Monday, October 11, 2004

Trigon, Take Me Away! New Teen Titans #s 3-6

In their first couple of issues the new Teen Titans fought extraterrestrial slavers and super-powered assassins. The stakes were about to get a lot higher, as the Titans finally learned the reason they'd been brought together -- and the circumstances behind that revelation almost broke up the team.

Issue #3, "The Fearsome Five!," opens with a nighttime scene on Donna Troy's apartment balcony. (The improbably-affordable apartment -- another Monica Gellar parallel -- was subsidized by Queen Hippolyta.) Starfire relates the origins of her slavery: her father, the ruler of her home planet Tamaran, gave her to the Gordanians in order to prevent the Gordanians' masters, the Citadel, from invading. The Bad Father strikes again! (So does Wolfman's long-term plotting. Just as Grant "Ravager" Wilson had an unseen brother, Koriand'r mentions a sister who doesn't appear in the flashback.) There is another Bad Father moment between Cyborg and his dad about midway through #3.

Meanwhile, let's meet the titular villains, starting with the brick-wall-like Mammoth and his sister, the "matter transmuter" Shimmer. They speak in Conversational Exposition -- "[w]ith a simple pass of my hand, I can transmute the very fabric of this wooden door into easily passable water vapor!" Mammoth also refers to himself in the third person. The siblings sit down with Dr. Light and two other new characters -- the diminutive genius Gizmo and the visible-brained psionic Psimon.

(I'm sure I'm not the first to point out that while "Psimon" may look clever on the printed page, it wouldn't sound that way. We learn later that Psimon's name was Simon before he got his powers, so he apparently decided to "change" it. Of course, it doesn't sound different at all, unless he pronounces the "p," in which case he sounds like those little kids in the old Wile E. Coyote cartoon who talk about "puhsychiatrists" and "puhsychoanalysts.")

Light's not yet in his "goofy" post-lobotomy phase, because he wants to kill the Titans to announce the group's power. The other Fivers aren't crazy about this plan, because it can only bring the Justice League and every other super-group down on their heads. They just want to get rich. Still, Puhsimon says the clash is inevitable, because the Titans are on their way.

Sure enough, Raven's alerted the Titans that the Fearsome Five is out to get them, so the Titans launch a pre-emptive strike. The sides seem equal until Shimmer transmutes the walls and floor into ether, knocking out the Titans. (One wonders why she didn't do this earlier.) The Five split the scene, "nudged" to leave by Psimon's mental suggestion.

Raven confronts Trigon (the demon from last issue) about the Five, accusing him of "controlling" them. The group then assembles at their new headquarters, the T-shaped Titans' Tower on an island in New York's East River. Nobody knows who built it or who invited them there. (In fact, we will get glimpses of the mysterious builder over the next few issues.) Raven basically says hanging around is pointless, because she's got a bigger threat for them to handle. Specifically, while meditating, she saw a vision of Trigon conquering the Earth. In her vision, even the Justice League was defeated by Trigon's lackey Goronn. The vision also told her the Five wanted the Titans to defeat the JLA; and because the League will "unleash" Goronn on the world, Raven agrees.

Similarly, Psimon reveals his origin to the Fearsome Five (after zapping Light with a mental bolt). Seems that "yesterday" (!) he was zapped himself by Trigon, who gave him his powers and a mission involving the Titans. (I can't get over "yesterday!" Good thing he got zapped in plenty of time to make it to that meeting!) Psimon sends a giant-floating-head-gram to Titans' Tower and challenges the Titans to a rumble, which the Titans accept. Everybody except Raven and Kid Flash races off to battle, and Raven laments that they should all be "trying to convince" the JLA -- never mind that two pages earlier, she wanted the Titans to fight and defeat the League. Semantics, I suppose.

The Five defeat the Titans. Raven relates this to Kid Flash, who speeds off and is likewise dispatched. The issue ends with Raven heading off to call in the Justice League.

For a very long time issue #4 was possibly my favorite single issue of any comic. It has a lot to recommend -- the JLA, the origin of Trigon, the beautiful temple of Azarath, and a real cliffhanger ending. It opens with the League (Atom, Batman, Green Lantern, Hawkman, and Wonder Woman) following Zatanna to a demon-dimension -- lots of narrow rock ledges, roiling orange skies, and lightning -- where a group of sorcerers are apparently up to no good. The sorcerers seem more powerful than the League, but Raven still shows up to convince the heroes to leave the sorcerers alone. No such luck, so the sorcerers blast the JLA.

Raven teleports to Azarath, a peaceful place filled with gleaming architecture -- sort of Paradise Island crossed with Asgard and filtered through a bird theme. Raven tries to convince her mother, Arella, that the people of Azarath must help stop Trigon from conquering Earth. Arella says for all they know, the conquest of Earth was preordained, and Azarath is pacifistic and wouldn't intervene anyway. (This is the first time we see Raven without her hood. While she looks 99% human, she has a red jewel in her forehead and "earrings" which are apparently little free-floating bursts of light. Anyway, no hood makes Raven appear more vulnerable, which is appropriate considering the mood.) Arella teleports Raven back to Titans' Tower.

There she runs into the Titans, who show no signs of ever having met the Fearsome Five. (Their memories have been erased, though, because we see from the Five's perspective that they planted a bug in Cyborg's arm.) Raven tells the Titans she brought them together to defeat Trigon, a nigh-omnipotent demon who at the age of 30 ruled his entire dimension. Somehow, the JLA has made it possible for Trigon to come to our dimension. The Titans respond to this by heading off to attack the Justice League. Raven figures out that the Fearsome Five have hyp-mo-tized the Titans into going after the JLA.

The Titans board the JLA Satellite and prove pretty effective against the Leaguers. Batman deduces from fighting Robin that he's being mind-controlled, but the League still can't stop the Titans. Raven teleports aboard and stops the fight by presenting the Titans with an illusion of the Leaguers, crumbled into dust. (This is the payoff for the illusion Raven visited on Grant Wilson at the end of #2.) This breaks the mind-control, so Raven takes the Titans to the demon-dimension, where the sorcerers are still working on their project. The Justice League isn't far behind, and Zatanna traps the Titans while the rest of the League goes after the sorcerers. (The League wants to stop them because their spells were disrupting Earth's ozone layer.) The sorcerers free the Titans, and the two groups go at it again, but Trigon blasts everyone and announces that his flunky Goronn is coming to Earth.

The Titans and JLA pick up and dust off. Batman wants answers. Robin tells the League they "blew it" -- the Titans were trying to help the sorcerers stop Trigon from getting into our dimension. Zatanna says Raven told the League the same story weeks before, but it didn't wash with them. Zatanna detected an incredible evil within Raven, and tells Kid Flash that Raven manipulated his mind to make him love her (after he first turned her down). Raven says these things are all true, but so is her story -- Trigon is coming, and she needs help to fight him off. On a powerful last page, Perez shows each group abandoning Raven, her anguished pleas, and the disembodied, flaming eyes of Trigon watching everything.

Let's pause here a minute to review: Raven knows Trigon wants to attack Earth, so she goes to the JLA. When they refuse to help her, she assembles the Titans as Plan B. Meanwhile, Trigon creates Psimon so he'll have a way to control the Fearsome Five. Dr. Light wants to kill the Titans, but it's not clear whether this is his idea or Psimon's. Raven has the Titans attack the Five before the Five can attack them. The Titans lose, but the Five have plans for them. Psimon goads the Titans into a second fight, and again the Titans lose, but this allows them to be hypnotized into attacking the JLA. Thus, both Raven and Psimon want the Titans to take out the JLA. This is either redundant overplotting or masterful manipulation, but the bottom line leaves only the Titans in Trigon's way.

Issue #4 showed the book continuing to improve. It featured two fights between the Titans and Justice League, some spectacular (if briefly-seen) designs for Azarath, and a suitably apocalyptic demon-dimension. Trigon was finally seen full-on -- a massive, red-skinned, four-eyed demon with pointed ears, stringy brown hair, and antlers. There were even a couple of Bad Parents in Batman and Arella (who were also proxies for the JLA and Azarath). Most significantly, having the JLA artist draw the League in this book really cemented the Titans' status as one of DC's A-list teams. Perez drew both teams as equals, such that it almost seemed like an issue of JLA. Nowhere is this more evident than in the last panel on page 23: Robin stands up to Batman and dresses him down, with each man representing their respective teams. This amazing show of strength and unity made the next couple of pages' revelations that much more shocking.

So many words, and we're still only halfway through the story! Issue #5 featured guest pencils by Curt Swan, who did an admirable job introducing both Goronn and Trigon, but whose figures couldn't help but be less dynamic than Perez's. (This is doubly ironic considering Perez's admiration for Swan.)

The issue begins with Raven apparently teleporting the Titans back to Earth. (I say "apparently" because it's not quite clear; but it's not a big deal.) The other Titans abandon her and (apparently) truck back to Titans' Tower. Trigon then has Goronn attack Raven. Raven sends her soul-self (basically an ectoplasmic bird-shaped shadow which operates in principle like the Doom Patrol's Negative Being) to warn the Titans, who've made it back to Titans' Tower somehow. It's never explained how the Titans got back to Earth, or how Goronn made it to Earth.

Logistics aside, suffice it to say that Raven's in one spot and the Titans are in another. The Titans have enough time for each member to work through their emotions about Raven's lies before her soul-self arrives. Raven (speaking through her soul-self) convinces the Titans that she's in trouble. After a brief struggle, the Titans subdue Goronn. Robin remarks that this battle was the first they fought as a team. They also believe they've defeated Trigon. Raven corrects them just before Trigon's flaming eyes zap the Titans.

Trigon strides down out of the clouds. He looks about 10 feet tall. Turns out Raven is Trigon's daughter (his only surviving child) and she inherited from him the evil Zatanna sensed. Ladies and gentlemen, the ultimate Bad Father!

Psimon flies in, amazed that Trigon breached the dimensional walls. Trigon "dissipates [his] atoms" as punishment for trying to double-cross him (presumably by sending the Titans to help the sorcerers). Trigon's two extra eyes then fry Goronn as punishment for getting beat by the Titans.

Speaking of which, Trigon's blast sent the Titans back to their headquarters. There, Raven says she'll explain everything. There's an odd moment here -- while Wonder Girl muses about the "critical moment" which will decide the future of the team "forever," and oh by the way there's a 10-foot-tall demon ready to destroy New York, she gets a drink? The next panel even shows WG taking a big swig! (Was it Gatorade, for her deep-down body thirst? We may never know.)

Raven does explain the group's founding purpose, noting especially that Robin, despite his lack of powers, has the leadership skills necessary to pull the group together. Changeling does a quick recon and spots Trigon headed for Manhattan. The Titans race off to confront Trigon, except for Raven, who's off to Azarath again. Kid Flash has had enough, vowing to quit the team once this crisis has passed. Each of the other Titans also gets at least a paragraph's worth of narration about their emotions as they head off to battle. In particular, Cyborg confesses to Changeling that he's the only one in the group not used to cosmic menaces. It's a nice bit which doesn't come off like a typical "reluctant hero" trope.

Needless to say, the Titans are virtually powerless against Trigon. In Azarath, Raven again fails to convince her people to help. Trigon appears in Azarath, and Raven summons the Titans there too. While the Azarites watch, the Titans once again are defeated. Despite Robin's James Kirk-like speech about peace and freedom, Azarath still won't help. Ultimately, Raven offers herself to Trigon if he'll spare the Earth. (Starfire begs Raven to reconsider, citing her own slavery.) The issue ends with Trigon taking Raven back to his dimension.

Obviously the character of Trigon owes a lot both to Galactus and Darkseid. There are strong Galactus/Watcher/Silver Surfer parallels with Trigon, Arella/Azarath, and Raven. I hesitate to compare the Trigon/Raven relationship with Darkseid and Orion's, because Orion never got down on his knees and begged Darkseid to spare the Earth. Still, Orion wasn't full of the same kind of pathos with which Wolfman and Perez have invested Raven.

Issue #6 opens with Trigon and Raven touring the futuristic-medieval-style dwellings of his subjects. (Perez is back, this time inked by Pablo Marcos.) When a little girl says she's frightened of Trigon, he makes an example of her with his "death stare." Raven uses her empathic healing powers to restore the girl's health, but Trigon checkmates this by disintegrating the girl. Trigon then displays more evil qualities by disintegrating a disobedient planet and turning his attention to Earth. Raven realizes she's been tricked but can't teleport away.

Back in Azarath, the Titans learn Arella's origin. Basically she was seduced into a devil-worshiping cult and tricked into marrying the "handsome" version of Trigon. She escaped the cult, but was homeless, helpless, and suicidal. At that point she was whisked away to Azarath, where Raven was raised in peace and taught to control the evil within her. Arella volunteers to lead the Titans to Trigon's dimension (and "capitol planet"), thereby giving up her life in Azarath (once you leave, you can't come back).

The Titans encounter Trigon almost immediately upon arriving. This time the "fight" lasts one small panel. Meanwhile, Arella has rescued Raven. Trigon sends dragons out into the skies to look for Raven, and they surrender before more "thousands" of innocent lives are lost. Arella fights off Trigon while Raven makes her way to the Titans' dungeon. Fortunately, Trigon hasn't thought to remove Robin's utility belt, so Raven frees the Titans with a Bat-lockpick.

Trigon gets up on a raised platform and opens a doorway to Earth's dimension. The Titans concoct a plan to stop him based on Kid Flash's super-speed vibrations, Cyborg and Starfire's power blasts, and the sapping of Trigon's will through Wonder Girl's magic lasso and Raven's and Arella's magic. Kid Flash opens another dimensional door, and while Trigon is distracted, Cyborg and Starfire knock Trigon through it. However, Arella follows Trigon through the gateway as it closes, saying she has to prevent Trigon from coming back. The End.

The "Trigon Saga" told a densely-plotted, cosmos-spanning story at breakneck speed. It boasted an omnipotent villain, a new supervillain team, a Justice League appearance, a Titan's origin, and the near-dissolution of the group itself. It also shows the group finally coming together as a team, not only in combat but also in terms of interpersonal relationships. Cyborg and Changeling have a moment of bonding (over the "cosmic thoughts"), Kid Flash confronts his true feelings for Raven, and the group as a whole comes to terms with any lingering distrust it might have for its mysterious organizer. Although the plot is a little thick, there isn't much waste -- even something like Starfire's origin, which might seem unrelated at first, is necessary for understanding Raven's sacrifice at the end of #5. Likewise, Arella's sacrifice at the end of #6 is another example of how peace eluded her throughout her troubled life. Finally, the appearance of the Justice League is hardly gratuitous, inasmuch as it answers the fanboy question of where the JLA would be during Trigon's invasion. Yes, Raven's first thought was to enlist the League's help, but when that backfired, she got the next best thing. Her selection of former Teen Titans isn't just a thin disguise for marketing, but it makes sense in terms of the story. Instead of Batman, the Flash, and Wonder Woman, Raven got their teenaged proteges; and instead of Green Lantern, Zatanna, or Firestorm, she found Cyborg and Starfire. Conversely, I could see the plan which defeated Trigon being carried out by the Titans' JLA counterparts.

These four issues were a benchmark for the series in many ways. Future epic storylines would also feature villains with familial connections to the Titans, special guest stars, and "secret origins." The series still hadn't reached its high-water mark. Nevertheless, with the defeat of Trigon, the purpose behind the group's founding was ostensibly fulfilled, and its creators were almost compelled to draw on the members' backstories for new menaces.

Next: Shorter stories replace the epics, but there's still room for the Fearsome Five and Deathstroke!

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