More than 40 years after their debut on The All-New Super Friends Hour animated series, the Wonder Twins are back. And when their powers activate this time around, things get awkward in the way that anyone who has been a misunderstood teenager (read: everyone) can relate to.
Once a pop-culture punchline – ridiculed more than even Aquaman – Zan and Jayna from the planet Exxor (and, eventually their pet monkey Gleek) return in the new DC title Wonder Twins #1.
In the six-issue comic, appropriately part of DC’s teen-focused Wonder Comics imprint, they still have their superpowers to transform into any animal, or water-based form, and this time they are interns at the Justice League’s Hall of Justice. But they must contend with personal humiliation, overconfidence, and shyness, in addition to super villains.
The title is written by Mark Russell, who previously added depth to the animated character Snagglepuss in Exit Stage Left: The Snagglepuss Chronicles, which imagined the pink mountain lion as a Tennessee Williams-inspired gay playwright in 1950s New York City. The writer’s The Flintstones comic was an excellent exploration (and occasional skewering) of American Culture. So why move on to the teens who wear a lot of purple, and bump fists to activate their powers?
In a recent interview, Russell tells us he has long had a connection to the Wonder Twins, and Super Friends was his favorite cartoon as a kid. When Brian Michael Bendis approached him at a comic con, Russell said his colleague barely got the character names out of his mouth before he leapt at the chance to take on the title.
Russell says he has always liked that Zan and Jayna are young enough that it’s ok for them to be “goofy and out there.” But also appreciates they can get into trouble and make stupid decisions.
“Everyone else had to be pure, and good, and infallible,” he said. “The Wonder Twins were the ones who could drive a dune buggy at night after being told not to, and would have to be bailed out by Batman, or Superman…I found that refreshing, and they were super heroes not necessarily on top of their game.”
As such, the title is not interested in making the young adults the butt of jokes. Instead, it explores how these outsiders will find their place in a new high school and on a new planet. But there is a lot of humor in the title. In the first issue’s funniest, painfully awkward moments, readers learn about “thunderlust” – a state when Exxorians become aroused, and can individually either turn into an animal, swap genders, or transform into an elemental force.
Readers first encounter Zan and Jayna at Morris High School in South Metropolis. They are outsiders, and while Zan seeks to impress and “get right with the ladies,” Jayna is painfully shy. Their world is brought to life visually through the art of Stephen Byrne.
Describing the art direction of the book, Russell said he was “looking for something Kirby-esque: magical, a little dark, but very accessible,” and that Byrne delivered with a style that feels like a Saturday morning cartoon with complex nuance underneath, “where the emotional resonance of the characters reside.”
Meanwhile, at the Hall of Justice, Zan and Jayna interact with super friends Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman.
The headquarters (which contains a lot of Super Friends Easter eggs) is something of a workplace environment where heroes might complain about getting assigned a task better suited for another meta. But it also allows for honest and funny human moments. After an embarrassing moment at school earns Zan the nickname he was not going for, Batman and Superman trade tales of their own awkward teenage years. The heroes inevitably must fly off to deal with world-ending threats while the Wonder Twins are left behind to figure things out on their own.
“Their super powers are so limited, and minor, means they’re not the people you’ll call when there’s an asteroid hurtling towards the earth, or when Doomsday is attacking,” said Russell. “They’re the people you’ll call to break up a forging ring, or shoplifters, or something small.”
Their minor-league status presents the twins an opportunity to confront the evil counterparts of themselves. While Superman is something of an adoptive parent to Zan and Jayna, it turns out Lex Luthor also has a group of villains not quite ready for the Legion of Doom.
Enter the bad guy farm team, as Russell called them: The “D-League of Super Villains, The League of Annoyance.”
Made up of original characters, the League of Annoyance use an abandoned toy store as their headquarters. And, like the Wonder Twins, no one takes them seriously.
“One of the villains is Drunkula, a vampire who is also an alcoholic,” said Russell. “He’s trying to maintain sobriety, but everyone expects him to go out and bite somebody, and he’s afraid if he bites somebody, and they’ve had a glass of wine, that he’ll want to bite someone who has had a few cocktails.”
Though an alcoholic vampire named Drunkula is a funny premise, Russell said the Wonder Twins’ interactions with these villains brings up real questions about the use of their powers.
“He is afraid of falling off the wagon, and dealing with real internal issues, but the pressure from other villains to go out and bite people is so great, by the time the Wonder Twins catch up to him, they wonder if he’d be better served by not capturing him but checking him into AA, or something.”
Russell said he writes about the world around him, and the way it breaks his heart, or could do better. And he is doing it through the lens of the Wonder Twins as much as he did through Snagglepuss. He said Zan and Jayna begin to see the menial ways justice is pursued on earth, with the endless cycle of bad guys being caught, breaking loose, and then locked up again. The process repeated ad infinitum distracts from the bigger problems facing society.
“To the Wonder Twins, this looks more like a bowling league than people fighting over good and evil,” he says. “It brings up very real questions about whether this is the best use of their powers, just to bring down these villains who are more sad than anything else.”
But Russell added there is a lot of action to come in the book, and that the stakes will get higher as one super villain joins the League of Annoyance and becomes the “focal point” of the story. He says this story became so compelling for him that he was not able to explore the reasons the twins had to leave Exxor in the first place, but hopes to get another six-issue arc to do so.
In the meantime, Russell said he is having fun with the Wonder Twins, but also taking them seriously. Moreover, he said he thinks other people should, too.
Citing the success of the live-action Aquaman film, and that character’s previous position as super-punchline, Russell said he doesn’t know if the Wonder Twins will ever become part of a mega-franchise.
“But I think that’s largely what the comic is about: Be careful who you don’t take seriously,” he says. “In the end, everyone has thoughts and powers that might surprise you; everyone is capable of greatness in their own way.”