Jack and Marlon, and Art and Franco

A recently discovered letter by Jack Kerouac to Marlon Brando hints at the kind of collaboration between giants we could have seen in the early 60s. In a wholly different arena, creative team Art Baltazar and Franco's Young Justice captures perfectly that same aspirant spirit.

Young Justice (volume one, trade paperback)

Publisher: DC
Length: 148 pages
Writer: Art Baltazar, Franco, Mike Norton
Price: $12.99
Publication Date: 2012-01-11

More than anything else, you've got to wonder, what would it have been like, the collaboration between Jack Kerouac and Marlon Brando. It never came off, of course. We didn't get to see Jack and Marlon starring in a Brando-produced film version of On the Road. But wouldn't it have been something?

In 1957, Kerouac was at the top of his game. He was deeply involved in not only the commercial success of recognition, but the critical success of redefining the kinds of literature available to the popular imagination. There's something deeply passionate about the turns in Kerouac's letter--he writes about wanting to "re-do the theater and the cinema in America, give it a spontaneous dash, remove pre-conceptions of 'situation' and let people rave on as they do in real life".

And yet, earlier in the letter, Jack is brutally honest about the driving commercial imperative. "All I want out of this is to establish myself and my mother a trust fund for life", Jack writes, "so I can really go roaming round the world writing about Japan, India, France, etc. …I want to be free to write what comes out of my head & free to feed my buddies when they're hungry & free not to worry about my mother". Let it not be said that Jack Kerouac was ever light on ambition. Not only did he hope to re-invent the way in which America engages its theater and its cinema, but he also wanted to retire off his first movie. Half the way between the pure driven passion of Michelangelo and the pure drive of 50 Cent to escape life-threatening poverty.

And Brando himself would have been different. Not the heavyset, well-appointed, having-made-his-way-in-the-world Brando we encountered first in The Godfather or Apocalypse Now, movies we knew we to watch because some many around us were talking about it. Rather it would have been a Marlon yet to become Brando. The raw earnestness of A Streetcar Named Desire, and a Marlon even before that. A Marlon working to build the reputation he would so richly enjoy in later life.

A Warner Bros. produced On the Road could easily have been a James Dean moment for both Marlon and Jack. Yet it's a moment we'll never see. Still it's strange to see a similar politics of representation that course through this moment, play out in a wholly different context. In Young Justice, we see the coming together of a fully-formed idea and a fully-developed talent. Unlike a Brando and a Kerouac still in their nascency, in the first trade paperback marries the already established creative team of Art Baltazar & Franco with the already successful eponymous Cartoon Network show. And yet, the dynamic of yearning to provide greater access to the material, the need to reignite the medium that presents it, is just as clear to see in the trade paperback as in Jack's letter.

"These are the characters we grew up with, the characters we love, and it was a blast getting to tell their story", Franco says in a near-conspiratorial tone. It's a sentiment that's echoed time and again during the interview, not least of all when Art suggests, "We'd only have taken this opportunity if we really believed in the characters, and we do".

The characters in question are the "sidekicks" that originally banded together to form the Teen Titans. Dick Grayson the first Robin, Wally West the first Kid Flash. But the years of change in DC continuity is accurately reflected. A new Aqualad emerges. Miss Martian joins the ranks. And a Superboy who is a clone of Superman rather than the younger Kal El himself, joins. Art & Franco provide an easy, accessible, and foremost, enjoyable tale.

Working together on Tiny Titans has provided them with a solid foundation for these characters. Despite there not being a strip-format to issues, and despite the overall tone not being that of a humor-comic, Art & Franco's talent for characterization clearly shine through. "The only difference", Art confides humorously, comparing the team's work process on Young Justice and on Tiny Titans, "is that here I don't have to do thumbnails". Art might just be more right than he realizes, the story is flawless. And Mike Norton's artwork definitely evokes the TV show, while translating easily into comics.

Collecting seven issues (#0-6), this book is an amazingly structured read. We see Young Justice settle into their new digs and face down the Joker. We see them contend with the League of Assassins that has time and again frustrated Batman, and we see them encounter their own hesitation and insecurities. While there's plenty of action, Art & Franco shift the storytelling towards character drama. And this is done unerringly.

Like Kerouac's letter to Brando, Young Justice is a rich and secret drama about a deeply aspirational moment. At once, it is the story of youth and of hope and of vigor, the story of young heroes finding their way to become what eventually they will be, what they have seen their mentors be. But it is also the story of Art & Franco, who work at a great distance to the DC that is "Flashpoint" and the New 52 and Superman and Batman and Wonder Woman. Just for a single moment, this is Art & Franco brushing up against that world, however briefly. And the results are simply astounding.

Young Justice releases tomorrow (1/11) in comic shops nationwide. And next Wednesday (1/18) in bookstores. An exclusive interview appears next week on PopMatters .


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