Young Justice, Season One: A History of Teens

Part One of a short series of thoughts about the Young Justice animated series. I’m only looking at the show’s first season here, but Spoilers for those episodes.

The animated Young Justice is a narrative cousin to the live action Doom Patrol show, which I have written about extensively in earlier posts. Both are currently being produced for the DC Universe streaming service. They are both based on long-running, well established superhero teams from DC Comics, and draw on the rich and confusingly complexity history of that comic book “universe.” Both are new interpretations of those properties, remixing and revising classic characters and story elements with new creations. The big difference is that while Doom Patrol is an offbeat deconstruction of the superhero mythology, Young Justice is an arms-wide embrace of it.

Teen Titans

In 1960s DC Comics began producing stories of a team of superheroes made up of the teen sidekicks of other adult heroes. The core membership included Robin, Kid Flash, Aqua Lad and Wonder Girl, all scaled down duplicates of their elder mentors. In 1980 a new version of the comic, produced by writer Marv Wolfman and artist George Perez, introduced several original characters including Cyborg, Starfire, and Raven, and the former Doom Patrol member Beast Boy. This title was extremely successful. When Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird started Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in 1984 as a combined parody of all the most popular comic books at the time, Teen Titans was a big reason the Turtles were teenage. In subsequent years many different versions of the team, with an ever changing roster of members, have come and gone.

TV Teen Titans

In 2003 Cartoon Network began a Teen Titans animated series, based on the Wolfman and Perez era. This was again very successful, running 5 seasons, continues in reruns today, and in 2013 lead to Teen Titans Go! A spin-off aimed at a younger audience. In 2019, DC Universe began a live-action Titans series, again featuring Robin, Beast Boy, Raven, and Starfire as the main characters (Cyborg having been reassigned into the companion Doom Patrol show). Titans was designed as a much more grim and gritty and “realistic” take on the characters, essentially the opposite of Teen Titans Go!

Young Justice

All that is preamble to the fact that Young Justice is essentially Teen Titans, the very earliest version of the concept, brought up to a contemporary era. Calling it Young Justice reflects its theme, the situation of the characters, and keeps it separate from whatever else is being done with “Teen Titans” as a property. And this show is separate, a new continuity that is familiar, but not tied to anything that has come before. To a comic book reader this is immediately evident in the cast of characters. We have the teenage Robin and Kid Flash (both of whom in the comic are now adults) alongside an entirely new version of Aqualad, the Conner Kent version of Superboy, (a genetically engineered clone of Superman) and Miss Martian, a newer Teen Titans character from 2006. They are joined by Artemis, a character with a complex history in DC Comics lore, but new to this collection of heroes. A later addition is the magician Zatanna, a character who has been around since 1964, but has not been portrayed before as a “teen.”

This mixture leads to a pleasant uncertainty for long term comic book readers. Much is very familiar, but there are unexpected surprises as well. Who is this new Aqualad? This version of Superboy has the same origin as the character who appeared in comics in 1993, but with a very different personality. As readers, we know things that Miss Martian and Artemis might be lying about themselves to their friends – if certain parts of their backstories are maintained. Familiar supervillains such as Lex Luthor and Poison Ivy are around, but also obscure menaces such as Wotan and Count Vertigo. A joke bad guy, Sportsmaster, is presented as a serious threat. So when a story involves, say, a giant alien starfish, we as viewers might or might not know what to expect.

Next: Super Politics

Quick Thought: Watched This Weekend

Things I watched this weekend:

For Me and My Gal (Busby Berkeley, 1942)

I wasn’t too familiar with Judy Garland and Gene Kelly’s work together, but after seeing a clip of one of their numbers from this film I was quite interested in watching it. This was Kelly’s first film and Garland’s first role as an adult character. Berkeley’s direction is described as having “unusually elegant restraint.” That’s very true: no elaborate glittering sets constructed out of showgirls’ bodies.

I was surprised by the amount of emotional angst and drama in the story. I knew it involved World War I, yet was disconcerted by how much it became a pro-war film by the end. The movie was made during WW II, but even then was this a good way to rally patriotic support, with the message of ‘”We had such a grand time that last war, let’s do it again!”?

The Girl Who Leapt Through Time (Mamoru Hosoda, 2006)

In recent years there has been a trend in Japanese animated films of what I would call magical realism (though a literary scholar might object to my use of the term). Stories of ordinary people, often of middle or high school students, who have some extraordinary or magical event suddenly disrupt their lives. The Girl Who Leapt Through Time was one of this first that I heard about, with the style perhaps reaching its apex with Makoto Shinkai’s 2016 your name. I want to learn more about the history and context of films such as these, and see more of the work by Hosoda, Shinkai, and others.

Young Justice (DC Entertainment, Warner Bros. Animation)

A series long on my “to watch” list, I’m finally into the first season of this animated superhero saga. The tale of former kid sidekicks growing into adult heroes is historically the “Teen Titans,” both in comics and animation. This series sets itself apart from the history of that name. It is a separate continuity from the main DC Universe, and not based on any existing comic story, even while using classic characters from the original Teen Titans, such as Robin and Kid Flash. Newer characters such as Miss Martian and Conner Kent, along with an entirely new version of Aqualad are included as well. It is a serious adventure, with ongoing storylines and character development, influenced by the dramatic structures of Japanese animated series.

The show takes its audience seriously as well, believing viewers can follow events and situations that unfold over multiple episodes. And even while presenting new interpretations of established characters, it assumes anybody watching knows, say, who Lex Luthor is and why you shouldn’t trust him. It even takes a characters that are usually dismissed as jokes, such as Sportsmaster, and makes them a functional part of the world it is building.