You know writer Joe Kelly from, well, everywhere.
Continuing CBR’s spotlight on the venerable Man of Action creative alliance & studio, CBR News spoke with Kelly about his upcoming DC work and why he isn’t sure what his graphic novel will be about for now. At booth 5333 in the middle of the Comic-Con International in San Diego, Kelly began with an introduction to the recently released “Justice League Elite,” a creative collaboration with artists Doug Mahnke and Tom Nguyen.
“It’s an offshoot of the JLA with a team that is darker in tone, basically undercover superheroes and I wanted to do series with characters of that power level that go into a darker world, faced with morally heavier questions,” explained Kelly. “How do you interact with bad people without becoming bad yourself?
“Some of this just came with darker themes and more interpersonal themes, but then a lot of it just comes it comes from my interest in cops, my dad is a retired cop, and my interest in that life where our protectors are surrounded by the worst humanity has to offer. How do you go in and do your job without it affecting you?”
While group editor Mike Carlin has joked that the series will feature the stories he wouldn’t allow with the core Justice League, Kelly admits there are still limits to what he can do. “It’s not an all ages book, but it doesn’t have a mature rating on it either; it’s a little more graphic and we deal with adultery, murder and drugs, darker themes you don’t normally put into superhero stories.”
The cast of “Justice League Elite” is open for rotation for the course of the 12-issue maxi-series, but there’s a core group that Kelly is happy to introduce. “Sure, well the well-known ones- you’ve got Flash, Green Arrow, Manitou Raven, who’s a new character in the JLA we introduced last year, Major Disaster. Then we’ve Vera Lynn Black, also known as Sister Superior and Manchester Black’s sister who’s trying to fix what he did wrong; The Hat; Menagerie, the sister of the Menagerie from the original Elite and then Coldcast, who was also part of the original Elite.”
Some might be surprised that “Justice League Elite” is only a twelve-issue mini-series and that isn’t because of a lack of faith in Kelly & Mahnke- as Kelly explained, it’s about being realistic. “It’s tough to launch something new and instead of going full hog saying this is going to be an ongoing, we decided to it for twelve, see if people respond to it and then go. I’m going to do more superheroes and I’m not sure what I want to do next: there’s been some talk at DC and we’ll go from there.”
The next DC project from Kelly is “Space Ghost,” a mini-series that’ll focus on the first year of the cult-classic Hanna-Barbara cartoon, with covers by the fan-favorite painter Alex Ross. “It’s basically like ‘Space Ghost: Year One’ and it’s very much in the pulp two fisted tradition, a little bit of Lone Ranger to it, extrapolating that the Space Ghost had darker roots. At least that’s how I remember it- a very cool, hard core character. I think it’s a great arc- Ariel Olliveti is doing it on the computer and it’s beautiful. It’s basically a six-issue arc of Space Ghost going from vengeance to justice.
“If you were familiar with the original cartoon, you get a feeling of where he’s gonna go and become an intergalactic policeman. The story is self-contained, going from the beginning of his career to becoming Space Ghost and you don’t need to know anything coming into it all.”
From the serious adventures in the original “Space Ghost” cartoon to the late night antics in “Space Ghost Coast To Coast,” the character has adapted to many different takes and Kelly has an idea why, saying, “Well you know the Adult Swim stuff was a big leap and they realized they have this franchise lying around, so why not do something with it? He is a bit of a cipher- any of those characters from the old cartoons leave you with whatever you remember, not the details really and so for me, I took the pieces from it that struck me as a grown up and extrapolated those into a story because there was never much done with the character. But Batman can hold 15 different versions and no one cares- I’m not sure Space Ghost fits into that yet.”
The involvement of Alex Ross in the project is a huge coup for Kelly and he says the involvement of the “Kingdom Come” painter came easily. “He’s a big fan and Joey Cavilleiri called him up to see if he wanted to do the Space Ghost covers. That’s something that’s been really nice about the project- from Ariel to Alex to Joey, we all like those cartoons and that labor of love aspect is in there and really shows.”
Talking to Kelly at the Man Of Action booth, you’ll be quick to realize something: the writer loves Hanna-Barbara cartoons and while his desire to write “The Secret Adventures of Oogla” isn’t the most common comic book dream job, he says his love for the shows is similar to those with a passion for “Transformers” or “G.I Joe.” “I like those too and the shows were all pretty formative for me. But even the old Spider-Man cartoons from 67 were re-ran to 75, so that’s how I got into those. Part of the interest [in the Hanna-Barbara shows] is recapturing those elements from your childhood- the action & adventure, it’s also unadulterated fun. They weren’t self conscious- they didn’t have to be super cool or ironic to be fun. It’s like ‘here’s some cool, kick ass monster we’re going to fight and let’s have fun!’ That’s the greatest appeal to me and not all these concepts need updating per se- the two I focused on were ‘Space Ghost’ and Apache Chief. I thought it was appropriate and I bend those as needed- some are perfect, like ‘Herculoids’ and I’d love to do a series of that show. All I would do is expand the background because you never knew why the aliens were coming to Earth or the character relations, so I would just flesh that out. ‘Thundarr’ is another perfect one that wouldn’t need tweaking- the post apocalyptic setting is great and I love anything with magic & technology at the same time. That one I would play as is and modernize the storytelling.”
Kelly loved work on the “X-Men Legends” video game and while he compared it to script writing, in terms of density and the people involved, he’s enjoyed the experience. “It’s very exciting to play the game and I’ve really enjoyed it- I can’t wait for its release in September.” Kelly also added you won’t see elements from his run on “X-Men” pop up in the game, despite fan adoration for his work with fellow Man of Action cohort Steven Seagle on the X-titles.
While his other studio mates have graphic novels planned, Kelly isn’t planning one quite yet and says there’s no big creative obstacle to overcome. Man Of Action has been collaborating with Richard Starkings, who has supported the team from day one and whom Kelly feels is a man with a vision. “It’s not a block, more trying to narrow down what to write. From kids books to adult graphic novels, there’s a lot I want to write and trying to find what’s available to me in terms of people wanting to publish and then looking at the ten things I want to do, and doing just one. I’m leaning towards a dark comedy- Richard puts out interesting products and he looks for quality projects that are interesting, not just cookie cutter mainstream stuff.”
Many of the pros at the convention have commented on the frenzy by many to get “con exclusive” items, but Kelly doesn’t feel it is necessarily a bad thing. “That cracks me up. When you see people hungry for that kind of thing, it’s easy to laugh at them and there’s certainly a commercial aspect that can be sort of devious, to make people pay extra, but I love that there’s this culture of imagination. They get into their fantasy, hard boiled detective novel or fantasy for example, and they want to really get into it and run with it. They really get great enjoyment out of other people’s efforts. So if an exclusive toy helps them fill a dimension of their collection, that’s great! Hopefully they’re not getting ripped off, that’s all- I just don’t want to see people getting ripped off who are in to these things.”