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"You Are Not Superman." Phillip Kennedy Johnson on 'Green Lantern: War Journal'

We chat with the writer about John Stewart and why he can't escape his duty to his mother or the Corps.

Phillip Kennedy Johnson Green Lantern War Journal

Welcome to our Creator Corner, our reoccurring interview series, where we chat with the coolest and most thought-provoking creators in the comics industry. In this entry, we're conversing with Phillip Kennedy Johnson about Green Lantern War Journal. Listen to the unedited audio HERE.


John Stewart's mother is dying. She's reached the end, and John must be by her side. It's a grace every child should be afforded, but many never have. Next Tuesday's Green Lantern: War Journal #4 places its hero at a critical moment, and writer Phillip Kennedy Johnson eagerly awaits a reaction from his readers.

John Stewart is a man of service. He's put in his tour. He wants a life away from catastrophe. Will the Corps allow him? Will DC editorial? Will you?

With Green Lantern: War Journal, Phillip Kennedy Johnson is on his own mission. When tasked with steering John Stewart's life, he dug into the character archetype and discovered a profound desire to expand John Stewart beyond what many label him. John Stewart is more than the ex-Marine. He's more than the Green Lantern. War Journal was designed to bring dimension to the hero and expose a complex humanity.

Via Zoom, we sat down with Johnson and discussed Green Lantern: War Journal's first batch of issues. We considered what separates John Stewart from the rest of DC's superhero catalog and what differentiates his service from the Boy Scout in the red trunks. Does Stewart actually crave a life away from the Corps? Is that even possible? Or desirable? Let's get into it.


Phillip Kennedy Johnson on Green Lantern: War Journal

Brad: We're at an interesting moment with Green Lantern: War Journal. So much of the series so far has been about redefining who John Stewart is as a Lantern or not as a Lantern, and what I've really responded to is John Stewart, the son. Can you talk a little bit about wanting to explore that particular relationship in this series?

Phillip Kennedy Johnson: John Stewart's mom is a character that we've seen rarely and sporadically over the years, but one that I've always been really interested in. I love that John has this civil rights leader mother that is just spoken of very rarely, very vaguely, and seldomly, but I don't know, man. John Stewart to me is not just the consummate Green Lantern, but the consummate superhero.

The fact that when he first got his powers, he was the one that cast off his mask, which is something that practically nobody ever does. I love that. Even Superman has Clark Kent. For him to cast that aside and be like, "I'm Green Lantern, John Stewart, and I'm going to do this," I just thought was really powerful. The fact that he was inspired by his civil rights leader mother just makes all the sense, just his unwillingness to hide his face when he is doing the right thing, and I thought that was really crucial.

I remember him being "The Architect" as a kid. I should probably back up. My love of comics comes from a relatively small collection, just a little bit of stuff that I got when I was a kid, and I've been filling the collection in my later years. But when I was young, I didn't have that many books. I did have a little bit of stuff that had John Stewart in it, and I remember him as being "The Architect," and most people who fall in love with the character know him from the show where he's the ex-Marine.

And very often, whenever I see him in that show or in other depictions, he has that military jargon shorthand. That to me just boils him down too far. I thought this series would be a really great opportunity to fill out the character more, to make him more interested, and to show the depth that makes him the perfect Lantern.

I know a lot of Lantern fans get salty when somebody picks a favorite that's not their own. It's not that he's the "best one" because they're all great, but he was never the dark horse pick. It seems like all the other Lanterns, when they first become a Lantern, they have to show the reader why they were chosen. They're an unlikely choice from the jump, and then they have to show why they're special. And John Stewart to me was always the perfect choice. The obvious choice.

Brad: When folks gather to discuss the Lanterns, they often talk about them in archetypal fashion. They do talk about John Stewart as the ex-Marine. I think the challenge has always been to explore a character beyond what we want to label them as. And that's what I find exciting about War Journal. It seems like you're compelled to broaden our idea of Jon Stewart, but readers can be resistant to broadening ideas of characters as well.

Phillip Kennedy Johnson: Yeah, they can. I mean, that was the mission statement of the book though. Well, one of many mission statements I should say. After the Geoff Thorne run, he was on this cosmic adventure that took John so far and distressed him so far beyond his status quo that I wanted to bring some elements of John back home and make him more immediately familiar without taking away any of the character building that Geoffrey had done. I still wanted to show that John is special in a way that the others aren't. He has this affinity for the Lantern's power that almost no one else ever has. So I want him to have a ring again. He's so wrapped up in the concept of duty, and I want to make it clear why that is. I want to explore that sense of duty that he feels. Not just to the Corps but to his family.

Brad: Oh yeah, that affinity that he has for the ring. One of the great moments in the fourth issue is how he underscores his relationship with the ring - by seeing the ring as a tool. He doesn't ever want to be over-reliant on the ring.

Phillip Kennedy Johnson: Yeah. There's a moment where he's like, "Yeah, a lot of young Lanterns like you are too reliant in the ring," and Shepard's like "Over reliant? That's the only thing we got, bro." And he is like, "If that's what you think, you're in for a rude awakening." And then you understand. Yeah, the way he talks then makes you understand his greater perspective and why his experience as an architect, but also as a Marine make him just... He's not just a fighter. He's also not just a builder or an artist. He is all those things. He's an artist, a creator, a tactician, a warrior. He's everything, and he understands being a warrior is not just doing pushups and learning how to swing a weapon around. There's so much more, you have to train your mind, and he has the perfect mind for that job

Brad: And he gets to go inward, which is another exciting element to your series where he goes on a Soul Trek of sorts. Can you talk a little bit about bringing the action to his internal life?

Phillip Kennedy Johnson: So the title of the book is War Journal, and I'll give you a little behind the scenes. That was not the title that I chose. That title was just added at some point. I was like, "Well, I feel now it's a promise that I have to keep in some way." So some of that is showing the wars that he has been in before this, but also leading up to these big war-like moments that are coming.

On the Soul Trek, we see the different elements that make up who he is, the war zones that he's fought in before on earth, and also the war zones he's seen in space are all coming together in his mind. In his mind, we see the turmoil that comes from being in war zones for half your life. The element of John as an ex-Marine is one that is crucial to his character, even though I wanted to add more elements to him, I'm not trying to take that away because that is a really important part of who he is. And one thing that veterans have to deal with is how war changes you, and John's been through that too. Being in an environment where it's dialed to 11 all the time and then coming home and having to learn how to drive the speed limit again, having to not chase that feeling of adrenaline and fear and anxiety and aggression and everything that you're just bathed in a war zone.

He's been in that and then had to take himself out of it again, and that changes who you are. So that is a part of who John is too. Sometimes people will ask about the similarities between John and Superman, and I don't see them that way. I mean they're both consummate heroes, but John's fighty in a way that Superman's not. John has this element of, I dare you. There's this thing that happens sometimes in the service where a couple of guys are about to roll, and one of them will pull off their rank and throw it on the ground when we're about to fight.

If one guy is senior to the other, they'll take the rank out of it. If they remove the rank now, it's okay. It's not okay, I'm a master sergeant and this other guy is a sergeant first class, it's not okay for me to deck him, but if I take off my rank, it is. So John's got that element of taking his rank off that I really, I don't know, it's just fun to see. And sometimes, when he's fighting under someone else, there's that element of trash talk. So I don't know, it's just really fun. I love writing, John.

Brad: When you launch the series, and we see this moment that you're talking about, where the question is, can can be John away from being Green Lantern? Can he return to life? Can he care for his mother? But then the service itself wants to pull him back in and there's that tension between the mission and the person. And is there a difference between the two? And where we are now in the series, it feels like he can't escape the mission, and maybe he has a desire to, but maybe he doesn't.

Phillip Kennedy Johnson: Yeah, the idea of him trying to quit is one that came from Geoffrey Thorne, actually. He and I spoke at length when I first got this gig, and I really respect Geoffrey, especially his love for the character and his knowledge of the character, and I wanted to get Geoffrey's take. So we talked. Well he spoke at me for quite a while about John. He was just really stoked about John, and his love of the character was just super, super obvious.

He said in his mind, and this is not a perspective that I had at first, he said that in his mind, John would do his time as a Lantern and eventually get out and just go on and live his life and do something else. He was not intending to die in the saddle. He's never going to do this forever. He just signed on to do his time of service and then he was going to get out as any other service member would.

And I thought that was really interesting. Whenever we think of a superhero, we think of them in these kind of permanent terms, like timeless terms where, okay, Superman is this thing, and he will always be that, but he doesn't see John in that light. And that reframed some ideas for me and what John would do next. I would try and see him as a larger, more complete character than just the thing he wears.

Brad: Superman is always going to be Superman. He has no desire not to be Superman. So, John Stewart, you get the impression that he could hang it up one day.

Phillip Kennedy Johnson: I remember Geoff saying, "One day, John's going to leave and never be Lantern again." I'm like, "That's adorable but he's a character at DC Comics and the ring is never going to be done with him." And I was thinking about that. I was thinking what that would be like in real life if you decide, "I'm retiring," and then something happens and the ring is not done with you, and I wanted to see that, I want to see what that looked like.

I wanted to see John literally trying to drive the speed limit back home, sitting in a red light, just freaking out like, "Oh my God, I'm crawling out of my skin," just waiting for the light to change when he's used to everything being so ramped up and having to deal with that. But he knows that his mother needs him now more than the universe does. And there's no one else. He's used to another, I'm sorry, I keep bringing up these military comparisons, but-

Brad: You have to.

Phillip Kennedy Johnson: ... there's this knowledge in the service that you are not Superman, that you are one of many and that if you're carrying the flag and you fall, the next guy will pick it up and continue. And John knows that about himself too and about the Corps. He's one of the Corps, and if he falls, it's going to be okay because he trusts all of his brothers and sisters out there. But his mom's got him. So when she's going through some end-of-life stuff and the Lanterns are under new management, as it were with the United Planets, and it's a direction that he might not be willing to serve under, and his mother's in need - He's like, "This is my time to hang it up."

So then he went home, and I wanted to see his duty pulled in more than one direction where, "My duty is to my mother, and I don't know what the hell I'm doing. I've never had a problem like this that I can't shoot at and I hate it and it's confusing and I'm deeply uncomfortable, but this is where I'm needed." And meanwhile, the world, the universe is in jeopardy. And he's like, "This is someone else's problem now." And I want to see that conflict and where his duty really lies, and that's becoming more and more clear. But his loyalty is still first and last to his mom until he gets to that crossroads.


Green Lantern: War Journal #4 arrives in comic shops next Tuesday (12/19)


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