Before there were comic books in my life, I was aware of the DC Universe solely through the alluring advances of Warner Bros Animation. Lately, the WB has been stepping up their line with a plethora of stand alone films adapted from successful comic book lines such as All-Star Superman, Superman: vs. The Elite, Justice League: Doom, Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths, and the most recent installment Justice League: The Flashpoint Paradox. The films themselves are light adaptations to the original works, but do so to reach a wider, comic illiterate audience. You won’t be seeing any escapes from Bizzaro World in All-Star Superman or Doomsday beating down the entire Justice League in Superman: Doomsday, but they achieve their purpose. Some of the changes are curious, such as the penitent Luthor at the conclusion of All-Star Superman. These are only sundry quibbles, however. Only die-hards and comic buffs would notice.
Bruce Timm, who singlehandely masterminded the DC Animated Universe, beginning with Batman: The Animated Series, is responsible for this animated renaissance. His work in Batman: TAS is without equal, bringing the moody crime/detective drama of Gotham’s underbelly to millions of fresh viewers, completely without knowledge of the comic book medium. If Gutenberg’s printing press influenced the passage of information to the layman, Bruce Timm’s work has changed the way comic book ideals are communicated for two generations of budding comic book fanboys. We can only be so grateful. After his work on Batman, he moved his focus to Superman, co-producing Superman: The Animated Series. Here we saw Superman race the Flash, the World’s Finest crossover event, and the Rise and Fall of Darkseid in a fully realized Jack Kirby tribute. Though it was not nearly as popular as Batman: TAS, Tim Daly’s iconic portrayal of the Man of Steel was true to the character in such a way that, like Kevin Conroy’s Batman, the character would never be the same. But there was something even greater to follow.
When I was in 7th grade, I saw Justice League for the first time. I had missed the opening episode a week earlier (I wouldn’t see it again until I saw it as a re-run a couple months later), but saw “In Blackest Night.” Two months after 9/11, I saw crime fighters don capes and masks to fight evil in the first multi-hero context that I had ever experienced. (Again, I didn’t know anything like it until I bought the four volume set of DC’s weekly comic 52 in my sophomore year at UC Santa Barbara.)
The voice acting was incredible, iconic, awe-inspiring. Phil LaMarr’s John Stewart stuck with me, as did Susan Eisenberg’s Wonder Woman, Maria Barrera’s Hawkgirl, and, my favorite, Michael Rosenbaum’s the Flash. In my awkward initiation to my teen years, these disembodied voices became so familiar to me, they were like people that I knew in real life, like my friends. These were heroes making the world a better place, and when they pass away, a piece of me will pass away as well.
The show had a phenomenal writing staff. From the developing romance between Wonder Woman and Batman, to the betrayal of Hawkgirl at the season two finale, every relationship and interaction was integrated with one another. I proudly admit that I still cry, even after seeing both of them dozens of times, when I watch “Hereafter” and “Legends.” John Stewart wishing so much that the heroes that inspired him, that made him into what he is now, were truly real breaks my heart, as does the departing line between the reformed Vandal Savage and Superman: “Return to your friends. Do what you do best… What you were born to do: Save the world.” Carl Lumby’s J’onn J’onzz reading Superman’s eulogy at his funeral in “Hereafter” is another offender.
After the conclusion of Justice League, the show was renewed for two more seasons under the name Justice League Unlimited. The cast was expanded, though fans were somewhat disappointed at the marginalizing of the original cast, especially the Martian Manhunter. Despite this, the show’s writing only improved with age, adding layers of character development to earlier seasons, even referencing older series in the DCAU, including Superman’s history with Darkseid. Kin Shriner’s Green Arrow was a fresh face added to give humanity to the ever growing power of the JLA. This was appropriate given the sense of unease cultivated in the growth of the series, that focused on the incredible destructive power of the JLA, and the fear generated by their guardianship over earth in the Watchtower. Alan Moore’s “For the Man Who Has Everything” was adapted as an episode and became the prototype for future adaptations of existing comic book work into the DCAU.
Though Justice League could walk the line between children’s television and maturer audiences, Justice League Unlimited was targeting the young adult demographics, even attracting the attention of older audiences with episodes like “The Ties That Bind” which reference Kirby’s Fourth World. The superhuman arms race questions the nature of morality and the integrity the Justice League stands for. After Superman watches the Flash “die” Lex Luthor says, “I think this is the part where you kill me.” After Batman holds Wonder Woman back to give Superman the chance to respond, Superman grabs Luthor by the throat, tosses him to the ground, and says, “I’m not the man who killed President Luthor. Right now, I wish to heaven that I were, but I’m not.”
The end of the series brought the return of Darkseid, with his final vanquishing at the hands of Luthor who broke past the Source Wall to retrieve the Anti-Life Equation. The episode, called “Destroyer” provided the conclusion of the DCAU, ending with a curtain call of the entire JLA. It is a fitting end to an epic spanning nearly 15 years of Warner Brothers Animation production.
After all this, here’s the question: Why does this matter?
When I met Bruce Timm at San Diego Comic Con this year, it was brief. He looked tired and weary from autographs but I still asked if I could shake his hand. He accepted, sort of surprised, and I thanked him. I choked though. All I could say was, “Thank you for the Justice League. It changed everything.” After that I left.
But it’s true! It did!
We cynical millenials/postmoderns/deconstructionists roll our collective eyes whenever someone mentions shows like this. There is so much disillusionment in the air about the nature of morality and justice that people don’t buy into what the DCAU sold for so long. Shame on them! We owe so much to Bruce Timm’s work, the Justice League, and what it has given the comic book community. In a day and age where people are okay and rationalize why Man of Steel was a contribution to the film canon, ignore the cautionary words of Mark Waid, and settle for the hodgepodge of moral relativism that is the New 52, what do we have left? What have I to share with my own kids someday, when Superman is no longer the paragon of virtue he once was? Not much.
Maybe what I am saying can be distilled into this final sentiment: Let us not eulogize what the Justice League gave a generation of prospective comic book enthusiasts, but carry it onward into the future so that people will know what Bruce Timm did, what George Newbern and Tim Daly did for Superman, and Kevin Conroy for the Batman. Justice League changed the world, and continues to for every child that catches a re-run on Boomerang, introduces it to a friend, or streams it on a website. These shows matter. They make comics accessible to the comic illiterate. I know because I was one of those kids, and I wouldn’t be the person I am today without them.