As part of the Free Comic Book Day promotions, one of my local shops had their entire back issue bin comics priced at $1.00. After helping my daughter find her Shrek and DC Kids free issues, I managed to pick up quite a few comics I had missed over the years and some that were now cheaper than their collected edition counterparts. Finding a few issues of Air, Secret Six, Wonder Woman, and Detective Comics, I happened to score several of Joe Kelly’s first JLA stories, including the “Golden Perfect” story arc. I was first introduced to Kelly’s work through his “Obsidian Age” arc during the course of my own research and after interviewing him about it, I also read his Justice League Elite mini-series. Kelly’s tenure on the JLA is an amazing one, especially in consideration of the series itself and the two authors who preceded him—Grant Morrison and Mark Waid. Morrison had inaugurated the series, resurrecting the top-tier team members with larger-than-life epic stories and grandiose concepts. For nearly 40 issues from 1997-2000, Morrison directed this new incarnation as though it was a big-budget motion picture with an unlimited resource of special effects and computer generated graphics. Inheriting this best-selling series was no small venture, but Mark Waid proved a worthy successor for almost two years, taking Morrison’s external threats to the League and transforming them to illustrate the internal dynamics of the team as it faced betrayal, corruption, and paranoia from within its own ranks. In the process, both authors put a very distinctive stamp on the series, highlighting each other’s contributions and differences as a result. Where would Joe Kelly fit into this world? How would he move the JLA forward and remain innovative yet respect the foundations established by Morrison and Waid?
Coming onboard in 2002, Kelly’s first JLA story was not a multi-issue arc or epic event, but rather a stand-alone issue that highlights his major strengths as a writer. JLA #61 “Two Minute Warning” is a day-in-the-life examination of the Justice League members, as Kelly showcases each member’s individual life and its collective connection to the team and the threat they face. What is immediately apparent within the first two pages is that Kelly lost none of his snarky, biting humor that readers had become accustomed to during his run on Deadpool, and while comparing the Marvel mercenary with the preeminent DC superheroes appears foolish, Kelly succeeds in transposing that same approach to these iconic figures. Although it is not apparent in the beginning what threat Superman and Martian Manhunter are facing, Kelly shows us that the heroes’ worlds outside of their costumes are just as important to who they are as are the constant threats they face on a daily basis. While Superman joking with Lois may not be new, the added sexualized elements that Kelly playfully presents humanizes the character in a way vividly absent in most interpretations. Or, who hasn’t faced the condescending barista at a coffee shop or suddenly discovered the troubles of living paycheck-to-paycheck like Kyle Rayner? Yet, does this down-to-earth approach and focus on the internal lives of the heroes like Waid betray Morrison’s epic vision—not in the least. No, instead Kelly has Green Lantern fork-lifting Long Island out of the Earth itself or Wonder Woman lassoing and subduing a giant Kraken juxtaposed against these portraits. With humorous scenes such as Green Lantern interacting with his own ring, Batman’s ability to multitask during combat training, or the Flash saying “you’re touching me. Batman is touching me. I’m going to die, aren’t I?” Kelly works in the familiar JLA playground established by Morrison and Waid while making the series distinctively his own.
In the end, the epic battles reduced to insect-sized threats, the promise of future troubles and continued dangers are nothing new for the Justice League. But Kelly’s JLA is not just silliness and humor; he also spends considerable time exploring gender, racial, and political issues in subsequent stories, and his efforts are aided in large part by the excellent artwork of Doug Mahnke. Fans of his work on Blackest Night will appreciate his early zombie efforts in the “Obsidian Age” arc. These single issue gems are sometimes peppered between Kelly’s arcs, with issue #65 springing immediately to mind that viewers of Cartoon Network’s Batman the Brave and the Bold may enjoy. With stints on Action Comics, Supergirl, Amazing Spider-Man, and other titles, Kelly has solidified his position as one comic’s most creative writers, a feature that has carried over quite well to his involvement with Ben 10 on Cartoon Network.