When it comes to teen superheroes in general and DC Comics’ classic sidekicks in particular, the rap that they mostly get saddled with is a reputation for ridiculous banter, frequent troubles with death traps and a generally sunny disposition. But the new animated series “Young Justice” is looking to dispel those notions with a black ops teen team armed with drama and determination.
Only four episodes in, and Cartoon Network’s latest DC Entertainment adaptation has already piqued the interest of many comic fans thanks both to its close ties to the DC Comics Universe and its curveball twists to the expected order. The series takes place on Earth-16 — an officially sanctioned reality of DC’s multiverse canon — and has already inspired some stories on the paper publishing side of the company including the introduction of a new Aqualad in “Brightest Day” based on the TV show’s hero and a monthly “Young Justice” tie-in comic that hews closely to the shows expansive plotline. At the same time, viewers have had mystery after mystery thrown at them about the origins of some of the on screen teens, including Superboy and the new as-yet unseen on screen beyond the opening credits Artemis.
To get an inside look at how the show came together, CBR News spoke with series producers Greg Weisman (“Gargoyles,” “The Spectacular Spider-Man”) and Brandon Vietti (“Batman: The Brave & The Bold,” “Under The Red Hood”) for their take on what makes “Young Justice” stand apart from past DC animated series. Below, the pair riff on making Earth-16 a realistic backdrop for action stories, the mysteries and secrets inherent in the show’s black ops high concept and the characters who will play the biggest role in the arc of the series-planned 26-episodes season.
CBR News: Gentlemen, “Young Justice” is a bit of a departure from some of the previous DC animated series, and a big part of what people are sensing as different about it is how connected it is to what DC Comics is doing. How has this process been different from previous DC shows Warner Bros. has done?
Greg Weisman: Well, I can’t speak for the previous DC animated shows. I wrote for some of them, but I was just a freelancer on the outside of the process. But there’s no doubt that on this show, we’ve been really tight with DC. Ivan Cohen, who just left, and especially Geoff Johns and now Mike Carlin — it’s been a very close process, and they’ve been involved since day one. They’re very cooperative and great partners on the project.
“Young Justice” is a series that takes its name from a DC book, but it isn’t exactly what you’d call a straight adaptation. Were you guys looking to do a teen team show in general and found a comic series to help flesh out the background?
Brand Vietti: Going back to the start of it, Sam Register who’s our boss here at Warner Animation put Greg and I together. I think one of the first things he wanted us to think about was a “Justice League” show. And Greg and I said, “Love the idea, but…”
Weisman: It terrified us.
Vietti: [Laughs] Yeah! Bruce Timm had just done an awesome “Justice League” show not that long ago, and we really didn’t want to try and do it again. It just felt like to new of a thing. At some point, the idea of a younger hero show came up, and then “Young Justice” came up and that started the conversation rolling together. That got all of our interest — another teen show but not too close to something like “Teen Titans.” It was maybe a little closer to “Justice League,” but it could stand on its own compared to both of those shows, which were great shows. From that point, Greg and I started really thinking about it.
We were both interested in trying to do a new take on a teenage superhero show. We’d both, in the pasts of our careers done teenage superhero shows, and there’s a lot of “-isms” that are sort of common to those shows. We wanted to put all that behind us and try to find a new way to do a teenager superhero show. We’ve really focused on trying to ground the series and make it feel more realistic than anything we’ve done before. We thought that would make a great stamp of originality on “Young Justice” as a series. From the bottom up, we think of it a little bit like a teenager reality show. We’re just dealing with teenagers who happen to be superheroes.
With a cast this size on a show designed for general audiences, some of the characters like Robin are pretty easy to identify while Superboy or Miss Martian might require a bit more explanation. Is there a character you view as the star of the show?
Weisman: I think we’ve got six leads plus a boatload of supporting characters of secondary or tertiary characters. And amongst our six leads, we try to share the wealth. I think obviously if you take the pilot and cut it in half — because it really is two episodes — you get one episode that focuses equally on Aqualad, Kid Flash and Robin and one episode that obviously focuses on Superboy. As the series progresses, particularly the six that follow the pilot, we try to give each one of those six a shot to lead. Plus, we don’t ignore the other five during any of those. Episode three focuses on Miss Martian, but we’re not losing focus of the other four. And Artemis hasn’t even joined the show yet. So we really try to spread the wealth.
Having said that, obviously our conception of Superboy is a little bit different from what people see in the comics. I think it’s true to the origins of the character, but it’s definitely a new interpretation. In the same way, our new interpretation of Aqualad is a whole new guy wearing the red and blue. We wanted to make sure we were conceptually introducing him, but Aqualad compared to Aquaman isn’t that hard to get across as a concept. You’ve got to see how he operates and what his personality is like. But Superboy you’ve got to understand the concept of Superman in order to get this kid at all. Then you’ve got to understand that cloning…we just didn’t want to make it seem like cloning happens all the time here. We wanted to make a big deal of it.
We’re dealing with the superhero genre, and I say this with a lot of affection, that’s a real bastard genre. It mixes fantasy and science fiction and detective genres and any other you could think of. It’s always been that way, but we’re trying to ground the genre in as much reality as possible. One of the things that means is not taking these science fiction and fantasy concepts for grants. It’s not, “Oh yeah, this stuff happens all the time.” We want you to know there are superheroes in this world, but it is not an everyday thing for people. Every time you introduce a concept, you introduce it for the very first time. Something like Superboy and cloning too that time to put together, and we needed an inciting incident to put the team together in the first place. Kicking it off with Cadmus and Superboy was a great way to start.
And Superboy’s relationship to Superman here is this kind of angsty denial of a relationship. Did you guys try to tell a story about how the kids relate to their mentors?
Vietti: Yeah, we put a lot of thought into the relationships between the sidekicks and their mentors. It was another thing that helped us ground the series in reality. We showed very simply how teenagers relate to their parents. It’s a situation that feels like a real teenage experience. And we wanted to explore parents the sidekicks had with the adults. It was fun to go character-by-character. Some worked themselves out for us. Dick Grayson and Bruce Wayne, Batman and Robin. There’s so much of that relationship there in the comics to pull from. But then of course, we’ve got the new Aqualad which we were able to nuance ourselves. And Superman and Superboy we also got to create from scratch with a lot of invention and new ideas for them. That push and pull between good relationships and bad relationships creates a nice contrast between all of the kids and makes a more dramatic show.
The high concept of the series is that you’ve cast the Young Justice squad as a black ops team who are doing missions for Batman. How did that idea affect the show’s development as a whole? What does it add to the larger arc of the characters?Vietti: The covert ops thing, again, I think brings a stamp of originality in terms of animation. I know that’s been explored a bit in the comics, but at Warner Bros. animation we’ve not done a lot of stuff like that. So it helps us define the theme that would make our show unique in comparison to all the other superhero shows we’ve done here. Once we went in that direction, it really helped guide a lot of the stories we came up with and the situations we put our teams in. It also helped affect the teenagers lives outside of the costume. The show is all about secrets and lies. That’s exactly what you want and what you need when you’re going to do stories about covert ops. But it was also a really good guide in creating the dramatic situations we’d put our teenagers in when they’re out of costume as well. We’ve been trying to find real life situations that anybody can relate to where you’re lying to your parents or even lying to you — when you can’t admit certain truths to yourself. These are secrets and lies that anybody deals with on a day-to-day basis, and we’re able to incorporate that into the series two-fold.
Brandon, the last show you worked on was “Batman: The Brave & The Bold” before taking some time to direct the “Under The Red Hood” DVD. This show feels quite different from both those projects, but very different in terms of animation style from “Brave & The Bold.” What influences impacted how the look of “Young Justice” came about and the choice to “age up” the tone a bit?
Vietti: Once we decide to go with the more realistic feel and tone for the stories, the artwork had to follow. Otherwise the stories wouldn’t have the weight that we wanted them to. So we needed a very realistic look. That all started when we brought on board our lead character designer Phil Bourassa, who came to us from designs for the “Crisis on Two Earths” DVD. We got him to start designing for our show right away, and we were pushing him to design in a way that was more realistic than even he was used to. One of the things that I wanted for our characters was the idea that none of them shop at the same store. Every character had to have a costume that was tailored to their specific needs as a hero. I like to point to Robin having more seams and padding and a sense of body armor about him because he’s a guy who fights in the streets versus a guy like Kid Flash. At first, we see Kid Flash with a very streamlined costume to match his mentor in the Flash, but later on in the show you see him with a more padded costume. He starts to use his speed in his own way. Rather than just following Flash’s example, he starts to develop his own style, using his speed to be like a human cannonball.
So we looked a lot at what the characters needed specifically and tried to tailor their costumes to that idea. Phil was great at coming up with ways to convey these different textures from costume to costume in a very subtle, yet animation-friendly way. All of these costumes cross in the animation, and it creates that overall sense of realism that our stories need. The background designs and paintings also look as realistic as we can do for television. There’s a strong sense of lighting from episode to episode. We put a focus on that because lighting is the texture that builds reality. Across the board, reality guides us. We do everything we can to make the show feel as real as popular.
Greg, one thing everyone knows about your animation work from “Gargoyles” on through “Spectacular Spider-Man” is that you layer in complex plots and build big season arc stories through each episode. We’ve seen some teases in the show so far about a shadowy group watching our team from the backgrounds. What can you say about how you’re building that larger arc, and what kind of marching orders did you have in terms of making this show one big story?
Weisman: Well, I don’t know about marching orders, but I think that when someone hires me they know what they’re getting, for better or for worse. [Laughter] Though I think even Sam was caught off guard when he saw our big board. We have a gigantic bulletin board that breaks down all 26 episodes, and it was myself, Brandon and staff writer Kevin Hopps who did all those breakdowns. The three of us did that before we started writing a single script. And that’s just how I roll, I guess. But I will say Kevin and especially Brandon upped my game on this series. For me, I’m big on “Let’s prep this stuff in advance so I have to do less work later.” I like to lay pipe for things in advance. I like to be prepared for what’s coming up and to capitalize on things we’ve already done rather than going “Oh yeah, we did that. How do I get the repercussions of that in?”
And I like telling great episodic stories too. You can tune in to any episode of “Young Justice” — and I think that’s true of any show I’ve done — and go, “Wow! This is a great yarn! This is a great story I enjoyed!” You don’t have to have seen everything that came before or watch everything that comes after. But if you watch these things sequentially and keep up, you not only get the great story but the larger tapestry of what’s going on. It’s a lot more rewarding for the audience, and that’s how I like to work on frankly any series. I want it to work on the individual level and the grander scale.
Kevin and Brandon just dove in with me, and that’s been the one of the most fun aspects about the season. Breaking down everything makes it so, when we get down to writing outlines and scripts and storyboards, we’ve got some foresight. We can say, “We’re introducing this character in episode three, but let’s keep in mind what that character is going to do in episode ten so we’re not designing something that’ll give us trouble later.” It allows for synchronicity in production. And we try to keep open to serendipity too. If an idea occurs to us in the process, that’s great, we’ll go with it. But we have the ability to do that in part because we’ve laid the groundwork in advance.
Looking ahead to the rest of the season, we’ve already met most of the team and a few villains like Bane and Kobra. Who else are you excited to get on the screen that you’ve not been able to play with in animation before?
Vietti: I’m really anxious to get to Artemis. There’s a lot of mystery about her online and guessing as to who she really is, and that will all be revealed in time. She’s been a great character to work with. Her back story and origins are as rich as any other character we’ve chosen for the show. She’s going to be great to get to, but that’s about all I can say because we’re trying to keep things under wraps for now. We will have other guest stars — heroes and villains. Again, with a show that’s all about secrets and lies and misdirection, we’re playing our cards close. We don’t want to reveal too much about the characters coming up because the storylines depend on keeping the secrets of certain identities. We want to keep the surprises held back so the punch hits the audience hard when they’re revealed.
Weisman: That’s a long version of my answer, which is [sings] “We’re not telling you!” [Laughter]
You mean you can’t even say if we’ll be seeing more of the Conan O’Brien’s Flaming C?
Weisman: The Flaming C seems to be a monster that has sort of taken over our lives! [Laughter] And I wouldn’t say it’s taken over our lives if you’d seen the end of it, let’s put it that way.
Vietti: It’s been great to see the online response to that. People seem to have a great time with it, and we’ve even seen some fan art online for the Flaming C. So we hope to see more of that guy.
New episodes of “Young Justice” debut Friday nights at 7:00 PM Eastern and Pacific. Check the CBR Video Page for updates and trailers every week!