Phillip Kennedy Johnson, ’01, has managed to build not one, but two successful careers in different creative spheres. After graduating from the EKU School Music, he toured with world-renowned jazz acts as a trumpet player. In his second act, he became a prolific writer of comic books for studios like BOOM!, Marvel, and DC.
The latter pursuit reached new heights this year. In March 2021, Johnson became the new writer for DC’s Superman and Action Comics series.
“It’s an incredible honor to have the opportunity,” he said. “Superman was my first hero, and I still have a super clear vision of who the character is, and who he should be. I hope to write the character for a very long time.”
For Johnson, the character Superman has always represented a timeless, yet timely truth.
“Superman should always be an aspirational character. He should be the very best of us, and he should in turn make us want to be our best, too. The Superman power fantasy isn’t his power itself. It’s the belief that we can be the very best version of ourselves; that we can be strong and compassionate, that we can be extraordinary and use those powers to help everyone.”
Though Johnson’s first aspirations were in music, he’s been an avid comic reader for most of his life. In fact, the writer learned to read from the weathered comic books his dad brought home from flea markets. He recalls being especially drawn to DC’s Batman, and of course, Superman.
“Those two characters represent very specific power fantasies that I loved, even then,” Johnson recalled. “Batman represents the idea that you don’t need superpowers to be superhuman. Superman represents the idea that great power doesn’t have to corrupt, that it’s possible to be the toughest guy in the room and use our powers purely to help people.”
Johnson set his sights on a music career shortly after moving from his home state of Iowa to Mt. Eden, Kentucky. Attending EKU Honor Band in high school, and bonding with former trumpet instructor Dr. Kevin Eisensmith, convinced him that Eastern was the place to pursue it.
“I was fortunate in that EKU also had a lot of other great faculty and students with whom I became very close, and a huge variety of ensembles that offered a ton of experience for musicians who are hungry to learn as much as they can,” said Johnson. “EKU had become a very familiar, welcoming place to me by then.”
One of Johnson’s fondest EKU memories is the School of Music’s annual Jazz Festival, and one in particular in which he and visiting jazz trumpeter Bobby Shew traded solos on Dizzy Gillespie’s “A Night in Tunisia.”
“I learned a lot from that experience, and it inspired me to work even harder toward my goals.”
After graduation, Johnson went on to earn a master’s degree in music performance from the University of North Texas. It was during this time that his musical dreams began to come to fruition: Johnson was recommended by a classmate to join the Glenn Miller Orchestra, one of the world’s most sought-after big bands. After touring the world with them for a year and a half, he joined the Army Field Band in Washington, D.C. It had been a goal of his since starting at EKU. Johnson is still an active member of the band and resides in the D.C. area.
If you asked Johnson how he conquered two worlds, he would say, “one goal at a time.” It was actually his brother who caught the comic book bug at first, but it proved contagious. He moved in with Johnson in Washington D.C., and as they began learning about comic writing together, Johnson discovered a new and unexpected passion.
“The writing career isn’t something I expected back then, because I was so laser-focused on my music career,” said Johnson. “At EKU, I just sold my soul to the practice room and rarely made time for other things.”
Eventually, Johnson’s work was noticed by BOOM! Studios, and his star rose from there. Johnson continues to make music with the Army Field Band while writing comic books. The ability to pursue two successful creative careers is not something he takes for granted.
“Now that (my writing career has) happened, and I have the opportunity to write stories and work with world-class artists as well as compose and perform music, my work days are unbelievably rewarding,” Johnson said. “Keeping both careers going takes a lot of work, but I can’t imagine giving up any of it. I’ve been really fortunate.”
That success, he said, is not reserved for the Supermans of the world. Johnson advised students looking to follow in his footsteps to commit to those goals completely, never fearing to be “excessive.”
“Focus on your goals, and pour your whole self into them. Don’t let other people’s decisions impact your own,” said Johnson. “If you want to do exceptional things, it will take exceptional dedication and hard, smart work. It will take behavior that other people might consider excessive. I’ve found that to be true in any worthwhile pursuit.”