Monday, October 05, 2009

28. Justice League

When I was a kid there were two things that I loved: comic books and cartoons. And when the those two worlds crossed over, I was obsessed. As a Marvel Comics guy, shows like “Spider-man and His Amazing Friends” and “The Hulk” and “GI Joe” were some of my favorite stuff. However, nothing could compare to “The Super Friends”—especially “The Challenge of the Super Friends”. Liking this showran against the grain for me, because as I said I was a Marvel guy through-and-through and this was a DC universe show.

If you watched TV in the 80s, you should remember the CotSF, it's the one that had 11 heroes (Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, etc) that fought 13 villains. I couldn't find the show's opening monologue*, but I did find out that the narrator was a person by the name of William Woodson. That's good to know.

* I think that it went something like, “Banded together from the far reaches of the galaxy are 13 super villains known as the Legion of Doom.” After that there was a bunch of other explanations on why these guys suck and what the Super Friends were going to do to them. What sold it for me was the jazzy music and Woodson's voice. So full of bass and seriousness, there is no way that you'd change the channel—this was important, damn it!

Any how, the show was kind of hokey and the good guys always won mostly because the Legion of Doom (which was headquartered in something that looked like Darth Vader's head in the middle of a swamp, seriously how cool was that?) managed to screw something up. The more important part of this show weren't the story lines, it was that there was a bunch of super heroes on the screen battling a bunch of super villains. It was like a cartoon Wrestlemanina and it was awesome.

Despite its popularity, there was only 16 episodes produced and while DC made a half-hearted attempt to revive the series in the mid 1980s (the original was shown on ABC in 1978 and later syndicated) they never could recapture the original's glory. Even during the comic cartoon boom of the 1990s, for whatever reasons, DC never went back to this well, which I found odd.

In the early aughts, Cartoon Network finally got DC to get off its ass and move ahead with a new Super Friends project. Only it wasn't going to be like the good old, cheesy 1970s version. As the kids from the 70s and 80s grew up to adults, a good bunch of them still watched cartoons. They didn't want moralizing stories, they wanted more action and more gravitas. With the new “Justice League” they got it.

The producer of the show, Bruce Timm, had hits on his hands with the new animated versions of Superman and Batman and wanted the new JL to be done in the same vein both artistically and thematically. The first season was a huge success as fanboys got to see their heroes act like the heroes they read about every month in the comics and kids who are new to the genre weren't lost. That's not an easy tightrope to walk across.

The artwork is the first thing that most be notice. It is absolutely fantastic with bold, smooth lines that accentuate the story telling and also establish that these are some of the greatest legends ever created*. Also, the animation is unlike its 70s predecessor's in that it is not choppy at all. There were some CotSF animation that looked cheap and silly—either a character was painted a wrong color or the background scenes were limited—but not with this incarnation. Everything is done perfectly, you can tell that Timm and his editors took great care to bring these characters to the small screen and wanted to do their best to have a great effort.

The show as a whole had an overall design style that was both unique and simplistic that didn't burden the viewer with too much detail that they got lost. At the same time, it was just enough so that they didn't get bored.

* I read somewhere that comics were society's next generation of myths and legends and it makes sense. Superman is a modern Hercules, Batman is an updated verison of Sherlock Holmes. There will be a day when people realize that and accept comic books for what they are, timeless stories that are meant to entertain.

While the art is legitimately spectacular, the greatest effort went into the writing. Many of the stories were taken from the annals of DC stories, but there were also shaped and rearranged so that it made sense in 22 minutes. Unlike CotSF, “The Justice League” had season-long story arcs and things that happened in past episodes mattered in future ones.

The first two seasons of “Justice League” focused on DC's seven “Big Guns”: Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, the Flash, Green Lantern (John Stewart version), Martian Manhunter and Hawkgirl. The last two may not be as well known as the first five, but they have been with the company for decades.

Each character has a different point-of-view and as such there were times when the heroes bickered amongst themselves. Because of this, there were times when the League lost a few battles, but as is customary with these shows, they always won the war. However, this series put a spin on that old axiom. One example occurs in the last three episodes of Season Two where Earth is attacked by Gordanian aliens. Hawkgirl, who is from outer space as well, calls upon her race—the Thanagarians—the lend a hand. Batman realizes that this is a trick and the Thanagarians set this attack up to take over the Earth. Hawkgirl has to decide between her adoptive or her home planet.

As you can see, this wasn't a show where Aquaman needed help battling poachers at the docks because even though Hawkgirl chose the Earth, she was seen in subsequent seasons as a traitor.

According to published accounts, “The Justice League” was supposed to end its run with Season Two, but it was a big hit on Cartoon Network, so more was demanded. Instead of doing more stories with the same seven characters, Timm and his crew decided to do something more adventurous. They took scores and scores of DC characters and added them to the show, redubbing it, “Justice League Unlimited”.

According to Wikipedia, there were “well over 50” characters on JLU—most of which were making their first televised appearances. As a former comic geek, it was cool to see guys like Red Tornado and Green Arrow and Dr. Fate show up and get some action. And with that many characters it would be understandable if the writing or art faltered a bit, but it didn't. It was still up to the same standards as the original Justice League run, which is nice to see.

And that what is so cool about this show. Sure, the writing and the animation is awesome, but the whole show is fun and the producers never lost sight of that. Yes, there are some “serious” issues and it's a bit more dark and adult than most super hero shows, but there are also some great action scenes, terrific interaction between the characters and lots of jokes (both obivous and inside baseball) that keeps the mood light.

My biggest problem with the show is that I can't find it on my cable channels anymore. It now airs on Boomerang, which is Cartoon Network's retro channel, and for some unknown reason; it isn't a part of any package for people who live in Burlington, MA. I've called the cable companies and asked for it—always under the guise of this channel if for my “Yogi Bear obsessed two-year-old daughter”—but they say that there are no plans to add it.


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