On The Firing Line Over JLA #83
and superheroes are a potent, yet potentially explosive mix.
Just ask Joe Kelly. His most recent issue of JLA (#83) has aroused
some powerful partisan passions on the part of conservatives
among them) who take exception to his allegorical tale about
the build-up to Operation: Iraqi Freedom where Lex Luthor stands
in for President Bush and Superman chooses to oppose the war.
issue in question has been hotly debated on online message
boards and chat rooms, but one important voice has been missing:
that of Kelly himself. So I caught up with the affable Man
of Action to get his take on the controversy and find
out the reasoning behind this volatile comic.
Elder: The last several issues of JLA have had
definite political overtones. The Kanjar Ro story with its
allusions to the situation in Iraq, the psuedo-Waco showdown
with Axis Amerika and finally JLA #83, a very explicit parallel
for the Iraqi conflict. Why did you choose to go in this direction?
Kelly: It's a combination of two elements - One, those
issues were on my mind when I wrote those stories, so they
naturally permeated the work. I guess the real answer is more
the second one - I think that comics are a much more powerful
medium than people imagine, and in certain circumstances,
it's appropriate to use them to discuss political issues.
As a general rule, when I do that sort of thing, I try to
keep it in the appropriate context. A JLA story is still a
JLA story, whether there are overtones or not.
I completely agree. I may disagree with the politics on The
Authority, for example, but I still thought the book was terrific.
But writing political stories using icons like Superman, Batman
and Wonder Woman opens a big can of worms. Aren't you afraid
that by having these characters take hard political stances
you might alienate a section of the fanbase?
Well, I think that one of the weaknesses of "iconic"
characters is that they oftentimes lose the energy that made
them icons to begin with as they become corporatized and regarded
as franchises... Batman is a better character when he's pushed
to the borders of insanity and treated as a proper vigilante
than when he's geared to sell underoos. Superman is probably
the most unique in the "political icons" regard.
How so? What do you think are the defining political characteristics
Literally, the word "America" is integral to both
the JLA (duh) and Superman's mythos (... the American Way).
As a writer, you have the choice to ignore that or embrace
it. naturally, "embracing it" has a lot to do with
what you believe "America" stands for... So in the
case of Superman, for example, I believe that he believes
in an idealized America. One that operates above boards, truly
does embrace diversity, and cares for its downtrodden, but
not because he's naive, but because it IS possible.
think he's a dopey, kneejerk liberal, but rather has thought
it through, and believes that when people are treated with
respect and given a chance, they can thrive. Does that make
sense so far?
Sure. It's exactly how I think he believes, too.
I think he believes that all people should be held to a standard,
and that there is an objective "right and wrong."
When an issue falls into subjective "right and wrong,"
I think he does his damnedest to do the right thing, and make
a decision that he can live with. I don't know if I'm giving
you a proper "political definition," probably more
of a moral definition of the character, but with Superman,
I think they're very closely linked.
how I personally feel, I believe in all of the same moral
issues, but believe that the reality of America is a challenge
to that morality.
Now to move things more specifically to JLA #83 -- a lot of
the criticism of this issue has revolved around its obvious
allegorical nature and how the reader is supposed to draw
parallels between Presidents Bush and Luthor. You may not
agree with all his policies, but isn't a bit over the top
to compare the president to a supervillain?
Heh, sure, let me just take you back to the genesis of that
issue... I think I wrote that issue in January or February...
It was when all of the UN stuff was happening, and we had
not yet gone to war. I bring that up only to put the issue
in a context. My frame of mind when I wrote it was the same
as Superman's. I didn't know WHAT to think, because I was
personally torn. I know Saddam is a bad guy and believed that
he needed to be deposed, but I wasn't convinced that war at
that time was the appropriate move.
I think a lot of people were that way. I supported the war
but only after a lot of soul searching. It's not a decision
one comes to lightly.
So when I sat down to write #83, I was really attempting to
struggle with the issue of not knowing. How do you take a
stand when you don't know the whole story? Carlin and I discussed
the political stuff quite a bit, and since, ultimately, the
story for me was about Superman's choice, we thought it was
But isn't that dangerous? That events in the real world
could move so fast that they could overtake you by the time
the story sees print?
Absolutely! And in a lot of ways it shows my state of mind,
because I honestly didn't think we were going in. Naive, for
sure, but I can be dumb like that.
If we find WMDs in Iraq - and after we've already found the
mass graves filled with dead children -- aren't you afraid
that Superman may end up on the wrong side of history?
(Again, the "if we find..." question...) No. I don't
worry about that. The story was a reflection of what many
people were thinking at the time, and I stand by it. If you
look at the dialog, he says he'd support action, and he'd
even fight, he just wants the truth...
Isn't a story like this really impossible to do fairly with
Luthor in the DCU's White House? Won't anything that Luthor
says (i.e. parroting Bush's position on the war) become automatically
You're right. I could have made a faceless president, though
that would have been worse in some ways. Luthor represents
duplicity to Superman, so to keep it personal, it makes the
most sense to use him.
Perhaps, but doesn't that obscure the political aspects of
your tale? This is clearly more than just another Luthor vs.
Superman tale. Throwing Luthor in the mix muddies the water
and makes Superman's decision significantly less than impartial.
Practically, Luthor is our DCU president. So we're stuck with
him, for good or bad. But, from my personal point of view,
I think it's fair to say that there are a large number of
folks out there, myself included, who do not fully trust Bush.
So having Luthor in the White House, creatively, reflects
how I feel when I sit down to write.
completely true that this is a one way medium, I'm aware of
that... No one gets to shout their opinion in the middle of
my story... But I'm not an "impartial teacher,"
either. In #83 I have Superman say that he won't be made to
feel unAmerican because he wants the truth. I think a lot
of folks felt that way, so it was important to me to have
that voice heard.
I think we all deserve the truth, and have no trouble with
Superman or anyone else asking for it. I really like the idea
of Superman, who does believe in America and the system, being
forced to confront how the system (through Luthor's election)
can be corrupted and deceived. In this story, however, the
parallels between Bush and Luthor were so obvious that all
I and a lot of other readers could see was a pretty nasty
shot at the president.
I guess in some ways it was a shot. I can sit here and disown
it and say that, from a writing point of view, you always
throw up as big a roadblock as possible against your protagonist
to make his decisions and actions more difficult...
At the time this was written, I was angry. I felt that the
world community was being disregarded and insulted by the
president. I felt that the American public was being handed
a bunch of nonsense to justify a military action that was
in many ways appropriate, just to speed up a timetable. I
felt that the media was handling coverage of the issues with
complete condescension and pandering to the White House, and
ultimately, America as a nation was not being wholly represented.
I understand your feelings and don't deny that they deserve
a voice, but don't you think that's a little disingenuous
to use Superman as a mouthpiece for them? The last time Superman
dealt with Qurac during the time of the first Gulf War, he
destroyed their entire military.
Though I admit my own politics are in that story, I was honestly
trying to write about Superman's indecision, primarily. There
is a certain level of "ambush" when you do a story
like this. People aren't expecting a helping of politics with
their Superheroes, but I don't think it's inappropriate to
do it. If it gets people angry, I think that's great because
that gets people talking. Discourse and debate are the only
way these issues are ever dealt with. I welcome disagreement,
especially when it's well thought and put out in public.
Doesn't a story like this, that polarizes people and arouses
strong emotions, especially with a character that -- no offense
-- is bigger than you or any other single comic creator, need
to be written with some distance from the actual event so
that you're leading with your head and not your heart?
Yes, Superman is bigger than I am, of course... But ultimately
he's a vessel for ideas. He was when he was created, and still
is today. Without a POV to drive the character, what do you
have? That caricature that the world at large writes off as
I will point out that this story is in JLA, NOT Superman.
There's a reason for that. Though he's the focal point of
this story, it's the Justice League of America who must ultimately
deal with the politics of their namesake.
How about this, then: If it turns out that Bush was telling
the truth about everything, would you be willing to write
a JLA story where Superman essentially apologizes or at least
concedes the point?
I just remembered that you mentioned in your e-mail about
people being upset about this "being a dream," but
that's part of the story, isn't it? If ultimately, the story
is about Superman's confusion and the lack of tact in the
diplomatic arena at the hands of our government during that
time, then no, there's nothing to apologize for. It's a document
of the time. Superman's struggling. Superman's struggle in
this story is a struggle of faith. He's worked up a nightmare
scenario in his subconscious, and in the end, the only answer
he gets is that it's all right to question the government,
and he shouldn't be made to feel ashamed for asking questions.
or not I ultimately achieved what I set out to accomplish,
my hope was NOT to answer whether or not Luthor/Bush is telling
the truth or doing the right thing, but focus on how Superman
is made to feel when he doesn't just fall in line. Imagine
if I told the story where Superman goes in and find NOTHING.
Imagine if I told the story where he goes in and finds tons
and tons of Nukes.
Good point. But when Superman says that Luthor "killed
all that we stood for", that seems like a pretty powerful
It is a political statement, and in the context of the story
(and in the real world) I agree with it. Those opening paragraphs
in #83 are actually the U.N. charter, modified slightly to
encompass "extraterrestrials" and such. Luthor was
plowing ahead with utter disregard for many voices in the
world, with a "Because I know what's right" attitude.
In the JLA, might doesn't make right. as to the real world...
While a lot of people may have disagreed with Pres. Bush's
decision, more than 70 percent of Americans supported it.
And the only voice that 70 percent had was Lex Luthor.
That's true. Like I said before, I wasn't laying out a news
report. It's not my job to present all sides of a story if
polarizing it makes for a more provocative take on the issue.
I'll agree that it's more provocative, but you're an excellent
writer and I think you could have made your point without
weighting the odds so heavily in your favor.
Well, again, "my favor" was supposed to be confusing
the hell out of Superman. Putting him in an emotionally troublesome
To be honest, this issue really upset me since I found myself
agreeing with Luthor over Superman - right up until he killed
Big Blue with kryptonite, that is. I can see where Superman
is coming from and felt a lot of his angst myself, but I feel
that Saddam had to be removed. That even without all the facts
we knew enough to justify our actions. And I think that liberating
Iraq was the morally correct thing to do.
Believe it or not, I do understand that you can't reveal everything
to the press about espionage "just because." And
I completely agree that Saddam needed to go. But what I don't
believe is the cost we have endured as America - not the financial
cost, but the cost to our credibility and diplomatic standing
in the world.
That's a good point, and one that WW makes. But I also
believe think that those problems were already there and any
crisis would have brought them to the surface. Nor do I believe
it really hurt our credibility or diplomatic standing. The
French government is putting together a giant ad campaign
to woo Americans back to the country since their tourism industry
has suffered so greatly due to their actions concerning Iraq.
The Germans are trying to mend bridges, Iran is on the verge
of revolution and North Korea has agreed to multi-lateral
talks. I would argue that we've actually gained bargaining
power and status in the world since the Iraq invasion.
It's difficult to maintain the moral high ground when you
act like a bully. On the flip side, the way the French government
conducted itself was appalling as well. I don't think very
many leaders acquitted themselves well in the debates...
not America. I honestly believe that there is a higher standard
of conduct that we should aspire to and INSPIRE others to
follow, and getting our way just because we can isn't what
America is about in my eyes. Scaring our adversaries into
compliance does not build a better world down the road. It
engenders resentment and, again, in my opinion, creates the
foundation for future conflict.
Two final questions One: Why wasn't the case for humanitarian
intervention made in #83? I think we can all agree that our
intervention in the Balkans was a good thing, though we deposed
a legitimate leader in the midst of a civil war. What makes
the Iraq/Qurac situation different? Saddam attempted genocide
before and would have slaughtered the Kurds if it weren't
for the no-fly zone.
Honestly, that wasn't pertinent to the story in this case.
Even in the real world, no one has ever debated whether or
not Saddam was a bad man, it was always taken for granted
that Iraq needed cleaning up.
But if we didn't act, then who would? Saddam ahd been playing
the international community for over a decade. What was the
other option for deposing him? It seems like the JLA was arguing
for maintaining the generally-accepted-to-be-evil status quo.
In terms of #83, it's not passing the buck to point out that
this wasn't the JLA acting as themselves. It was Superman's
nightmare. The situation you're posing they face was a lot
more like the Kanjar Ro story, and they DID go pro-active,
because they felt they had to. BUT, that had ramifications
- they had to get into bed with, and ultimately outsmart Kanjar
Ro. If #83 was meant to answer that question, it would have
been a different story.
Fair enough. Okay, last question: How do you respond to
critics who call this is a partisan attack on the Bush administration
and a hijacking of the Superman character to make your own
Heh... That's pretty heavy. The reason I wanted to talk with
you today was that I appreciate the fact that this isn't the
typical JLA story. I don't think it would be right for me
to lay down a political POV and then hide afterward.
And I respect you for that. You've taken a lot of risks with
the book and that's commendable.
Thanks... As far as a partisan attack on Bush... At the time
that #83 was written, which was weeks before we went to war,
I did want to make my voice heard. I did not think it was
going to necessarily be the "popular" voice, but
I thought it was important to share my sense of confusion
there wouldn't have been any anguish if I fully believed in
the president and the case for war. I stand by my assertion
that this story is much more about indecision and feeling
persecuted for questioning the government than a direct slam
on Bush, but I acknowledge that that stuff is there as well.
hijacking the character of Superman, I certainly gave a lot
of thought to the issue before I wrote the story, and while
I'm sure it was a surprise to some readers to get this sort
of story ESPECIALLY after the war was over, I don't think
it was an inappropriate story. I think that having Superman
struggle with issues of truth, loyalty, and ultimately his
own conscience in a politically complex world is completely
on target for an American icon.
it in a dream, removing it not only from the real world, but
the DCU as well, was an attempt to keep it as allegorical
as possible, which I thought would mitigate the real world
political implications. I wonder what the reaction would have
been if this had come out a month after it was written...
I imagine a lot different. But I want to say thank you for
granting me this interview. I appreciate you taking the time
to discuss this and to directly answer your critics. And I
look forward to seeing how you take this political bent onto
Justice League Elite. Do you have any other projects coming
up that we should know about?
JL Elite is primarily a morality tale about good guys
who have to wallow in the filth, but still maintain their
integrity. I'm sure some political stuff will sneak in, but
it's more like an undercover cop show than anything else.
I'm writing a book called Enginehead with Ted McKeever,
and that's a fun, strange new character who's created to fix
the "flaws" in the universe. I want to ask you,
I've never really tried to "defend" my work like
this... How was it?
You did fine. I honestly had nearly as much of a visceral
reaction to this book as you did to the Bush administration
Ha! Well, that's better than "Oh, they beat up a giant
But now that I understand the thinking behind it, I'm far
more forgiving. Heck, I'll probably have to go back and re-read
it just to get my brain around it again. And I hope this interview
will do the same for everyone else out in the comic book ether
who reacted like I did.
I appreciate that. The only thing I honestly feel bad about
is the timing of the issue. Your point about knowing how long
an issue takes to see print is completely legit, but all the
same, I do think it helps for people to know when it was done.
Thanks again for the discussion - it really made my day!