Sunday, March 05, 2006

Kelly On, Wayward Son

Why do people hate Joe Kelly so much?

I've read three decent-sized runs by the man: Action Comics, Superboy, and JLA. I've liked all three, at least to a degree.

Superboy was good overall. Kelly introduced some cool new rogues; he used Cadmus well, even telling a heart-wrenching story about the Guardian, the cost of war, the callousness of the Project, and the psychological effects of prolonged combat. He recognized that someone who stays sixteen for years, but doesn't progress past the year of his creation, ends up looking woefully unhip. He put Perry White and Jimmy Olsen in drag to cheer up the Creeper. Kelly told stories that were funny, fun to read, and even had the occasional catharsis. Then, Dan DiDio took over with a run so bad that I groused for months after I heard he was moving up the DC ladder.

On Action Comics, Kelly's run was more hit-and-miss. Kelly gave us "ebonics Kelex" and introduced "shizzle" to the Superman mythos. He bogged the title down with Kancer and the Zod story that wouldn't end and the inexplicable Japanese superhero/villain things. He did...something...with Girl 13 and Natasha Irons, though I don't exactly remember what. Most of the latter part of his run was pretty bland, but so was everything else in Superman. At least he wasn't actively sucking like Casey and Seagle.

But he also gave us a hilarious story about Clark going Christmas shopping while Etrigan wreaked havoc in Metropolis. He gave us the conflicted villain Encantadora, who was typically used to good effect. His "Last Laugh" story was second only to Loeb's "let's stop using Doomsday" tale, showing what happens when a creative Green Lantern actually goes insane. He wrote a really fun story about the Marvel family and a frog-god. I seem to recall that he was even the mastermind behind "Emperor Joker," one of the best Superman storylines in recent memory.

And he did Action Comics #775...which I'll get to later.

Then, there was his JLA run. He had some pretty big shoes to fill, following Mark Waid on a title started by Grant Morrison. Mahnke could be counted on to make the run beautiful, but well-written? "The White Rage" was incomprehensible...I think I've read it three times now, and I still don't have a clue what was going on or who half the characters were. "Stream of Subconsciousness" slammed you over the head with preachy, overtly political allegory. Kelly's last issue didn't really do much to give closure to the Batman/Wonder Woman relationship, and read more like an Elseworlds cost-benefit analysis of their potential union.
But "Two-Minute Warning" was an excellent "day in the life" story, which brought us nicely into Kelly's League. "Golden Perfect" introduced some interesting characters and put a new spin on the importance of Wonder Woman's lasso. "Trial By Fire" may have dinked with J'onn's fire vulnerability in ways that haven't quite been addressed since, but it was a decent story.

Naturally, any examination of Kelly's run has to focus at least a little on "The Obsidian Age." It's the biggest story out of the bunch, and features several different takes on the JLA, all of them interesting. The idea of someone time-traveling to the future from the distant past isn't necessarily brand-new, but it's not one you see very often, and it's definitely not one that you usually see from the point of view of the future people. The Ancient JLA had some fascinating characters, and I'd really like to see them again (maybe a miniseries?). Gamemnae brought both halves of the arc together nicely, and I liked both Nightwing's team, struggling to fill in for the heavy-hitters, and the new additions like Faith and Manitou Raven. Faith deserved better definition than she got, and that's certainly a knock at Kelly, as is the craziness of aging everyone in Atlantis by 15 years (has that ever been referenced again? I don't much like old Lori Lemaris) and killing the whole League. But Raven was a good character who died before he could really reach his potential, and Dawn was nice to have around until she became the new Manitou. Obsidian Age is a nice, epic story. It's not quite Morrison-level awesomeness (though I'd rank it higher than Crisis Times Five), but it's better than a lot of what happened under Waid.

Kelly's best stories, however, weren't the long ones. The two-part Kanjar Ro arc was fantastic, both in terms of characterization and plot. It was a quick, fun story about the League as peacemakers, but the shining moment was when the alien leader asked Wonder Woman if she was a whore.

That was fantastic, and that would have endeared me to Kelly if not for the fact that he'd already won me over with "The Dark Nut Strikes Again." People criticize the story for giving Plastic Man something to be morose about, but the story was hilarious. Batman and Plastic Man should team up more often.

He's not a perfect writer, by any means. He's certainly not my favorite writer. But, when it comes to the best modern one-issue JLA stories, I wouldn't object to including "Two Minute Warning" or "Dark Nut" alongside the best of Morrison or Waid's works. If nothing else, Kelly knows how to tell action stories, wacky fun stories, stories with an emotional impact, and sometimes even stories that include all three. That's more than can be said for many other, more popular writers.


kalinara said...

I don't mind Kelly, but Faith was definitely mishandled. There was no emotional investment at all, for me. I get that she was supposed to be "mysterious", but I think you can only really pull that off if you have something like a solo comic to really delve into the "mystery". As it was, her powers and abilities were never explained adequately (which is I think, important in a group comic), so she became Deus Ex Machina to me, and without any real look at what made her tick, they lost me.

Obsidian Age was a fun story though.

Ragnell said...

I liked Two-minute Warning and Obsidian Age, Golden Perfect was all right, but mainly because it focused on Wonder Woman. But I couldn't take Stream of Subconscious and the White Rage. They combined to be just too terrible and heavy-handed and so earned my eternal dislike.

Tom Foss said...

Agreed, Ragnell. Thankfully, I'm able to quarantine those from the rest of the run in my memory and enjoy the other good stories. I do the same with Morrison's run and "Crisis Times Five," and the exact opposite with the whole of Chuck Austen's work, and "Superman: Metropolis."

Kalinara: it seemed like there was a Faith story that Kelly never got the chance to do (would've been nice if it were there instead of White Rage), and then she got swallowed up by the black hole of awful that was Byrne's Doom Patrol. So, yeah, she ended up a big glowing plot device. I honestly would have preferred her ending up in a relationship or getting some sort of characterization rather than see Dawn macking with Firestorm and Green Arrow in turn, or yet another "I used to be a villain!" comment from Major Disaster

Jon said...

I... kinda like Crisis Times Five. I mean, that part with Captain Marvel and Green Lantern in the fifth dimension's some of the most memorable work Porter's ever done. Good memorable, not "God bless him for trying, he must not have thumbs" memorable. Plus, that's where Wildcat's nine lives first popped up, and I kind of love that.

And also the fact that the Thunderbolt is supposed to be purple now but isn't. I love when fairly recent continuity is ignored without explanation.

Tom Foss said...

Kind of like how the Thunderbolt stopped looking like Johnny Thunder, too. The writers and artists seem to only selectively remember that Johnny and the Thuderbolt got merged.

I liked Crisis Times Five the last time I read it. The problem was, the first three or four times I read it, I couldn't tell what the hell was going on. Except his Julie Schwartz Mystery in Space tribute, and perhaps Arkham Asylum, it remains for me the most confusing Morrison story I've ever read. I'm all for compression, but another issue (or a better artist than Howard Porter) would have done wonders for that story.