Favorite Stories Starring Women: Young Justice
|March 19, 2012||Posted by Jess under Comics, Ladytexts|
The second round of Women Write About Comics has started, and this time it’s personal. That is, the topic is “Favorite Stories Starring Women,” and I am gleefully looking forward to the recommendations I’ll get as I read through everyone’s favorites.
Since I’ve been meaning to do my own recs post for a while, and, more importantly, since I love hearing (reading) myself talk, I’ve decided to post every day this week with a favorite – or several favorite – comic starring ladies. First up: Young Justice.
The original Young Justice, which bears very little relation to the current animated series of the same name, ran for 55 issues from 1999-2003, plus a handful of specials. Most of those issues and specials were written by Peter David and drawn by Todd Nauck, a good long run that you won’t see the likes of today.1 Superboy, Robin (Tim Drake), Impulse, Wonder Girl (Cassie Sandsmark), and Secret made up the core team, while Arrowette, Empress, Li’l Lobo/Slobo, and the Ray (Ray Terrill) were all members for parts of the book’s run.
YJ is best known for the Superboy/Robin/Impulse dynamic, and that’s not an unfair assessment. Those three are the founders, they remained members throughout the series (albeit with brief leaves of absence), and their contrasting personalities (delineated as Ego, Super Ego, and Id by Red Tornado in the first issue) formed the basis of the series.2 But all three had their own series for a significant chunk of YJ’s run, which rendered their characters somewhat static. They couldn’t experience any major upheaval or growth, because that had to occur in the pages of Superboy or Robin or Impulse.3
By contrast, the girls were almost completely free. Cassie had regular appearances in Wonder Woman, sure, but it wasn’t like she was in every issue or had her own series. Because of this, David was able to tell stories with the girls that he simply wasn’t at liberty to tell with the boys.
And so we got Cissie King-Jones, who became Arrowette because her overbearing stage mother (also wonderfully and sympathetically portrayed) pushed her into it, and stuck with it in order to show her mother up. Behind her polished, flirty demeanor, Cissie’s understandably angry, and the arc where she nearly crosses the line and kills someone is one of the most memorable in the series. Even more memorable is the way she decides that she is unfit to be a superhero, retires, and sticks to it, despite pressure from her mother and her friends. It’s something that’s remarkably rare in comics and shows the true strength of character Cissie’s attained. What’s more, since she remained a major character in the series, we got to see her continued growth (and the slow repair of her relationship with her mother), even though she’s no longer in costume.4
And we got Anita Fite, a.k.a. Empress, who manages to be awesome even when saddled with a terrible pun for a name and a racially problematic power set. (She’s African American and has voodoo powers. Oh, and has a vaguely Jamaican accent even though she’s from Louisiana. Yeeeeeah.) One of the few characters in comics who was inspired to be a superhero by another female hero (in her case, Cissie), Anita is fearless, whether she’s facing down her own evil grandfather or her idol Cissie. She’s understanding, open-minded, and up for any challenge, including her own parents, cloned and resurrected as babies (comics, everybody!). Oh, and she became a superhero purely out of a desire to help, which is refreshing and remarkable.
And we got Greta Hayes, a.k.a. Secret. Sweet and naïve and tragic, she’s actually the darkest character in the series, with a traumatic origin – her brother killed her in a ritualistic power grab, her ghostly form was captured and tortured by a clandestine government agency, and, oh yeah, she’s now a portal to the void. Beneath her cute, vulnerable exterior hides a lot of rage and sorrow, much of it tied up in the Peter Pan motif of the series, originally referenced with Superboy but more darkly tragic with Greta; her friends have lives outside of the team, have relationships with people who aren’t members of YJ, and will eventually grow up and leave her. The unspoken fear of being outpaced and abandoned by your friends is probably a universally adolescent one, pushed to superheroic extremes here, and even though Greta’s method of solving the problem is probably not the best one she could have chosen – OH, WHY DON’T I JUST DESTROY THE WORLD, THEN? – it comes from an understandable insecurity. Her corruption and redemption forms the subtext of basically the entire series – and when was the last time you saw a team book that could say that about a female member?5
And finally there’s Cassie Sandsmark.6 Cassie is now on her eighth year of being saddled to the unceasingly dreadful Teen Titans,7 and sometimes it’s hard to remember what a fantastic arc she had in her YJ days. Unlike Cissie and Anita and Greta, she was never the focus of a plotline. And yet all of YJ is her story arc, in a way. She starts it as this gangly, dorky tween in a ratty wig and a terrible costume; she doesn’t really know how to use her powers, she gets tongue-tied around Superboy, and she gets her superhero kicks by rescuing cats from trees. Slowly but surely, though – and here Nauck should get as much of the credit as David – she grows into herself, emerging as a confident, competent young woman and the respected leader of the team. The girl who regularly tripped over her own eagerness and insecurity when the series started now schmoozes the press, wrangles her uncooperative teammates, and coolly leads a several-dozen-heroes-strong invasion of a foreign country. It’s not flashy or sudden or flagged up in any way – it’s just a young girl elegantly growing to womanhood. And it’s great.
Young Justice was awesome because it was a smart, witty book with solid art, engaging superheroic adventure, and goofiness balanced with pathos. But it’s also awesome because it let its female characters be flawed and make up for their flaws; be heroes without traumatic backstories; make major life changes and stick to them; and, most importantly, grow. It’s something I don’t think we’ll see again anytime soon.
Where to Buy: There are only three YJ trades and they’re both out of print and completely non-comprehensive: one that collects the first seven issues, one that collects the crossover with another series by Peter David, Spyboy, and one that collects the hilarious but baffling-to-the-uninitiated company-wide crossover Sins of Youth, in which the YJers become adults, the JLA becomes teenagers, and the JSA becomes little kids. Thanks to the current animated show (and vague disdainful comments about the original series from higher ups), it’s unlikely that DC will ever release YJ in comprehensive trades because of the confusion that would entail. Anyone know if it’s available digitally? If not, eBay and back issue bins are probably your best bet.
Related Recs: The Robin, Superboy, and Impulse series that ran concurrently with YJ had male protagonists, but a similar kid-friendly action-packed vibe, and each had at least one completely awesome female supporting character, usually more. The Wonder Girl miniseries from a couple years ago isn’t half bad either. And I can’t say enough good things about the oughties Teen Titans cartoon or its tie-in comic, Teen Titans Go!. Though the lineup is completely different from YJ’s, the tone of cheerful zaniness with occasional jolts of tragedy is similar, and their takes on the female leads – Starfire and Raven – are engaging and relatable.
- Unless your name rhymes with “Smeoff Smohns.” ↩
- Plus there were ample opportunities for shipping two or more of them, and you know how fandom feels about cute boys in love. ↩
- Though Nauck did subtly and wonderfully “grow them up” through the art – Kon in particular grows about nine feet in five years. ↩
- Also, she has the prettiest hair. ↩
- Remarkably, a story about a teenage virgin sacrifice who is now imbued with the terrifying power to take people into her void, from which they may never return, and who falls under the corrupting influence of an older man who disguises himself as a kindly father figure (Darkseid) while being rejected by her own father, and who can only be vanquished by restoring her to her non-powered, uncorrupted, pre-sacrificial virgin state, doesn’t actually come off as creepily Freudian at all! I credit David and Nauck’s strong characterization; Greta is always a person and not a metaphor. ↩
- Well, not finally finally – there’s Traya Sutton, not a superhero but a major supporting character in the series, and as mentioned before, Cissie’s mother is handled with empathy and nuance. ↩
- Yes, even your run, Shmeoff. ↩