By Joseph Lacdan, Army News Service
Sgt. 1st Class Phillip Johnson and his son, Anders pose in their Superman regalia. (Courtesy photo)
Super Soldier: DC Comics picks Army musician as new Superman writer
FORT MEADE, Md. -- While growing up in rural Iowa and Kentucky, Phillip Kennedy Johnson collected boxes of used comics.
The stories became an escape that took Johnson to places beyond his small town. As a child, he pored over the worn pages in his bedroom reading about Superman as he defended Metropolis and Earth from Lex Luthor and other threats to mankind.
He sometimes imagined his own storylines for the iconic superhero.
Johnson collected piles of books; Disney, Marvel, and DC, but he specifically favored the Man of Steel and Batman.
“I remember watching the 1978 film [‘Superman’] and seeing [Christopher Reeve] on screen, the way he embodied the inherent goodness of Superman,” Johnson said. “He had almost absolute power, but he wielded it with absolute humility and compassion.”
More than three decades later, Johnson, now a sergeant first class, reached a milestone in his five-year comic writing career. DC Comics announced on Dec. 16, a day after the 42nd anniversary of the film, that the Soldier would be writing the new storylines for DC’s Superman and Action Comics beginning in March.
Johnson, also 42, has written for seven comic publishers, including both DC and Marvel, and has been nominated for an Eisner Award, the comics equivalent of an Oscar. His stories have a diverse range from independent original comics, such as Warlords of Appalachia, to dark visions of familiar heroes in Marvel’s Zombie Resurrection and finally to his own take on Captain America.
When Johnson received the call from DC, he instantly felt the weight of becoming the next storyteller of the world’s most renowned superhero.
“I felt this tremendous excitement, down to a molecular level,” Johnson said. “It's definitely a huge responsibility that I take extremely seriously, but the anxiety that sometimes comes with a really big opportunity never came. I'm still just really excited about it, and really confident in the stories my amazing artists and I are telling together.”
Johnson wants to depict the character in the way he remembers from his childhood, as a being of immense power fueled by an unshakeable moral core.
“I want people to see the version of Superman that I see,” he said. “I want them to see the man with absolute power, but also absolute compassion and humility. Powers are not the point of the character; the powers are there to illustrate how incorruptible and inherently good he is.
“That's the version I want to see. When he speaks, I want people to get the same chills, the same aspiration feeling that I felt watching that  film.”
Pella, a small Dutch immigrant town of about 10,000, lies in a rural stretch of central Iowa. Farmland surrounded Johnson’s childhood house, not unlike the fictional Kansas community where Superman originated.
As a child coming of age in the 80s, the late Reeve’s Superman made a stark impression on Johnson. The scene where Superman takes Lois Lane on a scenic flight over Metropolis’ night sky as John Williams’ soaring score plays in the background, embodies the character of Superman.
“He smiles at her, but you can tell there’s no arrogance or ego in it,” Johnson said. “He's so powerful, but everything he says and does just says “I’m your friend, and nothing’s going to happen to you.”
When Johnson attended high school in Kentucky he aspired to become a comic book artist, often drawing his favorite characters including Batman, Superman, and the X-Men. But Johnson also developed a love for music, and had hopes of one day touring the country as a musician.
Storytelling had been bred into Johnson from the time he first began playing musical instruments. He learned to tell tales through music, playing the piano and trumpet. After earning a master’s degree in music from the University of North Texas, he set his sights on joining The U.S. Army Field Band.
In joining the Army Field Band, he began telling musical stories on a grander scale, traveling across the continental U.S. and telling the tales of the Army through song. Johnson said the band connects with the public by telling personal stories of U.S. Soldiers and historical figures. Recently the band posted an 18-minute musical tribute to Martin Luther King Jr.
“Something The U.S. Army Field Band does that I think sets it apart is its use of narrative,” Johnson said. “The way that we tell personal stories helps us connect with the audience. Storytelling is something I believe in.”
Aside from his role as a trumpet player, Johnson also leads all written projects for his section as chief editor and writer. Section leader Master Sgt. Ward Yager said Johnson showcases his creativity with improvised solos.
Johnson recently performed his own jazz arrangement of the John Williams’ composition “Can You Read My Mind?” from “Superman: The Movie,” which was posted to the Army Field Band’s YouTube channel just weeks before DC Comics selected him as the next Superman writer.
"His music and writing provide creativity and inspiration for the other [musicians]," Yager said. "Imagination is like a muscle, constantly needing work to grow. Both writing and music require thinking outside the box and taking new directions, and Phillip is always pushing himself to grow and further develop the great talents he has."
About 10 years ago, while Johnson was touring the country with the band, his younger brother, Bill Hensley, decided to become a comic artist.
So Johnson decided to embark on a project to help his brother break into the comic industry. While helping his brother, the unexpected happened. Johnson learned how to get noticed by comic editors himself. And in doing so he rekindled his own childhood passion. Hensley also served in the Army as a 25M graphic designer.
“At first, it was really just to help my brother get a foot in the door,” Johnson said. “We set out to educate ourselves about the comics industry together, and as it turns out, I found it really fun and rewarding.”
Johnson made his first venture into comics writing with independent publisher BOOM! Studios. He told the story of a grim future for Americans in a mini-series called “Last Sons of America.”
In the four-part series, a biological terrorist attack impacted Americans’ ability to conceive, forcing parents to turn to other means to raise families, including buying, bartering, or stealing children from foreign nations. Johnson developed the idea while volunteering with anti-human trafficking organizations in Baltimore.
While developing “Last Sons of America,” Johnson also concurrently produced a weekly horror web comic entitled “The Lost Boys of the U-Boat Bremen.” Johnson’s work with Boom! Studios eventually caught the attention of a DC Comics editor, who read “Last Sons of America” and reached out to the Soldier.
"He poured enormous time and energy into developing his writing, but it’s been amazing to see his writing career take off," Yager said. "I’m very happy for him, and I enjoy seeing how his passion continues to grow along with his success. He does it for the love of the craft."
Today’s Superman comics finds the Man of Steel in a much different place than Reeve’s Superman more than 30 years ago.
Superman is married to longtime love interest Lois Lane, and has a son, Jon, also known as Superboy. The changes depart from the traditional depictions of Superman as Clark Kent, a single newspaper reporter for the Daily Planet.
Johnson said his predecessor in the Superman line, veteran comics scribe Brian Michael Bendis, grounded the character by emphasizing Superman’s humanity.
Johnson said he can relate to Superman’s relationship with his son, Anders, as Johnson has a young son himself.
“I feel like Bendis did a really great job of humanizing Superman. You see him on the ground level,” Johnson said. “You see him at his day job with people at the Daily Planet. You see that his supporting cast kind of makes him who he is, and those characters get developed a ton. You see him in a lot of those personal moments.”
To build off Bendis’ work, Johnson promises an “epic” version of the Man of Steel, with a story that shows Superman’s place in the universe culminating in a big event in the fall that will be felt beyond the hero’s storyline.
“You’re not only going to see what he means to America, but what he means to the universe,” Johnson said. “By the end of this event, the DC Universe is going to be bigger, older, with some of its more obscure corners blown out and explored in a way that hasn’t been done before. I’m insanely excited for readers to see what’s coming.”
Readers can get their first taste of Johnson’s Superman in the two-part “Superman: Worlds of War” and “Superman: House of El.” Both are installments of the DC Comics event Future State, happening in January and February. “Superman: Worlds of War #1” released earlier this month.
In addition to the Superman comics, Johnson will also write the launch of the new comic series “Alien” for Marvel, based on the 20th Century Fox film franchise.
And while writing these stories, Johnson still performs with the Army Field Band, whose mission has changed during the global pandemic.
Instead of traveling to different American communities, the band has been livestreaming its “We Stand Ready” virtual concert series for nearly a year. The Army Field Band performs several times a week, with performances posted to the Army Field Band’s YouTube channel and Facebook page.
Johnson said that the band’s performance can be a calming influence during turbulent times.
“It gives people something to unify behind,” Johnson said. “Americans should understand that the oath their military takes is bigger than politics, that their military is behind them no matter what. Despite anything going on at home or abroad, their Army’s looking out for them.”
The Army Field Band is working to unify America’s communities, in the way that fictional communities unify behind the Man of Steel.