Robin, Superboy, Impulse, Wonder Girl, Secret, Arrowette: Teen heroes who actually behave like teens?

Feb 8, 2003 (Updated Feb 8, 2003)
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Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:Witty dialogue. Amusing adventures. Sensitivity to the teenage condition. Good characterization.

Cons:The funny plot twists require you tolerate a fair number of coincidences.

The Bottom Line: You can enjoy this without already knowing everything about the past adventures of these heroes. Good value for your money if you like fun fast-paced comics.

HARM (17-year-old supervillain to his parents): I thought you'd want to know I'm going out. You can breathe a sigh of relief if you wish.
ELLEN (whispering to her husband, whom she has just been encouraging to provide strong discipline for their wayward son and thereby get him back on the straight and narrow): You can do this. You can.
BURT: Ahem. Your curfew is 11 P.M. I want you in by eleven.
HARM (startled): I'm sorry. What?
BURT: I said . . . you're to be in by eleven.
HARM: A curfew. How droll. Father . . . I allow you and Mother to live. Don't press your luck. [slams the door on his way out]

Harm is superstrong and merciless and has ambitions of becoming the toughest supervillain on the planet, but this situation was ridiculous. This comic is set in the world inhabited by Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, etc. If Harm's parents had reason to fear he was using his superpowers to do evil things, as well as this implied death threat (and his father already has a nasty scar on his neck from an altercation with his son some years ago), they could have called the FBI or some other law enforcement agency, which (if it thought it couldn't handle the problem itself) would in turn have known how to call the HQ of the Justice League of America, some of the heaviest hitters in the superhero business. What is this? "Battered Parent Syndrome?" (Watch: I just invented that syndrome's name out of thin air, but now someone will probably tell me that it exists, even in households where the juvenile criminals don't have superhuman strength and other unfair advantages. I hope not, but there may be well-documented cases.)

Whatever you might think of Harm's parents, this little exchange illustrates a main theme writer Peter David is emphasizing in this collection of the first several adventures of the "Young Justice" superhero team in their own monthly comic book: The conflicts between active and independent-minded teenagers on the one hand, and the hidebound older generation on the other. These particular teenagers just happen to wear colorful costumes and often have superhuman powers which admittedly make their adolescence an even more challenging experience than it is for most kids. Harm, their nastiest opponent in this book, is an extreme case of the generation gap to balance the better-behaved heroes, but all of them have ongoing conflicts with authority figures in one way or another.

This exchange also illustrated Peter David's ability to make fun of some of the conventions of the superhero genre. It's not every day you see a merciless supervillain interacting with his parents at all, much less being given a firm curfew (even if he's clearly going to ignore it). There is an awful lot of humor in this book, and most of it doesn't involve death threats among family members but falls more into the "good clean wholesome fun" tradition.

It's comics like this collection that remind me of the days when I was first falling in love with superhero comics, when I was still in kindergarten and my father gave me a paperback collection reprinting the first stories of the Amazing Spider-Man by Stan Lee (I was glad to see that his origin story was pretty closely followed in the recent movie with Tobey Maguire). Stan Lee also believed in the "good clean wholesome fun" school of thought when he was creating superheroes by the dozen back in the 1960s, and although the industry has "matured" since then (superhero comics are allowed to use dirty words these days - what could possibly show more maturity than that?), I often wish they hadn't left so much of the fun by the wayside as they moved on to have the modern version of Lee's X-Men (for instance) deal with problems of racism, sexual intrigue, hopelessly tangled continuity, regular "deaths" and "resurrections" of whatever character is likeliest to most upset people by leaving and most please them by returning, and so on and so forth.

The heroes who join Young Justice (in two stages - first the three guys, then the three girls a few issues later) are: Robin, Superboy, Impulse, Wonder Girl, Arrowette, and Secret. You might think of the first five as being the Junior Editions of veteran Justice League members Batman, Superman, Flash, Wonder Woman, and Green Arrow, respectively; Secret would be the token "mysterious amnesiac supernaturally-oriented girl who may have already died since she seems pretty darn ghostly at times." They ended up being called Young Justice because of their youth (all seem to be around 15 or younger) on the one hand, and the strong ties to various members of the Justice League of America on the other.

Young Justice: A League of Their Own is a collection of eight stories about the formation and early adventures of this motley crew. Writer Peter David went to some trouble to make these stories independently comprehensible so that anyone who had picked up, say, Young Justice #4 in a store wouldn't have been hopelessly lost to discover he was in the fourth chapter of a twelve-part epic where the author took it for granted you already knew who everyone was from past experience. By the same token, the final story here doesn't end on a terrible cliffhanger that's meant to have you biting your nails until you can find out what happened next.

One important point: None of the three girl members look like they started out as buxom centerfold models whose "costumes" are so tight and revealing that they must have been spray-painted onto the girls' skin to provide a bare minimum of "modesty." Rather, the young ladies are drawn as slender teens who probably still have a lot of growing to do in the next several years and aren't in any terrible hurry to get there. Unlike some female teenage superheroes in other comics who seem bound and determined to flaunt their oversized chests to all and sundry, having presumably arranged for silicone implants and resolved to get their money's worth in watching male jaws drop. (I recognize that I am probably scaring away some potential readers of this volume by admitting it's not all about centerfold types striking poses to flaunt their assets, but I had to say it.)

Here's a quick rundown on who these heroes are.

Robin (third of that name). Tim Drake. Batman's current apprentice in the costumed crimefighting business. (Robin #1 is now a grown man called Nightwing. Robin #2 died in the line of duty, fighting the Joker. Tim Drake knows this, but insists on filling the role anyway. It gives him a tradition of courage to live up to.) He quickly becomes the de facto leader of the team (by which I mean I don't recall a formal election), possibly because he's the most mature and responsible of the three boys who were founding members, as well as having a superior grasp of tactics due to his having studied with Batman, who has no superpowers and has to keep his brain sharp in order to survive encounters with all those nasty people who do.

Superboy. Kon-El. A sort-of-clone of Superman (it's complicated and I never did get it straight), created in a top secret U.S. government science facility in the dark days when everyone thought Superman was literally dead and buried back around 1993 (and they were absolutely right - but it was only a temporary inconvenience). The more-or-less clone's growth was accelerated so that he developed from a few cells all the way to his physical adolescence in a matter of days while tons of useful background knowledge about the real world was somehow downloaded directly into his brain, so he never had anything resembling a normal childhood. He tends to behave in an immature fashion, but not necessarily any worse than a lot of real-life teenage American boys who don't even have his excuse of having literally only been alive for a year or two. His heart is in the right place and he's always willing to use his powers to fearlessly fight any evildoer who attracts his attention. He doesn't have all the powers Superman does, but he seems to have some superstrength, flight, and "tactile telekinesis," and he mentions that last power every 10 minutes in an effort to impress people. He also flirts with pretty girls, but flirting is as far as it ever goes here - it's funny rather than, say, predatory.

Impulse. Bart Allen. A teenage version of the Flash (and actually the born-in-the-far-future descendant of one of the superheroes of that name, come back in time to our era), he can run incredibly fast but, as his chosen alias reflects, tends to "act on impulse" instead of planning things out ahead of time. This makes him good for regular comic relief.

Wonder Girl (2nd of that name). Cassie Sandsmark. In a series of contrived events (in the Wonder Woman monthly comic) which I once read but the details of which now escape me (and do you really want to know?), she somehow ended up with flight and super-strength and patterned herself after Wonder Woman, who just happened to be a good friend of her mom's. Her mother is an intelligent and well-educated professional woman (museum curator) and seems to have done a decent job of raising her daughter - and, unlike the parents or legal guardians of many teenage superheroes (including Robin's father), knows about her daughter's costumed identity and tolerates it - not with great enthusiasm, but perhaps suspecting she can't really stop it anyway.

Arrowette. Cissie King Jones. She is the one member of the team who has really been pushed into the superhero role by an authority figure instead of simply volunteering for it. Her mother, Bonnie Jones, apparently had a brief career as an obscure young superhero when she was a girl, but nothing much ever came of it and Bonnie decided she was going to "encourage" her daughter from a very tender age to train constantly for such a role, in order to do a much better job of making a big splash in the media once her costumed career started. As you might guess from the name Arrowette, Cissie carries a bow and a quiver of arrows which she fires with remarkable accuracy, rather than having any really nifty superpowers. There is a rumor (not mentioned in this book) that her biological father might have been archer superhero Green Arrow, which would explain (at least by the standards of "comic book genetics") her superb aim. At one point, Wonder Girl's mother (at a fascinating "Parent/Teacher Conference" for parents and mentors of the kids at the very end of the book) pointedly and very perceptively calls Bonnie a "frustrated wannabe superhero stage mother living vicariously through her daughter!"

Secret. No other name provided. As near as I can tell, she had only appeared in one previous comic book story before this "Young Justice" series started. In it (and DC really should have summarized this past story in a page of text at the start of this collection for those, like me, who had never heard of her before) she escaped from government custody and a secret agency asked Robin, Superboy, and Impulse to work on recapturing her. She was described to them as a dangerous monster, but they were startled to find she looked and sounded (some of the time) more like a cute sad-looking blond-haired blue-eyed girl who just happened to have some really weird unexplained powers (such as turning into a cloud of smoke and taking on scary shapes as she did so). They ended up letting her go and rigging up an apparent "destruction" of the "smoke monster" to confuse the issue for Uncle Sam and hopefully give the poor girl a little privacy - or at least a good head start. In this book, she makes contact with them again and quickly becomes part of the newly formed team.

Whatever caused Secret's strange powers seems to be related to her bad case of total amnesia regarding her past life. Thus, she doesn't have any home to go to or any family to turn to (that she knows of). Accordingly, Secret is the only one of the six who is not deliberately following in the footsteps of a specific superhero role model and/or parent/mentor, and whose history and precise abilities are unknown to even the most obsessive reader of comic books as "Young Justice" gets rolling (later we learned more about them). Call her the wild card. You can also call her the wide-eyed innocent. She remembers so little about the modern world, pop culture references, etc., that it makes you (or me, anyway) feel very protective of her, as if she were a little girl who had just learned to talk (although her native intelligence seems appropriate for a young teen instead of, say, having her express herself in babytalk all the time).

In a shocking display of gender stereotyping, the writer generally has the female trio display more empathy, patience, responsibility, and good taste than at least two members (Superboy and Impulse) of the male trio. Robin does better - having been trained by the Batman, who does not suffer fools gladly - but even so, Peter David seems to be arguing that girls in their early-to-mid-teens are about three times as likely to be already developing such praiseworthy characteristics as boys in the same age group.

All three of the girls are blond-haired and blue-eyed (though Wonder Girl wears a black wig with her costume to protect her privacy), but that isn't Peter David's fault. He didn't create any of these six characters; he just accepted the task of sweeping them up and welding them into a single team with its own comic book. Hence, he was stuck with whatever skin and hair and eye colors the original creators of each juvenile hero had selected before David came along. (He clearly recognized the problem: In later issues of this title, not reprinted here, he introduced an African-American heroine of his own creation in an understandable effort to get a little diversity onto the team.)

Near the end of the book, several members of the Justice League drop in unexpectedly to talk to the kids about whether or not they've bitten off more than they can chew by trying to operate independently as a crimefighting team of juveniles without constant adult supervision. At one point, when the old-timers are criticizing a job that the three boys are doing in fighting a mind-controlling supervillain and planning to intervene despite having said they would give the boys a certain amount of time to prove they could handle the job alone, Arrowette springs to their defense.

FLASH: Hey kid, it's a question of priorities.
ARROWETTE: Oh, yeah, and I know what yours are! You just wanna crab crab crab! You even complain about how the guys act when they're hanging with each other! So they rank on each other, razz each other. . . that's how normal teen guys are! Siblings, too! Didn't you guys have buds or sibs when you were teens? Guys you could bust on and know it didn't mean anything?
[Next panel - she's continuing]
No, probably not! I bet you were all only children, or felt isolated, or busy "training" and stuff. I bet none of you can lay claim to knowing what a normal teen life is supposed to be! Geez, you're so judgmental, I wanna puke!
[Next panel - most of her audience is just staring at her, except for one member on the end who seems amused]
GREEN LANTERN (the youngest and least experienced JLA member in this scene, speaking with a bit of a grin): Rebuttal, guys?

I couldn't help it. I looked at the lineup of adult superheroes she addressed, and took inventory. Batman, Superman, Aquaman, Wonder Woman, Flash, Red Tornado, and Green Lantern (who was clearly sympathizing with Arrowette at this point). All but Red Tornado are only children - no siblings to interact with in their formative years. (Red Tornado is an android.) Batman, as we all know, was orphaned at a tender age and immediately dedicated his life to nonstop training to become the perfect detective crimefighter. (Social life? Who needs a social life?) Superman had friends in school as a teen, but not friends in his age group with whom he was willing to discuss his unique superpowers and his worries about how he would handle them when he grew up, so "isolated" probably covers it well. I believe the current backstory is that Aquaman grew up without parents except for a kindly dolphin - human interaction in his juvenile days was pretty much zero, living in the ocean as he did. Wonder Woman grew up on Amazon Island, where I believe every other inhabitant was already a grown woman before she was brought to life as a baby (long story) and started growing up - she must have been the only kid on that island for her entire childhood (although some writer could have changed this when I wasn't looking - I am not one of the world's leading Wonder Woman collectors). Green Lantern only received the "power ring" that makes him powerful after he was out of his teens, so he had a fairly "normal" childhood but had no particular experience in interacting with other teenagers who had superpowers and fought crime daily and needed to unwind after a hard day of chasing serial killers and other scum (and anyway, GL is the most sympathetic to Arrowette's points). Flash was the only one present who actually spent some of his super-powered youth as part of a group of young heroes (the Teen Titans) with whom he could really discuss his problems without needing to hide his "secret life" from his best friends every day of the year. Even so, darned if Arrowette didn't have a point about the general lack of relevant experience here!

This volume collects Young Justice issues 1-7, as well as a story from a comic book titled "Young Justice: Secret Files." Those stories were first published in 1998 and '99. Peter David wrote the regular series; Todd Nauck did the pencils in a style I found very appealing; one story was written by D. Curtis Johnson and penciled by Ale Garza but did a good job of keeping both the writing and artistic styles pretty consistent with the David/Nauck work so that you aren't jarred by seeing a character's appearance (or speech patterns) swing back and forth wildly in the middle of the book.

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