Thursday, December 3, 2009

Underrated/Overlooked: JLA by Kelly & Mahnke

Joe Kelly should probably be the poster boy for being underrated and overlooked in comic books.

That I make that statement despite Joe Kelly being quite a well-respected and regarded writer both among fans and his peers should tell you how highly I think of his talent. But while Kelly has a solid reputation as one of the more consistently talented creators of the last 15 years or so, I think most people would agree that he's not mentioned in the same breath as other guys who have significant runs on Superman, the X-Men, the Justice League and Spider-Man as just the tip of the iceberg on their resumes (and there aren't too many guys who can make that claim besides). And we're not just talking about run-of-the-mill stuff here; plenty of folks still speak fondly of Kelly's X-Men work and he also wrote Action Comics #775, the story lifelong Marvel diehards who I worked with at Wizard could not praise enough.

And yet despite those high profile gigs, Joe Kelly is still probably best known for a seminal run on Deadpool of all characters. Personally, I also dug his work on other outside-the-box (but catered-to-me) stuff like his quirky Superboy stuff or Space Ghost mini. I think that Joe is the free spirit type in terms of career path who brings as much enthusiasm to a D-list character as the biggest franchises in comics is both one of his best qualities and maybe also what holds him back from full-blown superstar status that I honestly get the sense he doesn't even covet. Heck, I'll take Joe Kelly over three of most "superstars" any day.

However, when I think about Joe Kelly and being underrated and/or overlooked, certainly the first thing that comes to my mind is his impressive and highly enjoyable 30-issue run on JLA from 2002 to 2004.

Kelly and his artistic collaborator Doug Mahnke had bigger than big shoes to fill on DC's then-flagship book when they took over, as they came on the heels not only of Grant Morrison and Howard Porter's reinvigoration of the brand, but the cut-short run of Mark Waid and Bryan Hitch as well. If they felt the pressure though, Kelly and Mahnke didn't show it, as they got straight down to business and showed an instant understanding of the "Big 7" (minus Aquaman, plus Plastic Man) team as well as a commitment to doing things their own way and not being anybody's cover band.

I would call out Kelly and Mahnke's debut issue, #61, which featured the one-off story "Two Minute Warning," with no real hyperbole as perhaps the best Justice League primer ever written. Part of DC's "Full Coverage" month, which essentially meant easy jump-on points for every ongoing title, "Two Minute Warning" is a day-in-the-life story that takes a two minute slice of each Leaguer's day, lays out the essentials you need to know about the characters, then brings them together for a neat little smackdown on Abra Kadabra in which they demonstrate their teamwork and interpersonal dynamics. In one fell swoop of less than 30 pages, Kelly and Mahnke tell you everything you need to know about why Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Wally West, Kyle Rayner, Martian Manhunter and Plastic Man are each cool on their own, but then also why they're even better when they all get together. The story has since been reprinted several times and for good reason as there is no better "How to Write the JLA" guide I can think of.

And that was their first issue.

After that there's a bit of a stumble with the somewhat meandering Wonder Woman-centric "Golden Perfect" arc, but a beautiful recovery with a fantastic issue spotlighting the relationship between Plastic Man and Batman as the former employs the latter in helping scare his previously unmentioned son straight from a life of delinquency. Kelly shines perhaps brightest when he gets to whittle the team down to a pair of members and zero in on their dynamic, and you can tell he loves writing the polar opposite duo of Bats and Plas. He does a great job of conveying the unexpected mutual respect between the two as well as using Plastic Man to bring out a neat understated humor in the Dark Knight.

From there it's onto the first true epic of the Kelly/Mahnke era, the impressive eight-part "Obsidian Age" (which also includes a two-part prologue). Both gents deserve credit just for churning out a bi-weekly blockbuster for four months straight (with the assistance of Yvel Guichet, who shoulders half the artistic burden), but it also happens to be a good one.

At the heart, "Obsidian Age" is a mystical epic featuring the JLA going back in time to save Aquaman, but Kelly does a nice job grafting on horror elements (which Mahnke excels at depicting) and wrapping it all in a neat super heroic foe that never feels forced or like too much of a shift. There are some truly gnarly fight scenes, some ghastly stuff that happens to our heroes (poor, poor Flash) and Plastic Man coming out like a fucking bad ass right alongside Batman, Wonder Woman and Green Lantern. Joe Kelly and Doug Mahnke give the Justice League a tremendous Butch and Sundance sendoff that feels every bit like the end.

On the other end, in alternating weeks Kelly and Guichet also debuted a new JLA back in the present, and what a wonderfully eccentric and entertaining line-up it was even for five issues, featuring old standbys in Green Arrow, the Atom and Firestorm, some cool new blood in Hawkgirl and Faith, then two complete wildcards with Major Disaster and (of all people) Jason Blood. The topper of course was that Kelly placed Nightwing in charge and did an amazing job writing him as the ultimate team leader he is really meant to be rather than as Batman Jr. I would have loved to have followed that roster for a few years and see where it led.

I think the stuff Kelly can really hang his hat on from "Obsidian Age" though are the cool and unique adversaries he threw at the JLA (who have woefully ignored since) and the unforgettable moments he crafted, from the aforementioned League's last stand, to Etrigan's unsurprising but satisfying cavalry appearance, to Manitou Raven's Apache Chief homage, all the way to Aquaman's inevitable and triumphant return. It's a great ride.

The post-"Obsidian Age" JLA was a mixed bag, as Kelly experimented with a new line-up that was missing mainstays Plastic Man, J'onn J'onzz and Kyle Rayner but introduced Atom and Firestorm back into the mix along with newbies Faith, Manitou Raven and John Stewart. He also delved into some interesting but risky storytelling territory, including a space opera tinged with political intrigue pitting the League against Kanjar Ro, as well as the introduction of a white supremacy-themed villain team. It wasn't all homeruns, but it was always something different and never boring.

Kelly and Mahnke's second big ass JLA opus tugged at the heartstrings while also making you cringe, as it asked the following question: "How scary a villain would the Martian Manhunter be?"

The answer: very very scary.

Entering into an unexpected romantic entanglement with the super villain Scorch and learning to tame his fear of fire in the process, lovable J'onn J'onzz ends up transforming into the ultra-horrifying Fernus, as it turns out that pyrophobia was the only thing keeping one freaky powerful and totally sadistic alien in check. The oft-underappreciated J'onn absolutely tears through the JLA, decimating them physically as well as mentally through the use of his psychic powers. Honestly, some of the pseudo-science behind the birth of Fernus is a little wonky, but you don't really think about that when the reassuring jolly green giant of the Justice League is psychically torturing his friends, anticipating their every counterstrike, and slaughtering nigh unstoppable White Martians with glee and ease.

In a fitting coda to his dwindling time on JLA, Kelly brings it back to Plastic Man to be the League's unexpected savior, paying off so much of the character work he has spent the past few years laying down in the process. I won't spoil how Plas joins the fight or what ultimately brings J'onn back from the brink, but it's all powerful, poignant and wholly appropriate.

Though he would come back later for one more issue to set up his Justice League Elite mini, I really consider JLA #90, illustrated by frequent fill-in artist ChrisCross, to be Kelly's true finale on the book. It deals with another of his long-simmering subplots: a potential romance between Batman and Wonder Woman. Using a device Kelly introduced in a previous story that allows one to experience vivid dreams forecasting possible futures, Diana explores what could be were she to roll the dice on a relationship with Bruce. It's a melancholy issue, featuring both sad and happy possible outcomes for this pair of starcrossed would-be lovers, but as with all of Kelly's run, it's a series of memorable moments and unexpected layers shown by characters we've known for years via new bonds, which does make it the perfect conclusion to a wonderful era of the book.

I'm far less proficient in praising artists than I am at explaining what I love about writing, but Doug Mahnke really is one of my favorites in the field, and he demonstrates every one of the countless reasons why in his work on JLA. His style is not smooth, it's rough-hewn and worn, giving pathos and a sense of reality to the fantastic while at the same time enhancing the more outrageous elements. He is a wonderful designer as he demonstrates in creating the League of Ancients and the other new characters who pop up through the run. He is also a master of the big moment, as well as making villains look truly dastardly and heroes come off unquestionably noble.

Like Kelly, Mahnke has had an incredible career illustrating Superman, Batman, the Justice League and now Green Lantern, but I feel like he's only now getting his just due. It's well-deserved.

Nothing about Joe Kelly and Doug Mahnke's run on JLA felt safe, whether it was turning the Martian Manhunter evil, hooking up Batman and Wonder Woman, or letting Plastic Man be the big hero. They were risk-takers, but not on a whim. You could sense the respect these two had for the larger-than-life characters entrusted to them, and that a large part of that respect meant not growing complacent. While Kelly and Mahnke's JLA may not have been perfect from start to finish, complacency was certainly never a danger that even entered the picture.

14 comments:

JimmyGlenn711 said...

The Burning and Obsidian Age are amazing JLA arcs that are SORELY under-rated!

There's one scene in the Burning that sticks out in my mind. Wally carries an entire town out of the path of a nuclear missile.

I haven't read that in a while but I vividly remember this awesome picture of Wally doubled over from exhaustion by Mahnke,and Kelly explains how Wally carries members of the town one at a time, sometimes two, at the speed of light. I reference that scene so whenever I have to argue the merits of the Flash.

Anyway, great post I completely agree!

Ben Morse said...

I didn't even remember that scene until you just brought it up, Jimmy. I'm a shamed Flash fan.

Frank said...

I got chills during the Obsidian Age when Batman reveals to the New JLA that Nightwing's the leader and says something like "it's the obvious choice." In just a few simple lines, Kelly nailed the relationship between Bruce and Dick without ever having them interact.

Ben Morse said...

Right on, Frank. I loved that bit where Batman talked up Nightwing to the team. It was pitch perfect.

Aroused Migrant said...

I loved Kyle's last stand during the Obsidian Age. That was some real quality writing. And Mahnke draws probably the best John Stewart I've seen.

I like the juggs that ChrisCross drew. Wait, did I type that or think that?

david brothers said...

I wrote about the Flash scene in Burning a while back, but it's always worth a revisit. That Doug Mahnke flash on page 2 is killer.

Great post. I agree with everything you said, though I wish DC hadn't chumped out of collecting JLA 90 and one or two other issues in the otherwise complete run of trades collecting the Kelly/Mahnke run.

JimmyGlenn711 said...

HaHa well Ben, I am a major Nightwing fan and I chose to discuss the Flash rather than talk about Nightwing in Obsidian Age so I am equally shamed.

But while we are on the subject of Nightwing in Obsidian Age, I love when Faith assumes Dick was Batman's son based on how he spoke of him. For some reason that always stuck out as a great scene for Dick to me.

Also, when Jason Blood turns into Etrigan inside of the blond quagmire chick... that was awesome!

One last thing, I kinda wish Major Disaster was used more as a hero. I think Kelly had him pull a comet outta the sky at some point during a fight... maybe?

Ben Morse said...

Yes, I vaguely remember that. Major Disaster was never my favorite part of Kelly's run, but it just goes to show as another testament to the quality that you dug something I completely glossed over.

I wasn't a big Faith fan either, but I figured that was an "if you don't have anything nice to say.." situation.

Etrigan's role in Obsidian Age was excellent.

Johnny B said...

Totally agree. Even though Kelly could sometimes get a little incoherent, and Mahnke (who I consider one of the best there is in recent memory, at least on superheroes) sometimes couldn't present it in readable fashion, this was overall an outstanding run, and I remember it as fondly as I did Morrison's earlier stint.

Vanja said...

I remember the Joe Kelly/Doug Mahke run for two reasons. First, I applauded the choice to try and get more soap opera into the archetypal team by focusing on characters without their own books, and even hinting a Batman/Wonder Woman romance.

The other thing that struck me was how three dimensional Kelly made his villains. Each of them were morally ambiguous and really put the JLA into various gray areas regarding their actions.

I can't say that I particularly like the run as a whole, but one can't really say that the creators didn't try their best at rethinking the team and leaving their own mark on it.

Linh said...

YES TO THIS. ALL THIS.

When I was starting to read comics in high school 'Obsidian Age' was one of my first forays into the main DCU (I had read some Elseworlds beforehand). This left such a strong impression on me that I use trades from Kelly & Mahnke's run to convince people to read superhero books. Usually it works.

I felt 'Golden Perfect' was one of the best Wonder Woman stories I've read. I love the idea of the truth breaking because she doesn't have faith in it. It's truly mind-boggling what can go wrong.

It's funny, too, because I read Morrison's run and Waid's work on JLA after and thought Kelly's was marginally better.

The little tid-bits about context (like Two Minute Warning being his first issue). Makes the whole run much more impressive.

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Dan said...

I know I'm a late-comer to this article, but boy did you nail a whole heap of things that needed to be said with this one.

Joe and Doug's run on JLA was fantastic stuff, and The Burning - one of my all time favourite League if not DC stories.

Best moment? I'd have to run with Batman and Wonder Woman sparring, and all the time Bats was on the phone solving Two-Face's latest crime and running Wayne Enterprises - it was a little touch but again said so much.

Great post!

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