On Wednesdays We Wear Ink: Young Justice – a love letter
Posted on June 3, 2015
June 3rd, 2015 | by Andy Waterfield
I bloody love Young Justice. That’s just get that out of the way now, so nobody is left with any notions that I’m coming at this one with any level of objectivity. I have three favourite DC characters, being Tim Drake (Robin), Kon-El (Superboy), and Bart Allen (Impulse), and I’ve got a prominent Superboy tattoo on my left calf to prove it.
Like I say, I bloody love Young Justice.
Spinning out of the mini-series JLA: World Without Grown-Ups, the team first came together under the name Young Justice in Young Justice: The Secret, written by Todd Dezago, with art by Todd Nauck and Lary Stucker. When an ongoing series launched writing duties were passed onto Peter David, and that team of David, Nauck, and Stucker were the creative core of the title for its 55-issue run.
Young Justice was a teen superhero book that was accessible, fun, had a huge heart, a social conscience, and was also very funny. Beginning with a slumber party in the Justice League’s abandoned headquarters, the founding trio of Robin, Superboy, and Impulse are getting bored of hanging out and eating pizza. As they bicker, and Impulse runs around graffiti-ing the place, they inadvertently rouse the Red Tornado, an android superhero they had mistaken for a statue, leading impulse to spray the legend ‘HANSON BITES!’ across his chest. In Red Tornado’s own words:
“I had withdrawn from humanity because I had, in fact, lost my humanity. I had believed that without my humanity, there was little to no purpose to my continuing to exist. However, in the past few minutes, I have begun to believe that perhaps… just perhaps… there is some small aspect of human feeling left to me.
Because I find the three of you annoy the Hell out of me. I feel an urge to smack you… particularly Impulse. For that, I am indebted. Thank you.”
Reddy then observes that the trio represent Freudian archetypes, which is also a neat way to introduce them to new readers. It saves me writing a paragraph about each too. Bonus!
Over subsequent issues the team is rounded out by Wonder Girl (Cassandra Sandsmark), Arrowette (Cissie King-Jones), and Secret (it’s a secret). Cassie was gifted powers by Zeus himself, and is a superhero against her mother’s wishes. Cissie, conversely, is the daughter of an ex-vigilante herself, and her mother is the classic live-out-my-dreams-through-my-kids type. Not only does this dynamic allow the book to explore some of the issues teenagers face around parental expectations, but it also led to a frankly hilarious parent-teacher conference issue (with Reddy playing the part of the teacher) in which Cassie and Cissie’s mums start a brawl.
Just sitting here writing this, I realise I’m trying to tell the story of the whole series. All that stuff I’ve already said happens in the first six issues, and I’ve neither the time nor the inclination to rehash the lot for you, so we’ll move to a bit of a broader overview, okay? Okay.
As I say, the book deals a lot with the various conflicting feelings around adolescence, with most of the characters being sidekicks or part of a legacy. Tim is constantly conscious of Batman’s judgement. Kon is painfully aware that, while he was created to replace Superman, he likely never will. Bart is living in a time that is not his own, surrounded by people who revere his deceased grandfather Barry, a man he barely knew. Cassie’s commitment to ‘the life’ pulls her into conflict with her mother. Finally, Cissie eventually quits ‘the life’ altogether, to be replaced by Empress. Retirement remains a rarity in superhero comics, especially as a teenager.
That’s one of the great things about sidekicks though – because they’re not tentpole big-name characters (with the possible exception of Robin), they’re allowed to change in meaningful and lasting ways. Over a decade on, Cissie is still retired. She’s still a teenager too, but comics time doesn’t work like our time.
I am fully adjusted to the fact that I’m nearly double the age of Bart Allen, a character I was the same age as when I first started reading about him. Ah, who am I kidding? I’m not at all. That knowledge haunts my every waking moment.
Although the book had a great deal of light and breezy humour, including some excellent slap-stick and sight gags, it didn’t shy away from tackling social and political issues. Secret’s story is one of institutionalisation as much as anything else, and domestic violence is explored briefly through the villain Harm, who controls his own parents through violence and intimidation. Perhaps the most noteworthy of Young Justice’s socially conscious stories though was issue 43, May 2002’s ‘Liberty Throughout the Land’.
‘Liberty Throughout the Land’ follows the aftermath of a car-bombing in Bialya (for some reason, DC insists on making up imaginary countries as stand-ins for real world locales) in which dozens of locals are killed, as well as two American aid workers. Their daughter attends the same boarding school as Cissie and crucially Treya, the adopted daughter of Red Tornado, and a Bialyan by birth.
Prior to the students gaining knowledge of the bombing, the tone is set by a history lesson about the internment of Japanese Americans during the Second World War.
But after learning of their classmate’s parents’ fate, a number of students turn on Treya, who is a few years younger than the other girls (she was jumped several grades because of her academic excellence). Things quickly turn violent.
And a quick scuffle in the gym isn’t the end of it. The abuse culminates when a group of girls pin Cissie down, while their ringleader sets upon Treya with scissors, beginning to cut off her hair, a longtime tactic of those who seek to dehumanise and ‘other’ a minority group.
I remember vividly the impact this story had on me as a kid. In the UK, as in the US, the post 9/11 landscape was one of rapidly rising xenophobia and racism, particularly directed toward muslims, and those with, or perceived to have, Middle Eastern heritage. Suddenly, my favourite comic, the one I looked to for fun and humour, was tackling this rising tide of hatred head on, drawing historical parallels I hadn’t yet considered, and addressing the issue through characters I loved. It was jarring in the best possible sense, and was a significant part of my own political awakening, which was soon to be fast-tracked by the explosion of radical left bands that made up the UK ska-punk scene in the years that followed (listen to King Prawn, Sonic Boom Six, and Capdown albums from that era for an idea of what I’m talking about).
In 2003, with issue 55, Young Justice came to an end, to be replaced a couple of months later by Geoff Johns’ equally legendary Teen Titans, featuring many of the same characters. As that run drew to a close, I got the Superboy shield tattooed on my left calf, as a reminder of the lessons I learned from those comics, and that character in particular; chief among them being that you are always going to be judged against your forebears, you are always going to be part of a legacy, but you can redefine that legacy for yourself, and carry those values forward in your own way. And you can have fun doing it. That’s the way I feel about Superboy and Superman, and the way I feel about myself and my family.
I also got it because Superboy is a badass, and because Robin and Impulse (now Kid-Flash) have yellow logoes that would tattoo like shit.
Sorry if this one got a bit rambly. I could write a book about this stuff, and probably ought to.
Go and read it for yourself, and check out the cartoon too (some of which is also written by Peter David).
Have a great week.