Young Justice, Season One: Super Politics

Part Two 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.

Queen Bee

Young Justice is a surprisingly political show, not that it presents any specific ideology or position on issues, but that it takes place in a world where political situations and governments matter. They are not just settings and backdrops. Many people who don’t read comics are probably aware of fictional comic book cities such as Metropolis and Gotham City, but the DC Universe also has its own imaginary countries: Qurac, Bialya, and Marovia, for example (not to mention Atlantis or Wonder Woman’s home of Themyscira). Some of these are obviously modeled on “real” nations. When an episode features tense unification negotiations between the authoritarian Northern and the democratic Southern Rhelasia, we know who they are referencing. That occasionally one of this nations is ruled by someone who would be called a super villain, if the they weren’t a head-of-state, such as Queen Bee of Bialya, is just part of the international situation.

Map

In the middle of this mix of real and fantastic nations, we also have the Justice League. Significantly there is no “of America” attached to that title. For a long time in comics, nobody thought twice about there being a “Justice League of America,” even when its membership included an Atlantean king, an Amazon princess, and three or more extraterrestrials. At various times comics have used the title “Justice League of America” or just “Justice League”, or even dabbled in a “Justice League International” with spinoffs such as “Justice League Europe.” So far, in Season One of Young Justice, the political ramifications of the Justice League’s existence have yet to be explored. To the public, they are an established, well respected, internationally active organization. These heroes are not “fighting crime” but a global rapid response force. In comics, and earlier animated series, some groups, including the U.S. government, had issues with this organization of god-like beings existing independently of any supervision. Given the amount of comic book lore the show encompasses, we can assume that the League had saved the entire planet on numerous occasions and so earned some international sanction to deal with extraordinary incidents, especially those involving metahuman or extraterrestrial elements.

Justice League

That could be all there is, a conceit of the genre, if the show itself did not immediately question the public premise of the League. For instance, the first episode begins with a ceremony to induct our group of former sidekicks into full membership in the League. This is held in front of cheering crowds at their headquarters, the Hall of Justice, in Washington, DC. This building though is just a façade. The League’s true base is a orbital space station, the Watchtower, which is reached via a network of secret teleportation tubes that exist across the globe. Does the United States or any other government even know about this? These transport devices are known as “Zeta-Tubes”, which to a long time comic reader is a reference to the Zeta-Beam from the sci-fi adventure comic Adam Strange, and is first of several suggestions that the League has connections and arrangements that extend beyond the Earth into interstellar civilizations across the galaxy. Who, if anybody, on this planet do they share that knowledge — and technology — with?

The young heroes, after expressing their refusal to except a secondary status to the main League, to remain sidekicks to all intent and purpose, are allowed to form their own team, though under the supervision and training of their elders. That again would be nothing out of the ordinary except that, while nobody states it openly, this team is put to work as a black-ops squad. A super villain or army of space aliens threatens the world? The Justice League handles it. Something strange is observed by a spy satellite in a sovereign nation? The Young Justice squad drops in from a stealth aircraft to check it out and no diplomats or oversight committees need to be consulted. It is hard not to think that for the League they are a deniable asset: “These costumed people snuck into your country and destroyed some valuable military research? Hey, they are a bunch of kids! We can’t control them.”

Next: Hero with a Thousand Plots

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