Of Heroes, Villains, And Favorite Characters – An Interview With Joshua Williamson
by Noah Sharma
Joshua Williamson is one of DC’s biggest rising talents. After making a name for himself writing all manner of critically acclaimed horror, Williamson took over The Flash just as DC Rebirth put the character at the center of their universe. Since then, Williamson has continued to write Birthright for Skybound, set the stage for the “Flash War” event, launched Death Bed for Vertigo, and taken an increased role in the Justice League line, culminating in the announcement of Justice League: Odyssey last month.
Mr. Williamson was kind enough to sit down with us at Emerald City Comic Con this year to give us a look at what’s next for his host of strange and wonderful characters.
Noah Sharma: Alright, so thank you so much for talking to me.
Joshua Williamson: Yeah.
NS: Well, start with The Flash, that feels fair. You’re really getting ready to really look at Wally West, Flash Wally West, again. What do you think the difference between Barry and Wally really is? What’s the heart of the difference between those two characters.
JW: Y’know, it’s so complicated. It’s funny, someone asked me that yesterday, and they were like ‘can you boil it down to one word’ and I don’t think that I can. And this morning, I was talking to someone – this comes up all the time – and we discussed this and it’s like, y’know, what are the things they have in common? ’Cause I think the moment they both got those powers they immediately were like, ‘I have to do good with this, right?’ And I think they both immediately felt that pressure.
It’s interesting because Barry has changed through the years. Y’know, ever since Flash: Rebirth where it was revealed that Eobard had gone back and murdered his mom, I think one of the big things about Barry is ‘This happened to me when I was young. This bad thing happened to me and I will not let it happen to anyone else.’ That is the major part of Barry.
Along with that, I think that Barry is a character who, really, represents in a lot of ways, and I think we’ve seen this in the last thirty years for him, sacrifice. Barry really is the kind of person willing to sacrifice so much. I mean you go back and look, after his mom died he was sacrificing having “a real life” by going to school to study to be a CSI to make sure that what happened to him didn’t happen to anybody else. To make sure that he could get his dad off, to make sure that no one else would go through that, and feel like someone was in prison for something they didn’t do. And so he was willing to sacrifice so much. And you go back and think about Crisis, he was willing to sacrifice himself. So, I think that’s a big part of his character even now with “Rebirth”. I still think that’s a part of him. I think that he is the kind of person that is willing to sacrifice so much and give up so much to, not to save the day, but to help people. Everyone and anyone.
And then with Wally, there’s a big part of Wally for a long time who wanted to live up to the idea of Barry. But I don’t think that Wally is as much about sacrificing as he is about building a family. I think that’s a big part of it. ’Cause we talk about the Flash family a lot. The Flash family was a Wally thing, not a Barry thing. And I think that’s gotten kind of lost over the years. So, I think that those are the differences.
And then you have someone like Kid Flash Wally, who is also very different. He definitely feels pressure to be a hero, but, at the same time, he’s like, ‘I want to have fun with this,’ y’know. So I think that’s one of the things we’re trying to do right now in the book and over the next few months is to try to find more ways to show how they’re different. And get to a point where they’re not the same character.
NS: So one thing that I thought was very interesting about your run is that DC has been very clear that “Rebirth” is not a reboot or a relaunch. A lot of books have tried to really focus on creating new stories. The Flash has been willing to deal with not only the New 52, but even Crisis/Post-Crisis eras.
How did you find the balance of making that accessible to readers in the spirit of “Rebirth” while also kind of acknowledging the past, because I think a lot of fans really like having a little bit of that back.
JW: Yeah, y’know, in the beginning when I first got the job, I was very much like, ‘I’m gonna use everything.’ The Flash mythology is really important to me. I’m a big Flash fan. Y’know, like back in the day, that’s one of my favorite characters, my favorite superhero. So the idea that there would be toys that I couldn’t play with, my brain wouldn’t even comprehend that. It was never a question, really. It was a matter of, ‘Of course I want to use everything’. I’m gonna go in there and I’m gonna have some fun and it’s a Flash story. And The Flash has always been about alternate worlds, and time travel, and time changing, and all these different things and it’s like this sort of weird Silver Age kind of sci-fi stuff. And I still wanted to embrace all of that. And I just want to have a good time.
But, at the same time, I wanted to make sure people, who were Flash fans like me, know that all that stuff they love, it matters. Y’know, none of it went away. It all matters to me and I know it matters to them too.
The balance, it’s hard, man. I really do try to think of it from a new reader perspective, but, as I sit there and I work, it’s tough. It’s a lot of math.
And I know it. I mean, that’s one thing: I know it. I know Flash history. So, for me, what I do is I approach it from, ‘okay, if somebody’s reading this for the first time, that’s where I start’, but then, as I’m writing I’m like, this point right here is like that point back there, so I’m gonna put it in here. As I sit there with my notebooks, and I’m working on it, I feel or I see these opportunities to inject something of the Flash that I love from the past, and I’ll put it in.
NS: So, as you say, you got to play with all the toys.
JW: I try to. I try to.
NS: You’ve really hit a good number of classic Flash villains over the course of this and introduced a whole bunch of new ones as well during the Speed Force Storm. One thing I thought was really cool is that there’s a very distinct relationship between Barry and his villains in this series. Even the Rogues, who are kind of his classic antagonists have kind of a weird friendliness at times, if they’ll let him. So, the question is what were you thinking about how Barry interacts with his villains?
JW: It’s funny. Like I said, with my run on The Flash, there’s certain aspects that, like, I didn’t invent this. There’s stuff that you go back and look at, particularly Mark Waid and Geoff [Johns] and those guys and the relationships that they established, in a lot of ways through the lens of Wally and his POV of those relationships that Barry had with the villains. That was a lot of my inspiration.
And then, I’ve read all those old issues, so when I got the job I went and I reread everything. I went back and I saw, this is how he had his relationships, y’know? He did have kind of this unique thing with them.
And I think a part of it is because Barry genuinely believes that everyone at their core is a good person. And I think that he believes that what happened to him – at this point it’s changed because of what happened with Eobard – but I think what happened to him changed him. And I think when he meets all these villains, he thinks the same thing of them. Like something must have happened. He is sympathetic to them, for the most part; outside of Eobard, he really does believe that there is something good.
And though they are not necessarily fixable, because Barry is a nerd or he has science, there’s cause and effect. I think he very much sees people like that sometimes. And I think he does see the Rogues like that. I think he looks at Cold, and he’s not angry at Cold, he’s disappointed because he knows Cold is so smart. It’s frustrating for him. I think that’s how he sees most of them.
People might disagree with me on this, I think there’s a few that he does not see that with. With Eobard, there’s such anger at this point for him at Eobard and that relationship and the fear. It’s interesting because he has such a fear, a real fear, of Eobard.
And then with some of the rogues, y’know, I think he really does think like ‘this one is redeemable.’ Like Heat Wave, for example. I think he looks at Heat Wave – which is interesting because Heatwave was redeemed for a while because of the Top and stuff – but I think that Barry now, when he sees Heat Wave, he questions that a little. He questions ‘Can Heat Wave be redeemed?’ But, for the most part, I think all of them, he’s like, ‘They’re geniuses and I wish that they would do better.’
NS: I guess the question then is what about Grodd? He’s got a very interesting kind of cordial relationship with him.
JW: I think he sympathizes with Grodd to an extent. And that’s part of what that story’s about is that Barry understands that what Grodd said was kind of true, you know? He was leading this solitary life where he didn’t have a lot of friends, and he was just very much about the job and he–Geoff always said it best–he was standing still. He wasn’t moving forward in his life and he wasn’t building these relationships because he was so afraid because of what had happened to him. Once he got the powers, he kind of opened up.
And there’s more to it. They unlocked certain parts of Barry’s personality and so I think there’s a fear in Barry of ‘did that stuff only get unlocked ’cause I got the powers or did I actually grow as a person?’ And the answer, obviously we know, is that he grew as a person, but that is a fear that Barry has sometimes. It’s one of those deep thoughts he has that he pushes back, y’know? Do people only care about me, do I only have this life I have [because] I have these powers. He shoves that back in his head. But Grodd knew that.
The thing is that Grodd, in a lot of ways, feels the same way. Like he feels like [that’s] the only thing that makes him special among his people. The thing is he feels he’s entitled to it. He wants the power and he wants to be king. But I think that Grodd in a lot of ways feels the same way as Barry where it’s like, ‘if I don’t have that power, I will never be that thing I want to be.’ So I think that Barry, and you’ll see this in issues that come out next down the line, but Barry would still feel for Grodd. He would still want to help him.
NS: Alright, so the last thing with The Flash is: how does that reflect back on the opposite, where a villain is very invested in a hero’s well-being, in the form of Zoom?
JW: Ohhh! With Wally? Man. I think about both of them a lot. And Hunter’s really interesting to me because he really does.
Okay, hold on. I’m not even sure if I 100% agree on that anymore, because I feel like Hunter wants Wally to be the Flash he wants him to be, right? And so, at the end of the day, that is a selfish decision on Hunter’s part. Y’know, Hunter wants Wally to understand tragedy, and really feels like Wally did not experience it. And so he’ll never be the hero that Hunter needed because Wally didn’t understand, right?
That’s not a friend.
And I know they see each other, and I know it sucks for Wally because Hunter was his friend and he wanted to help him, but he knew he couldn’t do that one thing. He wasn’t gonna go back in time. He wasn’t gonna stop Grodd from hurting him. He wasn’t gonna save Ashley’s dad. He wasn’t gonna go and stop the Clown from shooting his mentor. Wally wasn’t gonna go do that stuff and it drove Hunter crazy because ‘you could! You could help me and I don’t want emotional support, I want you to actually help me!’
And I think as we go forward with that, you’ll see that that relationship is the same, but we’re definitely gonna see a new take on it. ’Cause Hunter’s gone through some changes, y’know? You saw at the end of the annual that he’s been in the future this whole time. And it’s Hunter, right? It is pre-Flashpoint Hunter. He survived the change. So it’s him and he has been working on something for a very long time. And he has a better understanding, of not only Wally, but he also understands Barry now too. Where before his understanding of Barry was all through Wally, now he better understands Barry.
You’ll see. We’ll get to it. You’ll see.
NS: Let’s step away for a minute and talk about Death Bed.
Is it hard to write the story of the most interesting man ever to have lived?
JW: Yeah! I mean, he’s a jerk. He’s a toxic human being. But, it’s funny because everyone says that, they always bring up The Most Interesting Man and he’s more like a human Uncle Scrooge to me. But, yeah, with him it is challenging to try to write this guy who’s lived this insane life and has this, like weird perspective on it, and is a little bit of a jerk, a little toxic. It’s funny ’cause I feel like I’m trying to walk that line of making him at least engaging and interesting for you to read, but, at the same time, you’re not supposed to like him. At least now. I hope by the ending, you begin to like him and you see that he grows as a character. And you see he comes out the end as a better person.
NS: So how much of that life did you guys try to plot out?
JW: We mapped out the years. We sat down and we figured out, ten year marks on his entire life. And we figured out, I mean, I know his life. I could tell you the whole thing. And we only see little bits and pieces of it, really.
NS: I thought that just having the dates on the title page was such a fun little Easter egg.
JW: It’s funny, there’s a version of that page that is a full-on timeline. It was his whole life. And we were like, ‘nah, that’s boring’. Like someone’s gonna read to that page and be like, ‘I’m done reading this.’ And at the same time, I didn’t want you to know too much about him going into it too early. I wanted there to be a little mystery for him. But we have a whole life for him. And I think we’ll get to see bits and pieces of it across the series.
NS: You just gave us a little bit of insight of where the series is going to go. What’s the most exciting place you get to take Valentine and Luna?
JW: Oh, man. I don’t wanna ruin the last place they go. I think that’s the most exciting in a lot of ways. But, I mean they go to the center of the earth, they go to this underwater pleasure garden, they go to like, monster island. They go and do all this interesting stuff and they just get to explore all these things. And for Val, who’s a person who was always very sheltered, who didn’t want to really live a life, to suddenly be with someone who has lived all of it is very interesting. And I’m not sure how much you pick up in that first issue, but Luna is obsessed with his last words. Whereas Val is obsessed with her first words, first impression. Like she thinks that’s what matters. It really is almost an argument about: what’s the most important thing? What’s the most important line? The last line of a book or the first line of a book?
JW: And I think they have different views. He’s very like ‘the ending is what matters’. And she’s very, ‘the beginning’s what matters.’ And that’s kind of the opposite for each other. How they clash with each other.
NS: So, how does that affect how you writing a first issue or a last issue?
JW: Oh, man. It’s real hard. It’s real hard. We talk about it a lot. I mean, that was a big part of the ending of the first issue. We struggled a lot on the last line because I was like, ‘this is the last line of the first issue.’ But it’s not the last line of the whole book. So, when the book comes out and you get to the ending of the whole thing, you’ll see that there was a balance there.
NS: Alright. Jumping over to Skybound for a second, Birthright has just kind of hit a big moment. Mikey is finally free from the Nevermind. But there’s serious implications that this does not separate him from Lore in the way that everyone kind of assumes.
JW: Remember, and people forget this a lot, he had to choose. You can’t get affected by the Nevermind unless you choose it. And you saw a little bit about why he chose, but one thing I’ve never done in that book is I’ve never had an internal monologue.
JW: So no one knows what’s going on in Mikey’s head. And so gradually you’ll see there was another reason–there was another reason why he chose to side with [Lore], and I think we’ll slowly get to that revelation, that realization of why.
NS: So even though Lore is like, ‘You’re part of me now,’ this is all Mikey’s unbiased opinion? This is his choice and who he sided with.
JW: He made a decision. I mean–I will say this, it gets complicated and then it gets very simple. There’s no lie there. He chose to join Lore. He made a decision for a lot of reasons. So, yeah.
NS: I was curious, did you have fantasy inspirations for Terrenos?
JW: For Terrenos not really. With that one it’s kind of weird because it’s me and Andrei [Bressen] and I think Andrei is a genius when it comes to art and fantasy. He’s a big fantasy guy. So it was easy to start working with him and count on him. Y’know, I would talk about thematic stuff, we would talk about themes or ideas of things. I wouldn’t be very specific with like, ‘he’s an orc and he’s like this…’
‘Cause originally Rook didn’t look like that. Rook was gonna be something else entirely. And then one day [Andrei] drew this awesome drawing of an orc and I was like that is Rook. That is him. And then that changed the story because all of a sudden he was this monster. And all of a sudden he rebelled against Lore and this is the reasons why. So it’s been really great working with Andrei and just being like, ‘let’s talk about themes, let’s talk about different ideas of fantasy.’
We didn’t want it to look like medieval fantasy at all. We wanted to kind of look at different cultures and how different cultures would imagine fantasy. And I really try to come at it from a different perspective and try to just elevate whatever idea we had. Find the idea and try to find ways of pumping it up. Like, there’s a scene where there’s a mermaid, but she’s a shark, you know? Like that sounds silly, but that’s kind of how it is. Like ‘let’s just elevate somehow a little bit’.
NS: Another thing that I was kind of interested in was that Wendy has had a really long road to this point.
JW: And it is far from over, yeah.
NS: How’s it different writing for her than the rest of the family who kind of had this direct engagement right from the beginning, where she’s kind of–
JW: She was kind of on the side at first.
JW: And I realize that about her, and it became part of her character, almost. So, in the beginning – in my head – I was getting lost on Wendy a little bit. And I think my wife was the one that was asking me questions about it. And I was like, ‘yeah, you’re right.’ Like she is sort of [on the side], not having as much agency. And what I started doing, was I started writing scenes for her that weren’t in the book. Just Wendy scenes, like in my head or in my notebook, just to kind of figure her out more and her perspective more. And she became one of my favorite characters. Like, I actually kind of prefer writing her to writing Aaron.
And it’s funny how she became much more headstrong throughout the series. And the most frustrating part about it is that, in the beginning, she’s right. Y’know, there’s no reason to trust this person, and Aaron is just diving in because Aaron is desperate. Once we started figuring that out more, it really shaped her character and she’s gonna be a big part of the next arc.
NS: Okay. And if we could jump back to DC quickly for the last bit. Now you’re working on Justice League: No Justice.
NS: That’s kind of the new big thing after “Metal”. How does the work break down with you, Scott, and James all writing it together?
JW: You know, I talk to those guys like every day. And so, really, there is not one line, there is not one page, that has not been touched by all of us. Like we start writing, we start talking it out, we start brainstorming ideas on how we pace it out, and then we take it and we just start sharing with each other until it’s time to turn it in. And then we turn it in.
And then, Frances Manapul is the artist on it, and then we talk to him. And then we bring him in and say like, ‘What do you think of this?’ And he’s been involved in the outline stage, the page breakdown, going back and forth being like, ‘Hey, what about this, what about that?’ And he’s as much a storyteller on this as the three of us, and so there really is just a lot of communication.
NS: So we now know that Brainiac is putting together these teams. They all kinda seem to break down, we’ve got an alien team, a supernatural team–
JW: It’s mystery, wisdom, wonder, and entropy.
NS: So, what is it about these space gods that needs those [traits?]
JW: I feel like that would be a spoiler.
NS: Okay. That’s fair.
JW: I mean, Brainiac puts together these teams with the idea that he believes these assortments will help save the day, will help him get what he needs. That’s what he believes. And so, each group, it might look random, but as we learn throughout the series, there’s a reason they’re there. He picked them for a reason and they’re there for each other. And I think in some cases in a unique way that’ll surprise people.
NS: With all of these weird team-ups, has there been any kind of surprise favorite characters or interactions?
JW: Good question. Y’know, it’s funny when I worked on Justice League vs. Suicide Squad, I was surprised how much I enjoyed writing Harley. I’ve always wanted to write Lobo, so I was really glad I got Lobo. So, Lobo and Beast Boy form a friendship. And then, I don’t want to say right now because I worry that it will, like, I feel like this is a spoiler? But there are two characters that have a thread throughout all four issues, who I don’t think have really interacted much. But it feels like they should have a long time ago. And it’s a major part of the story and then the stuff that happens after. I love writing them together. It’s like one of my favorite things, definitely.
JW: Thank you.
NS: Thank you so much.