Nobody thought it could happen. Then it did. Back in October 2016, it was announced that Young Justice—the fan-favorite Cartoon Network series about DC’s teenage superheroes—would be coming back from the dead for a third season, and last week at San Diego Comic-Con, we talked to some of the show’s creators about what to expect.
At a Comic-Con press roundtable, artistic director Phil Bourassa and producers/co-creators Brandon Vietti and Greg Weismann spoke with a group of journalists (including myself) about bringing the show back after a long hiatus. They also gave some insight into how they want Young Justice to grow into the future.
Two of the show’s principal creators discussed Young Justice’s improbable return.
Brandon Vietti: I gotta think it’s a number of things [that brought the show back]. I myself don’t even know all the specifics. But, the fans were able to communicate their love for the show in such numbers—via social media, via streaming, via anything else they could do—that the Powers That Be could not deny that they needed to look into bringing our show back. So, undeniably, I think it’s the fans, and their ability to make their voices heard online in so many ways.
That’s not something I think we had, even when we were on Cartoon Network, at the time. I think social media and streaming services, of course, have developed after Young Justice went off the air. But it was nice that fans could still continue to find us, continue to spread the word, continue to try petitions and various things to get us back, and to get Warner Bros.’ attention—and it worked.
Phil Bourassa: I started on Young Justice in 2009. So, we’re different people now. But… you evolve as an artist. You work on different things. You introduce new stylistic flourishes. But this is still a superhero show. I’m always going to want to make sure that we stick that landing.
On the Themes of Growing Up
Young Justice has always been a show about these younger characters and their relationships with their older mentors and parental figures. I asked Vietti if we’re still going to find the characters within the orbit of the older heroes or would season three be more about them evolving into their own identities.
Vietti: Yeah, as a series, that’s always been the theme, and we’re not changing that for the third season at all. We’ll still have a heavy focus on our core characters that we came to know and love in the first two seasons, but our show has always been about those core characters growing up in a DC universe that itself is growing. So, we’re always introducing new characters. That’s—again—the “Young” part of Young Justice, that there’s always new generations coming up.
io9: For example, you’ve added Static, Spoiler, and Tracy-13.
Vietti: There you go. We have to keep introducing new characters to reflect the DC Universe as it is, and, again, bounce those characters off our core characters who have moved from a mentee position to a mentor position. And we give them new generations to deal with, to see how they’ve matured. How they’ve grown since the first [two] seasons.
How the Third Season Continues Young Justice’s Plotlines
Vietti: I am hesitant to say what exactly we’re going to do. What we’ve released is that there is a meta-trafficking threat. And this is a natural progression from our first two seasons. When we got back together and started to figure out what we’re going to do for our third season, first we had to look back at what we had done in our first two. And from day one, we’d been dealing with the creation of Superboy. We’d been dealing with genetic experimentation, creating super powered people that could be used for weapons, [while] our second season had aliens coming to Earth for the exact same reason as humans. “They have something called a meta-gene. What can we do with that? How can we harvest that? And use that for ourselves?”
So, it’s been a common theme. This meta-gene is just out of the bottle. Nobody knew about it in the first season. We’ve progressed through our stories where [in the first season] it was mad science, it was secret government organizations that were exclusively dealing with this. Second season, it breaks up and now we’ve got aliens coming. This is national news now. There’s nobody on the planet, probably, that doesn’t know what a meta-gene is at this point.
That’s our starting point. It’s a very scary world that we’re starting off with in our third season where anybody could be kidnapped, experimented upon, and trafficked into some usage where people are being used as weapons for their superpowers.
A Shock to the System
Static is a character fans have been waiting to come back in some form or fashion for years now. The long-gone Static Shock show is finally getting a new home video release but the Milestone Media universe, where the electrically powered hero first appeared, isn’t publishing new comics yet. I asked Bourassa and Vietti about how they’re approaching a character that people have been missing for so long.
Vietti: Well, eagerly, because we were fans of the character, too. My introduction was more through the animated series that Warner Bros. did a while back. So we were eager to bring him in and fold him into our second season and begin to tell his story. We know he was a fan favorite. So we wanted to find an important role for him to play, to push him into the forefront. And we had our runway characters that paid homage to Superfriends and the characters [that show brought in] that were unique and original. We worked him into that, along with those homages to characters I grew up with. As fans ourselves, we’re very interested in pleasing the fans and the audience, and paying attention to what they want. So, that was a conscious choice for us.
io9: Let’s talk about your visual interpretation of him. He’s had two or three major looks in the comics, but his look in Young Justice is decidedly different. Did you go through different iterations to wind up here?
Bourassa: I didn’t go through them. I started on Static Shock. That was my first animation gig. Long story short, an executive from Warner Bros. bought my indie comic way back in the day and gave it to Denys Cowan. He was like, “this dude is nice” and he gave me a shot as a character designer. I have a great affection for that character. That’s where I started.
So, when we did Virgil in season two, he was a runaway. He was one of that group. And so I just gave him civvies. He had a very mid-‘90s hip hop thing, because that’s my era. And the last thing I drew in the second season was the Static logo, and then I was done. So coming back to season three—I don’t want to spoil too much, but we have a lot of characters in it. So I [didn’t] have a lot of time to marinate on one dude.
There isn’t—you know, not knocking anybody—there hasn’t been one look from the comics, for Static, where I’m like, “That’s the one.” You know what I mean? Maybe I’ll find it through his evolution in our show or at some other point? But for now, it didn’t feel like he needed to go full superhero. So it’s just an evolution on his personal style, street fashion, whatever. He’s proudly wearing a Static symbol at this point. And as you guys know, in Young Justice, these characters will evolve. We don’t know what’s coming down the line, but I would love to keep evolving that character.
The Unseen Depth of the Young Justice Universe
There’s a whole history to the Earth-16 reality where Young Justice happens. Vietti said that Weisman keeps track of it all in painstaking detail, and Weisman elaborated on the series’ timeline.
Vietti: [The series bible] is extremely deep. Greg in particular is extremely good at writing bibles and tracking timelines of characters. Once we decided that we actually wanted to track real time through the show, it became even more important to develop an actual timeline of birthdates for people and when various characters died, and how that might have impacted a certain person going forward as a reference point for story development. So, it’s an incredibly deep bible and we’re tracking everybody in the DC Universe.
Greg’s office is the writer’s room, basically, and his office is wallpapered in three- to five-inch cards. I’m not kidding—wallpapered. And on those cards we have all of our characters that we’ve introduced, we have characters that we want to introduce, we have the cities that they live in, and we’re constantly aware of this DC Universe that is around us. What’s not on the wall, of course, is then some of the writing we’ve done together or the timelines that he’s created that tie all of those characters and locations together.
And any time we bring in a new character, we have to look to the wall around us, we have to look to the timelines, we have to make sure that the intersections of any new characters we pull into the show work and make sense. We have to analyze if there are repercussions from bringing two characters together—[whether] we think that there’s ever been a possibility of them having met before, what might that backstory have been. It is incredibly complicated. But I think this is… one of the textures that they like about the show. So, while it is a lot of work for us to track, hopefully it pays off for people when you see it and you feel it in the show.
Weisman: I think the farthest back [the show bible] goes is the birth of Vandal Savage. But it’s been built over time, and it’s based in the characters we’ve already used, or use in season three. I try not to tie our hands too much on things we haven’t addressed yet. So if we decide to tell the Krona story [ed’s note: a reference to the Oan scientist who did experiments that let him witness the creation of the universe] at some point, we can.
Re-Imagining Icons and Fan Favorites
As the show’s art director, it’s up to Bourassa to re-design the costumes to simultaneously look recognizable and fresh. He talked about that process and also said we’re likely to see mission-specific outfits, like the stealth-mode suits or the cold-weather variants from previous seasons.
Bourassa: [Tackling designs] is always fun. It’s always an interesting challenge. It really depends on the character, the various iterations that we’ve seen in the past, and how long it’s been since they’ve been dusted off and given a new coat of paint, you know? I love the challenge—all of it. Sometimes the lesser known characters are the most fun because you have the most latitude. Nobody cares what you do. I always go back to Professor Ojo. Nobody cares about Professor Ojo. I think the only thing that Greg told me was, “as long as he has a mustache.” I was like, “Okay. Done.”
There’s more pressure for the well-known characters, you know? It’s really hard to nail Wonder Woman and Superman because you’re going to mess up somebody’s favorite version no matter what you do. So I fail at that every time. But at the same time, the exploration is part of the fun, and you just have to do your best and make it work for the context of the new narrative that we’re trying to create, and be reverent of the themes of the character. And I think that collectively in this group, and definitely in other collaborators elsewhere, everybody loves the characters. We research it. We don’t take it lightly.
The stuff that we showed today, all those characters are unmistakable. Tim Drake’s costume is a little more tricked out. There’s a little more detailing. He’s got the hood now. The series evolves. It always seems a little bit darker, without going too dark. As the characters get older, they naturally lend themselves to a more mature take, more sophistication in the detailing. I feel like if I design a character and you guys can’t tell who it is, then I missed the mark. It gets really tricky when there are no good versions of a character, or there’s nothing recognizable, you know? But I always try to keep it faithful so it passes for what’s been done—what we call a “squint test.” Like if you squint, [you can still figure out] “Yeah, that’s Spoiler.” Or, “That’s Tim Drake.” Or, “That’s Static Shock.” Or whatever.
Is there a character that you wanted to do in the first two seasons that you didn’t get to do?
Bourassa: That was so long ago, man! It’s hard to pick characters that you like—“when are you going to give me this character?”—when they literally give me every character to do, you know? But I love the Fourth World stuff. I like Jack Kirby’s Space Odyssey—it could be DC’s Star Wars. And we visited that world just for a little bit in the first season and I had a blast looking at Jack Kirby [art] and mixing in some Moebius influences. I’d love to go back there.
“The Beauty and Charming Absurdity of Superheroes”
Bourassa offered his thoughts on balancing the believability of practical design and the brightly colored over-the-top symbolic legacy of superhero costumes.
Bourassa: Well, it’s a virtue of the medium. We don’t have to explain it all. These guys love to make me justify “how does this really work?” Brandon is very much about “it has to feel real.” But I want it to be colorful and bold and fun, too. So we bounce ideas off each other, how to make it believable and practical and realistic and good for the cosplayers, too. I mean, they can actually make those outfits.
But it’s a balance. You want to suggest detail without burdening the animators with something that’s impossible to draw. It’s about finding that right balance between fun and colorful and practical and grounded. That’s always a priority. We don’t have the same limitations and restrictions on us that are in the live-action stuff, because they just lend themselves so well to the medium of animation. Suspension of disbelief is not a problem. But there is a back-and-forth trying to figure out what’s right. I’m always going to try to push the fun and the color, the beauty and the charming absurdity of superheroes. They’re ridiculous. That’s why we love them.
Next Generations and Kingly Inspirations
Weisman was asked what other new characters are coming to the third season, as well as how Jack Kirby’s influence lives on in Young Justice.
Weisman: We just revealed Spoiler but I’m not going to give any real spoilers. Okay, I’ll give you one other spoiler: We’ve got Bash Bashford in season three. [Note: that’s a very obscure character from old Superboy comics. He got superpowers from eating bananas that grew on a planet in a red-sun solar system. Seriously.]
But time does pass. You know, Mera was pregnant in season one. We haven’t seen their kid but, at some point, as we move through time, you’re going to start seeing some of this progeny.
In season one and two, we had quite a bit of Kirby influence in there. Everything from Sphere to the Forever People to G. Gordon Godfrey, and we revealed Darkseid at the end of season two. The ante is upped on the Fourth World stuff in season three; I don’t think that’s a surprise to anybody. I’m not going to go into any details but, if you like the Kirby DC stuff, then you’ll like season three. It may not be what you’re expecting, though.
But the Kirby influence is definitely in there, just as there’s Bill Finger, Siegel and Shuster, and Bob Kane. We are not shy about taking characters from any era and trying to get to the core of those characters and make them [fit] more within the Earth-16 context. Almost any named character [in the show] comes from somewhere in the DC Universe.