This one wanders around a bit but I’m here to make a point. It’s connected to my previous post about consequences (sorta) and it’s about how those consequences can make meaningful story.
The greatest trick that Taylor Swift ever pulled was growing up.
In an age of unrivaled consumerism, with an ever-churning pop culture industry that constantly produces “the next big thing;” Taylor Swift has managed to cement herself as an artist that ranks up there with the Beatles, Elvis, Michael Jackson, Beyonce, in terms of star power and relevance. She played chicken with Apple and Apple blinked. She is a voice with fans spanning from tiny, little girls to empowered grown-ass women (and men) and everyone in-between. Love her or hate her, she’s powerful.
To my outsider’s eye, the trick I see here is that Taylor Swift, unlike every other pretty young girl who gets a record deal, grew up. She allowed herself to grow up right in front of her fans. In 2007, a young sensation performed her song, Tim McGraw for then-country-royalty Tim McGraw and Faith Hill. In 2020, Taylor Swift is pop culture royalty in a way that no one saw coming. Those 13 years saw a young woman grow up in front of her fans. Her music – while always recognizably on-brand – also genuinely changed and evolved as she changed as a person. So many promising young stars end up not making it because they get stuck in a rut – churning out the same album over and over again despite growing and changing themselves. We got “Red” Taylor, and “Reputation” Taylor, and “Lover” Taylor. And they were all her. So her fans that grew up along with her are still going strong, and the next generation gets to fall in love with her music when exposed by that older generation of fans.
I won’t belabor the point too long. How does this relate to, “The Most Important Story DC Ever Told?” Well, in my opinion, that story is the Young Justice Animated Series. For the simple reason that it was a story that allowed itself to grow up.
Young Justice is a masterclass in developing a story over time, giving it life and depth, and creating consequences that matter – and make the story better.
Comic book media so often gets stuck in the same rut as a pop culture wonder child – putting out the same album again and again when it has changed and outgrown that sound. But the prevailing wisdom in the comic industry is that Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, aren’t really allowed to change. They have to be preserved as delicately as possible to keep the status quo. So the twists and turns get pretty predictable and the stories get a little stale. That’s not to say that something doesn’t come along to shake things up from time to time. It happens. But then we retreat to the status quo again lest we stray too far from the formula for success.
Young Justice didn’t do that. Across three seasons, the story develops over 7 years. It starts with a few main characters that make a decision. That decision, to form Young Justice, has consequences that play out over the coming years in wildly unpredictable forms.
In three seasons, Young Justice has dealt with some heavy stuff. And most of that stuff has come from the fact that the kids we meet in first season grow up. And their world around them grows up too. Sure, there’s plenty of aliens and explosions. It is a comic book story after all. But there is so much more.
Young Justice takes on loss of family, finding love, losing love, figuring out identity, dealing with being isolated, seeking approval, drug use, difficult relationships, child rearing, found family, complicated actual family, child abuse, human trafficking, living up to our parents. There are super-family play dates. Questions are raised about the place of genetic engineering for our children, holding relationships together when you are going in different directions, making sacrifices for people we care about.
In Young Justice, the older generation of heroes – the Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman are all still there. But we also see Troia taking up a place as an ambassador to the UN, Aquaman retiring from the hero life to focus on being the king of Atlantis, an ex-super taking up a life as a small business owner, and other evidence that life goes on. The world of Young Justice is the DC Universe… But a version that grows and changes and has a flow and a life. When they have callbacks, they mean something, because we lived the initial event with the characters.
That’s what makes it so special. It is a world with consequences. It is a world where heroes are often victims of their own shortcomings and perceived failings and they are heroes anyway. It is a world where the tragedies and triumphs of what has come before inform everything that happens going forward. That’s its magic. Because it allows itself to grow and change in front of its audience, that audience gets to enjoy all the growing and changing along with the characters. We sympathize with their challenges more because we know how they got there. It isn’t just snapshots of superhero life – it’s life.
The best RPG campaign I ever ran was a story about immortals who could do – quite literally – anything. And it was so special because the players really bought into the idea that sure, they were effectively gods, but they were also people. Characters got married, had kids, lost loved ones, made hard choices, were manipulated into making bad choices, and were sometimes made really, really good choices. Everyone embraced being a person first and a “god” second. And it was brilliant. It is the shining moment of my gaming life that I know I’ll always pine for. Because we stopped worrying about our stats, or what would happen if we failed, and just allowed ourselves to love our characters. And to let those characters live, to grow, to change.
So, you know, in your next game, your next story… don’t worry so much about the numbers and the math… be Taylor Swift. And live.
As always, thanks for reading.
PS – If you haven’t watched Young Justice… Just put down whatever you are doing and go watch it. All three seasons. You won’t regret it.