JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA

Not Just the JLA

Joe Kelly on JLA Elite

06 July 2004 • reprinted from Newsarama

This month, it starts — the Elite, last seen in Action Comics #775 return in JLA #100. While their last appearance allowed a clear distinction between Superman and “darker” heroes such as The Authority, their return marks something that, at the surface, may seem incongruous — a merger between the darker team and the JLA.

Nutty, right? Maybe not. JLA writer and artist Doug Mahnke are on tap for June’s JLA #100, which sets the stage for July’s debut of Justice League Elite, a 12-issue maxiseries (with an open end if it has the support) starring the result of JLA #100’s merger.

This time around, the Elite is led by Vera Black, the sister of Manchester Black, who went to-to-toe with Superman in Action #775. And that’s not the only difference. We caught up with Kelly for more.

Newsarama: Let’s go back to the start of how the series and concept got started. Was this something that [JLA editor] Mike Carlin and DC came to you with, or was this something where you saw the rotating creative teams coming to the JLA, you wanted to stay with the team?

Joe Kelly: There was a combination of a couple of factors. The first was that, shortly after we did Action #775, DC was interested in doing an Elite miniseries or an ongoing, but I didn’t want to do it for various reasons, but mainly because I didn’t think it made any sense to have an Elite ongoing, when you had the Authority and darker books like that out there. So the idea of an Elite series in and of itself kind of died on the vine, but Dan Didio did mention it periodically.

Then, when I was working on JLA with Dan Raspler, there had been a mandate to generate more JLA stuff. They liked how things were going, and wanted to expand on the brand a little bit, so I pitched them a darker team — an idea of basically splitting up the JLA into a lighter team and a darker team, and have the “darker” team be a little more aggressive — more of an adult book, but with JLA characters. Specifically, characters that we could manipulate a little more, and not be so tied into other continuity. They were kind of into that idea, but it didn’t particularly go anywhere.

NRAMA: So what got the idea back on the table?

JK: It came when Mike took over JLA, and we started talking about what to do for issue #100. He wanted to get the books all on schedule — so that was why we had that leap between issue #91, my “last” issue before all of this, and issue #100. Then, Mike asked about me doing JLA and the Elite in issue #100. I told him that I didn’t just want to rehash Action #775, but he stopped me, and said he was talking about using the Elite as part of that darker JLA team I had been talking about earlier. That was the genesis of starting that series — the idea of taking the Elite, and moving it forward, and really making it a book about, essentially undercover cops, instead of an evil superhero team was much more appealing.

In terms of the rotating teams, they knew that I was getting a little burned on writing bright and shiny superheroes, after a long run with Superman and then JLA. So the timing of trying something darker, and replacing me for a time on JLA with rotating arcs just all clicked together.

NRAMA: So that’s the “production-side” start of things, but what about story-wise? It all starts in JLA #100…what’s the impetus for Vera Black to start this team and go to the JLA, thinking they would be up for something like this?

JK: Vera — whose code name is Sister Superior - is now the leader of the Elite. Basically, she has a tie to the original Elite — Coldcast and Menagerie, although it’s not the same Menagerie are back, too. From a story point of view, she’s been running around the DC Universe doing clandestine operations that no one would ever hear about. A story bubbles up that causes her to contact the JLA — and that’s the story for JLA #100. But as far as the JLA knows when she first shows up, the Elite are back, and they’re being led by this new woman, who, at fist blush, seems to be pretty evil.

So, she contacts the JLA, and has a reason to think that a Justice League/Elite union is a good idea. So Vera makes this pitch to them in the context of a world-saving event.

NRAMA: So she pitches that this one event is something they can handle together, and there are other problems that they can handle as well?

JK: Right. As a result of how things work out in JLA #100, she’s able to illustrate her point that the JLA needs to have a type of unit working on the “other” side — somebody working in the muck, acting bad, portraying themselves as the villains to be the JLA’s undercover cops, but on a metahuman scale. Without it, a lot of things can slip by, and the JLA is left doing damage control all the time.

NRAMA: And that’s basically, every JLA story ever, pretty much…

JK: Exactly — page 1 — something bad happens, and the JLA has to respond to it. In Vera’s sales pitch to the JLA, the teaming with the Elite would be there to nip all of that in the bud — get to the problems before the explosion on page 1 that the team then has to respond to, so to speak.

NRAMA: Pulling back and the broader picture — what kind of threats does the JLA Elite go after?

JK: A large part of what they do is gathering intelligence and then acting on it in the way that’s most appropriate, so sometimes that’s going to be a preemptive, SWAT team style strike on bad guys who are making ready to launch an attack; while other times, it’s going to be working directly undercover alongside these villains to find out the depth of an operation. For example, if you know Gorilla Grodd has got something going on, you could grab him and throw him in jail, but it might be better to know the full extent of what he’s doing, how he’s amassed an army, where this army is stationed, and then shut them down. So they do a lot of that, cozying up next to people, living in that world, and walking alongside killers to eventually bring the whole house of cards down.

But yeah — their threats are primarily big, meta-human type threats. It’s all JLA types of stories, but hitting them from the inception point of the threat. If the Justice League Elite didn’t exist, speaking in terms of a strict monthly timeline, the threats they go after would explode in front of the JLA in five issues. In five months, what the Elite is investigating now would be a JLA story.

NRAMA: So going back to the Gorilla Grodd example, the JLA story would start with an explosion and Grodd’s army invading, but with the JL Elite it’s…

JK: Monkeys are wigging out at the zoo, and the team figures out messages are being sent by Grodd, and they find a way to tap into his communications, either by figuring out the signal, or cozying up to a monkey, to make a goofy example even goofier.

NRAMA: The approach sounds similar in a way to how Judd Winick describes the Outsiders, in that they’re around to get the bad guys before they can start trouble. Is it fundamentally different from that team’s mandate, or is it a matter of the DCU being a big enough place that it can allow for two groups of this nature operating?

JK: I think there are similarities to the Outsiders in that, tonally, we’re doing similar kinds of books. But I don’t know how much undercover work they’re doing in the Outsiders, or how much they use their lives or careers as criminals to get the job done. The Outsiders are going after people, but the Elite are really setting up sting operations on a JLA level. Also, these guys exist in a non agreed-to agreement with all the secret service organizations around the globe. They’ve basically been told that the Elite exist, but they can never say they exist, and by the way, the Elite may be poking around in your backyard, so don’t get in their way.

It’s very aggressive, but the shadowy corner of the world — the CIAs, MI-6s, Mossads and the rest understand that the Elite is a necessary condition for the world that we live in.

NRAMA: On the JLA side of things…are you able to pick and choose who’s needed for what mission, or are their standing JLA members who are now standing JL Elite members as well?

JK: The members that are in the first maxiseries are members who have committed to the Justice League Elite, with really only one exception, who’s working both teams. The characters on the Elite are there mainly because they fit better there — their talents are better utilized in this way, or they already have connections in the underworld scene.

Major Disaster, for example, is with the Elite team. On the first page of the first issue, we’ve got him ragging on the JLA to other criminals along the lines of why did he ever think they would trust a former criminal? But that’s part of his cover — the other criminals will instantly sympathize with him because the view of the JLA members he’s giving agrees with what they would think they would say — just keep Disaster around as a lackey, someone who they’d never look at as an equal. He’s tailor-made for this team.

If this goes past the maxiseries stage, I would definitely like to see a bit of an exchange program though, and bring on some other characters.

NRAMA: So there are more JLA beyond Flash and Green Arrow who join up, as shown on the cover to #1?

JK: Oh yeah — Manatou is in there, as well as Major Disaster. From the old Elite, we’ve got Menagerie and Coldcast, and also Vera and Kasumi, who are both new; and as I said earlier, this Menagerie is new, too.

NRAMA: You’ve said that Vera makes a pretty strong case that a team-up between the Elite and JLA is a good thing, but you also wrote Action #775. Is Superman going to sit back and let this happen, or is he going to have serious reservations about teaming with a group that he pretty eloquently showed to be the opposite of what he stands for?

JK: Oh, Superman has very serious reservations. All the League does. The guys who choose to go over are adding credence to what Vera is proposing to the Justice League, but Superman and Batman obviously, have a lot of problems with the idea. That’s really the heart of JLA #100 — Superman’s feeling about the Elite, and whether or not what they need ot do can be done because of his personal feelings. Can he trust Vera?

What Vera’s basically proposing is that they can create a team of specialists, covert superheroes, who will wallow in the filth of the underworld, but come out clean all the time. Superman just doesn’t believe that’s possible. As much as he has faith in the goodness of human beings, he just doesn’t believe that’s a reality.

NRAMA: And Batman?

JK: Batman actually does approve of what Vera wants to do, but doesn’t know her form Adam…or Eve, I guess, so he has no interest in giving her that much authority.

But — that said, enough of the Leaguers show an interest in what she’s proposing, and a willingness to give it a shot that the JLA approves the plan on a trial basis to see what happens.

NRAMA: So, also with the team, you’ve got Naif al Sheik. Who’s he?

JK: He is one of the nastiest counter-intelligence guys on the planet. He’s very noble in his pursuit of bad guys and spies, but has a deep hatred for metahumans. So, Vera’s gone to him for two reasons, one because they’ve worked together and she respects him, and two, because she believes he’ll keep them honest. He’s their last wall of defense in terms of integrity, because, as Vera knows, given his druthers, he’d kill every superhero on the planet.

NRAMA: He’s looking for them to screw up, then?

JK: Right. If there’s anybody that’s going to smack them down for stepping out of line, it’s him. Despite the fact that this is a world of spies, double and triple agents, he is a man of very high morals. He’s also trouble for other reasons. He may have a lot of integrity, but he has many other strong beliefs. He’s Muslim, and doesn’t care for the way the women in the group carry themselves, and is very opinionated. As a character goes, I enjoy writing him quite a bit. With creating him, part of it was to put a character in there that fit a mold that would have traditionally been dredged up to be a 2D bad guy.

NRAMA: Looking again at the larger picture of the team’s missions…you wrote the JLA story that was Superman’s dream — a pretty thinly veiled analogy about the US’ involvement in Iraq. In some folks eyes, by invading, the US was acting preemptively with force to prevent a larger catastrophe. Your story spoke against that. Now, you’ve created and are writing a team that will invade the territory of the “bad guys” and act preemptively with force to prevent a larger catastrophe. How do the two jibe in your head?

JK: The bigger answer to me is that there’s a pretty big difference between sending a nation to war, and sending in undercover cops to bust organized crime. That definition of preemptive is the pretty big distinction between the two. This book is more about that — it’s not the team going in and shutting down countries.

Some of that — what makes Justice League Elite good and others not so much is explored in the very first arc — they hook up with a group that calls itself the Blood Brothers, and they have a very political agenda which is a very preemptive agenda, along the lines of going after a country that’s done some bad things. So those issues are addressed — I think they’re underlined in that story, but the heart of what the Elite is, although I understand why the comparisons could be made, it’s the difference between the military and a police force. They’re kind of disparate to me.

That all being said, stuff happens in this book pretty early on which begs the question of can any of these kinds of missions be pulled off with any kind of integrity intact? Things happen on their first mission that are not especially good. So to some degree, there’s a stacked deck against these guys, and you’ll see how that plays out as the series goes along.

NRAMA: That said, would you say you’re taking more of a character-based approach here, rather than, “It’ll be cool to put team A versus team B in location C?”

JK: For me, a lot more of the fun of writing is coming from exploring the characters and how they act and respond to this crazy superhero world, and a lot less about what’s a cooler way I can have a mad scientist with a giant robot threaten people. It’s a different sort of take on it. To that degree, a lot of stuff happens in this book that I hope people will be shocked about. It’s not a “superheroes in the real world” kind of take, and show them killing everyone. It’s much more looking at the characters as real people when they’re under these intense, stressful situations and have really strong beliefs — as well as what kind of compromises they’re forced to make. But when you’re one of these characters on one of these missions, is any kind of compromise acceptable?

NRAMA: Teasing out the first storyline — from the solicitation, it really goes with what you said about a mission that the team would handle — an assassination is planned, but waiting for the assassination to happen and then getting the bad guys isn’t an option. So the team goes after the assassins?

JK: Right. The first issue is proving to al Sheik that they can do what they say they can, so it’s about 22 pages of brutal, nasty stuff, and then you see how they pulled it off. That first mission is what swings him around to thinking that what Vera has pitched can actually be done. Once they’ve infiltrated the Blood Brothers, they find out what their missions are, and they start to operate among their split — a tactical branch, and the undercover branch.

And it all builds to the real plan of the Blood Brothers –they say one thing, but are actually planning something else — then the Elite plans their trap, and it all rolls forward from there. So the sting boils over the course of a few issues, and culminates in issue #3.

NRAMA: This has the sound of being an “everything and the kitchen sink” style series…

JK: There’s a lot of stuff in there, and that’s part of what makes it so much fun. Not all of the characters are going to survive, there are betrayals galore and not all from within the group — it’s all part of what makes it fun. The title of the first issue is “The Grand Experiment,” and that’s really what this book is for me: I’m trying hard not to follow the prescribed superhero track. There are people who behave really badly in this, and not because they’re bad people, but because they’re heavily flawed. Sometimes those flaws are naiveté, or commitment to a dream above everything else. There are a lot of small character elements that come into play and affect how the group can do its work. I think that’s where people are going to see the most fireworks.

And the end will shake things up — but, I hope it goes on. We’re very far ahead — I’m working on issue #8 right now, partly because Doug caught on fire and started drawing extremely fast. So I’m not going to have the entire year finished by the time #1 comes out, but I’ll be close. Hopefully people will respond to it well enough that we can jump into the next arc.

It’s going to be a good rollercoaster ride, with surprises every issue, and at the very least, it looks incredible — Doug is doing amazing work. There’s a lot of sick stuff in it, and it’s got a very dark tone — a little more mature style storytelling and themes. It’s a lot of fun for me, and hopefully people will check it out. It’s definitely not the JLA, and it’s not the JLA just done a little dark. It’s its own beast, and hopefully it will be judged on those merits.

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