More Exit Strategies from The Escape Aid
Or in this case, get cancelled.
This year, we lost a great cartoon.
And we lost it because NONE OF YOU BOUGHT ENOUGH TOYS!
Just kidding. But Young Justice was cancelled due to poor merchandise sales and while this is obituary is late, it is no less well-deserved. Mostly it is sad because of a lot of stuff I have already mentioned in previous posts.
Good cartoons are hard to find. I am talking about that strong combination of storytelling, animation, music (though YJ wasn’t setting any bars there) and balanced depictions of race, gender, and children are not always being made.
My knowledge of most cartoons now is slim, but those I do follow do have some interesting edges to them. Gravity Falls, things from Fredenator and Cartoon Hangover, My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic are leading the way on a lot of fronts.
NOTE: Again, I am leaving out the complexity of anime, and I reserve the right to eventually address that in the future. I am still referring to American series only.
And make no mistake; Young Justice was a great cartoon. Many of the reasons are found in this article by the good Rob Bricken.
Greg Weisman is the Bryan Fuller/Joss Whedon of cartoons. His series are critically acclaimed, brilliantly penned and ambitious, much like the two nerd-lords. To be fair, Fuller is having a promising run with Hannibal; an adaptation of Thomas Harris’ works—but something he has done a fine job of putting his own spin on. And of course, most of us were there when the world was finally avenged (pun intended) of Whedon’s body of work. Collectively, for every series Fuller and Whedon have seen sunk, Weisman is practically in the same league.
For those of you who are wondering, Greg Weisman was the genius behind Gargoyles, The Spectacular Spider-man and of course, Young Justice. All these series were cancelled before their time and had share that element of strong continuity that I love to talk about.
It also bears mentioning that Weisman was stepping in and setting up shop over the Timm/Dini/Burnett DC animated universe, another strong contender for THE BEST CARTOON SERIES (before Avatar: The Last Airbender).
Young Justice held that strong element of continuity, but it did not scrimp on anything else. It’s had great animation, strong characterization and a sense of style, all of which was not afraid of using children as an engine of good storytelling.
So, here’s a quick list of why (I think) the series was so great and why it’s so very sad it got cancelled.
As I mentioned in previous chapters, I judge a cartoon series by the diverse level of cosplay that can be done with the characters. If you took the entirety of the Young Justice series, you could cosplay the hell out of it with pretty much anyone. The level of diversity in its cast is something I have never seen in any cartoons to date.
More to the point, most of the characters of color are intrinsic to the storytelling. Aqualad (who is black/Atlantean) and Blue Beetle (who is Hispanic) are key players in the main plot. They provide much of the impetus and are not only well-written, but shown to struggle and succeed against the greatest of odds.
Aqualad in particular is well-written. He is shown as a level headed pragmatist and natural leader in the first season, but in the opening of season 2, he is shown as a villain. The reason of his turning is done largely “off-camera” in the 5 year interim that takes place in the series, but it shows that no complexity was sacrificed. The death of his love, Tula, a girl who never loved him back, is used as the event that makes him “go to the dark side.” However, that reason is later revealed to be a smokescreen that allows him to become a double agent, still loyal to the Justice League and Young Justice.
Another great angle was that the series was not afraid to have the young heroes do all the heavy lifting. I harp in this a lot and YJ is a great example of the why and how to write young characters. These are characters as young as 14 (Robin) who are sent on dangerous missions that would have tested their own adult counterparts.
In fact, the first episodes of the series are a hallmark of what the show is all about. Robin, Aqualad and Kid Flash, in defiance to their mentors, decide that they will form a team with or without the approval of the Justice League. They are joined by other characters and slowly start a movement to empower kids and teens like them.
There is a questionable element to this, as some characters are not superpowers but are put into very dangerous positions. Nightwing, (the new) Robin, Artemis, Batgirl, (the new) Guardian and Red Arrow are all just well-trained human teens with a penchant for crime fighting. But their involvement is as important as Superboy or Miss Martian. They also stand up to villains like Cheshire and Sportsmaster who also have no superpowers but are still able to commit “super crimes.”
These humans represent that hardworking, human element that learns to fights alongside the godlike metahumans. Nightwing and Batgirl are noted team leaders and constantly remind us that power comes in many forms. They are driven individuals who, as Batman said (when the league was considering new members), need to do what they do so as not to become something worse. This is about recognizing potential, motivation and devotion that we often take for granted in children.
(I need to get used to talking about this show in the past tense)
That was the strength of the show. It was not afraid to put its characters through the roughest of patches–some were even what many might consider too dark. Some characters were experimented on, maimed (Speedy/Roy Harper loses an arm while in captivity), the cloned Red Arrow learns his life is a lie and he is a mind-controlled double agent, Aqualad (and Artemis) was put into secret deep cover, Aqualad pretended to kill an old team mate AND was mentally ravaged for it. Nightwing and Kid Flash must carry the burden of the undercover nature of Aqualad and Artemis. Nightwing later deals with the ramifications of those secrets. Miss Martian abuses her telepathic powers and eventually comes to grips with it. Other characters were blackmailed, mind controlled, and one even deals with an unplanned pregnancy.
Again, to say that young people do not or should have to face such “darkness” is a bit like saying they don’t have to face reality—that things like blackmail and abusing power are never something they will have to worry about. But even a fictional series like YJ does not shy away from what young superpowered people wouldn’t/shouldn’t have to go through. They old saying of “with great power comes great responsibility” hangs in the air but also the concept that power and responsibility come in many forms and for many people.
Ladies, Ladies, Ladies:
There is this episode of Powerpuff Girls where they are asked to list their role-models. They bang out Wonder Woman and Hawkgirl and… Wonder Woman (this is in the hey-day of the first Justice League series).
It’s too bad they did not have Young Justice around.
With the list of prominent female characters like Miss Martian, Artemis, Black Canary (who trains the YJ), Rocket, Zatanna, Bumblebee, Wonder Girl, Batgirl just to name a few, the YJ roster features a strong, multifaceted cast of female characters who kick ass, take names and aren’t afraid to get the job done. Even Cheshire, a villain and sister of Artemis, is featured as a efficient and deadly assassin with a soft side and a taste for vengeance.
Artemis who goes into deep cover as Aqualad’s right hand henchwoman Tigress, is someone who has great characterization. She is the daughter of villains Tigress and Sportsmaster. Tigress is reformed (confined to a wheelchair by an undisclosed event in her life of villainy) and asks Green Arrow and Batman to take in her daughter and train her. Meanwhile, Cheshire/Jade, joins her father as a villain. The two regularly clash, as well as with their father, several times in the series. Artemis is written as someone who struggles with her legacy and later as someone who struggles with her desire to retire with (Kid Flash) the love of her life–giving up the crime fighting she loves so much.
Miss Martian is another great example of someone who must contend with a humanity and she is not confident with. Raised on Mars and retro American television, she grows up with an idea of what life on earth will be like. She is depicted as a girly-girl from some alternate 60’s or 70’s who things everything can be solved with sunshine and baked goods. This is mostly how she hides the dark secret that she is a White Martian, a race akin to Africans on Mars. She is also “grotesque” by Earth standards of beauty and merely shapeshifts to fit in with humans. While her hang ups of assimilation are the issue in the first season, in the second season, she shown as someone who is too comfortable with her place and powers. She regularly abuses her telepathic abilities, destroying minds to get the information she needs. She is ruthless without recognizing it herself, and later learns to deal with the consequences of her actions.
The female characters in the series are not just one or two dimensional sidekicks to the males. They are shown to have problems they must overcome by themselves and with the help of others. They are not used as merely plot devices for the men to fix or be fixed by. They are their own independent champions of self, capable of change, love, loss and redemption in their own ways.
The more I write about cartoons and the series I choose, the more I see how promising the medium could and should be. Looking closely at mainstream cartoons must have been what it was like to look at comics a few decades ago. Not to say that good cartoons are not being made, but the depth and complexity of most western cartoons is still on the low end of the spectrum.
Young Justice has the stories cartoons should strive to show and tell. This goes beyond my calls for strong continuity and representation, it is a call for complexity and diversity in storytelling. Cartoons can and should be out reminding us that children are not always meant to be protected and should instead be given the chance to learn about the world and change it when they can and should. Cartoons can and should be about empowering the young (and the young at heart) that watch it as much as it seeks to entertaining them (and getting them to buy merchandise).
Series like Avatar: The Last Airbender, The Legend of Korra and Young Justice were/are able to show the world as a complicated, dangerous place–full of different people from different, and females who don’t need to be saved by or to save men.
Cartoons should be about recognizing power and responsibility as much as they should be about dollar signs and merchandise tie-ins.
This year we lost a front runner of the battle to make cartoons more than they could be. We lost a young show that had promise, motivation, and kick-ass animation. We lost a show that had something we might not see again for awhile. Perhaps the saddest thing about the series is that unlike the medium it is based on, there are not “comic book resurrections.” Cartoons are less likely to ever get second chances despite petitions and please for a movie. When a cartoon is dead, it is dead for good.
But maybe that is also the strength of Young Justice. That like the talents that die young, it will be able to live on as a legend… something that others after will look at and say: Hey, if I worked hard enough, paid my dues and have lots of well-written, multiracial/gender characters, I’ll be like that someday—a legend. Or better yet, maybe I’ll be given a third or fourth season and a movie.
So Rest In Peace, Young Justice.
May your legend inspire others.