With the “Justice League” animated series so popular in all its television incarnations, it isn’t a surprise that DC Comics would launch another Justice League series, chronicling the adventures of Earth’s greatest super heroes. Fans’ wishes for another League series arrived this summer in the form of “Justice League Elite,” a series chronicling the darker side of the DC Universe and showing how the League deals with far more sinister elements than a big killer robot. Writer Joe Kelly took some time to talk to CBR News about the series and explains it originated from his desire to do a darker take on characters with the level of power found within the Leage.
“Essentially I wanted a book where I could put characters through the ringer without having to get permission,” Kelly explained. “When [Editor Mike] Carlin took over the JLA, he suggested a tie in between the Elite and the JLA to be my ‘darker book.’ So the JLE was born – A book about ‘undercover heroes’ who are proactively going into bad places to take down threats before they explode… and trying not to be tainted by the darkness they’re up against.
“Vera Lynn Black is the leader and sister of the infamous Manchester Black. She’s out to make up for her Brother’s crimes, and prove that she can do it better. Manitou Raven is the team mystic, a shaman from 1000 years ago transported here after the Obsidian age. Coldcast was in the original Elite, and is taking this opportunity as a chance to redeem himself. Menagerie is the sister of the original character, who was lobotomized by Black. Kasumi is a mysterious new character – a contract killer who’s turned over a new leaf. Naif Al-Sheih is their human liaison, a former Intelligence Community bigwig who worked in the Middle East. Major Disaster digs Vera’s philosophy, has been a criminal himself, and is along for the ride.”
The team of almost all new characters is joined by two heroes very familiar to readers of all ages- the fastest man alive, Flash, and the biggest loud mouthed liberal archer alive, Green Arrow. Some might expect “darker” heroes like Hawkman or Batman to be more natural to the series, but Kelly says Arrow & Flash were chosen for specific reasons. “After what Geoff did to him in ‘Blitz,’ Flash was primed to be someone who had a little more edge to him, and would want to eliminate threats before there could be a repeat of what was done to him. Plus he’s so damn powerful! Green Arrow works as a great moral center/left wing liberal foil, and I imagined that he’d had some experience in this sort of thing before.”
In the Justice League, many see Superman as the barometer for the heart of the team. He’s the ultimate hero to which everyone else is more of “this” or less of “that.” But Kelly says in “Justice League Elite,” there’s no character that acts as that kind of center. “That’s a pretty big question — I think that in the JLE, everyone stands on their own, exposed and flawed. The point of the series for me was to take these characters who are all ostensibly ‘good,’ and pick at their flaws. What are their weaknesses, and how do they impact on the group? Vera stands as the supposed moral center, but really, everyone is their own judge and jury… and executioner.”
Like a certain web headed cash cow, this series has a strong focus on power and the inherent responsibility of those with it, as well as questioning what truly makes a hero. “I’m hoping to focus on how a person’s personal life impacts on their ‘professional’ life- especially in undercover work,” explains Kelly. “How can you wallow in darkness if you have a drinking problem? Can you have a moral authority over a teammate if you yourself are an adulterer? What’s more important? Staying ‘clean’ or crossing the line to get bad guys off the street? These themes and questions are much more interesting to me than how much stuff gets blown up or inventing a new alien badass.
“Having a good time is the primary goal, but overall I want to tell a good story about a group of flawed people who screw up big time, and have to choose to either suffer defeat or transcend their own weakness. A climb back up from the depths and a rediscovery of who they truly are. It’s basically a 3 year arc.”
Kelly is known for many things- such as his humor- but it has been commented- in both positive and negative contexts- that he is not a simple writer. He’s fond of jumping between time periods and writing very layered stories, something that makes some people feel his work is too dense. “I think that there’s a lot of twisting and heady character stuff coming up, but I’ve made a conscious effort to keep the plot straightforward,” he says of his work in “JLE.” “I want the characters to shine, and their conflicts to dominate the story, so cluttering it up with too many storytelling ‘bells and whistles’ would be a mistake.”
While it hasn’t been confirmed if “JLE” will run beyond the first 12 issue maxi-series, Kelly hopes so and promises that if it doesn’t, fans will still get a great story. “The first 12 are definitely a complete story, ending with cliffhangers, plot threads, etc. for ‘season 2.’ I’m hoping to hear for sure about the next 12 in a month or so.”
One can’t forget the almost universally praised art team of Doug Mahnke & Tom Nguyen who previously illustrated “JLA” and now collaborate with Kelly on “JLE.” “First off, they’re incredible, and hands down one of the best teams in comics. Amazing storytelling, incredible detail, and Doug’s a master of conveying the character’s emotions through ‘acting.’ Their work on ‘JLA’ has been very strong, and they created the look of the original Elite. Best of all, Doug knows how to take the insanity I call a plot and build coherent scenes out of it! You don’t break up a team like that! ”
There’s a lot of debate over “JLE” online, even on CBR’s own Justice League forum, but Kelly says he isn’t aware of those comments because, “I don’t go on-line anymore for feedback for a variety of reasons, so the only comments I’ve gotten are from people at cons and the stores. The most interesting comment has been something to the extent of ‘I thought you were against dark books like the Authority, but now you’re doing one…’ And I basically tell them a) I’m not ‘against’ any kind of books, and b) JLE starts out as one thing, and changes pretty quickly – Stick with it, and you’ll see the big picture.”
As someone who’s written a multitude of superhero comics and most of the major icons, one could think Kelly might be burned out on the whole superhero genre, but he says that he feels there are a lot of stories left in the genre. “That’s another hour discussion! They endure because action adventure is a great escape, and can be used as a platform to tell relatable stories about our fears, hopes, and dreams. They do work like modern day myths, and can be adapted to explore any ‘modern’ theme.”
Kelly is hard at work on “Space Ghost” (about which he spoke to CBR News back in July) and has to head back, but has a few comments for fans. “I want to thank everyone who’s given the ‘Elite’ a try, and I hope that they’re as excited as I am about these characters. I want to warn that they will not all make it out of this series in tact- some lose their way, some lose their limbs, some lose worse… Stick with the whole run, and I think you’ll have a great time!”