There’s no doubt, comic book fans are well aware of Geoff Johns’ illustrious career.
Whether writing for some of the DC Comics’ most iconic series, being the creative force behind some of the company’s biggest movie hits or serving in various executive capacities, Johns’ time in the industry is nothing short of legendary.
Some may also be aware of Johns’ Arab American roots, and his deep connection with Metro Detroit’s immigrant history. His new series Geiger, his first for Image Comics, is a nod to that connection and an overall meditation on man-made calamities and the joys and anxieties of parenthood.
Set in a post-apocalyptic U.S., where a nuclear attack has left the continent’s surface unlivable and has pushed life underground, the comic’s release this week is fitting for the grave realities of a global pandemic.
But the main character, Tariq Geiger, is also half-Arab, like Johns. In fact, this is the second time Johns has penned an Arab comic book character. He had previously written an Arab American from Dearborn, Simon Baz, into DC’s Green Lantern canon. Dearborn is no stranger to Arab American heroes in comics, of course, with other notable works from author Saladin Ahmed.
Johns spoke to The Arab Americans News about his new project.
Johns, who is half Lebanese on his father’s side, was born and raised in Detroit and its neighboring suburbs. He graduated from high school in Clarkston and attended Michigan State University. Johns’ middle name is Marieb.
Johns’ father’s family has long been in Detroit. John’s grandmother lived in the city till her passing at the age of 102.
“She was the one that taught the family how to make traditional foods, like kibbeh and grape leaves,” Johns said. “Whenever we’d go there for Thanksgiving, we’d have those Arab dishes with our turkey.”
My brother and I would tear through those comic books, which were from the 60s and belonged to my uncle. There were all these great characters, from Flash to Fantastic Four — Geoff Johns
Johns has fond memories of visiting family, going to a favorite Dearborn restaurant and growing up with his Lebanese cousins, some of his closest extended family members.
“There were boxes of comic books in my grandmother’s attic,” he recalled. “My brother and I would tear through those books, which were from the 60s and belonged to my uncle. There were all these great characters, from Flash to Fantastic Four. We had watched the animated TV shows, but we didn’t even realize what comic books were until we found those boxes.”
Johns would become a voracious comic book reader. He would also draw comics, and he and his brother became collectors.
“There was a great big creative boom in the 80s for comic books,” he said. “That was a really amazing time to start reading comics. There were so many different voices, takes and reintroduction of characters that had been around a long time.”
Geiger: A new American myth
With Geiger, Johns wanted to create a story that followed certain genre conventions, but bucked others. The main character is given superhuman abilities through radioactivity from a nuclear attack that breaks out after years of global violence in the year 2030. The story is set in the desert of Nevada.
Time will make everything better, if we’re working to make it better. That’s what Geiger is all about. There’s this horrific event, but then how can he get through it?
Though he is able to save his wife and children from the blast by securing them in an underground shelter with life- supporting technology, Geiger isn’t able to make it down there in time himself, due to an unfortunate run-in with some racist neighbors. He spends his days protecting the shelter from scavengers and mysterious radioactive creatures, but isn’t able to be with his family physically.
There are tall tales of Geiger among the attack’s survivors, stories of a glowing man seen without a protective suit; a new American myth.
“We (Johns and illustrator Gary Frank) call him the last hero on Earth,” said Johns, a father himself. “His motivations are to protect his family; that’s the only thing he’s been doing for years. It’s a very lonely existence, but he is completely dedicated to his family.”
In his tattered cape, Geiger resembles a post-apocalyptic loner, or a Western gunfighter, more than a big city superhero in shiny tights. His singular focus, at least in the beginning of the series, is to look over the family he can’t see, touch or talk to through the shelter’s walls.
“Family has been central theme through most of my comic work and with Geiger it’s exploring the lengths someone will go to protect their family,” Johns added.
He said it was important for him and Frank to have the pain of being separated from his family manifest physically into Geiger’s radioactive power. Even in these extreme circumstances, however, Johns wants to make sure there’s a light at the end of tunnel for Geiger. The character awaits the day the radioactivity in his world has diminished enough to see his family.
“Time will make everything better, if we’re working to make it better,” Johns said. “That’s what Geiger is all about. There’s this horrific event, but then how can he get through it? How does he protect his family?”
Geiger’s mixed ethnic identity is something Johns had some interest in exploring.
“When I was at the Arab American Museum (in Dearborn) back in 2012, kids were so excited to see an Arab American character in Green Lantern,” Johns said. “I’ve spent my career trying to diversify the comic book universe and introduce new characters from all sorts of backgrounds in different ways.”
Johns’ contributions include adding new identities to the series Shazam, which made their way to the screen as well. Geiger, like Simon Baz in Green Lantern, is also unwittingly sent down his path through careless and cruel acts of people acting on stereotypes about Arabs.
“To have my first creator-owned character in Geiger, I wanted to make it more personal to who I was and where I come from, and deal with things that were personal to me now,” Johns said. “When you have a child, your vision of the future changes; it’s no longer your future, it’s theirs.”
Geiger is available through Image Comics and ships out just in time for Arab American Heritage Month. Be sure to check with local comic book stores, like Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, for availability.