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Young Justice

Longbox Graveyard #20

Those comic books I used to like? They’re animation, now, and among the best of them is Young Justice.

One of the less welcome surprises of returning to mainstream superhero comics after a few decades in a deep sleep has been discovering how adult they’ve become — not always in terms of intelligence, but certainly in terms of content. In my day, everything was “Young Justice” — Marvel and DC books were all-ages affairs, aimed at smarter kids and teens with enough subtext and depth that adults could also enjoy the best of them. As the market has aged, so have the stories, and while I like my Watchmen and my Swamp Thing as much as the next guy, I will tempt scorn by admitting I miss the days when Batman getting a handjob wasn’t the (ahem) climax of a comic book story. Happy endings, indeed!

(they left that part out of the TV show, too, more’s the pity)

It’s not that I think comics are inappropriate for this kind of storytelling — it’s just that I can get that kind of storytelling so many other places. If I want gritty crime dramas I’ll watch The Wire or settle in with The Departed (or The Dark Knight!), and I’m told there are places on the internet where I can get honest-to-gosh Batman porn. What I value in comics is what they do so well — fast-paced, fun stories that are serious but which don’t take themselves seriously, with larger-than-life heroes experiencing adventures that comics tell better than film. In short, the Bronze Age-style stories that have been the focus of my examination here on Longbox Graveyard, like Walt Simonson’s Thor, or the Tomb of Dracula run I reviewed last week. I don’t mind good dialog and adult plot lines (both of which are front-and-center in the Ed Brubaker Captain America books that I so enjoy), but there’s no escaping that superhero books are about costumed characters with magic powers. I prefer comics that embrace their four-color absurdities and are — dare I say it? — more focused on fun and entertainment than dysfunctional drama and darkness.

I also miss all-ages comics.

With a graying audience demanding (I guess) more adult books, comic books for kids have been ghettoized. A trip to most comic shops will find “that rack” — the rack for kids, with animation-based properties, maybe a Simpsons, maybe some Archies. My kids have long-outgrown that approach, and I’m probably missing some fine work in that section, but I don’t want to read comics that are explicitly aimed at children. I want fast-paced superhero stories told with a PG-13 TV sensibility that I can enjoy on my own and maybe share with my kids. But where I am to find books such as these, aside from the hopeless Accumulation of the Longbox Graveyard?

Young Justice, trying to ignore the camera

How about … Cartoon Network?

Another development during my big comics dirt nap was the quiet revolution of animated superheroes. The last couple decades have seen several sophisticated animated series based on superheroes make it to the small screen, and the best of them hit the tone of the all-ages comics I enjoyed as a kid. In particular, I’ve come to enjoy various offerings featuring DC superheroes, including the gloriously goofy Brave & The Bold, and the series under scrutiny today: Young Justice.

I like these shows. And my kids like them, too … the same kids that can’t be bothered to read old superhero comics (but who will watch superhero movies) have found a middle ground with their old man thanks to shows like these. We’ll save up two or three on the DVR and then take a break from videogames with a mini-marathon — Miles and Jack enjoy the semi-familiar heroes, the action, the humor, and the comic book tropes (which are mostly new to them), while I enjoy that they enjoy it, even more than I enjoy the episodes themselves.

I’ve been thinking of reviewing animation here at Longbox Graveyard for awhile, and that interest was accelerated when I saw a message from Warner Bros. up on my Twitter feed soliciting press interest in reviewing the Young Justice, Season 1, Volume 2 DVD set, released last week. A quick exchange of email and a copy arrived shortly at my secret headquarters — and so there you have it, the full disclosure. My reviewer’s soul and integrity was purchased for the price of a cartoon superhero DVD (which you can buy for about eleven bucks at Amazon, through my store link here).

Young Justice debuted on Cartoon Network in November of 2010 (according to the you-can-trust-it-for-pop-culture Wikipedia), and as of this writing, fifteen episodes have been broadcast. The series has aired in fits and starts, with plenty of re-runs and an extended hiatus between March and September of this year, which even when armed with a DVR has made it difficult to find the series and develop a rhythm in watching it (doubly damning in that the show has a fair degree of serialization and continuity).

When the show is on the air, though, it is a good watch, and Warner Bros. is shadowing the slow roll-out of original episodes with small DVD releases. Volume 1 of Young Justice came out in July, and covered just the first four episodes (including the double-length pilot). Volume 2 contains a further four episodes — “Schooled,” “Infiltrator,” “Denial,” and “Downtime,” for those of you scoring at home — and any way you slice it, this is another slim volume. Four episodes on a single disc, without special features or commentary, and no inserts, in a basic DVD box.

The Amazon reviewers have brought out the tar and pitchforks for Warner’s release strategy — commentators hate the no-frills releases; they feel squeezed for having to make multiple single-disc purchases; and they’re convinced it will all end in tears when a comprehensive Season One set is released later, FORCING them to buy the series all over again. And they have a point — this is a bare-bones release, and it would be easier to pick up a full season all at once. But releasing the series in this format presumably keeps the price point down in the impulse buy range in the toy aisle at retail (these are cartoons, after all), and given the sluggish rate at which new Young Justice episodes are aired, little serial releases like these on DVD are preferable to waiting for the whole season to air, by which time we will have likely replaced our Blu-Ray players with 3D neural taps jacking directly into our brains.

nerd rage!

Only you can answer the “value” questions arising from this format — I think the episodes are worth the roughly three bucks each you will pay to own them (it’s a better deal than buying a comic, really), but I did get my review copy gratis. If I was inclined to collect these things I’d likely wait for a fuller, more comprehensive volume, but then you might expect patience from a guy as immune to the cult-of-the-new as a fifty-year old fart who writes a Bronze Age comics blog. Caveat emptor.

Setting aside format and value considerations, Young Justice is an entertaining series that deserves to be seen, and these DVDs are an excellent way to see it. Even when you can find the show on Cartoon Network, it’s still interrupted by shrill commercials, and the broadcasts themselves are marred by annoying, superimposed alerts for Clone Wars or whatever the hell is airing next. If you just want to watch this superior series, this DVD volume is a good option. If you’re a collector that cares about all the bells and whistles … then God help you, poor bastard, just accept defeat and buy the damn things twice.

OK. On to the show.

NOT Young Justice

In the 1980s, we would have called these guys the Teen Titans, and some of those characters are here, like Robin and Kid Flash. But these heroes have grown from tweens and teens and into young adults who bristle at the sidekick appellation, and who are trying to establish identities outside their mentors’ shadows … like Speedy, who has bravely distanced himself from GREEN Arrow by calling himself RED Arrow. (So there!) There’s also Aqualad and Superboy (but they are nothing like their original incarnations), and some other characters that are less familiar. They are close enough to the heroes I remember that I’m not completely lost, but different enough that they stand on their own and offer some surprises.

This second volume covers episodes five through eight of the series, so if you start viewing here, you will be predictably disoriented, but like the comics of old, the tales are broad enough that you can jump in anywhere and enjoy the show, even if you don’t catch all the references. Some episodes “begin in the middle,” so even if you’ve watched the episodes in order it’s not uncommon to feel a little lost. The first four episodes of the show set up Young Justice as a kind of auxiliary Justice League, with the team installed in a secret base where they are den-mothered by Red Tornado and tasked by Batman to handle missions requiring less visible heroes than the Justice League. The show has a bit of a covert ops vibe, with the team infiltrating secret labs and battling drug cartels rather than punching it out with costumed criminals on Main Street. It’s a good structure for telling “serious” superhero stories while still leaving room for the heroes to be the insecure young people that have been a staple of the form since Peter Parker got bitten by that radioactive spider.

The Volume 2 episodes continue the plotlines laid down in the first volume, but with the premise of the show on solid ground, we get a bit more characterization and spotlight time for individual heroes. “Schooled” focuses on Superboy — who isn’t Smallville’s “Superman when he was a boy,” but rather a clone of Superman hatched in a lab, grown instantly into young adulthood, and perpetually pissed off about it (a dangerous thing when you’re Superman). Superboy’s arc sees him struggling to control his emotions and accept being part of a team while working through a dysfunctional relationship with his emotionally distant “father,” Superman. He’s a good character, always going off half cocked, and symbolizing angry, brooding teenaged boys everywhere.

it’s HARD to be young and handsome and have the powers of Superman, man! you just don’t understand!

The next episode, “Infiltrator,” is one of those start-in-the-middle stories that makes you feel like you missed something, but it’s just jumping into the action with Red Arrow, who is part of the show but not part of the team. There’s good action here, and the villainous plots begin to take shape, what with running battles against the League of Shadows, and further development of the big bads behind it all — “The Light” — vague faces on mammoth viewscreens that hardcore DC fans will recognize but of which I am cheerfully ignorant. This episode also introduces Artemis, a female character connected to Green Arrow, which gives the show one archer too many, but sets up some mystery and adds another girl to a pretty butch team.

Artemis, with Arrows Red & Green

“Denial” is my favorite episode in the volume, not least of which because it guest-stars Doctor Fate, or at least his helmet, which is the part of that character I value most. It’s a haunted house story with some monstrous villains and a nice bit of characterization for Kid Flash, who is forced to come to grips with supernatural events beyond his ken. “Downtime” is the final episode of the volume, which focuses on Aqualad, who isn’t nearly so lame as you might think — in fact I’ve come to kind of like the Spock-like fishboy, with his weird water powers and otherworldly nature. Plus this episode has some of the volume’s best action, with a war in Atlantis and a sea monster, and a guest appearance by Aquaman, who isn’t the scream that he is over on Brave & The Bold, but is still better than the orange-shirted clown we got in the old comic books.

Aqualad

And then, you’re done! Just when you’re in the groove, this slim volume comes to an end. I can’t find a release date for the next set — presumably there will be additional four-episode volumes to round out season one. These DVD sets lag the air dates of the current shows by a considerable margin, so they aren’t much good for getting you caught up to the show right now, but if you are dedicated you can probably manage some DVR-foo and leap from this DVD to a rerun and eventually get up to speed. You shouldn’t have to work this hard to watch a cartoon show, but there you have it.

And in the end, that’s my biggest complaint about Young Justice. I want more episodes, and I want them more often. Getting to watch more than six or seven in a row before going into reruns or hiatus would be a welcome evolution. The show is nicely animated, smartly scripted, and entertaining enough to command TV time for me and my teen and tween boys — I’d just like it to show up on my DVR more frequently. But until the Young Justice pipeline is filled, some Young Justice is better than no Young Justice, and some DVD sets now are better than a theoretical uber-DVD set released when my boys have boys of their own.

So set your DVRs or pick up Volume 1 and Volume 2 of Young Justice. It’s good comic book fun — the kind you don’t find in comics so much any more.

(Thanks to Warner Bros. for providing the DVD set for this review).

NEXT WEEK: #21 Warlock

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