character at an interesting time — Brian Michael Bendis’ run places the Kent family at the heart of the galaxy, with his son creating the United Planets, even as Clark Kent came clean about his double life to humanity and came out as Superman. Should readers expect you to pick up these plot threads and run with them, or are you wiping the slate clean and starting over with your own storylines and evolution for the Superman mythos?

I hope to build on Superman’s mythology in a big, big way, with new characters, settings, lore, etc., but no slates need to be wiped for any of that to happen. All of Brian’s contributions will stand, and some of the plot threads he introduced will be further developed, most notably the importance of [Lois and Clark’s son] Jonathan Kent. I love Jon, loved Pete Tomasi and Jorge Jiménez’s Super Sons, can’t wait for the new series, love the dynamic of seeing Clark as a father. And having a grown-up, post-Legion of Super-Heroes Jon return to present day was obviously an important moment for the DCU. We now know that Jon is a big deal in the 31st century, and I don’t think it’s much of a spoiler to say he’ll be a big deal in our timeline, too.

Even just for Clark’s development, having Jon around is such a gift. As the father of a young son myself, Jon makes Superman so, so relatable for me. I think Superman’s love for all life on Earth can be hard for some people to wrap their heads around, but most people can understand the profound love for a child or parent. Jon is such a great way for readers to better understand the love Superman has for us, and seeing Superman through Jon’s eyes, as his dad, makes both characters incredibly endearing. And Jon is an amazing character in his own right, one we’re all super excited to develop even further given Brian’s brilliant treatment of him in Legion.

Talk to me about the artists you’ll be working with on these books. What are they bringing to the Man of Steel and his family?

As we build up to the longform story that’s coming, my first few months writing Superman has consisted of several short arcs, each one with a different world-class artist. Every artist has their own style, so I’ve tried to write to all their strengths while still keeping the characterizations consistent, and they’ve all made it super easy for me. The results have been a series of short, self-contained stories that don’t rely on each other, but that inform each other for the readers who read them all.

Dynamism on the page is super important to me, and Scott Godlewski is easily one of the most dynamic artists I’ve ever worked with. Everything he’s drawing for House of El looks so insanely fluid and in motion, and it makes every page so much fun to read, especially the action sequences. You feel like you’re in the book in the best possible way, and the world-building we’re doing together is a complete blast. We’re doing another arc together in the monthly Superman title right after House of El, and I already can’t wait to see those pages roll in. I think Scott’s going to be a big deal soon, even more so than now.

Phil Hester is a revered comics veteran, an artist’s artist and someone whose work I’ve loved for years. He even worked on Superman: The Animated Series back in the day, which you can totally see in his streamlined, classic depiction of the character. Phil probably has the most singular style of anyone I’m working with right now … every page deserves to be framed and hung on the wall. That kind of distinct style deserves a very stylized kind of story, and that’s what I tried to give him. Our two-issue story The Golden Age, appearing in Superman No. 29 and Action Comics No. 1029, is a stand-alone arc, but also sets up what’s to come in both series.

In keeping with the “Truth” part of the mission statement, I admit that I haven’t started with Daniel Sampere on our first arc of Action Comics yet, but judging from all his work that I’ve seen, he’s the consummate comic artist. He not only nails every crazy thing anyone asks him to draw, but also seems to get better on every book. The level of detail and intricacy he’s bringing to Future State: Aquaman is going to blow people away, and he has my full confidence that he’s going to crush our first arc together.

And that brings me to Mikel Janín. Everything I’m doing next year on the Super-books grows out of the work Mikel, Jordie Bellaire, Dave Sharpe and I did together on Future State: Superman — Worlds of War. It’s probably the best work of Mikel’s career, which is a crazy statement given the insanely beautiful work he’s been doing for years. If I had to sum up our upcoming run in one word, it would be “epic,” and I can’t imagine a more epic depiction of the Man of Steel than Mikel’s.

I’m tempted to make a “You must need super-speed to get everything done” joke, because … you’re a very busy man — in addition to a growing slate as comic book writer, you’re also a musician, an active duty soldier, and you’ve toured the world performing with everyone from the Glenn Miller Orchestra to the Moscow Ballet. That’s an unusual résumé for anyone, yet feels oddly fitting for a character who sees the best in the world and in humanity. Am I reaching? How does your Army career, or your music, influence your writing? 

That’s a great question, and thanks for saying all that. It’s not lost on me how fortunate I’ve been, and how unusual my résumé probably seems. I’m hugely grateful for the opportunities I’ve had, not least because it’s enabled me to travel and to get to know all kinds of people from all kinds of backgrounds. I do think that gratitude, and the broader lens through which I see America and the world, is a valuable perspective from which to write Superman. As bleak and divided as things have seemed lately, the hope Superman has for mankind is one I still relate to, even more so since writing the character.

Regarding the craft of comics: My time as a musician and as a soldier has both taught me the importance of collaboration, of performing my role as well as I can while being mindful of the whole group. Every good soldier loses their individuality when they’re part of a team; every good musician does the same when they perform in an ensemble; every good writer, penciller, inker, colorist, letterer and designer do the same when they make a comic together. The writer plays a crucial role, but the others do too, and just because my role comes first doesn’t mean the others work for me. We all react to each others’ decisions, view our own work from the others’ perspectives, and make something together that we couldn’t have made alone.

A last, selfish question: So, Superman low-key has the best supporting cast in comics, right? Please tell me we’ll see a lot more of Lois, Perry, Jon, et al.? Speaking as a fan of the late-'80s/early-'90s era, I have a particular fondness for Bibbo, Ron Troupe and Cat Grant.

I agree that Superman has a sensational supporting cast, one that has humanized him in an important way. I love Bibbo in particular, and will always look for opportunities to use him. Those characters will be appearing in backup stories, with tons of interesting things still happening at The Daily Planet and in Metropolis.

But the primary story we’re building toward in the first half of 2021 is something insanely epic, on a scale I haven’t seen in Superman comics since the Death and Life [storyline from the 1990s]. It’s an event that will change not just Superman’s status quo, but the DC Universe’s, too. Because of the nature of that story and the places it will take us, Superman’s supporting cast will largely consist of new characters soon, and some fan-favorite DC characters you wouldn’t necessarily associate with Superman. His world gets way, way bigger in 2021.

Philip Kennedy Johnson’s first issues of the Superman titles will be available in March 2021. Interview edited for length and clarity

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