Last year I took some photos of my son’s Justice League 4.5″ action figures to test out the close-up feature on my digital camera. Then later I did some drawings based on the photos to test out my Wacom tablet. The results of this screwing around may be found here.
Tonight’s bedtime conversation with Sam (5).
SAM. Is tomorrow a school day?
DAD. No. It’s Presidents’ Day. Do you know who the Presidents are?
DAD. Yeah? Can you name one? Who was a President?
SAM. (patiently, as though to a dull toddler) George Washington.
DAD. Do you know what the President does?
This Sam is less clear on. Which is just as well at this embarrassing point in our nation’s history.
I start to say that if the United States is the DC Universe, you could look at George Washington as Superman, but then I realize that if I say that, the next question will be “Then who is Batman?” and I don’t have a clear answer for that.
Clearly, George Washington is Superman. He was the first, arguably the most important, debatably the best, and most importantly the “original.” But then, indeed, who is Batman? Is it Adams, contemporary of Washington and close second in defining the young nation’s ethos? Or is it, say, Lincoln, the most beloved of the presidents, the tall, dark, brooding loner president, the tortured insomniac, haunted by the deaths of his loved ones, the one who broke the rules for the sake of the greater good?
Does that make Wonder Woman Thomas Jefferson, the warrior for peace, architect of our most precious freedoms? Or is she more like Franklin Roosevelt in that regard, giving our enemies a bitter fight while generously giving our poorest and weakest a fighting chance of their own? That would make Truman Green Lantern, saving the world with his magical do-anything world-saving device.
And who would be an analog for colorless chair-warmers like Millard Fillmore and Chester Arthur? Are these men Booster Gold and Blue Beetle? Clearly Rorshach is Richard Nixon, Alan Moore practically begs us to see the parallels, but what of Kennedy, Nixon’s shining twin? Is that Ozymandius, or is he a simpler man, a purer spirit, someone like Captain Marvel? Or is he Superboy and his “best and brightest” cabinet the Legion of Superheroes in the 31st century?
And how to categorize corrupt, incompetent disasters like Grant, Harding, Hoover and Bush II? Is Reagan Plastic Man, effortlessly escaping ceaseless attack with a smile and a quip? And what about Johnson, weak on foreign policy but a genius in the domestic realm, who is that? Or William Henry Harrison, who caught pneumonia during his inaugural parade and died a month later? Or Grover Cleveland, who served, left office, then came back and served again?
Or perhaps the metaphor is imprecise, perhaps the US presidency is unlike the DCU after all — perhaps it’s more like the X-Men, where weak individuals are granted extraordinary powers and yet are still hampered by their combative attitudes toward each other and their under-developed social skills. In the X-Men you have heroes who might not turn out to be heroes after all. And vice versa.
Or maybe we’re looking in the wrong direction, perhaps the US presidents aren’t the “good guys” at all. While Bush II has so far shunned the metal mask and hooded cloak of Dr. Doom, he has certainly succeeded in turning the US into his own private Latveria. And any given Republican of the 20th century can lay claim to being the Lex Luthor of the bunch, brimming with brilliant, short-sighted schemes to make himself rich while destroying other people’s lives and property.
For your romantic inspiration, some tender moments from Justice League.
This is, of course, the real reason why I watch the shows of the DC Animated Universe — it’s all the hot, hot man/woman, woman/alien, man/mythological figure, man/scientific experiment, man/winged alien, woman/alien, psychopath/psychopath, woman/scientific experiment, alien/robot, martian/martian, man/psychopath, mythological figure/martian, alien/winged alien, woman/mythological figure love going on.
The man who started it all.
In the spring of 1940, an unidentified criminal fell into a tub of goo. From this tub of goo emerged The Joker, and the world has never been the same. Clayface, Mr. Freeze, Two-Face, Solomon Grundy, Parasite, all fell victim, in one way or another, to tubs of goo. Christ, the Creeper fell into the same tub of goo as the Joker! You would have thought that having one person turn into a raving psycho would be enough for that company to stop manufacturing that particular brand of goo, but that’s corporate America for you.
(In the film Batman and Robin, even Poison Ivy falls into a tub of goo, although her comic-book counterpart did not seem to need to take it that far.)
Where would we be without tubs of goo? How many of our psychotics, mutants and monsters owe their existence to tubs of goo?
And not just villains, good guys too. Flash fell into a tub of goo too, and was struck by lightning to seal the deal. Metamorpho, Plastic Man, Swamp Thing — all goo-produced phenomena.
Over in the Marvel universe, in addition to having their own swamp thing called Man-Thing (who fell into the same tub of goo as Solomon Grundy but with vastly different effect) they actually have a tub of goo from outer space, one that will actively seek out people and jump on them, turning super-heroes bad and bad guys evil.
(It should be noted that the Marvel Universe seems to be plagued with radiation instead of tubs of goo, perhaps as a symptom of coming of age after the H-bomb testing began.)
Where is the anti tub-of-goo legislation? Or just lids, what about lids? Just put some goddamn lids on the tubs of goo, would that be so hard? Bruce Wayne needn’t have changed his life and become a fearsome creature of the night, he could have just sprung for some lids and his city would have been perfectly safe.
Martian Manhunter David Odgen Stiers fights middle-aged spread, while Green Lantern wonders if he can turn to confront Miguel Ferrer with a straight face.
Strangely enough, in 1997, while the world was waiting for Bruce Timm to create the show Justice League, CBS commissioned a pilot for a live-action Justice League of America. And as it happens, my local video store happened to have a copy of this little-seen pilot. As a “free rental,” no less. How could I resist?
A perfect example of how wrong a thing can go, Justice League of America shows what can happen when a decent idea falls into the hands of the uncaring. Now mind you, I never thought the original comic books (that is, in 1960) were any kind of ground-breaking miracle (they are mostly busy-work potboilers), but the makers of Justice League of America do not seem to have given a thought as to what their show is even about.
The lineup of this particular Justice League, for those interested, is Martian Manhunter, Atom, Flash, Green Lantern, Fire and Ice. The key thrust of the show seems to be “What if the Justice League were ordinary people, trying to lead their ordinary lives, trying to love and work and make friends, but then periodically having to dash off to save the world?”
Now, I’m all for superheroes behaving like human beings (that is, in fact, what makes the Bruce Timm show so successful), but there are limits. In Justice League of America, the superheroes aren’t just ordinary, they are desperately ordinary — sub-par slackers, halfway between The Incredibles and Mystery Men.
Take the Atom, for instance. In the comics, the Atom, Ray Palmer, is a brilliant physicist. That isn’t just a plot convenience, it’s the whole character. Ray Palmer must be a brilliant physicist because he invented the suit that enables him to get microscopic. In Justice League of America, Ray Palmer is a doughy, dull-witted, bespectacled high-school science teacher, unable to fix a television, much less rearrange the molecules of, say, an alien menace’s brainwaves.
Or the Flash. For the purposes of this show, it has been decided that Barry Allen can’t get his life together, attract women, or hold down a job. And so there is much “comedy” mined from Barry’s job misfortunes, lack of money and boredom. Why can’t he hold down a job? Well, because he moves too quickly, of course. Because apparently, in the world of this show, speed in one’s work is something that is frowned upon.
Or Green Lantern Guy Gardner (well, he’s called Guy Gardner, but he wears Kyle Rayner’s outfit, and of Lanterns, most closely resembles Rayner in temperament). The man who carries the most awesome weapon in the universe is a blithe, jokey ad executive, a man who has never given a moment’s thought to the responsibility he carries or the lineage he serves. I once wrote that Green Lantern is a job, but for Guy Gardner it appears to be more of a hobby.
Instead of watching Earth from their Watchtower up in space, this Justice League lives in a dumpy, retro apartment, where they bicker about chores and their love lives. That’s right, it’s Friends with superpowers. Far from protecting the world from intergalactic menace, it takes the whole team to protect one city from a terrorist with a plan that Dr. Evil would pass on as too absurd.
Now then: there is plenty in comics history to suggest that a group of superheroes with screwed-up personal lives could click — something 2000’s X-Men did beautifully — but what happens here is, disaster of disasters, the protagonists, dull as they are, become less interesting when they don their colorful outfits and fight crime. Their costumes are atrocious and laugh-inducing; they look like idiots dashing around their fake city in their bulky, ill-fitting suits and masks, rescuing tykes and dragging cats out from underneath porches. They have no ideas for fighting a menace or saving the city, they just kind of plod along, putting out fires while they wait for evidence to fall into their laps.
For those interested in viewing some representative clips, they may be found here.
The cast and crew of the pilot is a solid bunch of TV professionals, which makes it all the more perpexing that the show feels more like the production of some enthusiastic amateurs, not quite as polished as this.
As I’ve noted in the past, my son Sam’s favorite TV show is Justice League Unlimited. The problem is, there are only a couple dozen episodes of Justice League Unlimited, and there are 365 days in a year. This creates a gap for Sam of Justice League Unlimited stories.
This gap is filled, somewhat, by the existence of Justice League Unlimited comics, which keep coming out even though the TV show ended its run last year. These comics, more often than not, are what I read to Sam at bedtime.
I know relatively little about the superhero comics biz, but I’m guessing that the job of “imitating the character designs of a TV show for a superhero pamphlet” is not the prime job for most comics artists. And it often shows in the sloppiness, abrasiveness and lack of coherence in these titles, which may seem like simple product to many artists and readers, but which form a vital link to another world for people like my son.
An exception, I’ve found, is Carlo Barberi, an artist I’d never heard of before buying Justice League Unlimited for my son, but who has quickly become one of my favorites. Click for larger views.
There’s something about the “plastic” qualities of the characters that matches the subject matter well, invites the reader in. It’s light, brightly lit and colorful. The poses are dynamic without being emphatic. There’s something a little “freeze-dried” about the line that makes it fun and pliable. And I like his page layouts; they have a fluidity and spareness of design that makes the action clear and lucid. Look at all that blank space; and yet it doesn’t feel “blank,” it lets the reader follow the action swiftly and easily (believe me, I’ve gotten such headaches from trying to follow the action in some comic books myself, much less trying to explain what’s going on to my son).
I love this panel of Dr. Fate in his office, the camera angle, the big blank ceiling, the magical, mystical objects floating in air, the colors, and then the humor of it being sold with Dr. Fate’s petty concerns.
Even better is this page where Blue Beetle is left on monitor duty. Bored to tears, he tries paddle-ball, trying on the other hero’s outfits (note that he’s already tried on Wonder Woman’s clothes before moving on to the Flash’s), and, finally, the purest expression of superhero boredom, googling himself. Again, the elegance and cleanliness of the designs helps sell the action. This page made me laugh out loud, even if Sam didn’t quite get all the jokes.
Speaking of action, here are two terrific pages. I love how Parasite is flinging Wonder Woman clear off the page (Barberi will often have characters’ faces disappear off-panel to create tension) and how he’s tilted the camera to make the action more chaotic. Then, at the other end of the story, the dry, unemphatic line and empty space provides an ironic counterpoint to the cataclysmic action of Steel crushing Parasite with the Daily Planet globe.
Finally, he seems to be a master at these moment-to-moment kind of exchanges. Sometimes for comic effect, sometimes for silent, understated drama, all these exchanges leave it to the reader to fill in the blanks (no small feat in this often frantic, overstated genre, believe me). Best of all (and I realize these are script issues, not drafting issues), all these beats work for character reasons — these beats arise out of conflict between personalities, not machinations of plot.
Yes, it’s a Justice League chess set, and my son Sam has instantly learned chess.
I’m not the kind of dad who insists that his 5-year-old play chess, but Sam has been playing this Justice League video game, “Halls of Injustice,” in which his heroes move on a grid and make specific actions to defeat their opponents, and it’s about five time more complicated than chess, so I thought I’d give it a shot. No problem at all. He grasps the principles without a second thought. I doubt I have another Mac Pomeranc on my hands — although I would not complain if I did — but it’s a huge leap forward for the boy and, as usual, I have the Justice League to thank for it.
The players, for those curious, are:
White (let’s call them white, even though they’re silver) Superman is King, Wonder Woman is Queen, Flash is Bishop, Batman is (Dark) Knight, and Hawkgirl is Rook. Green Lantern is the Pawn.
Black (gold) are: Shade is King (What? No Lex Luthor? I guess he’s too much of a Superman villain), Star Sapphire is Queen (well, better than Cheetah, I guess) , Solomon Grundy is Bishop (Solomon Grundy? They let him run the diagonal length of the board? Solomon Grundy?) Ultra-Humanite is Knight, Copperhead is Rook (Copperhead, right — guy in a snake suit is going to go up against a flying alien with an indestructible weapon), and an alien robot called a Manhunter (Sam had to remind me which episode they appear in) is the Pawn.
All of this makes sense to me except Hawkgirl, who doesn’t seem to be very rook-like in her attitude. But it was either her or Martian Manhunter, and someone had to get the axe — might as well be the creepy green guy from another planet no one likes.
Martian Manhunter’s mother: “You can change your shape, J’onn, why don’t you change it to look more like that nice Superman boy? I’d bet you’d get your own chess piece then.”
J’onn J’onnz: “Moo-oommm…”
Captured on the sidelines, the Amazon queen steals some time with her Dark Knight. Batman, of course, plays it cool.
John Stewart: “Wait a minute, why is the black guy a pawn? What are you trying to teach kids?”
Superman, for some reason, looks a little put out at having been made King. Little pouty. Like maybe he said “Ooh! I’ll be King!” And then he found out that he can only move one space and everyone wants to kill him.
It’s a little weird to hear things like “Are you sure you want to move your Wonder Woman there? Because my Copperhead could capture her and that would put your Superman in Check. Why don’t you move your Batman there, ’cause that would block my Ultra-Humanite from capturing your Flash,” but one gets used to it quickly.
As we see, the Justice League takes up the top shelf, as befitting their status as supreme beings. The order of the seven is taken from Justice League publicity materials, which always order them in this way.
But then, curiously, the Justice Lords (the evil Justice League from an alternate time-stream) are placed on the same shelf, and in the same order (minus Justice Lord Flash [or Reverse Flash], who is not featured as a member of the Justice Lords proper [except for the false Justice Lords generated by the Luthor/Brainiac monster]).
Below the Justice League are the second-tier Leaguers: Plastic Man (a custom job bought on eBay), Vixen (posed below her current boyfriend, Green Lantern) Shining Knight (who should be posed beside Vigilante, who has not yet been acquired), Black Lightning and Isis (two more eBay custom jobs), Robin (Robin? The hell is he doing here?), Atom Smasher (the lone Justice Leaguer who claims Jewishness as part of his identity in this otherwise areligious team), Green Arrow (mysteriously, not posed next to Black Canary), Aquaman (note that the Aquaman posed here is the one without the cape; this is the real Aquaman), Batgirl (partially obscured) (Batgirl?!), Huntress, Atom, Red Tornado, Hawk, Dove, Metamorpho and Zatanna.
(Sam is loath to place one character in front of the other — they are all equal [on their shelves] to each other. It pained him to place Aquaman in front of Batgirl but he was forced to due to space considerations.)
Then, we have the third-stringers, or supporting characters: Supergirl (whom I would have placed in the second tier), Orion, Black Canary (another second-level hero, imho), Starman, Booster Gold (a third-shelfer, even though he has his own episode of JLU, Elongated Man (yes, the official Elongated Man is trumped by a custom Plastic Man, as he should be), Nightwing (Nightwing?) Steel, Wildcat, Waverider, Dr. Light (that’s Dr. Light II, not the rapist of Elongated Man’s wife), Aztek, Dr. Fate, Rocket Red, The Creeper.
I do not know what system Sam uses to rank these figures. Black Lightning is a second-shelfer, even though Sam knows very little about him and has not seen him featured on the show, and while he’s never seen a Plastic Man comic and he is not featured on any of the Justice League shows, Sam somehow understands thathe outranks Elongated Man (comics fans, of course, know that Plastic Man did not begin his life as a DC hero, he was purchased from another publisher; Elongated Man was the pale imitation DC cooked up so they could have their own stretchy guy). Isis has never been featured on the show or even in the tie-in comics; Red Tornado he finds compelling enough to put on the second shelf, even though the character only has the most passing moments on the show. Robin, Nightwing and Batgirl get included, even though they are not part of the League (and are presumably either off with the Teen Titans or guarding Gotham City, dating Bruce Wayne (Batgirl only) (I think) and growing old while waiting for Terry McGuiness to take up the Batman mantle). (And before anyone starts complaining about Robin and Nightwing being featured at the same time, the Robin featured here is Tim Drake, not Dick Grayson.) The Green Lantern Corps (Katma Tui, Kyle Raynor, Arkkis Chummuck, Tomar Re, Kilowog), although they dominate several key episodes, currently reside in a bench on the other side of the room (presumably the bench is the same relative distance from the shelf as Oa is to Earth). Vixen is posed beneath Green Lantern, but Zatanna is not posed beneath Batman, although they have been romantically linked.
On the bottom shelf, crammed together, we have the villains, with the most powerful in the center, growing less powerful (or relevant) as we move to the edges. Thus, Lex Luthor, Joker and Brainiac take center stage (with the Very Tall Darkseid, Doomsday and Bane behind), flanked by Poison Ivy, Amazo, Mr. Freeze and the ultra-lame Copperhead to the left, and Catwoman (seated), Sinestro, Two-Face, Bizarro, Harley Quinn (obscured by Bizarro), and the ultra-lame Mirror Master to the right.
Even casual Justice League viewers will note the preponderance of Batman villains here. Strictly speaking, Joker, Bane, Mr. Freeze, Catwoman, Poison Ivy and Harley Quinn shouldn’t be here at all (although some of them put in a brief appearance in a couple of episodes). It is, I’m guessing, their overwhelming importance to the Batman/Gotham City mythos that warrant their inclusion in the Legion of Doom.
I cannot explain Poison Ivy’s outranking of Amazo. The Amazo character in Justice League is one of the key stories of the whole series, second only to the Justice Lords scenario. We even have two other Amazo figures (one gold and one clear, symbolizing different levels of Amazo’s evolution), which have been banished along with the Green Lantern Corps (perhaps for similar thematic reasons — Amazo does, after all, leave Earth when it has nothing more to offer him). Similarly, I cannot explain why Catwoman is seated; Sam is adamant about this point however and has corrected her posture on more than one occasion. The Joker’s distance from Harley can be explained for character reasons (Joker seems to spend half his time distancing himself from Harley) (He’s even gotten Bizarro to hold her off).
The Magazine Editor was visiting the other day and conversation turned, as it often does in my house, to the Justice League.
My son Sam (5) is, to say the least, obsessed with the Justice League, an obsession I’ve done little to discourage. He sleeps under a shelf full of Justice League
dolls action figures (he has 80 or so, not including the inevitable copies, and also not including the various members of the Green Lantern corps, who, although appearing on Justice League, are not actually members of the Justice League), as well as banks, comic books, encyclopedias, posters, and a wall covered with his own drawings of various members.
TA. I don’t know — I think I might have gone too far with the whole Justice League thing.
TME. Could be worse. You could send him to Sunday school.
TA. I mean, I don’t mind, you know, the intensity of it — and it’s not violent like Batman is violent — but I just worry that he’s watching something that he isn’t really getting. I mean, there are all these moral and ethical concepts in the show that are just too sophisticated for him –
TME. That’s what I mean. It could be worse, you could be sending him to Sunday School.
So be it. Sam likes Justice League because it’s more interesting to him than Superfriends or Magic School Bus (both of which delight his four-year-old sister) and he’s too old for Maisy or Thomas the Tank Engine. Its moral lessons are couched in high drama, well-drawn characters (in every sense of the word) and fluid, exciting, colorful action, more so than any Sunday school class I remember (although the Bible is certainly not lacking in colorful, absorbing, morally complex action stories).
Sam confessed to me the other night:
SAM. I believe in superheroes.
SAM. No, I mean I really believe in them. I think they’re here, I think they’re hiding, so they can be there if we need them.
Well, okay, he’s five, so I’m not too concerned about him having actual paranoid delusions. If he believes there really is a Superman who is good and strong and (mostly) invulnerable, a vastly powerful being with an unerring sense of right and wrong (or at least a team who will correct him if he’s wrong), if he believes in a collection of smart, quick-witted, eloquent heroes who will help him out when he really needs it and never let him down, well, that’s the message of Justice League, but it’s also the message of Sunday school. And as far as I’m concerned, as far as belief systems go, I would rather have him believe in the brightly-colored pop-culture fantasy of Justice League than in the blood-encrusted gothic tales of organized religion any day.