• Image about Geoff Johns
Matt Vincent

One man’s journey from comic book fan to comic book writer. (All it took was putting down the Froot Loops and answering the phone.)

There’s the cosmic lottery, and then there’s the comic lottery. Sterling Gates clearly won both when the stars aligned and put the 30-year-old, mild-mannered fine arts graduate from the University of Oklahoma in the right place at the right time to fulfill a dream so seemingly unreal, it could be the epic plot of a superhero saga.

As early as age 8, when Gates wasn’t sneaking a flashlight to bed for some way-past-bedtime comic book reading, the Tulsa, Okla., native would spend his daylight hours among the inventory of his parents’ comic book store, disappearing into storylines of superheroes and villains, and unwittingly cultivating a lifelong apprenticeship for the kind of career that never gets (but should get) its own booth on Career Day. As he grew up, he left the comic books behind, but they had struck a chord with him, and, after he graduated from college, Gates began researching a master’s degree program in Vermont at the Center for Cartoon Studies. What, then, compelled him to rent a U-Haul and move to Los Angeles with two friends instead? He has no idea. “We had no place to live. I had no prospects for a job. I had about two months’ rent and a college degree. I was a fool,” Gates recalls. As it turned out, it would be a pivotal fork in the road for Gates.

Mired in the kind of funk that usually accompanies a hasty, life-altering decision, the shell-shocked Gates whiled away several weeks in a Studio City apartment, subsisting on a steady diet of Froot Loops, convinced he’d made a colossal mistake. (Confirmation of said colossal mistake: Gates confesses, “Let’s just say I have an in-depth knowledge of every plotline and episode of Gilmore Girls.”) It took the enthusiasm of his friend Cody Cundiff — with an invitation for a weekend trip to San Francisco to attend a world-renowned geek fest, the WonderCon comic book convention — to snap Gates out of his depression. Among the panel of writers who would be convening for WonderCon: DC Comics creative legend Geoff Johns, whom Gates had admired for years. “Geoff is one of the most prolific, creative minds of our generation,” Gates observes. Johns, now chief creative officer of DC Entertainment, is best known for his work on DC characters such as Superman, the Flash and Green Lantern.

“We had no place to live. I had no prospects for a job. I had about two months’ rent and a college degree. I was a fool.”

During the course of that WonderCon weekend, Johns and Gates walked parallel paths, bumping into each other several times until, finally, a restaurant host happened to place Johns and Gates at adjacent dinner tables. What followed was an awkward exchange of small talk from which Johns learned just enough about the unemployed Gates to offer him a job, suggesting that Gates send him a résumé upon his return to Los Angeles. It was a surreal experience for Gates, who thought Johns was merely being polite and humoring him. Upon returning home, Gates resumed his Froot Loops and Gilmore Girls diet for about a week until his then-girlfriend stepped in. “[She] couldn’t believe I hadn’t sent a résumé,” Gates says. And why hadn’t he? “Because I’m a moron,” he laughs.

In spite of himself, Gates was soon hired to assist Johns on Spike TV network’s short-lived action/horror drama Blade: The Series. Following Blade’s cancellation, Gates then assisted Johns on various projects, including several key comic book assignments. “I had a firsthand view of how comics were being produced,” Gates recalls. “I got to see how the comics ‘sausage’ is made, so to speak.”

It was a year before Gates confided to Johns that he’d actually like to write comics. But when he finally did, Johns, who had become Gates’ creative mentor, quickly set about teaching him everything he needed to know in order to pitch story ideas to editors. “I wouldn’t be where I am today without Geoff Johns,” he admits.