“Arrow” gets a visit from a comic book legend this week, although the character doesn’t appear on screen. Geoff Johns, DC Comics’ chief creative officer and one of the highest profile comic book writers working today, drops in on Starling City to write this week’s episode, “Dead to Rights.”
Often when a guest writer comes on to a show, the episode tends to be a little more self-contained. But not this one, which is filled with plot developments, the return of old villains and ends with quite a cliffhanger. (Wouldn’t you know it, the series takes a couple of weeks off after this week.)
Johns recently announced that he was stepping down from his writing duties on “Green Lantern,” the DC Comic he helped reinvent nine years ago. He talked with Hero Complex briefly about his episode of “Arrow” and his future comics plans.
HC: In the letter you included with the advance screener of “Dead to Rights,” you compare working with the director to working with the artist. What are the similarities you see there?
GJ: It’s a collaborative process and one of the most important things I’ve learned in my career writing comics is that you need a good partner in crime. That’s why I tend to work with the same people over and over. I’ve worked with Gary Frank since 2006. I worked with Ivan Reis for at least that long. I’ve worked with Doug Mahnke for the last four years. You connect with certain artists and I’m connecting with David Finch in a really strong way right now on “JLA.” It’s been fantastic working with an artist who understands what you’re going for. I talk character with them all the time. I talk to Gary Frank, he’s in Italy and yet we still talk all the time about story and character, about Billy Batson and the Shazam kids and what’s happening with Black Adam and the twists and turns and motivations. So the more that we talk character and tone and story, the more we’re on the same page and the more they’ll bring to it. For me, it’s key to work with somebody who has as many ideas as you have and elevates the material. You’re really driving that car together. When I was in school, I was an artist and I drew and wanted to direct. But when I got into writing, I wrote a short screenplay for my friend who didn’t want to write his, but wanted to direct. I realized I’d rather write and focus on the stories and characters and team up with somebody because I love collaboration. Glen Winter directed my “Smallville” episodes “Legion” and “Absolute Justice.” One of my best experiences was being on the set of “Smallville” and working with him. For me, Glen is like Gray Frank and Ivan Reis. He’s a pro and somebody who I absolutely love to work with.
HC: Is it a challenge to achieve the same level of intimacy you have with an artist with a director, who has so many other people talking in their ear?
GJ: Not with me and Glen. All input is appreciated. When I worked with Richard Donner, I’ll never forget, we were on the set of “Conspiracy Theory” and someone came up — a grip — and threw an idea at Dick. It was a good idea. After he left, I asked him if he was going to use it. Dick said, “Never stand in the way of a good idea.” As long as you’re working with somebody who has that philosophy, and I certainly do, it makes for great fun. I love writing, but I don’t love sitting at my keyboard alone.
HC: Do you miss the chatty nature of a comic book script when you’re writing a TV script?
GJ: A little bit. But there are advantages to a TV script. You’re not limited by page count or panels. But you’re killed by budget. You’re constantly hit by budget. It affects everything — what the scenes are about, where the scenes are. It’s a real application you have to put on it. But you’re writing the script for the actors and directors. It’s still a letter to them. It’s still the same thing, but it’s just not as casual.
HC: This episode really felt like a comic book with very carefully framed shots. Was that from your script?
GJ: That’s all Glen. I give him all the credit. He changed his directing style from “Smallville” to “Arrow” because it’s a totally different show. It’s a much harder-edged show, it’s a more in-your-face show, but he still carries through that sense of story. He’s always about telling a story with one single image.
HC: How do you keep track of all the different continuities you work with — the mythology of “Arrow” is different from the New 52 “Green Arrow,” which is even different from what “Green Arrow” was earlier.
GJ: I just focus on what I work on. I keep up with the publishing, but I let Jim Lee run that. I love what Jeff Lemire is doing with the “Green Arrow” comic book. They’re two different continuities, but the DNA is the same. I think the fact that Jeff is exploring the island and the history of the island in the comic book and the show is doing the same thing is really cool.
HC: Do you make extensive use of the DC Encyclopedia or Wiki, or is this all in your head?
GJ: I hate to admit that it’s all in my head, but it is. I grew up on DC stuff. I absorbed it like a sponge and I can’t help myself. I just love the characters.
HC: There were a lot of major developments in this episode. Did you work with the writing staff beforehand?
GJ: Oh yeah. I’ve done that on every show. When Greg [Berlanti] and Andrew [Kreisberg] called me about this episode, I went in and spent a week with them and we broke this episode and it fits right in to the overall continuity.
HC: Do you ever do that on comic scripts?
GJ: No, the only thing Jeff Lemire and I are pitching a couple of our titles together. We’ve been working on that. Most recently that’s the closest I’ve come. “52” was like that, with Grant and Greg and Mark. I’ve done it before, but it’s not often.
— Patrick Kevin Day
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