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'Stargirl' based on creator/showrunner Geoff Johns’ beloved sister

Kurt Krug
Special to The Detroit News

“Stargirl,” a new DC Universe TV series, has been the most fun Detroit-area native Geoff Johns has had in his career and it's his most personal.

Stargirl, the alter-ego of Courtney Whitmore, is inspired by Johns’ late sister Courtney Johns, who died in 1996’s TWA Flight 800 disaster. His sister, who planned to study abroad in Europe, was 18.

 “Stargirl” debuts Monday. 

“It’s full-circle for me,” said Johns, 47, a Clarkston High School and Michigan State University alumnus who now lives in Los Angeles.

The eldest of three, Johns spoke fondly about his sister.

“Because she was the youngest, Courtney was always so driven and ready to do anything," he said. "If she had to prove she could do it, she usually did. I have so many memories of her… The one I like talking about – the one I’ve told so many people about – is how she went to school with this younger girl next door. During lunch, this younger girl was teased by other girls. My sister, who was a senior, walked over and said, ‘Hey, you don’t want to sit here anyway. Come sit with us,’ so she brought the neighbor girl over to the popular kids’ table. I remember her parents being so grateful for that. That’s who Courtney was. (Courtney) was such a great kid.”

Brec Bassinger portrays the title character on “Stargirl,” which debuts Monday, May 18. Created by Detroit native Geoff Johns, Stargirl is a tribute to his younger sister, Courtney, who died in 1996. Photo courtesy of Warner Bros.

Johns got his start as director Richard Donner’s assistant, working on the movies “Conspiracy Theory” and “Lethal Weapon 4.” He’s served as a writer and/or producer on the TV series “Smallville,” “Arrow,” “The Flash,” “Titans,” as well as the movies “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” (filmed in Michigan), “Justice League,” “Wonder Woman,” “Aquaman,” and the upcoming “Wonder Woman 1984.”

He’s written numerous comics for DC, including celebrated runs on “Green Lantern,” “The Flash,” Superman,” “Teen Titans,” et al. From 2016-18, he served as president and chief creative officer of DC Entertainment (he became CCO in 2010). In 2018, he founded his own production company called Mad Ghost Productions, which focuses on adapting DC properties for the big and small screens.  

While on the set of “Conspiracy Theory” in New York City, Johns met with DC officials and eventually pitched a comic called “Stars and S.T.R.I.P.E.” Published in 1999, it featured the debut of Courtney Whitmore, retooling the Star-Spangled Kid and Stripesy from 1941.

“The gag was the kid was the main character and the adult was the sidekick,” said Johns. “I wanted to do a lead teenage super-hero inspired by my sister.”

On “Stargirl,” Courtney’s (Brec Bassinger, “Bella and the Bulldogs”) mother Barbara (Amy Smart, “Varsity Blues”) marries Pat Dugan (Luke Wilson, “Legally Blonde”). They move from L.A. to a small Nebraska town. There, Courtney has trouble fitting in at her new school and getting along with her new stepfather.

Soon thereafter, Courtney learns Pat was sidekick to Starman (Joel McHale, “Community”), who along with his Justice Society of America teammates are slaughtered in the first episode. Courtney finds Starman’s Cosmic Staff, which only worked for him and yet now works for her. She discovers the super-villains who killed the JSA are hiding in the same sleepy town she now lives in, which is no coincidence. Courtney and Pat then become a super-hero duo.

“When I got back to full-time writing, the first thing I really wanted to pitch was a ‘Stargirl’ show. The technology had caught up so we can do a big robot, which is her sidekick – (Pat) pilots this big robot,” said Johns. “I just felt it was a good time for a young, bright, colorful, positive super-hero show that celebrated family, that was about family, that was about a new generation of young heroes taking on the legacies of the old but doing it with respect.”

Johns explained why he made Pat Courtney’s stepfather.

“There are so many characters who were sons and daughters and who were related,” he said. “I wanted to do a story about Stargirl and S.T.R.I.P.E. – a step-daughter and step-parent – which is about a family coming together. I thought it was an important story to tell because it wasn’t being told anywhere else. I also like the idea that she’s not a super-hero because she’s related to somebody; she’s a super-hero because of who she is – that’s really important.”

The first season is 13 episodes long, completed before the COVID-19 pandemic. “Stargirl” marks Johns’ first time as showrunner.

“There’s a lot you have to do from budget to production. You’re in every single meeting. It’s about bringing in the best cast and crew, letting everyone do their best work, keeping the stories in the writers’ room moving – it’s a lot to juggle. It’s a huge challenge and I learned from a lot of wonderful people during the process,” he said. “It’s such a wonderful group – the producers, the writers, the cast, the crew has made this show come alive. Everyone’s really proud of what we did. We saw it come to life in the way I hoped it would.”

Johns had Wilson in mind for Pat. Casting Courtney was challenging, however. Numerous actresses auditioned.

“When (Brec) came in and read, it was amazing – she had all the humor, the heart, the drama, and the emotion the character was asking for. She nailed it! It was incredible!” said Johns. “(Stargirl) occupies an interesting space in the DC Universe because she’s one of the younger heroes, but she’s not a sidekick – she’s the lead. That makes her stand out. She’s a bright shining star for the next generation of DC heroes.”

Smart praised Bassinger, who underwent rigorous training for the role.

“Brec is such a dynamic, spirited young woman,” said Smart, who has a home in Traverse City. “She’s such a trooper. She’s smart, she’s funny. I love playing her mom – it was fun. I have a daughter (Flora, 3) but she’s much younger. It was like walking into this world of when my child is old enough to be Brec’s age… (Brec’s) very mature for her age and so professional. She has a twinkle in her eye. She has this essence that’s very magnetic and fun and spontaneous. I think she’s perfectly cast for this character.”

Courtney Johns

Since "Stargirl" is based on Johns’ sister, Smart believed she had a greater responsibility to the role.

“It feels like it has more meaning. I’m sure Brec felt that way, too," Smart said. "She’s basically playing (Johns’) sister. I felt like that because I’m basically playing Geoff’s mother. Barbara Whitmore is based on his mom, Barbara (Johns). It felt like I had to embrace this role… it was a role I wanted to give my all to,” said Smart. “(‘Stargirl’) was so personal to Geoff. I feel like anyone who has a passion project puts so much love and attention into it. Between the way he described it and reading (the script), I just really wanted to be part of this show because I knew it would be very special.”

Johns’ family has enjoyed “Stargirl.”

“They love it! They’ve seen it and they’re happy with it,” he said. “Personally, it means something different for my family. When I first did the comic, it was something really exciting for us. The character has lived on in animation and video games. She’s a super-fun character, and (my family’s) always enjoyed following her, whether I’m writing (her adventures) or not – it’s fun to see the character alive in the DC Universe. This show, obviously, is the next level.”

Unlike other super-hero shows, “Stargirl” is very family-friendly.

“Just about everyone is at home with their families and loved ones,” said Johns. “It’s a time to be together. ‘Stargirl’ is a show that families can watch together. Hopefully everyone in the family enjoys it for the same and different reasons. It’s a show about the strength of family and bringing family together; I think that’s really important. I think these times remind you just how important family is.”

'Stargirl'

debuts Monday, May 18, on the DC Universe streaming service.

It will be repeated on Tuesday, May 19, at 8 p.m. on the CW.