Anyone who grew up watching Saturday-morning cartoons in the 1970s and 1980s should remember well the two teen sidekicks who hung out with Wonder Woman, Batman, Robin, Superman, and Aquaman, helping them to thwart the Legion of Doom, the Joker, Mr. Mxyzptlk, the Penguin, and other nefarious evil-doers. They were not an overly interesting duo and, in many fans’ view, they took screen time away from the more important main members of the Justice League of America. Still, they made a lasting enough impression that viewers can recall their presence decades later, even if they’ve never bothered to revisit the show on DVD. These two heroes-in-training had a lovable pet who also aided the League; they got into as much trouble as they helped to clean up; and they provided what passed for comic relief on Super Friends.
Can you guess who they were?
No, not Wendy Harris and Marvin White. Those two annoying superhero wannabes and their pet, Wonder Dog, were only in the first two seasons of Super Friends. I’m talking about the other two annoying superhero wannabes, whom Marvin and Wendy found one day while out riding bicycles—the purple-suited ones who replaced them when the show was renamed The All-New Super Friends Hour. You know, the ones who had traveled aboard their spaceship to warn the Justice League that Grax, a criminal from their birth-planet, intended to destroy Earth.
Yeah, that’s right. I’m talking about space-siblings Zan and Jayna, from the planet Exxor, and their alien space-monkey Gleek—the Wonder Twins!
Following their debut in issue #7 of the Super Friends comic book, by writer E. Nelson Bridwell and artists Ramona Fradon and Bob Smith, the Wonder Twins joined the TV show for its second season, which had been re-tooled as The All-New Super Friends Hour. Jayna (voiced by actors Louise Williams and B. J. Ward) and Zan (Michael Bell) remained with the Justice League as junior superheroes throughout The New Super Friends, Challenge of the Super Friends, The World’s Greatest Super Friends, Super Friends, and Super Friends: The Legendary Super Powers Show, before themselves being Wendyed and Marvined when Cyborg and Firestorm took their places for the show’s final season, The Super Powers Team: Galactic Guardians.
Unlike the non-powered Marvin and Wendy, the sibling extraterrestrials had abilities of their own (albeit non-formidable ones) and could help the Justice League battle supervillains when needed… though they tended to focus on assisting teenagers in trouble. The characters were created for Hanna-Barbera Productions by Norman Maurer, the show’s developer and story editor. Originally, they were to have been named Dick and Jane, paying homage to the once-popular basal reader books by Zerna Sharp and William S. Gray, and their pet would have been called Mighty Monkey, despite “mighty” being pretty much the last word one would use to describe the silly creature. This was ultimately changed to Zan and Jayna, referencing Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan and Jane… which is kind of creepy, really, since those two were lovers.
With Spock-like pointed ears and the faces and personalities of Donny and Marie Osmond, Zan and Jayna were originally conceived as being more powerful than how they ended up portrayed on television. Jayna was to have been able to change her form into anything she wanted, like Star Trek: Deep Space Nine‘s Odo, but instead the writers limited her shape-shifting scope to animals, making her more like Space: 1999‘s Maya. Still, her alien skill was a potentially interesting one, and in the course of the series, she transformed into a variety of exotic creatures, including an octopus, a gorilla, a reindeer, a “space insect,” a kangaroo, and even a brontosaurus.
Zan, meanwhile, was supposed to be able to abnormally stretch his body, à la Patrick “Plastic Man” O’Brian or the Fantastic Four’s Reed Richards. Instead, he was given the power of turning himself into… water. That’s it. Just water.
Oh, sure, he could turn into various forms of water, like an ice spear, ice handcuffs, a giant water hand, an ice door, a water wave, a vial of water, an ice dam, an igloo, a bucket of water, or whatever else the writers could come up with that might be water-based. He even became an ice plane, an ice unicycle, and an ice boat, believe it or not. But in the end, he was just water—and aside from Avatar: The Last Airbender, manipulating water has never really been all that impressive. Just ask Aquaman from any era before Jason Momoa finally made him cool.
The Wonder Twins are widely considered a joke—an eye-rolling addition to Super Friends that, while thankfully resulting in the removal of Marvin and Wendy, brought little to an otherwise entertaining series. What made them so problematic was the very nature of their powers: in order to activate them, the two had to make physical contact via a fist-bump. So right off the bat, subduing them should be relatively easy: simply grab their arms and chain them to opposite walls, or kidnap one while the other is using the bathroom, thereby preventing them from reaching each other.
Or, hey, just cut off their hands.
Even once they activated their powers, however, they still failed to pose much of a threat. After all, an octopus can be shot or burned or harpooned, even if it’s riding an ice unicycle—maybe even more so when it’s riding an ice unicycle. What’s more, pretty much any ice or water construction can be foiled simply by turning up the heat to a vaporizing temperature, or by grabbing a mop. The fact that they had to yell out a cringe-worthy phrase (“Wonder Twin powers… activate!”) upon becoming a slightly effective animal and an entirely ineffective water shape, then holler a variation on that same phrase (“Wonder Twin powers… deactivate!”) to become their normal lavender selves again certainly didn’t help their case.
In addition to their cartoon appearances, Zan and Jayna were featured in the above-noted Super Friends comic book, which lasted for 47 monthly issues and a Super Friends Special. That series, like the television show, was outside DC Comics’ mainstream storytelling, and thus the violet-tinted space twins remained separate from the greater DC universe for many years. That changed in October 1995, when Extreme Justice issue #9, written by Ivan Velez, Jr., and drawn by Al Rio and Ken Branch, finally brought the Wonder Twins into continuity.
Extreme Justice, a spinoff of Justice League America, centered around a splinter Justice League group headed by Nathaniel Adam (Captain Atom). In Velez’s version, the twins were former slaves who could not speak English and had escaped an alien overlord on their home planet. Their initial encounter with the Justice League was a combative one, as the siblings had inadvertently attacked a group of civilians, though they ultimately ended up working on the side of the superheroes.
Velez’s update to the Wonder Twins’ background allowed the potential for them to become far more interesting than they had been on Saturday mornings, but before he could delve deeply into the characters in subsequent issues, Velez was replaced by another writer, Robert L. Washington III, who penned all remaining chapters until the series was canceled as of issue #18. Washington kept the two aliens in the cast for the duration of his run, though he used them far more sparingly than Velez had intended, rendering moot the latter’s plans for the spacefaring duo.
Still, thanks to Velez, the Wonder Twins had managed to cross over into larger DC continuity, and there they’ve since remained, though not many authors have utilized their talents. The comics have expanded Zan’s hydrokinetic powers and Jayna’s metamorphic abilities compared to how they were portrayed on TV. Zan has transformed himself into liquid nitrogen, for instance, while Jayna can now become even a mythical creature, such as a winged horse, as long as she can envision it. During Velez’s run, Jayna altered her form to become a werewolf, a sea serpent, and a griffin, with Zan changing into an imposing whirlpool and an ice golem.
These are not Hanna-Barbera’s giddy, grape-colored goofballs, to be sure.
Sporadically, the Wonder Twins have continued to pop up in DC’s comic book titles throughout the past two decades. In addition to their Extreme Justice appearances, they also showed up in a 1996 crossover storyline, The Final Night, in which the Justice League, the Legion of Super-Heroes, and a myriad of other heroes and villains teamed up to stop the Sun-Eater from deep-freezing the Earth.
Since then, they’ve returned in a Young Justice storyline from Peter David and Todd Nauck; JLA/Avengers, an intercompany crossover between DC and Marvel Comics, penned by Kurt Busiek and illustrated by George Pérez; and issues of various other titles, including Teen Titans, DC Universe: Legacies, Smallville Special: Titans, and Justice League 3000. (In the latter, the Wonder Twins were renamed Teri and Terry Magnus.) On television, the twins made an appearance in season nine of Smallville, as well as on the animated Justice League Unlimited (in which they were called Downpour and Shifter), and on Teen Titans Go!.
More recently, Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim parodied Super Friends with comedic shorts titled The New Adventures of the Wonder Twins, which perfectly captured the aesthetics and tone of the old cartoons, but with Zan’s water-based ability consistently proving useless, resulting in the death of whoever they attempted to rescue. In one episode, while attending her son’s funeral after the twins failed to save him from a bear due to their inept choice to change into a gopher and a shallow circle of water, a mother hilariously chastised the duo: “You could have used your powers to turn into a dinosaur or another bear to fight him off, or you an ice cage… but instead, you did a gopher-moat!” She then face-slapped the twins and their gibberish-sputtering simian. The end.
If ever there were a perfect example of how the Wonder Twins are perceived in the comic book world, that would be it. But that may soon change, as the crime-fighting brother-sister team will soon return to comics—and in a starring capacity, no less.
Next month, a six-issue miniseries titled The Wonder Twins will hit shelves, from the writer-artist team of Mark Russell and Stephen Byrne, as part of DC’s new teen-oriented Wonder Comics imprint. It’s been 42 years since the twins first made a splash (ahem) in Super Friends #7, before leaping (cough cough) into the Justice League’s animated exploits. Although they eventually entered mainstream continuity in the 1990s, Zan and Jayna have rarely been given the full spotlight, typically being utilized as background characters or cameos.
With the release of issue #1, the Wonder Twins’ powers have been reactivated. Let’s hope the series has legs and manages to stay afloat.