A Family Affair: An Interview with Joe Kelly

Man of Action Entertainment’s founder and co-creator of I Kill Giants Joe Kelly teams up with British cartoonist Ilya for an all-new all-ages series in Kid Savage Volume 1. Following the story of the pioneering “First Family in Space” after a catastrophic wrong turn on their maiden voyage, the family crash lands on a dangerous alien planet. Their 21st century know-how proves to be useless against the harsh environment, and their demise seems certain until they meet a strange ally – a mysterious orphan boy who’s short on temper but big on survival skills.

Diamond interviewed Joe Kelly about his inspirations for this heartfelt adventure and the future of all-age comics. Kid Savage Volume 1 is available now at your local comic shop.

Diamond BookShelf: Take us through the cast of characters: the wildboy, the science-minded dad, the nervous son, and the too-cool-to-care daughter. What makes this cast of characters so interesting?

Joe Kelly: From the beginning, I wanted to do a fun, over-the-top adventure book but with a very realistic family. They spar and snipe. They love one another but don't get a chance to show it because we meet them hours after the biggest mistake of their lives. Even if they are the "First Family in Space," they're still normal human beings who have been thrust into extraordinary circumstances - some willingly and others not so much. I relate to each of the core family members in some way: I get young Ethan's fears and desire to please his dad, Alina's drive to stay cool and above it all even if she's scared witless, and Gerard's completely unbalanced approach to parenting as soon as things go lopsided. And then there's "Kid"... the savage. The survivor. Crossing a dysfunctional family of the future with a self-sufficient wild child illuminates the heart of the book for me. Forces everyone in the cast to reconsider who they are and their definition of family... while being chased by space monsters. Don't forget the monsters!

Diamond BookShelf: What got you reading comics? What are some series you’re reading today?

Joe Kelly: I started reading a pile of comics that an uncle gave me. Mostly Superman and horror books like House of Secrets and Witching Hour. The perfect alchemy to twist my impressionable mind. I picked up Spidey books on my own as a kid, but comics really took off for me with New Mutants 19 - Bill Sienkiewicz's art hooked me and pulled me in to a book that was tailor made for a Junior High Schooler trying to find his way. Now, I'm all over the place. Mostly Image titles - stuff written by my fellow MOAs (Steve Seagle, Joe Casey and Duncan Rouleau) as well as Monstress, Saga, Paper Girls. Phil Jiminez's Superwoman is a title I really dig - beautiful and packed with story. Also working my way through a lot of Manga, old and new.

Diamond BookShelf: Was making “Kid Savage” an all-ages title an important decision in the creation of this story?

Joe Kelly: Absolutely. First and foremost, we wanted to do a book that was unabashedly for everyone, young and old. While Kid Savage has its eye firmly set on a younger audience, there are more subtle layers that will appeal to adults – especially parents. Mostly, though, we wanted to craft a big adventure for kids, and that’s what we did!

Secondly, Ilya and I are keenly aware that there is a gap in mainstream comics aimed for all ages, which is generally sad but also short-sighted for the industry at large. Where do we find an audience in 10 years if we don’t introduce new readers to our work now? Kids want to read comics, and most of the time I believe parents are happy to provide them so long as they are deemed “appropriate.” The irony doesn’t escape me that more 10-year olds saw the Deadpool film than ever read the comics, but that’s the funny thing about our relationship to books. There is something about reading that is so much more personal and engrossing an experience that some parents worry more about the rating of a comic than they do a film!

Diamond BookShelf: Young adult graphic novels have been making a name for comics in the academic world in the last few years, how do you feel the genre fits into comics as a whole? Do you think creators have become more aware of this demographic?

Joe Kelly: I don’t think of YA as a genre in the same way comics aren’t a genre. You can tell YA adventure stories, horror stories, romance stories, etc. It’s a delivery system. YA implies that the main characters will likely be younger and the reading level will be slightly more accessible, but that’s about it. I think that it’s academically interesting to ask why something like Harry Potter or Twilight crosses over to adult readers, but a good story is a good story. I didn’t write I Kill Giants for teens. I just wrote a story featuring a young girl as the protagonist. The fans that come up to me at conventions range from 50 to 16, men and women. The book finds its reader.

That said, the YA trend is a very good thing for comics and literature. Anything that gets a broader audience into book shops to explore and find their personal groove means the creation of more readers. Readers are smart people. We need more smart people. Creators are certainly aware of the YA audience, but as with all things you can’t chase a trend if you don’t believe in it. The readers smell that from a mile off. However, the Creators who have always wanted to tell stories for all ages are finding it easier to do so. That’s a wonderful thing.

Diamond BookShelf: Being a comic-reader from a young age yourself, do you believe it is important format to have accessible to young readers?

Joe Kelly: When I read comics as a kid, they were broken down by genre with very few exceptions – the Harvey comics come to mind as geared specifically for kids. They weren’t rated beyond the Comics’ Code. I liked superheroes and horror books. One genre thrilled me and the other scared the hell out of me. What made them all accessible was the fact that they were cheap and readily available. I read plenty of books whose vocabulary went over my head. I looked those words up. If I didn’t get the subtext on first read, in later years I discovered something new.

My point is no one was writing down to me, the comics buyer, because I was young. They were telling their stories within the limits of the Code, pushing wherever they could. I accessed whatever I could handle as a reader, and ignored the rest. The best YA books do this today.

The biggest hurdle we face now is price and literal access to books. With shops closing left and right & costs at a disproportionate level to the value of a single issue of a comic, it’s a challenge to get books in the hands of kids. Even if a movie ticket is $12, a $4 comic is not a comparable value. $3 is pushing it when an app is $0.99. I prefer the graphic novel format because it not only allows for more storytelling, but it generally feels like a solid value to the parents who are paying for it. $15 for a book? Okay, I get it, that’s what books cost.

If we want to build an audience for the future, content is king, but price and access are the roads to the kingdom.

About Joe Kelly
Joe Kelly is the creator of the lauded graphic novel I Kill Giants, currently in post-production as a feature film, and  winner of the 2012 International Manga Award from Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, a rare feat for an American work. His original graphic novel Four Eyes was a YALSA “Great Graphic Novel for Teens” selection and in 2016, he launched a new arc in Four Eyes. Kelly also wrote Bang! Tango and Bad Dog for the Man of Action imprint at Image Comics. Kelly is credited with writing “The best Superman story of all time” in Action Comics #775, which he adapted to the DC feature animation home video, What's So Funny About Truth, Justice and the American  Way? for Warner Brothers, released to great reviews in 2012. His run on Deadpool remains the industry standard which greatly influenced the successful feature film and he returned to Spider-Man/Deadpool in 2016 – one of the year’s top-selling comics. Kelly also teaches Writing for Animation at his alma mater, NYU