1. Acceptance of the Essentials
Geoff Johns respects the essence of a character's myth. What is the essence of a character's myth? Isn't that act of deciding what a character's essence is subjective? Perhaps. But on the whole "essential" means the elements mostly commonly associated and accepted by the wider public as part of the hero's mythos-- not just the parts the writer happens to like.
The main point here is that Johns does not begin with the presumption that the character is essentially... stupid. He does not think, "Whoa, this character's basic story is ridiculous, and now it's totally broken." Why? Because, regardless of exactly how he terms it, he looks at the characters as mythic. And, as a serious student of mythology knows...
myths are always ridiculous.
Myths are full of trickster spider-gods and holy castrations that birth goddesses and people turning wine in water. A billionaire who beats up muggers as a hobby? Ridiculous. The world's most powerful being contents himself with living as a bullied milksop? Ridiculous. A princess created out of clay by an ancient immortal, magical, and scientifically advanced sisterhood and imbued with superpowers by Greek gods, who, coming to America to fight our enemies foreign and domestic and teach us that male aggression can only be tamed through submission to the happy controlling bondage of women's power of love, meets a lookalike war nurse with the same name as hers whom she can immediately pay to move to South America so she can assume her identity? Really, the word "ridiculous" simply does not cover it.
Geoff Johns does not shy away from the essential ridiculousness of the characters he tackles. He embraces it He accepts that the ridiculous essence of the myth is part of what makes it powerful, part of why the characters persists, long after more "realistic" characters have been forgotten and abandoned.
2. Incorporation of the variations
Well, where I was taught this concept we didn't call it "incorporation"; when talking about myths, we called it "syncretism". Regardless of what you call it, it's a step beyond just accepting the essential myth. It's accepting the value of the essential myth-- and all the variations of the myth that have arisen, even when they seem to be in conflict. Its highest expression is the attempt to reconcile the variations of a myth, into one larger, more powerful version of the myth.
Like it or not--or like how he does it or not-- this is exactly what Johns does. Sometimes there's a quite of hand-waving, even to the point of literary legerdemain. But generally, since the outcome is "mythically desirable" to the public, they happily suspend their disbelief of whatever means Johns uses to get them where they want to be.
3. Expansion of the mythos by extension or elaboration
Timid writers fear adding any new to a mythos, sometimes out of overwhelming respect for the character. This is particularly true for writers who started as fanboys. Brash writers contradict or at times throwout the existing mythos, trying to turn the character they've been given into a different one (e.g., Peter David on Supergirl). Respectful but bold writers keep older essential elements, but do not hesitate to add appropriate new ones (which we'll call expansion by extension) or extrapolate older elements into new directions and territory (which we'll call expansion by elaboration).
A simplified way of looking at it. is that the writer asks himself or herself:
- What are the top ten things "everyone knows" about this character and how can I best make them work together?
- How can I make the" other stuff" part of that and make it cool?
- Once that's done, how can I make the story bigger or deeper in way consistent with what I've put together?
A brief look at John's treatment of three classic characters, all of whom he brought back from utter extinction, shows his application of these principals.
For Hawkman, he focused on essential elements (Shayera as Hawkgirl and the relationship with her, the reincarnation and connection with ancient Egypt and history, the museum setting, the Thanagarian connection), incorporated variations and history (e.g., quickly merging the blond Golden Age Hawkman with the black-haired Silver Age Hawkman into the brown-haired modern Hawkman, putting all of Hawkman's rogues gallery back into play one by one, bringing back Golden Eagle), and expanded on the mythos (e.g., creating a new and unique fictionopolis for Hawkman to replace the vague and unessential Silver Age setting of Midway City).
For Flash, he re-established the essentials (Barry Allen the slow and methodical police scientist, his relationship with reporter Iris West, his friendships with Wally and Hal, Central City and its Rogues' Gallery, bringing Capt Boomerang back from the dead), incorporated variations (e.g., keeping the "speed force", the West-Park family, Max Mercury, and Jay Garrick, re-setting Bart Allen and making him Kid Flash), and elaborated on the mythos (e.g., making Barry the generator of the speed force rather than its recipient, creating co-worker characters for Barry, putting a new spin on the Reverse Flash's powers).
For Green Lantern, he stopped the "GL-of-the-decade" cycle by restoring the GL essentials (test pilot Hal Jordan, the importance of fearlesness/willpower, Carole Ferris, refurbishing the Lantern foes, revitalizing the Corps and the Guardians), incorporated variations (e.g. finding off-world roles for John Stewart, Guy Gardner, and Kyle Rayner) and elaborated on existing elements into new territory (e.g., taking the existence of a ring of a different color (yellow) and the association of "willpower" with the "green" lantern and extrapolating those into other color rings with their corps and own associated mental states).
Lest you think I'm just a Johns-nut, I have to confess I do not like all of the results of what Johns has done. The GL Corps bores me, the Flash's stories are still achingly slow, and Hawkman has still not found a stable place in the DCU. But there is no question that Johns has done the (apparently) impossible in getting these three characters (each of whom has been completely written off as toxic, irredeemable, and, well, dead) back on track.
Similarly, it's important to point out that Johns is not the only writer who takes this approach. Kurt Busiek and, of all people, Grant Morrison do as well. Taking this three-pronged approach to mythic revitalization doesn't mean doing it perfectly. Busiek did wonders with Superman in almost no time at all; however, his work on Aquaman was less successful because, I think, he mis-identified what the essential elements of Aquaman were. Morrison seems to take this approach (he masterfully boiled down Superman's origin and did essential characterization work on Jimmy Olsen and Lex Luthor in All Star Superman, and has steadfastly tried to incorporate outlying Silver Age and Bronze Age variations into the Batman mythos); he's just undone by his inability to weave it all into a coherent whole (or, for that matter, a coherent story, or even coherent sentences). If you take a look at other good writers working on revitalizing existing properties (such as Levitz on Legion), you'll be able to spot the approach.
How exactly will Johns apply this approach to Aquaman? He's already given us some clues, such as his revitalization of Mera (acceptance), the recasting of her homeworld as a other dimensional penal colony for former Atlanteans (incorporation) and creation of the new Aqualad (an extrapolation of the conflict between Aquaman and Black Manta). Time will tell how he will apply it further, but for now it appears that Aquaman is in good hands.