Monday, June 7, 2010

Underrated/Overlooked: Sins of Youth

Young Justice isn’t just one of my favorite comics of all-time, it’s also in my mind a tremendous accomplishment.

That may have made a few of you scratch your heads; no, Young Justice wasn’t a game-changer like Watchmen or record-breaker like Civil War, but hear me out on the impressive merits it did possess.

I’ve extolled the virtues of Peter David on this blog before, and this is another one of his triumphs. As usual, he did a long haul job, penning 55 uninterrupted (there may have been one fill-in) issues plus numerous Annuals, specials, etc. over the course of five years. Young Justice is as funny and as poignant in spots as his work on Incredible Hulk or Supergirl, but it’s also far more metatextual and self-aware than even PAD’s usual stuff. There’s a scene in one of the later issues that’s one of my favorites that took place just a few months after Superboy and Impulse’s solo books getting cancelled and has The Ray relating to them about “their favorite comics” ending and all of them giving Robin the evil eye when it enters the room—fun but clever bits like that just peppered the book.

But maybe more impressive than the impressive effort put in by PAD was the breakout performance of my good pal Todd Nauck, who absolutely owned this series. It’s not unheard of for a writer, particularly one with the rep of Peter David, to spend half a decade perfecting his craft on a title, but in this day and age, generally guys not named Mark Bagley don’t stick around as long; not only did Todd match PAD for longevity on Young Justice, he utilized his growing familiarity with the characters as a way to constantly up his game and make improvements of what he already knew as well as bringing something new to the table nearly every month (Snapper Carr’s collection of super hero-themed t-shirts—ranging from Plastic Man to Metron—immediately comes to mind). Todd is that rarest breed of modern artist who can draw as fast as he does well (again, shades of Mark Bagley); he drew nearly every issue of Young Justice plus one-shots plus sometimes other series, but it never looked rushed or half-finished. If you look at Young Justice as a showcase for Todd Nauck—and it’s many other things but it’s certainly that in large part—you’ll see a guy who indeed draws fun, colorful cartoons, which is what he’s best-known for, but also an incredible range from an artist who spent five years with these characters and truly shepherded them into young adulthood.

So yeah, not even getting into all the other stuff Young Justice did well—reclaim obscure characters, new takes on tired settings, defying expectations with issues addressing real world hot button stuff, and of course all the great humor along the way—it was just a great series. I hail it as an accomplishment because without many stunts or aggressive promotion, it really was a book that achieved a lot on the backs of two guys who just worked really really hard.

And about a year and a half into their run, DC rewarded the creators of Young Justice by making the book the center of a company-encompassing fifth week event.

The set-up for Sins of Youth took place both in the pages of Young Justice and in Superboy’s ongoing series as the Agenda—a sort of renegade version of Cadmus, also focusing on cloning—led by Lex Luthor’s ex-wife Contessa expands their grudge against Kon-El to his team as well. Attempting to turn public sentiment against the young heroes of the DC Universe, the Agenda manipulates aged Golden Age teen sidekicks (including Dan the Dyna-Mite, which has always weirded me out since he had Hitler’s brain put in his head in The Golden Age, but was played mostly for laughs here) into forming Old Justice and publicly campaigning against their youthful counterparts. In order to address their detractors, Young Justice—under Wonder Girl’s temporary leadership because Batman won’t let Robin appear in public—sets up a summit in Washington DC with member of the JLA, JSA, Titans, et al coming out en masse to either support the kids or keep them out of trouble.

At the rally, chaos ensues like wow as the real Superboy shows up and reveals his evil clone Match has been posing as him, the Agenda’s clone army the Point Men attack, and for the coup de grace Klarion the Witch Boy—also hired by the Agenda and in a more lighthearted pre-Grant Morrison incarnation—mixes his magic with an alien space ray whipped out by Old Justice’s Doiby Dickles to make all the older heroes young and vice versa (except for Superboy, who initially can’t age because he’s a clone though this gets rectified in the second chapter after he kvetches about it, and the original Teen Titans who learn they were previously exposed to the same magic/science mix in a short Secret Files & Origin story written by my boy Jay Faerber).

From there, it’s a series of adventures all over the DCU as the various aged and de-aged heroes run around trying to figure out ways to reverse the situation, to defeat the Agenda, or to just have fun with their new status quo. The action unfolds in a series of one-shots—all with killer Mike Wieringo covers—by various creators wedged between the bookends by PAD and Nauck.

Yes, the ol’ age swap routine is absolutely a gimmick, but as the great Sean T. Collins has said, the best, most successful events no matter how nuanced or deep always center around something your inner 8-year-old can latch onto and enjoy (Civil War is heroes vs heroes, Blackest Night is a zombie movie, etc.)—this is certainly the case with Sins of Youth.

Even if the bookends are more an excuse to set up/resolve the plot along than anything else, PAD and especially Nauck take full advantage of the spotlight being given them and really show off what they and their characters can do. Wonder Girl is at her most heroic, Impulse is at his goofiest, Secret is at her quirkiest, and if you were wondering how Robin would fit in a team book, you get an idea of what a neat dynamic it is. Todd really goes to town drawing the entire roster of DC heroes, cramming as many as he can into a page George Perez-style and making the fight sequences sing with crackling energy and about a billion punches and energy blasts being thrown.

The one-shots are, as you’d expect, of varying degrees of quality, but most of the writers really sink their teeth into the concept, providing insight into what drives the older heroes as well as establishing the credibility of their sidekicks to a greater degree, while also following the general Young Justice mandate of “Have a good time.”

Chuck Dixon and Cary Nord handle the Batboy and Robin one-shot, which—appropriately given the characters—is probably the most serious an introspective of the series, though of course not without lighter moments. Taking a break from the larger crossover to check in on Gotham City, Tim Drake as Batman and Bruce Wayne as Robin rescue Zatanna from a group of villainous Russians. There’s some genuine insight as to how each guy views the other’s role over the course of the adventure as both struggle—Tim can’t do the “Batman” voice to fool Commissioner Gordon or get used to calling him “Jim,” Bruce regrets never having a real childhood—and Tim admits for the first time he doesn’t ever really want to be Batman. It also sets up a funny scene in Sins of Youth #2 where Tim tries to have a beer with his father and ends up spitting it all over him.

JLA, Jr. is more of the romp you’d expect, with Dan Curtis Johnson providing the script and Carlo Barberi rocking it on art as Captain Marvel takes the little Leaguers to see his wizard. Seriously, Barberi doesn’t draw Kyle Rayner in the same costume in any two panels, having him use his ring to whip up new ones every single time he is shown—it’s awesome. I also enjoy Aquaboy using the JLA roster files as Internet porn.

As a Flash fan, I am of course a sucker for Kid Flash/Impulse by Dwayne McDuffie and Angel Unzueta, wherein the speedsters embark on a PR tour to try and salvage the good guys’ image. I love Unzueta’s design for the grown-up Impulse costume and McDuffie’s characterization of young Wally West as perpetually impatient and annoyed. The best scene is definitely Wally briefly getting back to his honeymoon—which was interrupted by all this—and getting totally shot down by Linda when he tries to score.

Starwoman and the JSA is written by some dude named Geoff Johns with art by Drew Johnson. It’s another fun one as the Golden Agers head to outer space with the adult Stargirl as their babysitter; Geoff’s love for the characters shines through and he gets to do some nice work showcasing his creation, Stargirl/Starwoman, and her potential.

The compliment to Batboy and Robin, Superman, Jr./Superboy, Sr. by Karl Kesel and Rob Haynes, progresses Kal-El and Kon-El’s relationship in some pretty significant ways. Most importantly, Superman finally confesses his secret identity as Clark Kent to Superboy—only for Superboy to let him know he had already figured it out some time ago. It’s a nice moment in a book full of them plus a big ol’ fight scene made more awesome by Haynes’ unique style.

It all culminates in the second bookend, in which Klarion—and Peter David—up the ante by introducing a dozen or so de-aged villains into the mix, forcing the heroes—and Todd Nauck—to rise to the occasion double time. I won’t spoil who wins between the good guys and bad guys, but Todd absolutely comes out a champ.

Sins of Youth is a timeless, enjoyable story I probably pull off my shelf more than any other trade I own because it always cheers me up and makes me chuckle—and reminds me how much I miss Young Justice.


Carl Walker said...

I also love Young Justice, but strangely, couldn't finish Sins of Youth when I checked it out from the library years ago! And of course it is out of print (as is A League of Their Own which collected #1-6). Hopefully DC will do a second printing of both once the cartoon comes out, even if the cartoon looks more like they needed a new name for Johns' version of Teen Titans Vol. 3 than YJ.

Ben Morse said...

Thankfully I have both trades as well as the whole series in singles :-)

Robert Eddleman said...

I believe you mean "Klarion 'bum-bum-BUM' the Witchboy." ;)

Ben Morse said...

Yes, many apologies!

Anonymous said...

Huge fan of Young Justice, and realllllly wish there was something comparable out again. I couldn't agree more with your assessment.

George Washington Carver said...

Shame Johns had to ruin this just to bring back the Titans.

Ben Morse said...

Much as I loved Young Justice, I really loved Geoff and Mike McKone's run on Teen Titans as well, GWC, and I certainly would blame Geoff for YJ getting canceled. He was actually a big fan.

Laplace Zombie said...

I'm also very fond of Young Justice. It's the series that got me into comic books, and by far one of my favorites.

George Washington Carver said...

Ben, I agree, I would blame Geoff too.

Ben Morse said...

Ahh! Typo! I *wouldn't* blame Geoff! No wonder you invented the peanut, Dr. Carver!

Dave said...

Awesome post. I really enjoyed YJ. The fun of the book is great. I even enjoyed Lil' Lobo which apparently was a bad idea for some reason.

On a side note I do think it was either Tom Peyer or Rags Morales that came up with the Snapper Carr changing super hero gag in Hourman.

Ben Morse said...

Fair enough and good catch, Dave, but Todd certainly perfected it (in my mind).

Mark said...

YJ is just a book I can't get back into. Back when it was coming out, it was one of the comics I couldn't get enough of, a perfect gateway to the larger DCU via relatable characters. I've tried to read the series in later years, and I don't know if I have become older, or the comic is dated, but I can't get as excited looking back on the series as when I first read it.