REFLECTIONS: Talking <i>Everything</i> With Joe Kelly

Reflections Volume 3 Number 18

Joe Kelly has a one of a kind writing style. What other writer working in comics today can so effortlessly flip back and forth from really gritty dark storytelling to mainstream pop-culture references, sometimes in the space of a panel or two. He's written the top superheroes (or, in the "X-Men's" case, superhero teams) at both top publishers and lived to tell the tale, and is now hard at work on DC's new breakout character "Supergirl."

Now, onto the interview!

Joe Kelly at Comic-Con International in 2004 playing "X-Men: Evolutions," a game he co-wrote with the Man of Action crew.

Robert Taylor: How's life?

Joe Kelly: It would be fine except for my back. I've got an old back injury that is messing me up.

RT: I'm sorry to hear that, Joe. Hang in there.

You pretty much got started in comics when you got picked out of NYU for a comic-writing program, right?

JK: Yeah. Two editors at Marvel were going to start a new writers' program where they could cultivate people and they happened to contact my department at NYU, the dramatic writing department. I was a graduate assistant working there, so I helped run the program, and because I was part of it, it resulted in my first work.

RT: Did anything else come of the project?

JK: Brian Vaughan was the next guy. There was another girl, who was very young, who wrote a couple "Marvel Fanfares," but she needed plenty of time to cultivate the writing skills.

We only did it for a couple of years, so they got me and Brian and did pretty well. I now teach a corollary of that class during the summers at NYU.

RT: If I do my grad work at NYU I intend to sign up then. What were your first comics in the program?

JK: I started off in "2099." I did "Fanfares" and "World of Tomorrow: 2099," a bunch of "What Ifs" and shortly after that got "Deadpool."

RT: Let's talk about "Deadpool." You were on the book with Ed McGuinness, you were both rising stars and then the book literally popped with audiences before being cancelled at least a good half-dozen times. Talk about how if felt to work on a book that was always so close to cancellation.

JK: It was so rough. The end of it was extremely painful. We had a great time, especially at the beginning; nobody cared what we were doing because everyone thought it would be cancelled within a year anyway. The editor let us experiment and goof around, and then it got to that point where I thought it was going to be cancelled and began to wrap up storylines, before I found out it wasn't going to be cancelled.

At first, I wasn't aware how strong the fanbase was. But there were these amazing, voracious fans who fought to keep the book alive. There were three times when we were assured it would be cancelled and that really messed the book up. Every time we started to get a story going, we'd have to truncate it before learning that we did, in fact, have six issues to finish it. It became very frustrating.

At the end, I told them I couldn't work on the book anymore because it made no sense and I was sure it was going to be cancelled. I was happily surprised to see it kept going, but saddened because I couldn't have stayed with it longer.

"Deadpool" fans were definitely some of the best fans ever.

RT: What were some of those stories you had left to tell?

JK: We were going to do the origin story of Blind Al, and show her as the original Black Widow and show how she was responsible for Wade getting cancer. We were going to do a lot more with T-Ray. There was a lot more in-depth storyline that got washed because we had to rush our other storylines to reach the end.

RT: Now you said you didn't realize the book was getting a lot of acclaim. Are you in the "look at the Internet every day for talk about your books" camp or the "leave it alone and don't look" camp?

JK: The latter. I used to check it out a lot more frequently. If I put something out that I feel was very special or something more oblique and want to make sure people get it, sometimes I'll poke around and see. I did that with "Action Comics" #775 or the political issues of "JLA."

But, as a general rule, I decided early on that you have to accept the praise right along with the criticism. And since my skin is thick, but not that thick, it's better to leave it all aside and hear what they have to say when I actually meet them at a convention or something.

I'd rather let my work speak for itself and not worry too much.

RT: Speaking as someone who wasn't around for the run, I'm guessing something fans didn't really complain about too much was your run on "Daredevil" with Gene Colan.

JK: Um, yeah, I think people did complain. (laughs)

RT: I remember this one day when I was walking though a grocery store and they still had racks of comics - this was way before I got into comics in a major way - I found an issue you wrote and just remember on the first page Matt Murdock was getting a facial. I remember nothing else from the issue, but I remember those cucumber pieces on Matt's face. (laughs)

JK: I was coming to help out because the previous author was wrapping up and I decided to give it a shot. They decided to put Gene on because sales were super-low.

I had a pretty good time. We were trying to do a crime story leading into a serial killer story.

It was one of those things where they put Gene on the book to help bring the fans back and shortly after that they realized that Kevin Smith was going to write the book soon, so they didn't care.

We did some cool stuff, but I like to think of it as a blip between other, bigger things, that went on with "Daredevil."

RT: Speaking of a blip, let's talk "X-Men." What the heck happened?

JK: Steve Seagle and I came onto the books, had a really good time working on the characters and felt very strongly about what we wanted to do and how we wanted to approach the two titles.

Steve and I have very different takes on how we work, and it was great because we both have playgrounds to work in while still having umbrella stories that affected both books. I enjoyed having the brand-new characters and messing around with things that nobody had ever heard of.

As the year went on, there were things that editorial wanted that we didn't necessarily agree with. That is their right, because at the end of the day you are playing with someone else's toys.

But we were frustrated because we were going down a certain path, and then all-of-a-sudden we would have to make a left turn arbitrarily.

It came to a head right after the "Search for Xavier" story. We were presented with the opinion of editorial coming up with a story and telling us what to write. That works fine, but it wasn't what we signed up for, so we quit.

RT: Obviously, you've worked on a lot of crossovers, but do you actually like working on them?

JK: I don't hate them, but they are never comfortable. If you are one of the guys being told what to do, it interferes with your plans and breaks the flow of your own book. If you are the guy in charge, then you know you are pissing everyone off, and there is a bit of audacity with that - your story is better than everyone else's - that I am not comfortable with. So I don't really like them.

I think they are thrown around too much. They used to be really special, but lately they've been thrown around way too much. They come up constantly, and really, what's the point except to bump up sales? It's that horrible Catch-22 where no one wants to do them, fans hate them, and yet they continue to buy them.

In general, I prefer to leave them alone. If you have one good crossover every couple of years that really meant something, then it would be all right.

RT: What did you think of "Infinite Crisis" and "Civil War?"

JK: It's been cool. It's been getting a lot of people excited, which is what they should be doing. It's getting enthusiasm back about the characters.

At the end of the day, the status quo is getting shaken up in a good way with good stories. And they are laying seeds for the next ten years worth of stories, and that is okay. You've got really good guys engineering them.

RT: What made you want to head over to DC and work on Superman?

JK: I had been exclusive at Marvel, and after we left "X-Men," I didn't feel like I would get any more work. I started looking elsewhere and got out of the contract early.

I did some creator-owned projects and met Eddie Berganza at DC, and that is how that happened. Though, truth be told, he liked Steve's "X-Men" better than mine, and thought I had written that one and didn't find out until months later that he had given the wrong guy the job! [laughs]

RT: Wow, that's funny. So, why Superman?

JK: Jeph Loeb was coming on "Superman" and called up and asked me to do it. It wasn't really any choice I made.

From a creative point of view, I had no love for Superman. As a kid, I loved the movies, but I didn't have any strong feelings for him, so I came to it as an outsider and looked at it from a different perspective.

Over the years, of course, I've come to really love him and respect him as a character, but at the beginning it was more circumstantial than anything else.

RT: What interested you most about the character when you first hopped on?

JK: The fact that he was a young newlywed was my favorite part. Especially in that first year there is a lot of banter between Lois and Clark, and I had been recently married myself. He was just a guy finding his way with a tough wife.

Then we did the thing that everyone does where we ratchet back his powers so he's not totally invincible. And then, getting past that personal aspect, the thing I appreciated the most was his undiluted goodness.

We live in complicated times where everything is morally ambiguous, and here is a guy who everyone accepts as a person who is not morally ambiguous. It's very refreshing and a challenge to give him a legit voice. It became very compelling, as shown by stories I wrote later. It's not outdated, and that's something I wanted to show to young readers.

RT: Which segues perfectly into your "Action Comics" #775 story, "What's So Funny About Truth, Justice and the American Way?"

JK: I enjoyed "The Authority" and like dark books for older readers. My instincts tend to skew in that general direction. But then I read an issue that I felt crossed a line, and I felt like it was insulting to the readers. The underlying part of it was that you were an idiot if you like superheroes. That's my personal take on it, anyway.

RT: The issue where they face off against the Avengers clones?

JK: Yes.

It got me ticked off. We had an anniversary issue coming up, and it seemed like a good opportunity to tell that story. I'm very fast and very good if I get pissed about something, and that appealed to Eddie because he knew I could write it very fast.

The point of the story was that the concepts are not outdated just because we have other options with darker characters. It doesn't undermine what Superman stands for.

I'm obviously very proud of the story and happy that it was embraced so well, but the fact that it was Doug Mahnke drawing it made all the difference in the world.

RT: Of all the crossovers you did on "Action Comics," which ones do you look back on and think were good and which ones do you just shake your head at?

JK: We had fun on all of them and had a great time at the Superman conferences. I think "Out Worlds at War" was a little big and should have been smaller. "Emperor Joker" was right up my alley because I like things more absurd and dark. "Y2K" was okay. (laughs)

RT: Let's talk about what would have happened with "Steampunk" after that nice cliffhanger ending that finished the series.

JK: The other thing I don't check is sales, and it used to infuriate Jeph because when he told me about the numbers and I had no idea what they meant. I can't spend my whole life doing the same thing all the time and "Steampunk" was an experiment.

We messed around with a bunch of different storytelling techniques, and it got a little muddled because everyone was working so hard. I like to think of all of us having the volume turned up to 11. Chris Bachalo and I sat down and decided to create a book you had to read more than once to get the full story.

So "Steampunk" really should have been a Vertigo book and if it was it would have made it through to the end, but because it was a Cliffhanger book, its cutoff was a lot higher.

Once we hit 30,000 copies, that was when they worried whether we could lose money. So we made it to the halfway point, and they said they wanted to wrap it up in two issues! I had really mapped it out to 25, and I said absolutely not. We'd rather kill it in the middle than cram the ending.

And that's what happened.

In the second half, it would taken place in America. Cole was going to bail on the rest of the crew because he had Fiona back. So everybody split up and they were going to ride the submersible Titanic across the ocean and have a big battle there, and he was going to discover that he did not, in fact, have his long lost love.

And then it was going to become a race to hook up with the demon, and then they would have met Abraham Lincoln, who was a shaman warrior. There were a couple cool American characters who were going to show up.

And it would have stopped with one of my favorite endings of all time: he ended up with both girls. (laughs)

RT: I'm sure you've made several fans very happy with that. Let's talk "JLA" and why you stayed on it for so long.

JK: I love "JLA." Dan Raspler and I had spoken earlier when Mark Waid came on, and when he was done I was offered a shot at it. Basically we had just gone to war, and it seemed like a pretty good time to have a book with America in the title.

I was enthused about the prospect of taking social issues and looking at them through the superhero lens and asking "what does America really mean?"

Plus, you get to play with the biggest toys in the DCU. And I got to work with Doug again.

One of the cool things about crossovers is that you can do humongous stories in your own book because it can stand on its own. Others can reflect some stuff, but you don't have to worry what they are doing.

I loved the ability to weave in not-so-subtle social issues and critiques of American culture.

RT: Who was your favorite member of the JLA and your least favorite member?

JK: I love Batman. I liked them all for different reasons. Of the big seven, The Flash was my least favorite because I didn't have a lot to do with him. I liked him fine as a character, but I didn't get him. He's a good escape hatch if I write myself into a corner, but I never wanted to sink my teeth into him.

RT: What about that single-issue story where you introduced Plastic Man's son?

JK: That came as a suggestion from Dan DiDio at some point. I was heavily influenced by cartoons growing up, so the idea of a baby Plas struck me as funny, but making him older and more of a jerk would be fun. They pointed out Offspring from "Kingdom Come," and I decided to introduce him into the book as the illegitimate offspring of Plas, because he's not the kind of guy who would settle down.

Plus, it was a great excuse to team him up with Batman, the king of the father/son issues.

RT: "Space Ghost" completely came out of nowhere and I'll admit to being one of those people who didn't pick it up until the fourth issue and then being floored by how good it was. So, why "Space Ghost?"

JK: I always felt that the characters in the cartoons were left to rot and could have been so much cooler than people thought. Space Ghost is a character I remember being creepy and wanted to bring that feeling back.

I had talked to Joey about taking the Hanna Barbara line and doing them with a modern twist. What I wanted to do was very straightforward: a two-fisted action hero in space, it wasn't much deeper than that.

It was also an experiment for me because I tend to be verbose and have really in-depth plotting and here was something I could write that was stripped down and straightforward.

Joey told me Ariel Olivetti was painting and it clicked with me. We are used to seeing the characters in grainy old cartoons and it felt right to see it painted.

It played out pretty well. (laughs)

RT: And now you are going to be doing Johnny Quest?

JK: I have actually been working on Johnny Quest for a really long time. Johnny Quest has been an on-again/off-again project. But now I'll be able to actually finish it.

It started just as my contract was running out at DC and I started working on animation and put it on the backburner. It's halfway done and hopefully more will be coming soon.

RT: How'd "Supergirl" happen?

JK: The way a lot of my work happens. He needed somebody to help out when Rucka was taking over the book, so I started to do fill-ins, and then Greg couldn't do the book and asked me to take over.

I said okay, but presented the type of Supergirl I wanted to do, which had not a lot to do with the character the other guys were doing. That's why there was an abrupt change between the Kandor story and my solo stuff.

RT: How long are you planning on sticking with her?

JK: Awhile.

RT: Did you like how she was introduced in "Superman/Batman" and Jeph's original arc on the book?

JK: Yeah. It was really cool! I love that she is not squeaky clean and therefore is a much more interesting character to me than if someone else had brought her back. Her first arc on "Supergirl" had a lot of cool stuff, with her being sent to kill the baby is the spine of what I want to do with the series.

RT: Tease us with some upcoming stuff!

JK: We are going to find out the truth about Kara's relationship with her father and why she has to kill Superman. Her relationship is going to come to an interesting head soon.

I just love her so much as a character. The plan for Kara's first year is to put her on her own and have her think she can succeed with everything and every single thing she tries she fails at. She's headstrong and conflicted and as a result fails at things.

I love that! It seems very real to me. I love her smacking into brick walls of her own making. A lot of that is going to play out as we come to the next arc with her father.

RT: What else are you up to?

JK: I do a lot of animation. I spent the last year story-editing a cartoon called "Chaotic" that is on the air now.

We are also developing a new cartoon with a Korean partner that I am really excited about that is going to be a 3D computer-animated show.

I've also got a lot of weird comic projects in various stages. There is a miniseries/graphic novel called "I Kill Giants" that I am really excited about. It took me years to find the right person to draw it and I found him. It's a young European guy and you'll hear more about that soon.

I have another Vertigo-type crime book pitching around. If it doesn't get picked up by Vertigo, we will self-publish it.

It's been an interesting couple of years because I've been going between comics, cartoons and other. I definitely want to do comics, but I am attracted to more mature, less mainstream work.

RT: Ready for the lightning round?

JK: Sure.

RT: What was your first comic book?

JK: It's a Spider-Man comic where he is being tricked by Mysterio into thinking he is fighting all his enemies when, in fact, he is punching a wall.

RT: Has there ever been a comic that touched or changed your life.

JK: Hmm…that's a good question.

RT: Thank you!

JK: "Dark Knight" is something I bust out periodically, and I have a deep love for "The Crow."

"Elektra: Assasin" was mindblowing.

They all impacted me in very creative ways.

RT: What's your favorite curse word?

JK: In my most angry, bang-my-head against the wall situations I do drop the C-bomb. It's not one I necessarily say in front of anybody, though.

RT: If you could only write one book for the rest of your career, what would it be?

JK: I have to say it would have to be a book I haven't done yet. If I had to pick something, it would have to be something of my own creation. The idea of being Charles Shultz doing one thing forever is pretty damn cool.

Probably a werewolf book.

RT: Who would be your art partner?

JK: Oh, that's hard.

RT: Anyone alive or dead. I just made it harder.

JK: I don't have a good answer for you, in part because I'm really bad with names.

RT: You could do the cheating answer most writers do and say that every arc would have a different artist.

JK: [laughs] That's all right. I just don't have a good answer. I'm chickening out.

RT: What's the best comic book movie ever made?

JK: The first "Spider-Man."

RT: What is your favorite convention experience?

JK: At my very first convention someone came up to me and wanted me to sign his books, but had ripped holes in the plastic around it for me to sign through. He didn't want me to touch the comics.

I found that very - unique. I couldn't touch the comics that I wrote.

RT: If you were to be remembered for only one thing in your career, what would it be?

JK: I just recently found a list of goals that I made for myself years ago, and one of them was that, by the time I was 50, I would have a beloved property. I don't know what that meant, but if I were to have one creation that wholly did not exist when I came to it, but existed years after I was done with it, that would be something to be remembered for.

RT: Thanks, Joe.

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