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Superman Vs The Elite: An Interview with Joe Kelly

What IS so funny about truth, justice and the American way? When you ask Joe Kelly that question, he could easily respond “asked and answered”, twice. Joe Kelly’s seminal story “What’s So Funny About Truth, Justice and the American Way?” originally saw print in Action Comics #775 and addressed Superman’s place in a growing culture of jaded heroes and anti-heroes. Joe has returned to his tale for Superman Vs The Elite, a new DC Comics Premiere Movie available on Blu-ray and DVD combo pack tomorrow. Nerdist News is giving you the chance to win a signed copy of the film. Two Blu-ray combo packs signed by writer Joe Kelly and two script covers signed by actress Pauley Perrette (Lois Lane, and NCIS, too) can be won by entering Nerdist News’ ever-so-Elite giveaway, with additional chances to enter at the Nerdist News FacebookTwitter, and Google + pages. We spoke with Joe about his return to his previous efforts, his thoughts on the current state of comics and more.

Nerdist: What challenges does adapting a comic book into a feature film pose? Is it easier since they’re essentially already storyboarded for you?

Joe Kelly: Ha! There’s nothing easier about transforming a comic into a film than there would be for any other medium. I re-read Action #775 a few times, and then pretty much put it aside for the writing of the script. Having images already in print didn’t really help much. As it was, we had to construct a lot of new material for the film so even if I did look at the comic as a “storyboard,” a lot happened between the panels that had to be built from scratch.

For me, the easiest part about translating a comic into a film is that by their nature, the stories are visually driven in either medium. So the thought processes are similar on that level. On the other hand, you get away with a lot in a comic as far as dialogue because time is not an issue. #775 is pretty wordy, so a lot of trimming was in order to do short punchy scenes for the film.

N: You also wrote the source material. Does that make it easier to adapt into other formats or harder because you feel more connected to your work?

JK: In this case, it made my life a lot easier. I’m extremely proud of Action #775, but I also wrote it a long time ago. So while I had a close emotional connection to the source material, it was almost as if somebody else wrote it, which makes it easier to dissect. I knew the story backwards and forwards, and I also knew all the stuff that we were not allowed to put into the comic, some of which made it into the film. I’m not precious about any of it, though. I understand the differences between animation, live action and comics, and I always tailor my writing to fit the project.

N: How did the film change from its original form?

JK: This was the first time (I believe) that Warner Bros. took a single issue and expanded it to feature-length animation, so we had to figure out a way to make it all work. Also, since the comic was written as a love letter/message directly to comic book fans, it was important to expand the story for a casual viewer or a new audience member. This meant externalizing the conflicts in a different way and personalizing them for Superman (and the audience) because we didn’t have the advantage of the common shorthand that we did in Action #775. So you’ll see in the film that the Elite are less interested in taking out DC style super villains and much more interested in having a global impact. This is probably the biggest change from the original story. I think it works well given most people’s perceptions of what’s going on in the world today as well as their relationship to these characters.

N: You wrote “What’s So Funny About Truth, Justice & the American Way?” in part as a response to a trend towards darker, anti-establishment antiheroes and an general backlash against so-called traditional values. Do you still think that is the trend in the comics industry? Why is that the case?

JK: It’s hard for me to talk about the comics industry as a whole in such broad terms. Even though superheroes dominate the American market, there’s so much interesting stuff going on in other genres and indie books that I don’t think it’s fair for me to identify a “trend.” That said, I think that the big companies certainly know who they’re marketing their books to, and a large segment of that audience tends to like their heroes a little edgier. I certainly fall into that land. So if there is a trend towards anti-heroes or darker material, it’s almost explicitly market-driven, not to mention shortsighted. We’re not going to get new readers (a/k/a kids) if every book is about classic superheroes being dissected and darkened. By no means do I think every superhero book should be vanilla ice cream, but there’s a reason that we all fell in love with comics when we were young. They addressed plenty of social issues and had a lot to say about the world at large, but as a whole they weren’t bleak. It’s that lack of hope that I find troublesome, and the idea that superheroes and the ideals they represent are “corny.” Fiction can serve many functions, and doling out hope and inspiration 22 pages at a time isn’t a bad thing at all. But again, there are plenty of books to check out that embrace an optimistic take on the world, super or otherwise.

N: Have you talked to Warren Ellis about The Elite at all? If so, what was his reaction?

JK: No, I’ve never spoken to Warren about the Elite – I think we’ve only met very briefly once a con. At the time that I wrote Action #775 I think Millar was on The Authority, actually.

N: Manchester Black reminds us a lot of Johnny Rotten, but with murderous superpowers. What inspired you in the creation of the Elite?

JK: Manchester was directly inspired by my perception that a lot of the anti-establishment/anti-hero/post-modern comic books were being written by English authors. So I thought the leader of the Elite had to be English. After that the characters mostly came from the idea of taking stereotypes and exploiting them. For example, Coldcast, especially in the comic, is an “angry black man” and he wears it on his sleeve like a badge of honor. I guess that was my post-modernizing of the post-modern anti-heroes: to take these outrageous stereotypes and lay them onto a superhero team.

N: The film deals with some real-world issues like America’s role as a global supercop, but refracts them through the prism of the DC universe. In an election year, many of these issues must be on a lot of people’s minds. How do you address touchier subjects without coming off preachy?

JK: It’s a real fine line. Like any good genre, superhero stories allow us to analyze real-world issues with a little bit of abstraction while still entertaining the audience. As a writer, I personally feel a responsibility to try to do this whenever I can. I know some people don’t like politics mixed in with their superheroes and I’m not really a political guy, but once in a while I get a thought in my head that has to get out. When you work on a character like Superman or the Justice League of America where the United States is so closely tied to their DNA, it seems irresponsible not to address some of these themes. So long as the story stays entertaining or at least thought-provoking and isn’t just one long diatribe, I think the field is pretty wide open for a story that carries a message.

One of the highlights of my career was when we did a story in JLA that was held up on the Joe Scarborough show because I essentially had Superman questioning whether not we should be going to Iraq. In the story, he was branded as un-American for asking questions. The goal of that story was to ask the question, stimulate conversation, and point out that questioning authority is quintessentially “American.” Now remember, this was written during the U.N. hearings where we were being shown fuzzy pictures and told they were “weapons of mass destruction,” but the comic came out months later, a few weeks after George W. hung his “Mission Accomplished” banner and said the war was over. Scarborough called DC Comics the “rat of the week” for using Superman as a liberal mouthpiece suffering sour grapes. That was a happy day for me.

N: You must be buried in books. What comics are you reading and enjoying right now?

JK: Yeah, I read all the time. I’m loving Saga by Brian K. Vaughan and I just read a cool book that’s coming out called Dengue by Rodolfo Santullo and Matias Bergara. I’m catching up on Osamu Tezuka and Urazawa all the time. I just finished the Stephen King book about the JFK assassination, and before that a non-fiction book about the power of habits.

N: Any word on the rumored Deadpool movie? What if we said, “please?”

JK: If the Deadpool movie were actually to go, I would love to participate in any capacity. I hear there is a great script by the guys who wrote Zombieland, but I would still happily sink my teeth into a script anytime. What I need is for someone with global reach and their finger on the pulse of pop culture to let the “Powers That Be” know that I’m the right guy for the gig… If only there were someone like that, interviewing me now… : )

N: Apart from Superman vs. The Elite, what other projects are you excited about that you can share with us?

JK: Man of Action Studios, which is my company with Steven T. Seagle, Duncan Rouleau and Joe Casey, is neck deep in a lot of animation and development of new properties. We’re doing Ultimate Spider-Man for Marvel (which has been a blast) and a few international projects as well. On the comics side I have a lot of independent books in the works, including getting back on track with Four Eyes and Bad Dog. The fifth issues of both are actually finished, I’m just waiting until I have more in the can before we solicit. I learned my lesson the hard way.

I admittedly got sidetracked by the demands of the animation side of our business. Going into the tail end of 2012 and trying to refocus my efforts on original IPs and feature writing. Hopefully, fingers crossed, I’ll be able tell you guys some news about other adaptations soon… But nothing I can say yet! Stay tuned!

Don’t forget to enter the Nerdist News contest to win an autographed copy of Superman Vs. The Elite and get bonus entries via the Nerdist News FacebookTwitter, and Google + pages. For more on what Joe Kelly and the other members of Man of Action have on the way, check out their website.


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  1. Artie says:

    Why only a passing mention of the Authority comic book when the Elite characters were CLEARLY a direct commentary on that book, and not just “darker” characters in general as Joe Kelly suggests?

  2. come on superman pick me to win

  3. Kathy Pearlman says:

    I want! Enter me!