Thursday, March 14, 2013

Animated Discussions: Young Justice

In the 90s, Bruce Timm and his collaborators redefined not just DC animation, but superhero animation in general with the work they did in Batman: The Animated Series and its successors, Superman: The Animated Series, Batman Beyond, and Justice League/Justice League Unlimited. There have been some other great superhero cartoons since, both from DC and Marvel, but nothing that ever approached both the complexity of plot and character and the outstanding animation. That is until Young Justice debuted on Cartoon Network on Thanksgiving two years ago. With the series finale this weekend, I thought I'd look back at this series, and talk about what made it so great.

To start with, let's talk about the comic that loosely inspired the series. By 1998, the New Teen Titans (or New Titans at that juncture) comic that had once been DC's number one seller had seen better days. After its cancellation, DC decided they needed a teen superteam book, but the Titans name was toxic, so they took three of their teen heroes, each who were headlining their own comics, Robin (Tim Drake), Superboy, and Impluse, and put them together with the recently introduced new Wonder Girl and a new character, Secret, to for a new team, unofficially called Young Justice. Over the run of the book, new characters joined, including Arrowette, a young female archer, and Empress, a mystical character, as well as mentors including Red Tornado, Snapper Carr, and The Ray. The series ran fifty five issues, along with various one shots, tie ins, and a really fun fifth week event called "Sins of Youth" where the teen heroes were aged to adults, and their mentors were de-aged to teens. The majority of the issues were written by Peter David, who brought his usual sense of zany humor and strong characterization, and had great art from Todd Nauck. After five years and a relaunch of the classic book as just Titans featuring the original team as grow-ups, DC decided it was time to go back to the original name, cancelled both Young Justice and Titans, and launched the new Teen Titans series by then up and comer Geoff Johns.

The series premiere of the animated series was designed to draw clear parallels with the first appearance of the comic team, which took place in the one shot Young Justice: The Secret. In the comic, Robin, Superboy, and Impulse liberate a mysterious young woman with powers called only Secret from a government lab. The debut of the animated series saw the sidekicks, wanting to prove themselves to their mentors, invading Cadmus Labs and freeing Superboy, the clone of Superman, from his creators.

These sidekicks, though, are not the same characters from the comic. The Robin of the animated series is Dick Grayson, the original Robin, the youngest but most experienced member of the team, who has something of a chip on his shoulder about this at the beginning. Kid Flash, Wally West, replaces his cousin Impulse as team speedster; Waly has the patience of a speedster, always running off at the mouth and into danger. And the initial team is rounded out by Aqualad, but not Garth, the original sidekick of Aquaman. This Aqualad is a new character, Kaldur'ahm, with powers similar to Aquaman's wife, Mera, who controls water density. Versus the impetuous Kid Flash, and the overconfident Robin, Aqualad provides a voice of reason, and is a natural leader, taking command of The Team (as they are addressed by members of the Justice League). Superboy is recruited after he is freed from Cadmus, but has a hard time adjusting. He's spent his whole life being indoctrinated, doesn't trust anyone, and is prone to fits of rage.

Over the course of the first season of Young Justice, two additional characters were added to The Team. Miss Martian was introduced as Martian Manhunter's niece. She is friendly, warm, but not quite versed in human interactions. Artemis is introduced as Green Arrow's new sidekick after Speedy, his previous one, stormed off in the premiere, feeling he should be granted Justice League membership and not shuffled off to second string status. Artemis is quick witted and immediately begins shooting verbal barbs at Wally as accurate as her arrows. While other young heroes Zatanna, Red Arrow, and Rocket joined in the first season, these six were the principal cast, and the ones most fully developed by the creators.

The Team was assigned by Batman to be the covert ops arm of the Justice League, doing reconnaissance missions and attempting to ferret out a mysterious group that seemed to be manipulating various events to their benefit, and to do it in a way the more powerful and flashier Justice League cannot. But these secret missions reflected one of the core themes of the series: secrets, and the cost that they take on someone.

Throughout the first season, three of the principals each wrestled with a secret, ones that were used by The Light, the coalition of villains that were attempting to take control of Earth's destiny, to control the young heroes: Miss Martian is secretly a White Martian, Artemis is the daughter of supervillain Sportsmaster, and Superboy has been using chemical patches given to him by Lex Luthor to activate his full Kryptonian potential. Each of the heroes wrestles with how to reconcile these things, things that are true about them on a deep level, with who they want to be. This takes the typical issues teenagers have and writes them on a grand scale. In the end, only by trusting each other with their secrets, are the young heroes able to finally best The Light and save their mentors.

The creators of the show took a considerable gamble with the show's second season by jumping forward in time five years, and redubbing the show Young Justice: Invasion. Half of the original team are gone, and new members including Young Justice comic alums Wonder Girl and Tim Drake (now as Robin, since Dick Grayson has become Nightwing) have joined, along with other young heroes like Blue Beetle, Lagoon Boy, and Beast Boy. By the middle of the season, Impulse has appeared as well, and he's a great addition, proving just how patient Kid Flash was in comparison to the even more hyperactive speedster.

The second season dealt with the Light's alliance with a mysterious alien race. It starts out looking like they are at war with another race, the Kroloteans, for control of Earth, but the Krolotean subplot is resolved quickly, leaving The Team to deal with The Light and their allies, The Reach. The Reach, for those of you in the know, are the race that created the Blue Beetle scarab, so Blue Beetle becomes a central figure to this season's arc. The writers do an excellent job of writing Beetle, with Jaime Reyes being the newcomer/everyman figure who is still somewhat flabbergasted by the superhero world, and letting him be surprised by the same things the viewers are.

I don't want to give away too much about the second season, since it's really a big mystery story with tons of twists (heck, talking about The Reach was a pretty major spoiler), but the great pleasure of Young Justice is that I can talk about the characters, ones who are very well wrought, without spoiling too much plot. Another major arc of the season has to do with Miss Martian's expanding powers, and her use (and abuse) of them. This has driven a wedge in between her and Superboy, who were a couple in the first season. The abuse of power is a common theme in superhero comics, and it's explored really well in Miss Martian's story, as she has to learn that the ends don't always justify the means.

I also have to say that one of the great things about this show, and something that neither Justice League or Teen Titans were able to do due to licences, is to have The Team interact regularly with the Justice League, and even with members of the Justice Society a couple times. This not only gives the universe of the show a much more lived in feel, but it opens up avenues of plot that wouldn't be available otherwise. Seeing Robin interact with Batman, and how different that is than how he interacts with his teammates, makes him a more well rounded character. With Aquaman around, you can really open Atlantis up for plotlines. And Superboy's issues with being a clone of Superman are made more interesting by allowing him to interact with Superman.

This also means that a full slate of DC Universe villains are available. Not only is Deathstroke, enemy of Titans and pretty much all young heroes, able to appear, but The Light can include The Brain (Teen Titans), Lex Luthor (Superman), Ra's al Ghul (Batman), Vandal Savage (Flash), Queen Bee (Justice League), Black Manta (Aquaman), and Klarion (Etrigan the Demon). There can be an Injustice League with the Joker (voiced creepily by Brent Spiner) and hints of Intergang and the New Gods. Part of me would have loved a Justice League series set in the same world with the same sort of interconnectivity.

The thing that has made Young Justice as good a show as it is, aside from its stellar animation, is its strong writing. The plots never spoke down to their audience, and were intricate. Events that happened at the beginning of a season would pay off at the end. Some episodes were written by Peter David, including an intense Halloween episode featuring Secret and her evil brother, Harm, and the episode that introduced Impulse. I chalk a lot of this up to the fact that one of the show runners was Greg Weisman. Weisman is probably best known as creator of Gargoyles, probably my second favorite cartoon series of all time, right behind Batman: The Animated Series. Someday, I'll probably write something up on Gargoyles, as there have been a couple tie-in comics. Weisman's work is known for its intellect and its maturity, and, in my opinion, the fact that it ends prematurely. He's like the Bryan Fuller of the animated world (he was also exec producer on the under appreciated Spectacular Spider-Man series, also cancelled prematurely after two seasons).

And this weekend, it comes to an end. I know there's been a lot of fan uproar, with petitions and letter writing campaigns, and that's great, and it shows how many people loved the show, but the reason the show ended wasn't because no one liked it: it was because of money. The toy line for the series, the bread and butter for animation targeted at younger audiences, as a failure, and that is the death knell for shows like this. So, I plan on buying the most recent DVD set this Saturday on Amazon during the series finale. If anyone out there who is reading this loves Young Justice too, think about doing that. If the news of the past day or so about Veronica Mars (another show I loved) proves anything, it's that studios listen when there's money involved. And believe me, if you like DC Comics, teen heroes, or good animation, this is a show well worth trying out.

The entirety of the first season of Young Justice is available on DVD in two sets: Young Justice: Season One Volumes 1,2,& 3 (these were originally released as three single disks, now collected), and Young Justice: Dangerous Secrets. The first half of season two is also available as Young Justice: Invasion- Destiny Calling. There was also a tie-in comic, which I have reviewed in the past, written mostly by writers connected with the show. Currently there are three volumes available, with a fourth and final one due out later this year.


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