Thursday, September 18, 2014

The Kids are Alright

It’s no secret that I am, at my core, a nerd.   Specifically, a comic book nerd.  As Maggie Cats mentioned last week, I am seriously excited about the wealth of comic book properties that we’re going to be seeing on TV this year.  And while television may just be echoing the notion that movie studios have already picked up on, namely that comic book properties can make for big hits, that doesn’t make it any less cool for what we’re about to see every week. 

I’ll be talking more about this new Valhalla that we find ourselves in later, but before the ginormous comic book television extravaganza begins next week with Gotham, I decided to go back and rewatch one of the only television mediums that for years has been safe for superheroes – cartoon shows.  Particularly, one of the single best superhero cartoon shows ever to air on television, Young Justice.

"Don't you...forget about me..."

Young Justice can be loosely understood as the adventures of the teenage sidekicks to the bigger DC Comics superheroes.  In practice, the show merged characters and stories from two different comic books, the Teen Titans franchise (which also has had several of its own cartoon shows) and the eponymous Young Justice series which was a short-lived early ‘00s book that was essentially Teen Titans by a different name.   The stories are more or less similar: teenage superheroes, by and large the protégés of stalwarts like Superman, Batman, the Flash, Green Arrow, and Martian Manhunter, are brought together both to help each of them be around other young people like themselves and for training with the implicit understanding that, due to the dangerous nature of saving the universe all the time, eventually each of these young heroes is probably going to have to take over for their mentor someday.

And that point right there illustrates one of the reasons why Young Justice was such a powerful show, cartoon or otherwise.  The show is premised on the notion that teenagers are living with a sword of Damocles having over their heads constantly and preparing themselves for their mentors and family to one day be killed.  That’s some heady stuff to load onto a cartoon show.  Young Justice gets away with it by introducing characters that are not only well-written, but are also treated seriously.  The show wasn’t afraid to go to pretty dark places conceptually, even if it always did so with a sense of adventure and humor firmly attached. 

They actually smothered Superboy with a kryptonite pillow right after this scene. 

Even if you’re not a big comic book fan, you’re going to find familiar characters here.  Superboy and Robin are both leads, as is Speedy/Red Arrow who is familiar to anyone whose watched Arrow.  Rounding out the cast are Artemis, another Green Arrow protégé; Miss Martian, young cousin of J’ohn J’onzz, Martian Manhunter; and Kid Flash, the resident speedster.  The team is led by Aqualad, an Atlantean who is struggling with his own inner issues.  Other characters like Wonder Girl, a teenaged Zatanna, and Rocket fill in on missions. 

The thing about watching Young Justice that makes it such a rewarding TV show is the level of sophistication it takes in long-form story telling, something that is usually unheard of in what is nominally a children’s show.  In order to make that format work, characters have to change and evolve over the course of several episodes, which is exactly what they do here.  In contrast to most superhero cartoon shows, the status quo is almost never returned at the end of any given episode.  In every case, something alters the story or the way the characters interact with each other, sometimes for better and sometimes for worse.   Because the writers treat the characters respectfully, they have secrets and fears as well as desires and hopes.  In other words, there’s pathos in them thar superheroic hills. 


All of which is part of what makes the story behind Young Justice so heartbreaking.  The show only ran for two seasons from 2011 to 2013 when Cartoon Network abruptly canceled it.  Fans were understandably flummoxed; the show had enjoyed critical acclaim and was performing well.  It wasn’t until after its cancellation that writer and producer Paul Dini stated in the media that the reason for cancellation was because Cartoon Network feared that the show was becoming too popular among teenage girls.

Let’s unpack that for a moment.  A critically acclaimed TV show, performing well with a solid fan-base gets cancelled by its network because the network fears that rather than hit the target audience of teenage boys, girls have started to like the show.  I could see the argument for more girls tuning in; the show featured several female leads (Miss Martian, Artemis, Zatanna and others) who were heroic, well written, fully-fleshed out characters.  Young Justice passes the Bechdel test pretty well.  Note that they didn’t say that boys weren’t watching any longer – just that more girls had started to pick it up.  According to Dini, the network was concerned because “girls don’t buy toys” in addition to being worried that boys would start to view the show as a “girl’s show” if they learned that too many girls were watching.

"That is some BULLSHIT..."

If Dini’s take on this is accurate, it’s a brand of shortsightedness that is, in addition to being ridiculously misogynistic, is also ridiculously wrong.  I dare anyone to go to any ComicCon out there and not see girls buying toys.  (Even if the network’s assumption that girls didn’t buy toys was correct, what would stop them from branding the items the girls did buy with their product?)  I also completely blow the bullshit whistle on the idea that boys will stop watching shows about Batman, Robin, Superman, Green Arrow and the rest of the comic book world because they think girls may watch those shows too.  I just don’t think that boys are as simple-minded as networks apparently think they are.

In the end, what we get is a brilliant TV show taken off the air before its time.  Whether that has to do with a network’s backward thinking or not, it still leaves a Firefly-esque hole in my nerdy little heart.  In any case, do yourself a favor and check out Young Justice if you want a nice base-layer of comic book-y goodness ahead of the deluge of shows that we’re going to see this fall.  It will give you a new appreciation for a ton of old characters and introduce you to new ones that you’ll want to know more about.

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