For a comic book publisher, the possibility of cross promotion is a distinct advantage of being part of a large conglomerate. So, when the Cartoon Network (owned by Time-Warner/America On-Line/Ted Turner) premiered its new primetime animated series The Justice League, DC Comics (also owned by the aforementioned three-headed monster) began publishing Justice League Adventures. This new series aims at replicating the look and feel of its television counterpart. The comic achieves this goal, and does a great job of promoting the television show (“Watch the new series on Cartoon Network!” the covers urge). Justice League Adventures also succeeds on its own merits, as a comic book.
Of course, DC has done this kind of thing before. When the noir-ish Batman animated series premiered a number of years ago, the publisher was inspired to create a comic counterpart, telling simplified stories with the same unique visual style of the cartoon. The comic, in its various incarnations, was widely praised by fans and critics as telling some of the best Batman stories around. Adults ignored the fact that the comic was supposed to be aimed at children—in the parlance of the industry, an “all-ages” audience—and enjoyed the strong characterization and elegant story telling. The creators involved in the project revisited the Batman mythos with a clarity that had been lacking in other attempts to revamp the character. What became known at the “animated” style of comics quickly caught on. When Superman was given a treatment similar to that received by Batman years before, Superman Adventures was born. So, no comic book fan was surprised when Justice League Adventures was announced shortly after the plans for the cartoon were made public.
Like the cartoon, the comic stars a Justice League slightly altered from the one that is currently appearing in DC continuity. John Stewart, an African-American, is the Green Lantern here, instead of Kyle Rayner who carries that mantle in JLA, either as a nod to multiculturalism or as a statement about the similarity of Rayner’s character to that of the Flash. Aquaman is not a member of the League, but Hawkgirl is—perhaps to insure that Wonder Woman isn’t the token female. Or perhaps her presence—and Aquaman’s absence—is meant to tell viewers that this series is very different from The Superfriends of the 1970s and early 1980s.
The television series has gotten a little bogged down with big, action-filled stories, but Justice League Adventures=s strength is telling smaller stories with subtle morals included alongside the superheroics. The three issues published so far have focused on the theme of heroism, or, rather, misguided heroism. In issue #1, the League battles an alien who threatens the Earth with destruction so he can learn an important secret about his planet’s mortal enemy and thereby save his own people. The second issue involves a plot by a matriarchal cult to bring back the original Mother Goddess, since “order” and other male-centered forces have brought the Earth to the brink of destruction. The threat in the third issue is a group of aliens with Superman-like powers who want to save the planet but are apparently willing to destroy it to achieve their goal. These are big stories like found in the television series, but the creators behind the comic have done a nice job of filling them with truths that help to ground the stories in reality.
More importantly, the comic allows the characters to breathe more, to express emotions that the television series seems unable to do. There is a particularly nice moment in the third issue where Superman is able to express his loneliness to Wonder Woman who comforts him by explaining that the rest of the League feels similarly alone and needs the kinship and fellowship the team offers. The Martian Manhunter is able to show his sensitive side in the second issue as he learns a similar lesson: that he doesn’t need to feel alone, that he doesn’t need to set himself apart from humanity just because he feels like he’s different. In future issues, hopefully this trend will continue as we learn more about what motivates these characters. This will flesh out the characters more—especially more than will be possible in the television series. As it is now, Flash, Green Lantern, Hawkgirl, and Wonder Woman need the most development to move them beyond being cardboard cut-outs, but there’s no reason to believe that the creators of the comic won’t be able to do that.
At times, though, the comic’s attempt to integrate human stories into the superheroics doesn’t work. In the first issue, there’s a secondary story about a teen-aged fan of superheroes who has to be rescued by the Flash because she didn’t want to lose her autograph book. We meet her at the beginning and end of the story too, but it doesn’t do anything to move the plot forward or add to the overall theme of the comic. It simply doesn’t work and it feels a bit awkward, as if writer Ty Templeton thought that somehow including a normal person would give the reader someone with whom to identify. But people reading Justice League Adventures don’t want to identify with someone normal, they want to identify with Batman or Wonder Woman. The later issues remedied this, giving Superman and the Martian Manhunter enough emotional depth so that the reader could feel their pain. Other problems in the series have been minor. At times, the images are a bit static, but for the most part the storytelling is clear and well paced. As in similar comics done in the DC “animated” style, the look of the series is very consistent, despite each one being written and drawn by a different creative team. Certainly this is done so that fans of the television series will find a style very familiar to them in the comic book.
Unfortunately, I’m not sure they will be able to actually find the comic. With no advertising on the Cartoon Network about the existence of the comic, casual viewers who might like Justice League Adventures won’t even know it exists, and they certainly won’t know how to find it. Comic book fans who enjoy the show—either out of ironic nostalgia for The Superfriends or sincere appreciation of the series—already know about the comic. Having something to accompany the animated series is nice, but until the comic is advertised on television this kind of cross-promotion is only a one-way street.