The TVMaze 1st Annual Christmas Review (Cartoon Network Edition)

Ho ho ho. For those of you unfamiliar with my previous reviews on another site, and who care enough to bother... look 'em up. They neither need nor want the linkage. But regardless, one of the few "traditions" I have is doing a Christmas-themed review on the weekend on or before Christmas in the U.S. That's led to reviews of Black Mirror, The Wild Wild West, The Outer Limits, and Land of the Giants. Yeah it's a loose theme, but it's all I've got.

Last year I had trouble coming up with shows to fit the theme, and I hate going for the obvious. So I earmarked a couple of shows last year to do this year, and here we are.

For starters, let's go back to the thrilling days of 2003. Cartoon Network was dedicated to making... you know, cartoons. Not to say that they couldn't do decent non-cartoon stuff: anyone remember Tower Prep? But Paul Dini and Bruce Timm (mostly Timm) were riding high on the success of the Superman and Batman animated series (seri?). And someone had the bright idea to turn them loose on the Justice League. They decided, rather wisely, to just focus on seven members but with a few tweaks of their own.

So with Justice League we got Superman, and Batman, and Wonder Woman, and Flash. But we also got J'onn J'onzz, the Martian Manhunter, who is the "overlooked" founding member of the Justice League. And instead of Hal Stewart or Guy Gardner, we got John Stewart. And we got Hawkgirl instead of the oft-used Hawkman. And even though she was arguably the weakest member of the animated League, Hawkgirl was the kickass, take-no-prisoners, hot-tempered warrior. Which was a far cry from the long-standing comic book version.

They did some tweaking. Although they kept Kevin Conroy as the voice of Batman, they got George Newbern to replace Tim Daly from the animated Superman series. They had to introduce Wonder Woman, and J'onn, and John Stewart, and Hawkgirl. But Timm handled it with his typical flair, and tossed in dozens of in-jokes that would make Greg Berlanti hide in embarrassment at being one-upped.

It's a safe bet that without the Cartoon Network animated stuff, we probably wouldn't have gotten the CWVerse stuff. The spirit of the ADCU (Animated DC Universe) lives on in the modern-day Flash and Arrow and DC's Legends of Tomorrow. It helped that it was a silver age for cartoons on Cartoon Network, from approximately 1995 to 2008. We had Powerpuff Girls, and Samurai Jack, and Dexter's Laboratory, and Ed, Edd n' Eddy. Yes, life was good, men were men, and sheep were nervous.

That brings us to "Comfort and Joy", which was a one-off when Justice League spent the vast majority of its time on two- and three-parters. One of the advantages Justice League, and later Justice League Unlimited, had was that it didn't feel obliged to shoehorn in every cast member in every episode. Batman and Wonder Woman are absent and barely mentioned. Instead, the other five members are busy saving an alien ice planet. They decide to go on Christmas break afterward, and we get three mini-episodes. Which is part of why Justice League did multi-parters: the stories were so complicated they need more than just the "normal" 30-minute run-time.

J'onn (Carl Lumbly) is the last survivor of Mars and doesn't get the whole "Christmas" thing. So Clark takes him home to meet his foster parents, Ma and Pa Kent (Shelley Fabares, Mike Farrell who had previous played Clark's parents on Superman: The Animated Series). Which is another advantage Timm and Dini had: they were working with a shared comics universe and could borrow from one show to another.

The in-jokes fly fast and thick: Kara (Supergirl) isn't there but gets a mention. Her cat Streaky is there, and she has a stuffed Zook (look it up) doll in her room. The Kents give J'onn a sweater with the Charlie Brown pattern on it. J'onn assumes the human form of John Jones for the first time to go around Smallville and see people celebrating Christmas. There are also lots of cute bits: we find out Clark still believes in Santa Claus, and Ma and Pa Kent wrap his presents in lead to keep him from peeking. (Maybe they died relatively young because of lead poisonining?) J'onn pretends to be Santa Claus to keep one young girl's faith, and eats the Oreo cookies she put out for "Santa".

In the second story, Hawkgirl (Maria Canals) and John (Phil LaMarr) have a snowball fight on an alien planet. Hawkgirl doesn't get the whole Christmas thing, but she knows how to celebrate after a battle. She takes John to an alien moon and a bar where everyone knows her name. And then starts a bar fight just for the fun of having a big fight, and gets John involved. There's more injokes, like Swamp Thing, Hawk Man, and Lion Man, the latter two from the old Flash Gordon newspaper comic. The sequence ends with Hawkgirl kissing an unconscious John on the cheek and wishing him a Merry Christmas.

In the third segment, Flash (Michael Rosenbaum) is being his usual goofy self. Which gave him 100% more personality than John Wesley Shipp's Barry Allen on the 90s Flash. He promises some orphans he'll get them a rare toy: a farting DJ Rubber Duckie. Flash can't find it so speeds to Japan to get the last one from the manufacturer. However, on his return he immediately gets into a fight with Ultra-Humanite (Ian Buchanan), a super-evolved guy who put his brain into the body of a giant white mountain gorilla and who appeared once before on Justice League. And part of the joke is that Ultra-Humanite is so "evolved" and cultured he prefers PBS to most modern entertainment and art. In UH's previous appearance, he betrayed the Secret Society of Villains when Batman sent a big donation to PBS.

The hero and villain inadvertently smash the toy, but Flash makes a spirit-of-Christmas speech to Ultra-Humanite. The villain agrees to repair the toy, although he removes the farting part and replaces it with a recitation of The Nutcracker. At the end, UH surrenders voluntarily and Flash gives him an aluminum Christmas tree for his prison cell. And UH is touched despite all of his protestations about the commercialization of Christmas.

"Comfort and Joy" leaves people without a dry nose in the house, and it shows how Timm (and writer Diini, he only wrote one other epiode) still had the golden touch. Dini stuffs a lot into a 30-minute episode: three separate stories, one super villain, a dozen-plus injokes, and a setup for the romance between John and Hawkgirl that would play out in the series finale in the next episode and on into Justice League Unlimited.

In fact, "Comfort and Joy" was pretty much the last hurrah for the original Justice League. Two more stories followed, but "Wild Cards" was actually intended to air before "Comfort and Joy". Then we got "Starcrossed", which signaled the end of the series as Hawkgirl's people decided to invade Earth. That led to Justice League Unlimited, which had the seven members expand the League to include pretty much every hero on Earth. And they pretty much fought every villain on Earth and a few other planets for good measure. As well as bringing the late Dwayne McDuffie on full time, introducing Cadmus and the Suicide Squad, and giving us oddball casting choices that somehow worked like Jeffrey Combs as The Question.

That brings us to the second episode in tonight's Christmas extravaganza, "Invasion of the Secret Santas!" on Batman: The Brave and the Bold. I noted earlier that 2008 was pretty much the end of the silver age era of cartoon on Cartoon Network. But B&B was the successor of sorts to Justice League after the latter closed up shop. B&B wasn't set in the ADCU, and had no connection to it other than a couple of obscure injokes and some of the creative team. Instead, it was an adaptation of sorts of the comic book Brave & The Bold during its major period when it was a team-up comic for Batman and whichever superheroes DC could beg, borrow, or steal from its annals.

The animated show was no different. It typically started with a short little vignette that was like a backdoor pilot or a "cameo" for some obscure superhero. We got Enemy Ace, and the Haunted Tank, and the Doom Patrol, and dozens more. Then we'd get into the main story, which had Batman teamed up with one or more superheroes to take on a lot of opponents.

Diedrich Bader provided the voice of the gravelly-toned Batman. The show was filled with lots of injokes and some of it was a parody of the 60s Batman series. Villains like Egghead, King Tut, and Louie the Lilac would show up in the background. The show built up its all retinue of recurring roles: John DiMaggio as Aquaman, who probably has the most memorable appearance and character of any Aquaman up to and including the current Jason Momoa. Aquaman was an arguably minor-league hero who never thought of himself that way: he would boast endlessly of his exploits and talk like an old-school Greek god. If you thought a guy who could swim fast and talk to fish isn't that big a deal, you only had to listen to Aquaman describe himself to realize it wasn't true.

Dozens of other heroes and villains wandered through: the Golden Age Green Arrow, the modern-day Blue Beetle, Plastic Man, Booster Gold, Black Canary, the Atom, the Outsiders, Wildcat, Dr. Fate, the fourth-wall-breaking Bat-Mite, and many more. It was a riot of 60s TV stuff and the comic books when Batman would go on time travel adventures and outer space adventures while flying with a jetpack, and basically fight any villain anywhere while uttering clichés that would make Adam West blush.

There were also plenty of gags and injokes, from having John Wesley Shipp playing Reverse-Flash, to doing a Batman meets Scooby-Doo episode, to "Weird Al" Yankovic appearing as himself, to having Bat-Mite replace Aquaman with Ted McGinley and make a reference to jumping the shark. Look it up.

Besides humor, they also did some serious stuff: check out "Chill of the Night!" when Phantom Stranger and Spectre bet on Batman's immortal soul to see if he'll kill the man who killed his parents. And features Adam West and Julie Newmar as the voice of Bruce's parents. Or "Gorillas in Our Midst!", which has the aforementioned Spectre turning a bad guy into cheese and siccing rats on him. Nummy.

One of the other recurring heroes was Red Tornado. The silver age one in the comics: an android that could generate tornadoes. And that brings us to today's Christmas episode.

The episode begins with one of the aforementioned vignettes. Sportsmaster (Thomas F. Wilson) has decided to attack a bowling tournament near Christmas Eve. Both because he's offended someone considers bowling a real sport, and to walk away with the sweet, sweet prize money. Batman shows up to fight Sportsmaster, and Blue Beetle (Will Friedle) provides an assist. As with most of the vignettes through the series run, what happens has nothing to do with the main story. All it does in this case is establish that it's close to Christmas when Blue Beetle invites Batman to Christmas Eve dinner with his family and Batman abruptly refuses.

In the main story, Red Tornado (Corey Burton) is in his human disguise as Professor Ulthoom, teaching archaeology. On Christmas Eve? He rescues two children, and gets the idea of figuring out what the Christmas spirit is since he's an android and just doesn't get it. His efforts are interrupted when Neptunian flying saucers attack the town to kidnap Santa. Batman is the only hero on hand, because it's his show, and Red Tornado teams up with him to defeat the saucers. They realize that the "Neptunians" are from an old movie (a parody of the real-life Santa Claus Conquers the Martians), and find a logo belonging to Fun Haus Toys.

Fun Haus is a creepy-looking villain who bears a resemblance to the Jack Nimble Toyman from the comics. The one in Challenge of the Superfriends, if you're not up on your comic lore. He flies off and activates a bunch of robotic Santas and there's a couple of gags about kids being traumatized by seeing Santa turn into a rampaging jolly old elf and getting blown up when the robots explode. Interspersed throughout this is Batman, who is kind of a Christmas Scrooge, having flashbacks to being disgusted with the wooden toy soldier his parents gave him, and then them being shot dead in an alley after going to a movie on Christmas Eve. Way to make Christmas even more depressing, creative team.

When the heroes defeat the robot Santas, Fun Haus informs them he's hidden a bomb somewhere in the town. They spend some time looking for it, but realize it's a wild goose chase and the new "Playpal" action figure is created by Toy Haus. All of the Playpals come to life on Christmas morning, steal all the valuables, and hand them over to Fun Haus. The heroes fight him, and the action figures assemble into a single giant robot. Red Tornado overloads himself defeating the robot, feels the "tingling sensation" of the Christmas spirit, and then blows up. Heh. Which was his main shtick in the comics, too. Fortunately, he's an android so STAR Labs can put him back together. And Batman discovers that Alfred has left him the wooden toy soldier as a present in the Batmobile. Batman smiles and then drives off to fight more crime. The end.

Although Brave & The Bold had its tragic moments--I'll always remember the death of B'wana Beast--most of the proceedings are played for laughs. Red Tornado's attempts to get the Christmas spirit go about as well as you can expect: he overdecorates and sings Christmas carols really badly. Still, it's a pretty dark episode: you've got exploding Santas and the revelation that Batman's parents were killed on Christmas Eve.

Mostly it's about the humor: Red Tornado's dilemma is played for laughs, and there's absolutely no drama about the fact that he apparently "dies". It's more the punch line to a joke. Granted, it's only the fourth episode, so the series wouldn't "mature" until much later down the road with the occasional death. Other funny bits are the typically over-dramatic Batman, Blue Beetle arguing with his sentient alien armor, and the running gag of a red-haired woman panicking and screaming into the camera during each major event.

So while "Invasion of the Secret Santas!" (yes, all the titles had exclamation marks at the end),is no "Comfort and Joy" (and the creative team doesn't have the street cred of the Justice League people), it's still a fun Christmas episode to watch with just enough darkness to keep it from going too saccharine.

But that's just my opinion, I could be wrong. What do you think?

Written by Gislef on Dec 23, 2018

Comments

Gislef posted 27 days ago

Someone I know who went to Harvard or Yale told me it's the unofficial motto.

SilverSurfer posted 27 days ago

Thanks for the article and the trip down memory lane!

| men were men, and sheep were nervous

Passer by: There's a pervert in the field doing stuff to your sheep!

Kid at farmhouse door: That's no pervert, that's my daaaaaaaaaaaaaad.

Seasons best, SilverSanta

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