Sidekicks: Interns to the stars!

Jul-25-08

Batman and Robin. Captain America and Bucky. Flash and Kid Flash. Aquaman and Aqualad. Sidekicks have been a staple of the comic form almost since it’s very inception, although the concept is quite a bit older than that. After all, what is Dr. Watson if not the sidekick of Sherlock Holmes? However, while you can find examples of sidekicks in other places, it was in comics where sidekicks became known by their current popular meaning, which is a younger hero who basically apprentices him or herself to an older, more established hero.

Sidekicks are probably most prominent in those super-hero titles published by DC Comics, which really popularized the sidekick phenomenon with the most popular sidekick ever, Robin. After he proved a success, DC introduced a veritable plethora of sidekicks and for a time it seemed that everyone of their superheroes had one (except, interestingly enough, for Superman and Wonder Woman. While there was a Superboy and Wonder Girl, both of these characters, originally, were simply younger versions of the title character. It wouldn’t be until the 1960s that Wonder Girl was made a separate hero and sidekick, and it wasn’t until the 1990s that the same thing was done for the Boy of Steel). Marvel also used sidekicks during it’s Golden Age, and introduced one for it’s other popular hero of the 1940s, the Human Torch, in the person of Toro. However, while DC would retain the use of sidekicks in the 1960s and 1970s, Marvel disavowed the concept after the years of World War II, and never again would sidekicks play a large role in any Marvel comics. Younger heroes at Marvel might be inspired by a hero, but rarely would they work with them and train with them.

It is said that sidekicks were often added to a book because they provided a younger person to which the children (the perceived audience of comics) reading the tales could relate. Of course, we now know that very few children read comics; is this why sidekicks seem to be disappearing out of our favorite comics? DC found sidekicks so popular that they introduced a title in which these younger heroes could gather, The Teen Titans. When this title was first published, all of these heroes could also be found in the monthly titles of their mentors, and truly the book was something of a mini-Justice League. While the title is still being published by DC Comics, and it still showcases younger heroes, how many of them have actually worked with their mentors? Has the current Wonder Girl ever really spent time with Wonder Woman? Certainly the Kid Flash who previously starred in the book, Bart Allen, never really trained with Wally West. Although many of these characters may be considered sidekicks by the general public, do they really fit that mold?

Times are certainly changing, and the reading public of today has different needs and wants then their predecessors half a century ago. Have sidekicks gone out of fashion? Is there any need for them any longer? Was there ever a need for them? Which sidekicks work and which don’t? And if I could get a sidekick, would they do some of my work for me? Would that have enabled me to post earlier this week? Good questions, and as always, I’m sure Jason has good answers.

I don’t know about GOOD answers, but I have a ragtag assemblage of comments that I’m going to throw out there and we’ll see what sticks. I have to get back into the groove of doing this whole blog thing again after the two-week Batman whirlwind and subsequent week-long dearth of posting. But I guess transitioning from Batman to a discussion on sidekicks is a semi-natural progression. After we saw The Dark Knight, my wife and I were on our way home and she asked me if I thought they would introduce Robin in the next Batman flick. I starting laughing so hard I almost ran off the road.

Sidekicks are all kinds of ridiculous, in a traditional sense, from both a moral and practical view. No one is going to seriously consider bringing a child along to help them in a combat situation. I used to watch episodes of the live-action Batman show and wonder how Robin was able to knock these thugs out with the same force that Batman used. I mean, if you’re getting your ass kicked on a regular basis by a teenage boy in his underwear, you may want to consider a new line of work. Not to mention how pissed off some of these “family groups” would be…hell, they’d be calling for Batman’s head just for putting Robin in the line of fire. It’s dangerous, irresponsible and nonsensical.

I don’t, however, have a problem with the Teen Titans forming a group on their own. It makes sense from a social standpoint, that these kids would want to surround themselves with like-minded peers. That’s not to say that I think they should be going on missions to fight the same villains as their grown-up counterparts either. It would almost be kind of sweet to see the Titans taking on someone like Li’l Riddler or Kid Brainiac or Gorilla Grodd’s son Monkey Mikey.

I can understand the relationship that Green Arrow has with his son Connor. And, while Connor isn’t technically a sidekick, I think he works better as one than Roy ever did as Speedy. I think the idea of the sidekick has been trivialized to always indicate someone who is usually younger and of lesser value. It has taken on a negative connotation (most likely because of Robin and the weird associations made with the character) that pervades all of pop culture these days. However, I can also see a view where “sidekick” has the same meaning as “wingman” or someone who assists you to reach a goal. The sidekick isn’t lesser than the main character, it’s just that the main character is the catalyst for whatever the adventure is about and whoever he brings along with him is his sidekick.

Does that make any sense at all?

I think that it makes sense, and I think you highlight a problem, and that’s with our traditional definition of a sidekick. It makes perfect sense for a hero to have a partner of some sort. Being a hero is a tough job, and there’s a lot to it for most of them, and that sort of work could best be accomplished with some help. I also think that it behooves the current generation of heroes to help and train the next generation. After all, there isn’t any college where you can learn super-heroing (although, considering how many heroes populate the Marvel and DC universes, I can’t believe some college hasn’t created that curriculum) and super-heroing isn’t a profession that is kind to amateurs. The best way for someone to learn to be a hero would be to apprentice themselves to an established hero.

The trick here is that these amateur heroes need to be at least 18 years old. It’s pure lunacy to take a younger person into any sort of situation when they’re younger than the age of consent; if they can’t be drafted into the military, they have no business being a hero. There’s been a lot of talk about Frank Miller and Jim Lee’s All Star Batman and Robin comic, and critics are saying the book is bad because Batman is insane and a child abuser. While I can’t say I’m a fan of the book, is this a bad portrayal of Batman? Isn’t taking a 10 year old boy into combat child abuse and the act of a crazy man? I have to say yes. So, the first thing we’ve done is redefined sidekicks as no longer being children. These are men and women of legal age.

Next we make these sidekicks less plot devices for villains to capture, and more actual characters. Give them a chance to shine from time to time, and instead of being considered expendable losers, they may start to become junior partners. Sure, they’ll make mistakes, and more often than the hero they’re working with, but they should be growing in the job, and constantly improving. This is also a win for the company publishing the comics, as you can use a sidekick in a book for a few years, growing them as a character and growing them in popularity, and then, when the character is ready to go out on their own, they can graduate to their own series. It’s a perfect training ground for new characters.

I think that’s how you save sidekicks; make them older and follow their training. Do that, and I think they have potential.

There’s something horrifically humorous in the assertion that being a superhero is not something for amateurs. Perhaps it’s been done and I’m just not remembering it (maybe ground covered in Rick Veitch’s Bratpack?), but I can see a scenario where an established hero keeps recruiting “sidekicks” to use as human shields…or where they keep getting killed purely by accident, but the accidents get more and more bizarre in a Spinal Tap-ish vein. There’s also something in the idea that someone could just decide they want to be a superhero and then fail miserably, or that they garner some new powers but are completely inept at using them.

You never really see that process, do you? I mean, some of Marvel’s X-titles allude to training new mutants in harnessing their abilities, but you never really witness the fallout from these attempts. How many young heroes have been secretly shuffled out the back door and tossed carelessly into the dumpster? C’mon, there have to have been a few “accidents.”

One thing you didn’t touch on in your intro wrap-up of the sidekick phenomenon is the fact that, not only were they introduced to appeal to children, but they were used as a way for the hero to recap the plotline within the confines of the story itself. The sidekick would ask some inane question and then the hero would give a page-long exposition on the villain, his motives and the general direction the adventure was heading. I tihnk one of the reasons marvel was able to move away form sidekicks is that they started to internalize these recaps in their characters’ inner monologues. How many issues of Amazing Spider-Man DIDN’T feature Peter Parker swinging through the city moaning to himself about how his battle with so-and-so had made him late for school or caused him to skip out on a date. The angst that Marvel was able to drum up this way easily replaced the need for a goofy mini-me version of the character to tag alongside.

I’d like to see a good parody of the sidekick world that takes all of these tropes and expands them to a completely ludicrous level. There’s fun stuff to be mined here.

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Young Justice: Where has all the justice gone?

Apr-22-08

In the long and storied history of the “Meanwhile….Comics!” blog, we have only really dealt with Marvel matters. This is not because we are not fans of DC, or of other comics companies. Partly it’s been because Jason and I are much more conversant in Marvel history than we are in DC history. Partly it’s been because Marvel seems to have issues which we had more of a passion to discuss than anything in DC. And, at least for me, partly it was because DC comics has, in my eyes, become a violent, unhappy, soulless entity over the past few years, and trying to discuss any character they currently publish is likely to be painful. While I’m not particularly stoked about the direction of the Marvel Comics line, it has me doing cartwheels compared to the direction of DC Comics, which has me often feeling somewhat nauseous.

Many people would point to Brad Meltzer’s Identity Crisis as the tipping point where DC Comics began to move away from telling stories about spandex clad do-gooders, and began telling stories about psychologically scarred arrested adolescents living out some sort of power fantasies by beating the living snot out of each other. And rape. That became an important part of many of these stories. Those people who look to Identity Crisis as the starting point of the degradation of these great heroes are not entirely wrong, but there is an event for me that predates this 2004 miniseries by some time….the cancellation of Young Justice in 2003. That was the beginning of the end for my close relationship with DC Comics.

Young Justice began life in 1998, during one of DC’s Fifth Week Events called “Girlfrenzy”, in a one shot written by Todd DeZago entitled Young Justice: The Secret. The team at that time consisted of three of DC’s hottest young heroes, all proteges of an established DC A List character: Robin, partner of Batman; Superboy, inspired by Superman; and Impulse, nephew of The Flash. The three of them joined forces again in a two issue prestige format miniseries called Justice League: World without Grown-Ups, again written by Todd DeZago. Apparently these issues were successful enough to merit a series of their own, and very soon, Young Justice #1 debuted in September of 1998.

The creative team for the first issue, and almost every single issue thereafter, was writer Peter David and artist Todd Nauck. The three young heroes spent the first few issues as the only members of the team, save for a recently resurrected Red Tornado, who served as their “adult” supervisor. However, David quickly expanded the group by introducing some female members; the Secret, who had appeared in their first adventure; Wonder Girl, who had worked with Wonder Woman; and Arrowette, who had appeared earlier in the comic Impulse and acted as a female Green Arrow-type.

Many people attempt to pigeonhole Peter David as a comedy writer, and coupled with Todd Nauck’s artwork, which had a lighter, more cartoony feel, these people may have written Young Justiceoff as a silly book for kids. Nothing could have been further from the truth. Yes, Peter David can be quite amusing, but his humor is always in service to the story, and he can handle serious storylines with the best of writers. Alternating between lighter issues with those that handled very serious subject matter, David kept the series always enjoyable (and proved that adult topics could be handled with indulging in the sort of hysterical melodrama and violent power fantasies that now seem to characterize so much of DC Comics’ output). Todd Nauck’s artwork was likewise a joy, and while it may have seemed cartoony to some, he was able to handle drama and tension very well.

I could go on raving about the series, and may in follow up posts, but for now let’s move on to it’s tragic resolution. In 2003, Warner Brothers debuted a new cartoon series called Teen Titans, which was going to star the characters from DC’s long running comic series of the same name. Unfortunately, DC didn’t currently have a Teen Titans series, as most of those characters (and the niche that series filled in the DC Universe) was being filled by Young Justice. DC became convinced that they needed a Teen Titans comics series to match the new cartoon, so they cancelled Young Justice (whose sales did not warrant such a cancellation). They then published the execrable Titans/Young Justice: Graduation Day miniseries, which served as the launching point for the new Teen Titans and Outsiders series.

Unfortunately, rather than bringing Peter David and Todd Nauck over to the new Teen Titans series to continue their stellar work, DC decided to bring in Geoff Johns and Mike McKone. Now, I’m personally quite a big fan of both Johns and McKone, and gave the new series a try. Unfortunately, within a few issues they had already begun the task of dismantling the character development and relationships which had been cultivated in Young Justice, and by the third issue they had changed Impulse into Kid Flash, showing a complete misunderstanding of who Bart Allen really was. I left the series as a reader in disgust.

The purpose of our blog is not just to point our problems in continuity or in publishing, but to try and fix them. Sadly, I’m not sure if this is fixable. Besides trying to reunite David and Nauck on a book, the characters that were once a part of Young Justicehave been scattered since the end of the series. Both Superboy and Impulse are now dead and Secret has been depowered. Of course, this would all be a moot point anyway, as it does not seem that DC’s editorial policy would allow a series with the sort of sensibility that Young Justice possessed to be be published. I’d like to come up with something and I’m open to suggestions.

First of all, I agree that we need to dip into the DC end of the pool every now and then just to be fair. Unfortunately, just like you (and even though I owned a comic book store for a while) I don’t have the same deep knowledge of DC’s history. I can cover the Justice League, Flash and Green Arrow pretty well, but other than that I only know the names of characters and not much else.

That said, let me start my response to your post with the information I gleaned from last week’s New York Comic Con. During one of DC’s many panels, the question of collecting Young Justice into trades came up and was pretty quickly brushed aside by the higher-ups at DC Comics. So, I think that raises some questions that our website was designed to tackle. This might not be along the lines of “how can we fix it?”, but it does cover the ground of “what went wrong?”

You were obviously a dedicated reader of the title and my experience with it consists of seeing a few covers here and there. Therefore, I defer to you to explain the appeal to me a little more in depth. For instance, what were the circumstances that brought the group together? What villains did they face during the title’s run? What were the relationships that were built? How was the strength of the supporting cast?

I think by studying some of these points, we may be able to do a re-pitch of the series (or at least convince the editors that releasing the trades would be beneficial). I’m encouraged by the fact that the main series kept a consistent creative team, that usually helps with a book’s quality and direction. So let’s start there and see what builds.

What went wrong? With the title itself, I’d say precious little. Let’s start at the beginning. The original three members of Young Justice were Robin, Superboy and Impulse. Each of them had worked with the others once or twice, but the trio first worked as team to save a young girl called Secret from the D.E.O., who were keeping her under lock and key and trying to determine the extent of her powers. The boys managed to free her and found they worked well together. They next met when an ancient Atlantean force called Bedlam transported all the adults of the DC Universe to a parallel world. With only children and teens left, the three young men found themselves elevated to the status of senior heroes, and teamed to defeat Bedlam.

After this adventure, the three of them decided to stay together as a team. Why? Mostly because they simply needed the friendship and comraderie of being with other people their own age, who understood the pressures of being the next generation of a superhero legacy. Although they were a super-team, they were also friends; it was almost more of a club in those early days. Soon, Red Tornado, who had lain inactive in the old JLA Secret Sanctuary, awoke from his stasis, and he became the mentor for the group. It was inevitable that the group would not remain a “boys club” and sure enough, shortly after they formed their group, they became embroiled again with The Secret, as well as Wonder Girl and Arrowette. The girls joined the team, and the full roster of Young Justice was formed.

Again, the series was somewhat lighthearted, but there were also some very serious stories. One of their early villains was named Harm, a young man who seemed completely evil. His parents knew their son was a monster, but were afraid of him. While Young Justice battled Harm, the true meat of the story was the psychological battle within the mind of Harm’s father, who wrestled with the question of whether, if you knew your son was an evil person, totally devoid of merit, could you take the necessary steps to stop him?

Arrowette also had a fasincating story arc. Relatively early in the series’ run, one of her favorite teachers at school was killed by a jealous ex-boyfriend. Arrowette was enraged, and hunted down the killer. She soon had him at her mercy, and would have killed him if not for the intervention of Superboy. Later, after her emotions were calmer, Arrowette realized what she had done, and was scared to learn she was capable of murder. She vowed to give up being Arrowette, which she did. One would have thought that she would have either disappeared from the comic, or she would have eventually reclaimed her mantle. She did neither. She remained true to her vow, never donning the costume again, but still staying an important character in the further adventures of Young Justice.

Red Tornado, as the group’s mentor, could have been ignored. However, he was given some strong plots, as he tried to reclaim his humanity and make a life for himself with his estranged family. Eventually, he realized that his family needed him, and was more important to him than the team, so he resigned as their mentor. In his place, the group found a new mentor in Snapper Carr. Of course, Snapper has been knocking around the DC Universe for over four decades, but he often doesn’t seem to fit. Putting him in an adult role, mentoring kids who were experiencing some of the same things that he had experienced as a teenager, gave Peter David the chance to explore Snapper Carr’s personality in ways that it had not really been explored.

The interactions between the six main members of the team were also interesting. Robin acted as the leader, but was often challenged by Superboy and the developing relationship between the two of them, as Superboy came to respect Robin, despite Robin’s lack of powers, kept the team dynamics fresh. Wonder Girl began the series as an inexperienced and unsure heroine, but matured throughout the series’ run, eventually winning election as the new leader toward the end of the series. The mysteries surrounding Secret continued to be explored. Members became romantically involved (as teenagers do) and some new members joined the team, including the Ray, who finally found a place on a team with members closer to his own age.

In essence, it was a dynamic series, not taking itself too seriously, but willing to tackle adult subject matter when it was a natural outgrowth of the story being told. It never went for sensationalism, but instead contented itself to tell strong, solid stories that you could enjoy reading.

Okay, so from what I understand – and from a quick blast of Wikipedia knowledge – two of the team members are dead (Superboy, Impulse), one has decided not to be a hero anymore (Arrowette) and another is depowered (Secret). Not only that, but their initial mentor (Red Tornado) is possessed by Amazo while their later mentor Snapper Carr is working as some sort of spy for Checkmate. I have no idea how you could put this all back together again. And would it be worthwhile anyway? After all that these characters have been through, the innocence and youth is gone from them (as it is from 98% of the DC Universe).

From your description and from what I’ve been able to deduce online, the series sounded like an unofficial version of the original Teen Titans…formed out of a kinship based on being “sidekicks” or younger versions of their inspirations. Add in the world-weary mentor role and you could almost say it was a Fagin and the orphans scenario played out in comic style (without all the stealing and such).

There’s three trains of thought that I can come up with on this one. The first one is the most realistic: DC puts out collections of the 55 issues plus all the one-shots and miniseries, somewhere between 6-8 trades and it’s done. The second path is kind of a cop-out but ultimately makes sense with what’s going on in the DC Universe right now: make one of the 52 Earths a “World Without Grown-Ups” planet. This would give the team a chance to play out their adventures in a unique setting. They’d be THE heroes of the world yet would still embody all the insecurities and angst of their age and maturity level. Could be a fun way to play with all the toys in the sandbox. The third way is probably the most difficult: find new youthful characters in the DC-verse and bring them together logically to form a new Young Justice team. I don’t know which young heroes remain unblemished by the current goings-on at DC nor do I understand how they could be coaxed into befriending each other anymore, but that is one way to make the magic happen again.

There’s also the problem of who would handle the title? Peter David is exclusive to Marvel, as of February 2006. And the last I knew, Todd Nauck was at Marvel too, drawing Spider-Man. You and I both approve of the writing of Geoff Johns and his handling of superhero types, but I wonder if he’s too steeped in the current DC malaise to properly infuse this proposed title with the jolt of youth it needs.

While I may not have an immediate solution to the writing, I think Karl Kerschl would be an excellent choice for the art. His Teen Titans: Year One and All-Flash #1 work is both quirky and beautiful at the same time.

Writers and artists aside (though I think it’s interesting to discuss), which of the three solutions I offered do you think is best for Young Justice?

At this time, I’d just like to see them acknowledge that the team existed, and issue trades containing the entire series. I think it deserves that much. Let those of us who were fans of the series have the opportunity to enjoy it again, and perhaps they can draw in some new readers at the same time. I don’t see any point in trying to recapture the series with the same characters, as that would require so much continuity twisting that my head hurts just thinking about it. I also don’t see a point in putting them in another world in the multiverse. I’m not usually a fan of that sort of thing, since it never seems like the stories matter much when it’s not the mainstream universe that the rest of the comics line is based in. That being said, I’d like to choose both your first and third options. Let’s see them replace this group with something akin to Young Justice in tone. DC needs a book like that.

I realize that this post probably makes it seem like I am rabidly anti-DC and that’s honestly not true. While I admit that my early comic experiences were overwhelmingly of the Marvel variety (I found most of DC’s output in the early 80s to be rather dull and stodgy, while Marvel seemed cool and hip), I did soon begin to branch out to many other companies, DC among them. During the late 80s I came to like a lot of DC comics, and for some years during the 90s, I was reading more DC than I was Marvel, thanks to both a plethora of strong DC series, and Marvel taking a huge downswing in quality (teenage Tony Stark? Was that really necessary? A clone saga in Spider-Man that lasted for years? The Invisible Woman wearing a bikini top on her Fantastic Four outfit?). I have always loved the Justice League (thanks probably to the Superfriends cartoons of my childhood) and I think DC has some great characters and books. They also, as a company, understand the concept of a legacy much better than Marvel, and I love the way some identities (Flash, Green Lantern, Starman, Dr. Mid-Nite and others) have been handed down from hero to hero.

That being said, I’ve become quite disillusioned with DC over the past few years, and it’s not just because I’m not a huge fan of this dark turn they’ve taken. It should not come as news to anyone who follows comics that it isn’t the strongest business in the world. Many articles have been written on how one brings new readers into the fold. I don’t believe that most of DC’s current output, mired in continuity and dripping in death, dismemberment and rape, really reach out to a new audience. I think it plays to the same aging audience that has been reading the book for years, and it sure as hell isn’t going to draw in any children. Young Justice had the potential to appeal to a younger audience. Please note that it wasn’t written for a younger audience; Peter David wrote mature stories. However, his stories were accessible to people of any age, and I would argue they were appropriate for readers of all but the youngest ages (and truly, some of the sexual innuendo would have passed right over the heads of the really young anyway). Moreover, Nauck’s artwork was the sort of pleasant, happy artwork that would catch the eye of a younger reader, and he was such a strong storyteller, that no one would have trouble following the story. While we may not be able to use David and Nauck, surely we could find some creators who could do the job, and perhaps provide a safe haven for some younger readers (and older readers who don’t want to read about rape, death and decapitation on a monthly basis) in the DC Universe.

You mention Geoff Johns, and while I was very disappointed by his Teen Titans series, I do think he’s a very good writer. Moreover, he did a book with a similar theme in his very entertaining Stars and S.T.R.I.P.E. series, so I think he could handle it. Another writer who does a lot of work for DC and can handle anything she’s given is Gail Simone. She certainly has a lighter side, and her books always rise above the norm. A writer who I haven’t seen anything from for awhile, but who has an excellent eye for character is Devin Grayson. She worked on a previous Titans series and really did a nice job bringing the characters together and bouncing them off each other. As for artists, I’m somewhat familiar with Karl Kerschl’s stylized art, and while it’s taken me some time to adjust to it (you could take an eye out with his pointy knees and elbows), I think he would fit the style. I know he’s working for Marvel (and I’ve heard rumors he’s retiring), but I’d also recommend Mark Bagley, one of the strongest, most reliable, and perhaps most underrated pencillers around, who’s proved he’s good with teenagers in Ultimate Spider-Man. Sadly, Mike Weiringo would have been perfect; his death was such a loss to the comics community.

As for characters, I’m afraid I may not be as familiar with who would work as I once was either, and I’m also not sure who’s been spoken for other places. I think you could use Robin and Wonder Girl, and the Ray joined in later issues, and I believe he’s available. I also believe Empress, who joined in later issues is available, and perhaps they could use Supergirl. I also think it would be cool if they used Mia Deardon, the current Speedy. There’s six characters, and all of them except Empress have a heroic legacy to live up to. We’d just need a new mentor. Hmmmm…someone who hasn’t been used in awhile. How about Major Disaster? He’s tried to be a hero many times…when last seen he was an alcoholic, but if he got over that and acted more like he did as a leader of Justice League Antartica, he might fit in. There was also a group called Old Justice in the original series, comprised of sidekicks from previous decades, and included Doiby Dickles. He’d be perfect! He’d be more like a grandfather, but it could be an interesting direction; he’s certainly seen his fair share of odd stuff, and doesn’t seem fazed by anything. Do you have other suggestions?

The first character that came to mind for me was the new Blue Beetle, but I believe he’s tied up in the new Titans series somehow (again my lack of current DC lore comes to light). There’s also the newly rediscovered Traci Thirteen who’s started a relationship with Jaime Reyes (Blue Beetle)…her father could be a pretty wacky mentor too. Maybe Klarion the Witch Boy…wasn’t he briefly in Young Justice?

Regardless of membership, I’m still not convinced that a lighthearted, youthful team like this has a place in the current DC Universe. Perhaps it is best to just release some trades and let this one shuffle off the mortal comics coil.