Superman's Phillip Kennedy Johnson plans to transform Metropolis into a real City of Tomorrow in 2023
Action Comics writer Phillip Kennedy Johnson talks about expanding Superman's family, his new plans for Metropolis, and getting political with the Man of Steel
Starting next year, Metropolis is dealing with a new tomorrow, as Superman reimagines how to save the world… and Action Comics writer Phillip Kennedy Johnson reimagines just what the limits of Superman as a comic book character can be.
Fresh off the epic 'Warworld Saga', Johnson is continuing as Action Comics writer by returning the Man of Steel to his home city a changed man, with a new mission… and some new family members, as well. The writer, who’s been guiding the character since the beginning of 2021 and the Superman issues of DC’s 'Future State' event, has some ambitious plans for Clark Kent and the expanded House of El, and Popverse had the opportunity to ask about them backstage at New York Comic Con 2022.
Popverse: I'm such a fan of what you've been doing. You’ve been writing — I don't want to say a political Superman, but the Warworld Saga was a political story. What are the themes that you were going for? Not just in terms of that story, but also now that you're out of that and he's a changed man.
Phillip Kennedy Johnson: I don't feel the need to give Superman a character arc in the way that most characters should have it, because he is this oak. He is this paragon of virtue. I don't want him to come out of a story fundamentally changed, because he is what he should be.
But he did go to Warworld making a fundamental mistake, not realizing that he would be trying to save a population that doesn't want his help. That is so brainwashed that they think they have their Superman, and he is Mongul. So that [story] all grew out of my experience doing anti-human trafficking volunteer work. Honestly, I feel stupid saying this now, but I didn't know at the time that's what I was writing.
I had this idea about, everyone on the Warworld has this chain and it is a status symbol. For every victory gives them another link, so their reach grows and they feel more capable. But the weight also is a sign they can can bear that weight. And they're honored by it. And the idea of losing it is unthinkable. That's all they have of value. But Superman there to break all that. So he's the enemy.
Later, at some point, I realized that that was all kind of tied to these [issues]. When you find someone who is a human trafficking victim, they don't want your help. You want the fantasy of kicking in the door and everyone runs away free. And they're all like, “thank you so much for helping us.” I actually had one, this is one survivor that I spoke to who said, “when I was a trafficking victim, if the police had kicked in the door, put a gun to my trafficker's head and asked me, are you being trafficked? I would've said no.”
That just crushed me to hear that, because you just want it to be easy. And it's not easy. You have to convince them that they need help, and it just feels like it's impossible. I wanted to see how Superman would handle a situation like that. And he does, he plays the long game with his friend Midnighter who's killing his ass off in the shadows that whole time. But he does need those people as well: the vice cop that obviously is doing the stuff when he is not around. He wins hearts and minds; he does the Superman thing and gets it done. But when he comes home... So that story is about human trafficking, deep down themes of human trafficking. And now this next bit, now he's going home with two small children in tow.
In a way, the story's about refugees. I don't feel like I'm blowing anyone's mind by saying that. I think it'll be clear in the book. I don't want to turn off any readers who feel differently than I do, but in the end, it's a Superman story.
Superman's a refugee.
Yeah, exactly. It's the Moses story! I mean, it's a Superman's story. It isn’t an outright political statement; it’s just one aspect of his story going forward. He comes home, he has these kids who need a home, who have no one. He has gotten very attached to them over the course of The Warworld Saga. He's also struck by how fast things have gotten bad on Earth. When he left, there was already some political turmoil that we show on the page. When he comes home, things were worse, like radically worse, and he is struck by how fast that happened.
He’s always had faith in humanity to find their way over the long term, to find their way. He has faith in us to become the better version of ourselves. But he comes home, and we're in trouble. Now he starts to wonder if it's enough to save lives one at a time as he's always done, he needs to give us a better example to help us find the right path quickly because we're in danger. So, the Superman Family becomes that example and Metropolis becomes the legit “City of Tomorrow” going forward. That's kind of the mission statement going forward: with this Super Family and the City of Tomorrow, to give us humanity the example that we can be.
I feel that you are someone who genuinely sees Superman can be an example. You believe in Superman, for want of a better way of putting it.
How do you thread that into the stories, outside of the Superman Family acting as inspirations to the fictional DC Universe?
Superman's great power should only be on the page to illustrate how incorruptible he is. So I do Superman as being very overpowered. Because of the white sun thing on Warworld, he's about to perhaps see the most supercharged version of himself. I miss the old days where he could just fly in a straight line and the rings appear and he goes back in time, decade by decade. I missed that stuff. So now he can do that again. We're going to see him use his powers a more creative, anime-esque ways and not just punch shit all the time. And that is only there to illustrate how incorruptible he is. That's important. You can't just blow shit up. It has to be to show who we're supposed to be.
In [Action Comics #1047], after he saves the family, he needs to take the moment to check on the kids and give them a little advice about their seatbelt. That matters more than the punching. They have to have those moments. And those are the moments that readers remember. Yes. More so than the big kablooie in the sky. It needs to be those moments about the seatbelt thing. That's what matters. The lessons that he's trying to teach us.
And you're making the family bigger. You're bringing these kids back from Warworld. Superman these days is in a literally paternal role with Jon, but also with these new kids as well. What does that mean to you, as someone who's guiding the character? One of, at this point, three people who actively controlling the destiny of the character.
I really like seeing it, selfishly. I’m a father, and it makes writing Superman almost too easy. I mean, people are like, Superman's the most difficult character to write ever. How do you feel about that? I'm like, He's not hard at all, bro. I deeply love writing Superman. And to me, having his voice in my mind all the time is by far the best part of that job. And I want to see, I want him to teach me the best way to be a father.
I don't want a Superman that makes mistakes as a dad that I can kind of judge. I want him to show me the way always. And I love him being the patriarch of his family. Not just to Jon, his literal son, but also the other members of the family too. I want to define what makes each character different, where they're coming from. I want to see Kara as the most Kryptonian of all of them.
Well, she was the one who lived for the longest there.
Exactly. So I want her to remind us what it is to be Kryptonian in a way that the others can't, including Clark. But I also want Clark to be the patriarch that shows everyone how you're supposed to take care of people, including these children, these new kids.
It feels like you've known what you've been doing with this character all along. Going back to Future State, which was tying into The Warworld Saga even before any of us knew it was coming. You seem to have a very clear idea of what to say with Superman, for want of a better way of putting it; was this something that you instinctively know what you want to do with him?
I'm sure most Superman fans feel like they know what and who Superman is. And I certainly feel that way too. I know what his voice should be in my heart, what he would do and say, sometimes it is hard to write somebody that's smarter and wiser and better than you. But I do try to think, what would Superman do. Like a straight up WWJD thing about Superman all the time. I try to like, what would he do? And sometimes I do have to think through it, and find that true north what he would do in any situation.
Yeah, the Super Family thing going forward is just so important. Whenever I see people on Twitter asking for more of a specific character, more Kara, more Conner, We want to see Lois, we want to see whatever. And deep down the whole time I was like, Yeah, you're right. I know. I want to see these characters too. The Warworld Saga is its own story. It's like a mission statement of who Superman is seen in this totally different context. But I'm dying to get back to these other characters and show why they're important and how they're different and the lessons that they take from Clark, what they have to teach us as well. And I can't wait to get into all that.
The Warworld Saga was such an undertaking. It was roughly two years from start to finish. Did it grow in the telling?
No, it was actually just about as long as I wanted it to be. At the very end, we had a couple issues to go, but they wanted for calendar reasons — comics are a serial medium, and there's a big family of books — we wanted to bring together the [Action #1050] thing all at once. And so the events of [the Superman: Warworld Apocalypse one-shot special] at one point, were going to be monthly issues, but we kind of put it into a special so that we could also do #1048 and #1049 at the same time to make the timelines line up.
As far as the length, though, it was always going to be about this long and they let me do it. I mean, there were conversations that we did have like, you think we could get them back to Earth sooner? I'm like, “no, no we can't. Here are the arcs that we have to get through.” We have the story of what Superman's doing, but we also have Midnighter's arc, we also have OMAC’s arc with Lightray. We have the arc with Apollo and Midnighter. There's all these different pieces that we could not shortchange.
Are you planning more with that Authority team?
I deeply want to, and I have plans for what we would do with them. To me I think the Authority as shaped by Grant [Morrison] has the potential to be this super diverse team that could really matter to readers in a big way. And there is a very specific story that I think that I would love to do with them, that I would also like to see other creators tackle, as people who sure care deeply about the voices of specific characters. There are other creators I'd like to bring on board to what the Authority does next.
I have great love for those characters. I know other readers do, I think there are other creators that would as well. So there are are plans being discussed about how to use the Authority going forward, cause I think they're important, almost in a way that the X books are important to Marvel. I feel like the Authority could really matter. And I want to see that realized.
As a Superman fan, it feels like you are very aware of the responsibility of writing Superman. As is Josh, I know, and Tom when he's working on Jon’s book as well. Do you think that's important to writing, to know exactly how important the character is, even beyond comics? Everyone recognizes Superman. He's a globally recognized symbol of hope.
I think Superman matters in a way that... Writing Superman matters to me in a way that writing a lot of other properties... It carries a weight that others might not, because he represents the very best of humanity, because people look to him to show them the right way. Writing Superman is a responsibility I take extremely seriously. How should I say this? Well, I already made this WWJD comparison. I mean, that is how I feel about it.
To me I look to a character like Superman. What would Superman do and what did Superman have to teach us? I remember what it meant to me as a kid — a kid who did not have a lot of role models growing up necessarily — and just seeing Christopher Reeve on the screen, and hearing John Williams' trumpet fanfares, and the big S shield coming at me and all that, and just vibrating with energy: “I want to be that.” It just means so much to me. And getting to put that voice on the page for readers now who need him the way I did then, is just the greatest responsibility I could ever have as a writer. I really always try to live up to it.
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