Comic Genius

My normal friends--the ones who don't collect comic books or know "Star Trek" episodes by their titles--watched the World Trade Center collapse with a sense of never having seen anything like that before.

We geeks, though, had. I have seen cities under attack and the postapocalyptic aftermath in so many comics, sci-fi novels and movies that when I saw the World Trade Center site in real life I had a crushing sense of "well, yeah." It was the ending that wasn't right, the climactic final reel. Superman did not come to stop the second plane. The Fantastic Four did not fly up in their Fantasticar. Secret agent Nick Fury did not infiltrate the hijackers months earlier and stop the plan before it started. Stupid as that sounds, even to me, in my mind's theater that is how these things are supposed to go.

That's why I'm really glad there are more superheroes on television this season. There's "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," of course, but I'm going even more deeply geeky on you. I'm talking about "The Tick" on Fox. I'm talking about the brilliant, impressionistic "Samurai Jack" on Cartoon Network, from Genndy Tartakovsky, who created "Dexter's Laboratory." And best of all, starting on Cartoon Network Nov. 17: "Justice League." You know who the Justice League is because you remember "Superfriends." Basically, it's the big guns of the DC Comics superhero universe: Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Flash, Green Lantern, Hawkgirl and the Martian Manhunter. They meet on a satellite called the Watchtower, orbiting the Earth. When there's a problem no one else can solve--like in the first episodes, when evil, shape-shifting White Martians try to cause an unending night--the League comes to the rescue.

The producer of the new show is Bruce Timm, who is a geek the way Chuck Yeager was a pilot. Timm cut his teeth in animation working under John Kricfalusi on a short-lived (and very surreal) "Mighty Mouse" show in the late 1980s. Kricfalusi went on to create "Ren and Stimpy" and Timm moved on to Steven Spielberg's "Tiny Toon Adventures" at Warner Bros.' TV animation unit. Then about 10 years ago, Timm's boss announced that the company was thinking of doing a Batman cartoon for television. The time was right--Frank Miller's 1986 comic book "The Dark Knight Returns" had remade the hero into a violent powerhouse, scraping off the last remnants of the Adam West-1960s froth. Three years later, Tim Burton's live-action movie was a monster hit. So Timm went back to his desk and drew up an animated Batman loyal to the darker tone geeks have always liked--but he also kept it highly stylized. The vision worked; the new TV cartoon ended up set in a kind of alternative 1940s, with a palette of black, gray and blue. Batman lived in a Gotham City set upon by monsters--the Joker, the Riddler, Catwoman--who themselves were tortured by psychoses. The only light in the place came from the bat-signal on the roof of police headquarters. The animators called their style "deco noir."

The show was a hit from its premiere in 1992--and a futuristic spin-off is still on the air. By 1996, the same team created another highly stylized series around Superman. Together, the two shows rivaled the great Fleischer Brothers Superman cartoons of the 1940s. And fans kept asking for team-ups. Batman and Superman crossed over into each other's shows and became a good cop-bad cop duo with decades-old roots in comics. Still, it wasn't enough. Geeks like to see heroes get to know each other and beat up bad guys. The best example: a 1940s comic book called "Justice Society of America." By the 1960s, it was called to the Justice League.

A "Justice League" cartoon was almost inevitable. "We gave into the fans," Timm says. "Literally, for the last six years that's the No. 1 question we got: 'When are you going to do the Justice League?'" Of course, it also made sense from a business perspective. "In terms of mass-media appeal, the Justice League stands head and shoulders above other DC properties. Because of "Superfriends," it's a big marquis value," Timm says.

Even beyond the world of Saturday-morning cartoons, though, these characters are American icons, with mythic roots as deep as those of the gunfighter or the pioneer. What keeps those myths alive is a constant retelling of what are essentially the same stories, each time with a new emphasis or take. For the "Justice League" cartoon, Timm and his writers redefined and refocused their characters. Superman became the natural leader, the boy scout do-gooder. Batman's the outsider, with questionable methods but an unerring tactical sense. Flash became the hot-headed, smart-mouthed kid. Wonder Woman's the invulnerable princess. Hawkgirl's one of the gang, but with a really big mace. J'onn J'onzz, the Martian Manhunter, is the observer of humanity. And Green Lantern is the badass space cop, the Samuel L. Jackson of the team. "We wanted to make sure that each of the characters were very individualized, that they were all distinct personalities, and if sparks fly among them, all the better," Timm says. "We don't ever want to get to the point where the characters are standing around bickering, but it's good to have them slightly at odds."

This is what geeks love about team comics. It's a particular subgenre, born out of conversations that start with questions like, "If Batman and Captain America fought, who would win?" This is what we geeks were talking about when you normal people were playing sports and kissing. We want to know why these heroes are the way they are--we want to know how they act when they're off duty. "We're total geeks about this stuff, but if we do our job right then a mainstream audience will get this as well," says Timm. "We try to make the show for the 12-year-old in all of us."

My inner 12-year-old is a little sad these days. For the first time I can remember, I'm disappointed in my comic-book heroes. Look, I'm not nuts. I can distinguish reality from fantasy. Yet I find myself heartbroken at the fact that Superman let so many people die. Even with its images of Metropolis getting crushed under the feet of giant Martian tripods, Timm's "Justice League" is an exciting, fun show, skillfully realized. But it's also a kind of geek nightmare: the only place you can find justice is in a cartoon.