Last year, in the ‘Young Justice: Invasion’ episode “Beneath” I noticed a strong resemblance between a character named Tye Longshadow, a friend of Jaime (Blue Beetle) Reyes, and the classic ‘Super Friends’ character Apache Chief. This was furthered, when several other ethnic teens appeared that could possibly be compared to other ‘Super Friends’ characters of color.
Then, in the recent episode “Cornered” we discover that the male African American teen that was, like Longshadow, kidnapped and experimented upon by The Reach, was named Virgil. It was also hinted that he had developed electrical powers, pointing fans to the assumption that this is Virgil Hawkins, the comic hero Static, who served like most of this show’s cast as a member of the Teen Titans in the comics. He also starred in his own Saturday morning cartoon which ran for four years beginning in 2000.
But, back in the 70s and 80s, once again, on the ‘Super Friends’ cartoon, there was an electrically charged African American super hero called Black Vulcan. I suppose substituting the more modern and well-known Static makes more sense than making up some new avatar.
By now, of course, I know some of you may be wondering what was ‘Super Friends?’ Answer: Launched in 1973, it was a Saturday morning cartoon version of the DC Comic Book ‘Justice League of America.’ Viewed with modern eyes and sensibilities, it was kinda bad. It was not violent in the least, since censorship of children’s programming at the time was much stricter than it is today. Also, back then, Saturday morning cartoons were strictly for children. There was no effort or thought given to the idea that actual adults would sit down and watch these shows, so every cartoon of the time lacked the sophistication of most shows today that include Easter eggs for adults that fly over most kids’ heads.
Though primitive by today’s standards, the show was one of the only serious, action-oriented cartoons on the air at the time and the crudeness slid by impressionable kids who became enthralled by these colorful heroes and villains. Comic superstars from Mark Waid to Alex Ross to Geoff Johns freely admit to being unabashed ‘Super Friends’ fans in their youth… you could almost say that this show is responsible for this generation of comic book creators!
The core cast of the show was Superman, Wonder Woman, Aquaman, Batman and Robin (who wasn’t actually in the Justice League in the books, but was well-known to the public thanks to the 60s TV show starring Adam West and Burt Ward), but over time, other characters from the comics were added such as The Flash, The Atom, Green Lantern, Hawkman and Hawkgirl and Rima the Jungle Girl. (I really can’t get into her here. Maybe some other time.) The problem is that the 70s were the height of the Civil Rights Movement and for the first time in US history, the public started seeing a push for equal representation in the media. Unfortunately, Green Lantern doesn’t count as a person of color.
With no actual super heroes of color in the comic books, the producers of the cartoon had to create new characters. Black Vulcan was an African American hero with electrical powers, named after the Roman god who created the lightning bolts that the king of the gods, Jupiter (Zeus in the Greek mythology) would hurl at unfortunate enemies. He could also fly. Like many of the Super Friends characters, his powers could be a little inconsistent. At times he would turn into a lightning bolt to fly. At other times he simply soared through the air like Superman. But most commonly, his lower torso turned into electrical energy. At one point, he somehow used his electricity to travel through time. Uh… just go with it.
Apache Chief was the only one of these original characters to receive an actual origin. He was blessed by his tribal shaman with the ability to grow to 50 feet tall. ‘Super Friends’ being a cartoon in the 70s and 80s though, this rule was played fast and loose with him especially in one episode where he grew larger than the planet Earth. Though Black Vulcan behaved as a mostly average super hero, Apache Chief, Samurai and El Dorado had a tendancy to play to stereotypes. (Hey, there was a “push” for equal representation in the media… they didn’t get it all right, directly out of the gate.) Apache Chief’s name was somewhat nonsensical, as he didn’t appear to actually be a tribal chief and his tracking ability was often referred to as if it were a super power. Also, fun fact: his costume was originally supposed to be white and yellow!
Samurai was a Japanese hero, whose costume featured a vest and shorts, which in no way suggest the actual armor worn by samurai warriors. His powers were described as “of the mind” seemingly indicating some sort of telepathy. His most notable power was control over the wind. Most often, his lower torso either turned into a tornado-like funnel or was at least surrounded by one. But in some appearances, he seemed to turn almost entirely into wind, with just his head visible. He could also turn invisible and could create a katana made of electricity. In (I think only) one episode, he created the illusion of fire around himself. A lot of his model sheets (artistic guidelines for animators to use for reference) emphasize these fire abilities, but to my recollection, they were only used once.
These first three characters appeared very early into the show’s run in 1976 and most of them remained until the show went off the air in 1985. The last original ethnic character added to the line-up was a Mexican hero named El Dorado, who first appeared in 1981. Like Samurai, his powers were mental in nature, but similarly to the comic character Martian Manhunter, his abilities seemed to be “whatever he needs to do this episode.” Most famously, he teleported by wrapping his cape around himself. He also had mental telepathy, the ability to create illusions (although in one episode, these illusions appeared to actually be real, so maybe he could just create anything) and flight (sometimes). Of the ethnic Super Friends, he had the most stilted dialogue often exclaiming “Caramba!” and calling friends “Amigo” and answering everything affirmative with “Si!” (I once made up a Super Friends drinking game that may have involved shooting tequila and these expressions.)
Though not flawless in the least, these characters were featured equally alongside other big names from the source material, like Green Lantern and Hawkman… and moreso than others like The Flash and The Atom who were used more sparingly. And for young kids, for whom this cartoon series was their first exposure to these characters, with no knowledge of the comic books, they were just as “real” and “legitimate.” When some these kids grew up and went into the comics, animation and toy businesses, they felt the need to rectify the fact that these characters were not respected by many others and started taking steps to change that. Apache Chief was adapted as Manitou Raven, a powerful shaman who served in the Justice League. Samurai popped up in the collected edition of ‘Infinite Crisis’ in a “bonus feature” scene and later popped up in ‘Justice League of America’ as well. DC already had an electrically-powered black character named Black Lightning, so no attempt was made to adapt Black Vulcan… save one– Alex Ross pitched a Shazam series in which he planned to make Black Vulcan a part of the Marvel Family, which unfortunately was never taken any further.
When the ‘Super Friends’ went off the air,the DC heroes vanished from airwaves for years. Superman briefly returned in a series that only lasted one year. Then in 1992, ‘Batman: The Animated Series’ launched. Headed by Bruce Timm, this series was a far cry from the campy heroes of the past, set in a gritty film noir world and featuring intelligent scripting, talented voice-acting and stylized artwork, the show was an instant hit with both kids and adults and launched an entire sub-universe. The show lasted for four seasons and spawned ‘Superman: The Animated Series’ and futuristic spin-off ‘Batman Beyond.’ And then, many of the same creators topped themselves with what may be the best comic book-to-animation-adaptation ever ‘Justice League’/’Justice League Unlimited.’
And in one episode, they paid tribute to the ethnic Super Friends, re-imagining them as The Ultimen. Samurai lost the top-knot and skimpy costume to become cocky team leader Wind Dragon. Black Vulcan lost the unitard and became Juice. Though not ethnic, the Wonder Twins were also characters created just for the ‘Super Friends’ cartoon and they were re-envisioned as Shifter and Downpour. Most notably in this episode, Apache Chief became the optimistic Longshadow and formed a strong bond with Wonder Woman. It was revealed that these young heroes were clones and that fact resulted in their bodies and minds breaking down over time. Longshadow was the sole survivor but it was implied that this was just for a limited time and that version was never seen again.
And that brings us to ‘Young Justice: Invasion.’ Tye LONGSHADOW sports an orange headband, like Apache Chief and in “Beneath” we learn that he comes from a long line of Apache Chiefs. I mean.. D’UH! Virgil Hawkins is an African American with electrical powers. Check! Add to the mix an Asian girl in a green outfit with a top-knot (I don’t mind the gender switch) and another ethnic boy who is presumably Latino with a golden emblem on his chest (El Dorado is the name of the South American legendary City of Gold) that vaguely calls to mind the markings on El Dorado’s golden chest plate.
I think we’re looking at a new interpretation of these classic animated characters! Though sometimes ridiculed for their stereotypical dialogue and behavior, these heroes clearly struck a chord with many viewers. They have, in recent years, had multiple action figures crafted bearing their likenesses. And the fact that they are once again being paid tribute to, in such an excellent series as ‘Young Justice: Invasion’ just points toward their resiliency.
Here is Cartoon Network’s press release for this Saturday’s episode:
Young Justice: Invasion “Runaways”
Premiers Saturday at 10:30 a.m. ET/PT
Nightwing tasks Blue Beetle with chasing down a group of potentially dangerous super-powered teenage runaways. But Blue Beetle is not the only one hunting them….
Tune in Saturday to check out this episode, then be sure to check back here on Sunday to read my recap.
Are you excited for this Saturday’s episode? Did this article give you a better insight into these new characters? Leave a comment below!