'Rebirth': Geoff Johns Talks About Bringing Hope Back to the DC Universe

Rebirth-Splash-DC Entertainment-H 2016
Courtesy of Ivan Reis/DC Entertainment
"The pervasive attitude in the DNA of DC is optimism," says the company's chief creative officer.

[Warning: This story spoils plot elements from DC Universe: Rebirth. Go no further if you want to stay unaware of what happens in the issue.]

The end is the beginning — at least when it comes to DC Universe: Rebirth.

The oversized special edition comic book, which is released Wednesday, begins a relaunch for DC Entertainment's entire superhero line spearheaded by DC's chief creative officer Geoff Johns. In fact, the Rebirth issue is Johns' last major comic book work for some time, before he takes on different responsibilities for awhile (Something that he declined to comment on, when asked about).

The Hollywood Reporter spoke to Johns about where Rebirth came from, what it means for the company as a whole and the importance of optimism even in the face of adversity.

Rebirth is likely not what people were expecting, at least before spoilers broke this past weekend.

It's a very personal story for me. I put so much of my passion for the universe, and everything I love about it into the book, and I hope people love it, and I hope people respond to it. I'm actually pretty pleased that nothing leaked until the weekend before the book came out, because we worked really hard to keep everything in the book under lock and key. I did want people to experience the emotional journey of it, because I think the most important thing about it is the emotional journey. There's not a lot of plot in that book, you know? It's all character.

There's a lot of focus on relationships in the issue, both new — the Ted Kord/Jaime Reyes scene that introduces the new Blue Beetle set-up, and the wonderful dual Atom scene — and old, with the meeting between Wally West and Barry Allen. You're really placing the emotional component of the book front and center.

That moment to me is more important than any of the revelations at the end.

So what was the origin of Rebirth? How did it get started?

I feel super passionate about the DC characters, obviously. My favorite thing to do — and I've done it since I worked on Stars and STRIPE way back when, because I love all of these characters from Mera to Booster Gold to Metamorpho, all of these crazy characters — my favorite thing to do is to take characters who are maybe off the beaten track, or take characters who haven't been given a lot of love lately, or have been overlooked like Aquaman or the Teen Titans, and work on those characters. Show the love that I have for them, hopefully communicate it in a story, so that other people fall in love with these characters. All I want to do is be an evangelist and spread love for these characters. That's my favorite thing to do.

My door at DC is just this giant image of Captain Cold. It's not because he's my favorite character — although I really enjoy working with the character — but early on in my Flash run, I reintroduced the character and had been told, "They're useless characters, nobody likes the Rogues." I disagreed; I think every character has potential, you just have to put them on stage and treat them like the big guys. So we did that with Captain Cold, and he gained a lot of popularity in our Flash run and, obviously, beyond.

I did it with Teen Titans, with [artist] Mike McKone, people were saying, "You shouldn't do it. What if that book's a failure?" After 52, people asked me what I wanted to do next and I said Booster Gold, and they said, "Your career's over." But I believed in the character and the story. In the New 52, they said, 'We want to use Jim [Lee, DC co-publisher] and you on Justice League, what else do you want to do?' and I said Aquaman, and they were like, 'Why?'

I've taken all my love and passion for the DC Universe and tried to pour it in this special. Whoever it's focusing on, whether it's the Flash, the Atom, the Blue Beetle, I'm really trying to showcase the DCU as a whole.

But how it came about — Dan [Didio, DC co-publisher] and Jim said that they wanted to stop everything at issue 52 and restart all the titles again, and my first reaction was probably everyone's reaction: Why? Why do that beyond having a new No. 1? Dan said that he wanted to call it Rebirth, and I said, "Woah woah woah. Let me sit with this and come back with you."

Well, Rebirth is yours. You're the one who wrote Green Lantern: Rebirth, and Flash: Rebirth, after all. You basically invented the brand for the company.

Yeah, Rebirth means a lot to me. The truth is, Green Lantern: Rebirth and The Flash: Rebirth are called that, but if you look at most of what I've done: Teen Titans could've been called that, Aquaman could've been called that, even Booster Gold could've been called that, because what they're doing are bringing the characters back, moving them forward.

We have a writers room here with a whiteboard that covers the entire wall, and I spent hours in there listing out all the things I love about DC and the things that I thought were not in the books right now. I sat down and I read everything, and I thought, I don't feel any sense of history, legacy, hope, optimism, a cohesive universe — and by that, I don't mean crossovers every week — emotional bonds was a huge one. Over the years, some of this stuff had been lost. Not just characters, but smaller things too, tonal things that are really hard to nail.

So I went through all of that, and I thought, this is such an emotional story that I need an emotional throughline. Who is the character that can bring me through the story, and the person that personifies it all is the original Wally West. He became a natural for the book, for the narrator.

That's how the story started, but after that, I was talking to Dan and Jim, and I said, "I'm going to meet with all the editors and the writers to talk about character." And that's all we did, all of us in front of the whiteboard, talking about why we loved Nightwing. Who is Nightwing and what is Nightwing about? What is the compass of his stories? What's his attitude? What stories can only be told with him? We did this character by character by character, and just had a lot of great conversations. Everything got centered.

I think Rebirth and the launch of the books became not just a relaunch — going back to the original numbering on Action Comics and Detective was very important to me because it says something about us embracing legacy and our history again. I'm really excited about reading the books as a fan, I'm excited to see us embracing our emotional history and the character relationships again. Putting the characters at the forefront again. That's what's important.

There's more going on that simply relaunching the DCU line, though. The book ends with Batman finding the Comedian's badge from Watchmen, followed by a scene that directly quotes from the original Alan Moore/Dave Gibbons book. Given the reputation of the original Watchmen, that's a bold move. How nervous were you, bringing those characters into the book?

Very, but at the same time, what happened with the New 52 was that a brick wall had been built between that and everything that had happened before. In my mind, it was like a brick wall, and it felt like, say, the version I read of Raven wasn't the Raven I'm reading now. It felt like the emotional connection I had with the character broke. I'll tell you a character specifically, and I'll be candid about it: Superboy, Connor Kent.

One of my favorite characters of all time, and I had a great time writing him in Teen Titans, and I loved writing him in his solo run [in Adventure Comics]. They reintroduced him in the New 52 and he was so different, so vastly changed, that I couldn't connect with the book that well. The emotional tie just severed, and it didn't sever in the way that made me angry, it was worse than that: I had apathy for it. I didn't care anymore.

One of my first goals was to break that brick wall down with a giant hammer. In doing that, my core idea was that somebody stole moments from the DCU, and it equates to about 10 years. In the book, Wally says that, but it wasn't just [any] ten years — it was the moments where the characters started to bond. Whatever moments those were, whatever stories those were, they were extracted. And that's why the characters became cold and distant from one another, because they no longer had that history.

For me, that allowed me to wrap my head around why the characters were younger, why they had no emotional ties, but also say that it was still fighting to come back through. You can't beat down hope, you can't beat down optimism. There's a reason that Batman, who's the darkest of them all, keeps fighting. He believes tomorrow would be better. Otherwise, he would stop. He's certainly had plenty of opportunity to quit.

I really wanted to deliver a tonal shift for the DC Universe so that it could give back that sense of hope and optimism. That spread at the end [of Rebirth] with all the heroes — that spread is so important to me, it's one of the most important things in the book. I wanted to end on it, I wanted people to see a modern-day version of those great Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez spreads where the heroes are celebrating their existence and reaffirming who they are, and going out there with an attitude to show that.

All of that said, I needed a character who would embody a disconnect from a sense of optimism and hope, and somebody who manipulated time, and it was right there. You have a — I don't call him a villain, he's barely an antagonist, but he's an entity, a being who looked at the DC Universe and tested it, removed this time from it for reasons that are to be revealed later, but almost to study it. I know it was risky, but we need to take some risks. Let's take the risk! If I was going to go into this and try, I wanted to try big.

When I thought of using Dr. Manhattan, I knew it would be possibly — probably — very polarizing, but I also knew that thematically, and metaphorically, there was no better choice. I think it'll get people intrigued, and I think it clears the way for conversation about tone, and I think those are good things.

You talked about the spread that closes the book, and that really speaks to the tone in a small way that nonetheless really hit me: they're all smiling. It's such a tiny thing, but I loved it. It reminded me of the Flash TV show, and the way it establishes the balance between dramatic, horrible events and a core optimism and humor at its heart.

I agree, and I think the DNA of DC has always been that. We need to recognize that, we need to get back to that, and, look: It can be done in one image. Someone said to me that it takes time to turn a character around or a book around, and no it doesn't. It takes one issue. Just tell a great story. Show the attitude. That's what I wanted to do with Rebirth. Reset the compass.

One of the problems I had as a writer in the New 52 is that we're dropped into an open field — here's your character, we're going to relaunch it — and then you look around and think, well, which direction am I supposed to go in? With this, we had the conversation ahead of time: look over there, towards the horizon: that's the direction. And the path isn't narrow; it's not all the characters have to have a cape or whatever. Rebirth is the compass, here's where we're going.

It doesn't mean that every character is going to be optimistic or have the same attitude because that'd be boring. But it does mean that there'll be a pervasive attitude in DC of belief — not only belief in yourself, but in what you're doing — and celebration, a tone of celebration. It doesn't mean there aren't going to be threats, or that we're going backwards or being regressive, but it does mean that the pervasive attitude in the DNA of DC is optimism. Which I firmly believe.

The Legion of Super-Heroes scene really underscores that. In the midst of these cosmic events, having someone from the future — who knows how things will turn out — show up and say, "Don't worry. It's going to be fine."

I think people are going to skip right by that, but everything in the special is very deliberate. Having her say, "Superman's dead," "Well, I'll wait for him," and "Everything's going to be alright." "Why do you say that?" "Because I've seen the future."

It's a nice way to bring the Legion back into the mainstream DC Universe after them being absent for a few years. It's difficult to find something to do with a group of characters from a thousand years in the future.

I've always been a proponent of bring all the pieces on the board, all of them, and tell the best story you can with the foundation that you've got. There's no reason to put rules on comics, there's no reason to put rules on the DC Universe. You can't put rules on the DC Universe, like "all characters have to do this, all characters have to do that." The key to Rebirth is to set the compass and then let everyone tell their own stories being true to character, and only to character.

It was imperative that we spent the time before we started on the books to have the conversations, just talking with editors and characters, about the characters. Why we love the characters. That's how you get great stories, and not screw up the characters. If someone doesn't know about the character or understand why they've survived by decades, you have to help show that person, introduce them to stuff. There's one writer who went away, did all this reading, and came back and nailed it.

So, is this really it for you and comics? You're co-writing a couple of the Rebirth relaunch issues, but this seems to be the last thing you have on the cards in terms of comics for the foreseeable future.

I'm taking a break for awhile. Rebirth is my last book for awhile, Justice League No. 50 is my last monthly book for awhile. But, you know, comics are my first love. I'll be back — I've set some stuff up in the Rebirth special that I'm going to see through — but I need to take a break and take care of some other things. I won't be gone that long. It's nice to read comics as a fan for awhile, though. [Laughs]