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A very special Justice League Unlimited salutes DC Comics’ forgotten characters

Booster Gold, Skeets, Dr. Tracy Simmons (Image: DC Animation)
Booster Gold, Skeets, Dr. Tracy Simmons (Image: DC Animation)

A single television episode can exemplify the spirit of its time. A Very Special Episode presents The A.V. Club’s survey of TV at its most distinctive.

In the summer of 1977, when I was 6 years old and just a few months from turning 7, I got my first allowance: a dollar a week. Back then, that was enough to buy two comic books and a candy bar at our neighborhood supermarket, with a few pennies left over after tax. To get the most for my money, I gravitated to comics with superhero teams, from the familiar to the obscure. I bought Teen Titans, Freedom Fighters, Metal Men, The Defenders, and Fantastic Four, but my favorite was Justice League Of America, because I’d spent much of my childhood watching anything on TV with Superman or Batman. I still remember the first JLA I bought with my own money: issue #147, “Crisis In The 30th Century!,” featuring a crossover with Earth-2’s Justice Society Of America and the future’s Legion Of Super-Heroes, all fighting the combined forces of the Demons Three, the Psycho-Pirate, and the alien sorcerer Mordru.

So imagine my delight in the fall of 2004 when Mordru appeared in the Justice League Unlimited episode “The Greatest Story Never Told.” Mordru! He’s only in a scene or two, as an adjunct to what the episode’s actually about. But still… What better way to signal to hardcore comic book geeks that JLU’s not just for fans, but for those of us who used to spend two-thirds of our allowance on whatever caught their eye on a supermarket spinner rack?

In a way, Justice League Unlimited was the culmination of a project that began in 1992, when veteran animator Bruce Timm co-created Batman: The Animated Series with Eric Radomski. Developed after Tim Burton’s Batman movie became a blockbuster hit, The Animated Series took advantage of the film’s success to put a more stylish, serious spin on the caped crusader. After decades of live-action and animated superhero shows that either dulled, spoofed, or infantilized classic comics characters, Timm and Radomski—with the help of writer-producer Paul Dini, among others—made television that treated the work of creators like Gardner Fox, Dick Sprang, Dennis O’Neil, Neal Adams, Steve Englehart, Jim Aparo, Marshall Rogers, and Len Wein as a blueprint to follow, not something inconveniently “comic-book-y” and easy to shirk.

Batman led to Superman: The Animated Series; and after those two shows had run their course, in 2001 Timm and Dini launched Justice League. For two seasons (and 52 episodes, ending with a splashy finale in the spring of 2004), Cartoon Network aired multi-part stories in which Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, The Flash, Green Lantern, Hawkgirl, and Martian Manhunter fought the kind of potentially world-ending threats that demanded a lot of superhero fire-power—including the assistance of a smattering of lesser-known DC champions like Doctor Fate, Lightray, and Blackhawk.

When Cartoon Network gave the series a surprise renewal, the creative team added Unlimited to the title and chose to lean hard into DC arcana. For 39 episodes spread across three seasons—running from 2004 to 2006—Justice League Unlimited told shorter stories (with some longer arcs, largely playing out as subplots from week to week) featuring a plethora of heroes and villains that no one had bothered to animate before.

Here’s a list of some of the characters who appear just in “The Greatest Story Never Told”: Captain Atom, Atom-Smasher, Wildcat, Aztec, Hawk, Dove, Vigilante, Vibe, Blue Devil, Ice, Fire, Thunderbolt, Supergirl, Huntress, The Ray, Crimson Avenger, Starman, Stargirl, S.T.R.I.P.E., Fire, Dr. Mid-Nite, Dr. Light, Shining Knight, Rocket Red, and Elongated Man. And then there’s Booster Gold, who’s at the center of the episode… and who, almost as much as Mordru, represents how committed Justice League Unlimited was to celebrating all things DC.

Booster Gold is an enduring artifact from one of DC’s most creatively fertile eras. In the mid-’80s, the burgeoning collectors’ market—coupled with a wave of smart young writers and artists who appealed to adults as much as kids—gave mainstream comic book publishers the green light to rethink how they told stories, and how they constructed a universe around them. In DC’s case, the company tried to smooth out decades of complicated continuity with the special 12-issue maxi-series Crisis On Infinite Earths, which ended with every major hero’s timeline essentially cleaned up and reset. To fill out this new world, creators were encouraged to come up with new characters and concepts.

Writer-artist Dan Jurgens introduced Booster Gold in his own title in 1986. An alternately more lighthearted and down-to-earth take on superheroics, the original Booster Gold comic book series was about a scheming egotist from the 25th century who journeyed into the past with his remarkable robot helper Skeets and stolen technology that allowed him to fly, fire blaster-bolts, and exhibit superhuman strength. His dual missions in the 20th century were to fight crime and get rich and famous. Jurgens used his Booster Gold comics to consider whether heroism and profiteering could comfortably coexist—and to appeal to every kid who ever dreamed of using super-powers to battle evil and make a little money on the side.

“The Greatest Story Never Told” gets what Booster Gold is all about. The plot has the League answering the call to tackle Mordru, a villain so destructive that dozens of members of the team are needed not just to fight the alien, but to contain his damage and protect the populace. Team leader J’onn J’onzz, the Martian Manhunter (described in the “…And Justice For All” featurette on the Justice League Unlimited Blu-ray as being akin to a “desk sergeant” on a TV cop show) reluctantly assigns Booster Gold to crowd control, alongside Elongated Man. While executing daring rescues far away from the action—and away from any public recognition—Booster answers a call for help from a new Mordru-generated crisis, completely off the Justice League radar. At S.T.A.R. Labs, the damage from the sorcerer’s attack has caused a clean-energy experiment to go awry, turning Dr. Daniel Brown into a walking black hole, sucking everything in his path into the vortex.

This is a classic Booster Gold-style story. He has a task to complete—in this case, stopping Dr. Brown with a disruptor collar given to him by one of the scientist’s colleagues, Dr. Tracy Simmons—but he keeps messing it up, in part because he can’t stop thinking about an ending that would see him saving the world, becoming internationally beloved, earning the respect of his colleagues, and kissing Dr. Simmons. Meanwhile, because his mission is happening on the periphery of a bigger battle, Booster encounters one unexpected obstacle after another. He nearly gets hit by a car flung from the nearby melee. Mordru’s magic causes a skyscraper to come to life and start threatening to eat civilians. And—most devastatingly to our hero—the invaluable Skeets disappears into the black hole.

Eventually, Booster recovers, though first he has to confess to Dr. Simmons that he’s always been a glory hog and a wannabe. She peps him up with a reminder: “Everything’s about to be destroyed forever, and where are the other superheroes?” He rallies, slaps the collar on Dr. Brown, and returns everything to normal (including Skeets). For his efforts, he gets chastised by Batman for leaving his crowd-control post, and sees Elongated Man hailed as the hero of the day because his rubbery body tied up Mordru.

Though it’s packed with action and danger, “The Greatest Story Never Told” is essentially a light comedy. It’s sprinkled with running jokes aimed at DC buffs, including Elongated Man complaining that the League would rather use its other “stretchy guy,” Plastic Man (even though Elongated Man insists he’s just as capable of “disguising myself like a vase”), and multiple bystanders mistaking Booster Gold for Green Lantern. Booster is voiced by That Thing You Do!,’s Tom Everett Scott, which is an inspired bit of casting, since he naturally sounds more like a comic bumbler than a warrior.

The episode’s script is credited to Andrew Kreisberg, who for the past few years has been attached to a potential ongoing live-action Booster Gold series for Syfy. Superhero TV aficionados know Kreisberg as producer Greg Berlanti’s primary creative partner on The CW’s “Arrowverse,” steering the ship on Arrow, The Flash, Supergirl, and Legends Of Tomorrow. In a way, those shows have followed a progression similar to Bruce Timm’s DC Animated franchises, with Arrow starting out as a moody crime saga with costumes (like Batman) and each subsequent series getting geekier and geekier. Legends Of Tomorrow is the Justice League Unlimited of the bunch: packed with characters that TV and movie producers have never had much interest in before.

The difference is that animation can squeeze far more folks into each minute of screen-time, with little measurable increase in expense. In the “…And Justice For All” featurette, JLU creators like Timm and the late Dwayne McDuffie talk about how much fun it was to “go through the DC who’s-who,” picking their favorite, most archetypal versions of heroes and villains from the fringes of comic-book mythology. Story editor Stan Berkowitz describes the process as being “a little bit like cooking… finding the right combination of ingredients.” He adds that the writers never had trouble coming up with ideas; their struggle was more about keeping a lid on their creativity.

They undoubtedly also had to walk a thin line between winking at the audience and making the show too jokey. “The Greatest Story Never Told” strikes a good balance between poking fun at DC lore and taking one of the company’s B-list heroes seriously. It’s tempting for writers assigned to well-established characters to make everything a little bit goofy, going for easy laughs at the expense of the reality of the story. Critic Sonny Bunch recently wrote a short but sharp screed against the trailer for the upcoming Thor: Ragnarok, arguing that while the movie looks “fun,” it saps Thor of some necessary gravitas. Another case in point is the much-derided Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull, where the series’ co-creators George Lucas and Steven Spielberg made the tone so breezy that the characters came off as alternately irritating and inconsequential.

“The Greatest Story Never Told” uses Booster Gold’s marginality as a plot point, not just as a gag. Martian Manhunter warns him at the start that, “Your desire for fame keeps you on the sidelines,” and throughout the episode the sheer volume of available heroes makes the visual point that Booster may be unnecessary. But as Dr. Simmons points out, Booster still has a job to do—especially if he’s the only one available.

Kreisberg and company also had a job to do, making an episode featuring a hero without the name recognition of Batman or Superman—but one who means a lot to every dedicated comic book reader who ever bought an issue of Booster Gold. Like me in the ’70s with my Freedom Fighters and Metal Men, a healthy handful of ’80s comics fans were devoted to Booster Gold. Seeing him so lovingly and accurately rendered for a television show was a validation—even if, ultimately, being a booster should be its own reward.

Next time… on A Very Special Episode: Friends, “The One The Morning After”