Interview: Joe Kelly: More Powerful Than A Steaming Locomotive
by R.J. Carter
Published: January 1, 2002
Joe Kelly is a graduate of the ďStanhattan Project,Ē a Marvel-sponsored writing seminar that gave him the edge he needed to claw his way from such titles as Fantastic Four 2099 and What If, to books like Daredevil, X-Men, Deadpool, and now, the crŤme-de-la-crŤme of the superhero genre, Action Comics. In our continuing coverage of the DC Our Worlds At War event, we cornered Mister Kelly to find out a little about him, the war, and other events awaiting The Man Of Steel.
How were you introduced to comic books, both as a fan and as a professional?
As a fan, it started when I was a kid. I had an uncle, who had kept a whole bunch of his comics, and when we would go visit my grandmotherís house, they would just let us play with these big bags of comics that he had lying around. So I started reading Spider-Man, and old horror comics. He had some war stuff, too, but I wasnít really into that. As I got a little bit older, I became a Marvel fan. I got into the New Mutants and the X-Men when I was in junior high. Then that all stopped because they became a little pricey. I was one of these kids buying everything that came out, and I didnít have a job so I had to stop.
When I was in college, I got back into them borrowing graphic novels from people, around the time that Watchmen and Dark Knight was floating around, and that got me back into it as an older fan.
As a professional: I was going to NYU for screenwriting, and some editors over at Marvel contacted the writing department to see if we would want to set up a workshop to find new writers. I happened to work for the writing department at that time, so I very happily ran the program between Marvel and NYU. Thatís how I met some editors over there, and they liked the work I was doing in the workshop, and that led to my first work [there].
And somewhere along the way, somebody called you and said, ďCome write Superman.Ē
(Laughs) Yeah, but that came a few years later. I was working over at Marvel and had been under contract at Marvel for a while, and things werenít all that sunny, so I was ready to leave. Just around that time, the DC guys called and brought up Superman as a possibility. Eddie Berganza called--I think at the urging of Jeph Loeb--and between the two of those guys and about 15 seconds worth of convincing, I said, ďOh, yeah, sure. Iíd love to do that.Ē
When you were at Marvel, you worked on Daredevil--a flippant, smartass, wisecracking guy. Then you worked on Deadpool--a flippant, smartass, wisecracking guy, squared. Does any of that trend show up in your perspective on Superman in Action?
Oh sure. I like to do comedy, and I like to do flip characters, so some of that had to come over. And since we were given an open take on Superman, I was allowed to play him as a little bit younger--a young married guy--so I could infuse some humor into the relationship with him and Lois.
But then, his type of humor is obviously so different than Superboy or Deadpool. I donít think heís very comfortable making jokes. Itís a different type of humor with him. I try to keep it a little more subtle, or relegate that kind of humor to other characters.
When Gorilla Comics was making its debut, you were one of its original founders, alongside Kurt Busiek and George Perez. You were also one of the first to pull out. Since that time, Gorilla has pretty much fizzled; despite putting out some great stories, many of which have gone to CrossGen. What would you have published at Gorilla, and what caused you to reconsider your position?
I was working on a book called Gigi and the Big Four, which is a comedy/fantasy book about these teenage guys that find a genie. Thatís with Pascual Ferry. And that might still have a life! Weíve been talking about it over at DC, and they really like it. Hopefully, weíre going to move forward on that sometime soon. Weíve both been very busy doing other work. To jump into a creator project takes a lot of effort and time, not to mention selling it to somebody, so weíve been keeping that one on the back burner. But Iíd still like to do that book--the project is really dear to both Pascual and I.
I pulled out--it really had nothing to do with the guys, because all those Gorilla guys are top-notch, and pros, and Iím friends with some of them. It more had to do with the financial people that were supposedly backing the studio, and that financial support wasnít as strong as we needed in the beginning. My book was slated at the end of the launch anyway, so it was kind of easy for me to pull out. At least from my point of view, it didnít look like things had settled in the way they were supposed to be from a business point of view.
Speaking of the creator-owned stuff youíre doing, whatís happening, or going to happen with Steampunk and M-Rex?
Steampunk is still plugging along. I know Chris [Bachalo] is working on issue nine right now; eight should be out soon. So weíre still chugging away on that.
M-Rex, unfortunately, is in a position where Duncan [Rouleau] and I can only work on it when we can afford to work on it, because it had such a small print run here that it lost Avalon quite a bit of money. We have to work on it for free, basically. So when we have time, we try to work on it. Issue three is actually done, and weíre just working on four--kind of pecking at it--and when both of those are finished and complete, then weíll try and release them here. But overseas, I think number three is going to show up in France.
The big event this year at DC: Our Worlds At War. In your own words, what is that?
Itís a very big story. We really wanted to do a war story, and put Superman through some agonizing paces, and see what happens to him and what kind of person comes out on the other side. We just got giddy at the levels of escalation we could pull off with planet juggling, and how big a war we could really pull off once we said, ďOkay, itís not going to take place just on Earth.Ē
Itís turned into a juggernaut of a story, but I think one with a strong spine and a cool through-line, a few surprises in it, a lot of adventure and a lot of big pyrotechnics. Itís going to be big, exciting--hopefully Pearl Harbor level craziness!
Whoís the guy behind the War, and have we seen him before (or do we just think we have?)
I donít think I can say whoís behind it, because there are some twists to it, but there has been talk about... weíve seen the characters who are involved in this before. And those are the stories that have been going for a couple of years; the seeds have been planted for quite some time.
DC is announcing on their Direct Currents page that Imperiex is the man in charge.
Imperiex is coming to town! Weíve seeded the Imperiex story for almost two years now, so thereís quite a big payoff for him showing up in this solar system.
Some of the other people who show up: Faora. Zod. These are Silver Age Kryptonian names. Is the War springboarding out of the recent ďReturn To KryptonĒ storyline, or is something else in play here?
In some ways, it is. There are elements of that ďReturn To KryptonĒ story that are not yet fully resolved, and donít necessarily get resolved in the war. But some of them--where those characters come from, the names, their associations with Supermanís past--they get hinted at during the course of the war.
Itís hard to explain the Zod and Faora stuff without giving parts of it away, but youíll be getting much more leading up to the war about those characters and during our groundwork some hints will be laid as to how those characters show up.
The mastermind behind the war supposedly has the power to the whole universe over from scratch. In Crisis, we saw the Spectre literally have a hand in the creation of the universe. In Zero Hour, Hal Jordan went back to the beginning of time to restart things and make them better. Now Hal Jordan is the Spectre. Will he be playing a part in Our Worlds At War?
He doesnít play in as big as people may think. Iím sure heís floating around in there somewhere. But this is a lot less of a spiritual thing, than sort of a force of nature thing that Imperiex is. We didnít go into it with a reboot intention, so people who are expecting that are going to be--hopefully--pleasantly surprised that itís not a reboot.
But there are going to be some cosmetic changes in the Superman character?
Yeah, there are going to be some significant changes to the DCU and the world, and primarily to Superman and the Superman cast. We didnít want to do a story that was just a big crossover with no after-effects. We wanted to make sure there was some payoff for this big crazy story, and that peopleís lives were altered as a result.
Whatís next for Superman?
Thereís a sort of aftermath of what heís going to do after this war, and how is he dealing with the various effects. There are a lot of loose ends in terms of things that were going on in the world before the war erupted--characters like Zod being a good example. We have stuff planned--itís funny, because I canít really go into it without giving stuff away--but we have some stuff coming out that I think is mind-blowing, that Iím very excited about, that just put Superman through some insane paces. If the ďReturn To KryptonĒ story got people all excited, then we definitely have some stuff coming up thatís definitely going to get them out of joint! But in a good way.
You have your hands on what has to be the most important piece of real estate in all of comic book history. How do you top yourself after handling Superman?
You know, itís tough, because it comes with all sorts of extra baggage, working on Superman, and the responsibility to that character. Hopefully youíre making contributions to the overall mythos. Iím going to start working on JLA soon--so to do JLA and Superman, my superhero meter is maxxing out at 57 on a scale of 1 to 10. Itís great and fantastic to play with these characters that have such a long legacy, but it does come with a weight of... ďHmm, maybe my next project shouldnít have anything to do with superheroes,Ē taking a step away from that stuff to recharge other batteries and stretch other muscles.
That being said, I came under Superman as--I think it was pretty well known, I wasnít a Superman fan. I learned to really love this character and everything that he stands for during the course of working on this book. Itís a source of pride for me that I get to write Superman, and I want to maintain that for as long as possible. So as long as the stories are still fun and the people are still responding well, Iím going to stick around and do it. It keeps a certain sort of innocent and optimistic part of my writing alive and vital, where I might otherwise do a lot more darker stuff.
What is it like when the four of you writers get together with editorial to hammer out the plots?
Oh, itís great! I havenít had a relationship with guys this good since [Steve Harris] and I being on the X-Men--our relationship with each other was really tight. And to have that multiplied by four, with Joe [Casey], Jeph, Mark [Schultz] and Eddie [Berganza], itís just been unbelievable. Those guys are all so good. Thereís always going to be personality bumps and stuff like that, but everybody on the team is smart, energized, fun, and really cares about Superman and wants to tell great stories. You get that kind of a combination, and you get Eddie--who is such a great captain of this ship. He knows stuff about the war that I have no clue is even going on. He is so good at juggling stories and keeping everybody up to speed that itís unbelievable. You get all those guys together, good stuff comes out of it. Thereís never been a complaint from any of us about how things are working at DC.
Weíve almost got to the point where weíve been working on this stuff so long together, I canít imagine what itís going to be like if the team changes or somebody decides to leave. Itís really become a very natural aspect to what we do.