(or how I learned to stop worrying about continuity and love nostalgia)
The Justice League of America gather for the first time (as drawn by Alex Ross)
Alex Ross exploded onto the comic book scene in 1996′s Kingdom Come, a series crafted with Mark Waid set in the possible future of the DC Comics Universe. He remains one of the most important artists of the modern comic book world, his paintings of iconic characters serving as a shorthand version for the term ‘superhero.’ As a child of the 1970′s, he was strongly influenced by the Super Friends cartoon that he had viewed in his youth and includes many references to the cartoon in his work. In fact, much of his design work includes a massive dose of the Super Friends, as drafted by the dear departed master, Alex Toth (the same man behind Space Ghost, Johnny Quest and much more).
An unbeatable team made up of the biggest and best superheroes in comics, Super Friends was very important for many members of my generation regarding comic books. I enjoy the first few years, but for many the cartoon really came into its own with the 1978 run, Challenge of the Super Friends. Beset by an assembly of their greatest foes, the Super Friends met the brilliantly twisted schemes of the Legion of Doom week after week.
The Legion of Doom
Back when there was a reason to get up early on Saturday mornings that did not involve diapers, the Super Friends served as a kind of gateway to the world of comic books. The cartoon had been on for a few years previously, but Challenge of the Super Friends was the real deal. It featured somewhat obscure heroes and villains crossing swords with the fate of humanity in the balance. Where else would a kid see Gorilla Grodd, Solomon Grundy, the Riddler, Cheetah, the Riddler, Black Manta, Giganta, Captain Cold, the Toymaker, Braniac, Sinestro, the Scarecrow and Bizzaro threaten the peace? Likewise, Green Lantern, the Flash and Hawkman were welcome additions to the animated world (Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and Aquaman were already mainstays of the 70′s zeitgeist), even if Green Lantern sounded like he was voiced by Sir Laurence Olivier.
As a unique twist, the Challenge of the Super Friends was mainly centered on the villains and their madcap schemes to defeat their enemies. The plans were varied and bizarre (one dealt with a ‘Living Monolith’ that rested in a Hellish part of the underground, another dealt with a demonic entity that granted the Legion of Doom power over the dead), but one of the oddest involved a subject that comic book fanatics hold dear, the he Secret Origins of the Super Friends.
Lex Luthor, Superman’s arch enemy and leader of the Legion of Doom, has found a way to view the origins of the three most powerful members of the Super Friends. How? Who knows. Through the use of his unknown technology, Luthor reveals the seminal moments of Wonder Woman, Superman and Green Lantern (betcha thought I was gonna say Batman, right? Wrong. In Super Friends Batman is useless without his utility belt). By sending himself and Cheetah into the past, he wrecks history, thus removing Green Lantern and Wonder Woman from the equation that has presumably kept them from conquering the Super Friends.
A brief trip through time and space allows Luthor to divert the interstellar crib/space craft delivery little baby Kal-El to Earth where he would have been found by the well-meaning country folk, Martha and John Kent. The pod continues to a nameless planet orbiting a red sun where Superman will never be born.
Viewers are presented almost immediately with an alternate history that, to be honest, barely differs from the world that they knew. None of this makes any sense, of course. If the most powerful members of the Super Friends (or Justice League of America) never existed, how could the Legion of Doom have altered history? Surely, tampering with the time stream would produce catastrophic effects! Yet the Legion of Doom is exuberant and capture the remaining members, ordering them to engage in a battle to the death! Batman, Robin, the Flash and Black Vulcan (a kind of flying version of Black Lightning) steal what appears to be an important computer tape and return to their HQ to plot their next move.
Somehow the tape contains the original, unaltered history in which Superman, Green Lantern and Wonder Woman are alive, prompting the team to travel back in time and undo the interference in the proper course of time (thus introducing a further temporal paradox). Apparently, the JLA is now an integral part of the secret origins of their own members. That’s not a headache or anything…
Before you can say ‘Blinovitch Limitation Effect,’ the Super Friends attack the Legion of Doom with their old members back in action. Green Lantern forms massive emerald anchors that stop the Legion’s flying HQ, Superman burns a hole in the hull of the craft to free the remaining team members (Hawkman, Aquaman and Samurai) only to see Green Lantern also one of the captured teammates!
Well, things like this happened all the time in Super Friends. Hawkman would spontaneously lose his wings, Batman’s symbol would revert colors and Green Lantern would suddenly have three arms. The sudden appearance of a second Green Lantern is to be expected, I guess.
Super Friends remains an important part of the comic book experience. The plots are frantic, the dialog stilted and the animation shaky, yet they perfectly presented the origins of the JLA! Very few of the animated versions of comic book characters showed as close an eye to detail as this one did. They even presented Batman’s origin in its final year! Just imagine if the Legion of Doom had disrupted Batman’s origin! I can just picture Gorilla Grodd getting in the path of Joe Chill’s hand gun… fast forward to Bruce Wayne dressed as a man-gorilla fighting crime.
Currently there is nothing remotely like the Super Friends on the air and frankly I think that kind of thing has a direct impact on comic book readership. The Bruce Timm Justice League/Justice League Unlimited came close to drawing people back to the realm of superheroes, but somehow failed to have as strong an impact as Super Friends had (despite being much better made). I wonder what a world without these campy cartoons would be like and I shudder.
Then I think of Gleek the space monkey… and I know real fear.
buy 'Challenge of the Super Friends - The First Season (1978)' on DVD