From Lois Lane #8, newstand date April 1959.
I’ve had so many favorite TV series over the years, from “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” to “Star Trek” to “Justified.” But as surprising as it may sound, it just might be “Justice League Unlimited” – right up there with another animated series, “Jonny Quest” – that ranks at the top of the list.
“JLU,” as I’m going to refer to it here, ran for 39 episodes over two or three seasons – who could tell, really, the way “Cartoon Network” abused the show with its scheduling? – from 2004 to 2006. The animated series, featuring the work of true artists like Bruce Timm and Dwayne McDuffie, was a continuation of the two-season “Justice League” series, which ran from 2001 to 2004, which itself was a continuation of “Batman” and “Superman” animated series that dated back as far as 1992.
“Justice League” was a fun series, giving us our first “real” look at characters beloved for decades, in personas and performances that defined them for a generation. When I see DC/Warners trying to bring those characters to the screen now in the inadequate “Man of Steel” and unpromising “Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice,” I just wish they had given the reins to the people – including voice director Andrea Romano – who brought the characters to life in animation.
I’m rewatching “Justice League Unlimited” now and I might share some thoughts on other episodes with you here. But after watching it today, I have to talk about “The Return.”
If you’ve seen the series – or even if you haven’t – you don’t need me to go into the plot in great detail. But a little context: In “JLU,” Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and the other core members of the Justice League decide to expand the roster of the league as seen in the first two seasons. They do so for practical reasons – Superman explains a greater number of heroes can put out more fires, literally and figuratively – but for storytelling purposes, this opens up a wealth of possibilities.
Even though “Justice League” episodes had brought in characters like Dr. Fate and Aquaman, “JLU” not only brought DC A-listers into the fold but B, C and D-listers. Ever want to see Bwana Beast in action? The Creeper? Maybe best of all, The Question? Here’s your first, and probably only, chance. I can’t imagine The Elongated Man is going to show up in one of the big-screen movies.
The first few episodes of “JLU” were intent on showcasing characters other than the core, founding members of the League. The opener, which included Batman and Superman, focused on an emergency response team consisting of Green Lantern, Supergirl, Captain Atom and a reluctant Green Arrow responding to a rampage of a nuclear monster in an Asian country that is less than welcoming to the heroes. Other early episodes featured Wonder Woman teamed with Hawk and Dove, for example.
But it wasn’t until “The Return, an episode that aired in September 2004, that “JLU” hit its stride.
Amazo, an advanced robot that had figured into a “Justice League” episode, is returning to Earth, ostensibly on a mission to kill Lex Luthor, who had betrayed the robot and his creator, Professor Ivo.
This meant the League has to protect Luthor from the unstoppable creature, which decimates first the Green Lantern Corps at their home planet Oa, then blasts through a defensive line in space that includes Superman and Green Lantern, then wipes out an airborne troupe that includes Supergirl and Red Tornado – who meets a startling fate – and finally trounces a ground-level line of defenders that include Wonder Woman and Flash.
Finally, it’s down to the Atom – voiced in great fashion by John McGinley – who is locked in an underground lab with Luthor – to come up with a solution.
And he fails.
But just as the regrouped Green Lantern Corps arrives to blast Amazo … Dr. Fate shows up with a better solution.
It’s an ending as satisfying as it is unexpected and shows the depth of this series. A little-known DC hero could show up for a cameo, a funny in-joke – or a feat that saves the world.
“Justice League Unlimited” had many great episodes and I might touch on some of those here as I rewatch. But “The Return” showed what the series was capable of.
Warner Bros. released a pic a while back of Henry Cavill as Superman (wonder if that name will be uttered) and they’ve released a couple of pics of Ben Affleck as Batman from “Batman vs Superman: This Time It’s Personal.”
Today, at San Diego Comic Con, it’s Wonder Woman’s turn.
Above, Gal Gadot as the Amazonian Princess.
When I showed my wife, a Wonder Woman fan from way back, she said: “Very Xena.”
It’s hard to imagine it’s been 11 years since “Superman: Red Son,” the Elseworlds comic book series-turned-graphic novel that imagined a world where baby Kal-El’s rocket from Krypton crashed in the Soviet Union, was published.
It seems more like 40. And that’s a compliment.
The comic, written by Mark Millar and drawn and inked by a creative team of artists, came out in 2003 but read like something published as a Cold War fever dream. Millar’s storyline – which recasts Superman as a symbol of – and later, leader of – the Soviet Union and all his supporting players in re-imagined roles – is so clever it feels like a product of those uneasy decades of stand-off between the United States and the Soviet Union.
Of course, the comic probably couldn’t have been produced during that time. There’s too much subversive material here for most Cold War tastes.
Beyond the premise – that rocket from doomed Krypton lands in the USSR rather than Heartland USA – young Clark’s powers quickly draw the attention of the Soviet authorities and he is adopted by Stalin himself.
Meanwhile, in America, Lex Luthor is an aloof scientific genius who works for long-tenured President Kennedy and Lois Lane is his neglected wife.
After Superman becomes a global figure – curiously, a threat to the American way of life who also swoops in to rescue people at disaster scenes around the world – Luthor ramps up his efforts to destroy him via Brainiac, Bizarro and other means.
Millar has Jimmy Olsen as a CIA agent, Pete Ross as a KGB agent and, most effecting, Diana – aka Wonder Woman – in a familiar role for her, trying to bridge the gap between worlds.
There’s even Batman as a Russian saboteur, a role that pits him against Superman, the thoughtful tool of the Soviet Union.
The art is perfect – so many deep blues and reds that it was startling to see one version of the Superman costume that looked like that in “Man of Steel” – and the story is clever not just because it holds up a mirror to the familiar Superman story but because the characters and circumstances ring as true as they seem alien to us.
We’ve said it before – and another blog, Superdickery, specialized in this – but Superman is a dick.
Here’s the cover of “Jimmy Olsen” 30, which came out in August 1958. Cover art by the great Curt Swan and Stan Kaye.
In this issue, Superman adopts the cub reporter but is inexplicably mean to him, culminating in the cover scene.
But it all works out.