Friday, March 7, 2014

Recommended Reading for 3/7: JL8

And now for something slightly different...

I've written about Tiny Titans before, the Art Baltazar/Franco Aureliani book about the sidekicks of superheroes as little kids in Sidekick Elementary. Well, this week I'm writing about a webcomic, the first one I've ever specifically recommended. It's called JL8, written and drawn by Yale Stewart, and when I heard about it, I thought it was going to be similar to Tiny Titans, only featuring the Justice League. But it's something else entirely, and something really great at that.

JL8 centers around the students at Schwartz Elementary (named for DC Editor Julie Schwartz, the editor known to be principally responsible for the Silver Age at DC Comics), and their adventures in and around school. It's a blend of schoolyard hijinks, character pieces, comedy, and a little bit of action here and there. Stewart does a great job in balancing the humor with the character, like many a good comic strip does. The characters are all eight years old, and the plots maintain a threat level that works with small kids; the main nemesis we've seen the young heroes deal with is a schoolyard Legion of Doom, but we'll get to them later.

The principal cast of the strip are most of the traditional Justice League, and read perfectly like younger versions of those characters. Clark (Superman) is kind and thoughtful. His best friend, Bruce (Batman), is brooding and a bit standoffish, but is a great friend to Clark. Barry (Flash) is always in a hurry, and talks faster than he thinks. Hal (Green Lantern) is swaggering and confident. Diana (Wonder Woman) is sweet, but maybe the toughest of the kids. J'onn (Martian Manhunter) is the transfer student from Mars, still learning what it's like to be an Earth kid. The one main cast member who isn't one of the original JLA is Karen (Power Girl); it's nice to have another girl in the cast to give Diana a girl friend to talk to. She's spunky, and loves ponies.

Stewart's webcomic works like a classic comic strip, where each installment stands on its own, but if you read for a little while, you get caught up in the larger plotlines that he's been building for some time now. The strange little kid "romance" between Bruce and Karen has been going for a while, with Bruce revealing he likes Karen, and her being interested since he has horses. Or the various scenes of J'onn learning about what it means to be an Earth kid.

There have been a couple of major arcs over the course of the series. In one, Bruce, Clark, and Hal save a grandma from a mugger, and when the paper calls them "kids," they get tough new costumes to show what big guys they are (costumes that funnily resemble the New 52 versions of their costumes), but there's a lesson about heroism and what it means to be a grown up that is smartly done. There's also the story of Diana's birthday party, where we see a lot of typical kids party tropes, mixed with a bunch of party chaperones who are Amazons and a clown that Bruce really doesn't like.

There are some strips that really stick out for me. A personal favorite of mine is strip 27. In the previous strip, Bruce left Clark at Clark's house, and after seeing the warm welcome Clark got from his parents, Bruce walks away looking sad. So the next strip picks up right after.

That little bit of character there, developing the relationship of Bruce and Alfred, is not just heartwarming, but it does a good job of fleshing out Bruce, who is often portrayed a grumpy and a know it all.

Aside from the well thought out plotlines and cute young versions of the Justice League, the series is littered with DCU cameos and easter eggs for those who know their DC Comics. Julie Schwartz, who I mentioned earlier, is the kids teacher, Darkseid is the gym teacher (a better job than his lunchlady gig in Tiny Titans), and Neil Gaiman owns the local bookshop. Other DC Comics characters pop up in the background or in cameos, and there have been a couple of great ones from Mikey and Ted (Booster Gold and Blue Beetle). In the same vein, if you know your "Bwa-ha-ha!" era of Justice League, then this strip is worth a good laugh.

The other recurring group of characters are what I think of as the Lil' Legion of Doom. They're all recognizable, but I have to admit, I love the version of the Joker the most (not exactly shocking, huh?). Not a clown yet, he's still the Red Hood, made clear by his red hoodie, which is a great touch. Aside from Joker, we get Lex Luthor, Cheetah, Captain Cold, Toyman, Poison Ivy, and Solomon Grundy.

JL8 is a webcomic that does so many things right. It takes advantage of the serialized format, and does fun things with characters that you wouldn't see in DC Comics. It's an all ages strip that you can share with your kids to help foster a love of these great characters, and isn't that something that we all should do?

JL8 is updated usually twice a week, and can be found HERE. You can also follow the strip on Facebook and Twitter.

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