Friday, October 15, 2004

I'm OK, You're OK, But That Puppet Wants To Kill Us: New Teen Titans #s 7-9

In a late 1988 interview (Amazing Heroes #156, January 1, 1989), George Perez observed that one of his objectives, "still somewhat nebulous, is to establish why the hell the Titans exist. They always seem to be a group of characters sitting around a table waiting for a safe to fall on them." As we've seen, just 6 issues into its history, taking care of Trigon fulfilled the group's stated purpose. Fortunately, Perez and Marv Wolfman were able to find fertile ideas in their heroes' own backyard.

Issue #7 offered a very simple tale. The Titans, fresh from Azarath, find that the Fearsome Five has broken into Titans' Tower to try and re-integrate Psimon. The Tower has a dimensional doohickey which will do the job. Both groups soon learn that the Tower was designed and built by Cyborg (Victor Stone)'s father, Silas Stone, as a gift for his son and his new friends. (The Tower was apparently built in around a month, because the Titans haven't been together that long -- but this is comics....) Dr. Stone has been hiding in the Tower for a while, and the Five take him hostage. Psimon is restored, the Titans beat the Five, and Dr. Stone is rescued. The fight turns out not to be the point of the issue.

In the denouement, Cyborg still resents his father's attempt to "buy" his affections, but reluctantly listens to Silas' explanation. Silas regrets trying to force Victor to science and away from athletics, because that just made Victor resent him. The accident that crippled Victor (and led to his cybernetic parts) also killed Victor's mother. What Victor never knew was that the accident also gave Silas terminal radiation poisoning. This completely changes Victor's perspective. He and his father reconcile during one last month together.

Clearly, to this point Silas has been a Bad Father, but the revelation about his illness instantly reverses Cyborg's feelings about him. While the turnaround might be seen as emotional manipulation on the creators' part, the larger point was the challenge to Cyborg's expectations. Cyborg's distrust of Raven is also a theme in this story. After she saves his life with her empathic healing powers, he begins to warm up to her; and when Silas wants to talk, Raven convinces Cyborg to listen.

Because much of the issue is a running battle, there's not much plot. The creators make up for this with some clever character interplay, between Robin and Changeling, and Cyborg and Wonder Girl. Perez has some fun with Changeling in this issue -- he's happily munching on a hotdog at the beginning, and after he dispatches Shimmer, whistles innocently in the background when the angry Mammoth demands to know who hurt her. Wolfman also institutes a couple of running catchphrases here -- "hiring yourself out as a homewrecker," and "green with envy" (referring to Changeling) -- which for him would apparently never grow old.

Issue #8 was entirely devoted to character studies. Donna Troy's dispute with one of her photography clients ends when Koriand'r arrives and agrees to model for the client. (Kory sports big '80s hair, hip-hugger bellbottoms, sunglasses, and a crop-top. She looks like a refugee from a Mariah Carey video.) Donna and Kory meet Donna's boyfriend, the older man Terry Long. (I picture Terry played by Timothy Busfield with a perm.)

At Titans' Tower, Robin says goodbye to Raven and scoots off for Gotham. (Around this time, in addition to working with Batman, he was part of a circus, perhaps the one which also employed the Flying Todds.) Raven's soul-self heads off to Manhattan University to see if she wants to take some classes. Once there, the soul-self stops terrorists who have planted bombs in a campus building -- but since a caption announces she can't live without her soul-self for more than 5 minutes, I think we can guess how long it takes for the bombs to be neutralized....

You wouldn't think a sequence with a big black bird-shadow would be that exciting, but it's effective. Perez uses Kirby Krackles to show the soul-self enveloping bad guys. He speeds up the action with small panels and quick cuts between Raven's physical body and her racing ectoplasmic form. (Apparently it can't teleport.) When her deadline passes, Raven travels through a hell-dimension, giving Perez a chance to play with more layouts. One page contains four vertical panels showing her soul-self's progress, and a fifth panel in the center with Raven's physical body; all overlaid with a page-filling white-space profile of Raven. Very Neal Adams. Ultimately she figures out that the hell-dimension is a manifestation of her own fears and the "forces within me that seek to tear me asunder!" She emerges whole in Titans' Tower and realizes 1) that the Azarites couldn't have conquered their fears like she did, because they wouldn't fight for themselves; and 2) she never has to go through that again.

Cyborg and Changeling are up next. The two are in Victor's shabby apartment, with Victor telling Gar that he's decided to stay there. Silas' death helped Vic let go of his resentment about his "borgification," but he's not ready to rebuild his life just yet. Gar gets a call from his adopted father's business manager, Vernon Questor, relating that two Dayton Industries officials have been found dead. Gar leaves for Dayton's estate, first changing into a rhino to scare off a couple of potential car thieves.

Vic goes to see his old girlfriend, but she ostracizes him because of his cybernetic parts. There's no it's-not-you-it's-me business; she makes it clear it's not her. (She tries to say it's her parents too.) Vic responds that this is only her problem (and her parents'), and he's not going to "destroy [his] life by bein' bitter." Walking through the park, Vic encounters a group of kids playing baseball. His metal parts are mostly covered by clothes and a hat (with the art obscuring them further), so when a ball bounces off his head, Vic is worried that the kid who retrieves it will get too good a look and be scared of him too.

To his great surprise, the kid is envious of Vic's metal hand -- his own prosthetic hand isn't "real neat." The kids playing ball all have prosthetics, and Vic meets their teacher, Sarah Simms, before going off to play ball with his new friends. Again, a challenge to Cyborg's expectations adds another facet to his character.

In Blue Valley, Wally West has a heart-to-heart with his parents. It is a deliberately corny scene, with Wally (as the "man of the house") even carving a turkey at the end. The Wests are nothing but supportive, although they acknowledge that super-heroing is dangerous work. It's ironic, and a little sad, that although Wally never had Bad Parents in his Titans appearances, first his mom and then his dad would be decidedly negative characters in his Flash series.

The issue ends thematically as it began, with Starfire modeling for Donna's client. Terry's there too, and the love which he shows for Donna warms Kory's heart as well. She returns to the park at sunset, strips off her street clothes, and soars into the air, happy to have found a new home. In this issue (and a little in the last one), Starfire really sounds like her cartoon counterpart, with the same kind of overly-happy, slightly stilted voice. I hadn't realized how close the cartoon had come until I started re-reading these old stories.

Issue #9 is a goofy story. The Puppeteer, an old Green Lantern villain, has reformed and found his way onto the Dayton Industries "Promethium Council." Promethium is a perpetually regenerating material, named for Prometheus' perpetually-regenerating liver. It could regrow body parts, and cars coated with Promethium would be indestructible; but bombs made with it would never run out of energy. In other words, it's a perpetual-motion machine, which is a scientific impossibility -- or at least implausibility -- even for comics.

Anyway, with such a valuable and dangerous invention, who better to work on its development than a former super-criminal? "Mr. Dayton has a rather -- uhh -- liberal policy regarding hiring ex-convicts," Questor explains. After three Dayton executives are murdered (and Gar Logan is attacked) by killer puppets, Gar calls in Robin to get to the bottom of things. Robin naturally wants to question Jordan Weir, a/k/a Puppeteer, but before he can, he and Gar are attacked by a Westworld-like robot. (Here I thought of a joke I'm surprised didn't make it into the book. When the robot starts shooting, Robin yells "Gar -- duck!" I wanted Gar to reply "Duck? Why not 'Elephant?'" Yeah, not that great, I know.)

We then learn that The H.I.V.E. is behind the attempts to steal Promethium plans. It went after the Titans so early (in issue #2) because sooner or later, Gar Logan would have gotten his colleagues involved in protecting the plans. That helps close a plothole from #2, although it sounds like circular reasoning.

Meanwhile, at Sarah Simms' school, Raven and Cyborg are entertaining the kids. Raven explains that her healing powers can't make their prosthetics obsolete. Sarah kisses Cyborg on the cheek. As they leave, Raven remarks that Cyborg is a lot more refined than he lets on. "Mebbe I gotta look like a blasted robot, but do I gotta talk like one, too?" he responds. Clearly, Wolfman and Perez have invested Cyborg with a fair amount of nuance, which makes him an appealing character. Of course, on the next page, he exclaims "Christmas!" to show his comfort with slang....

He does this because he's attacked by a Batman puppet, which fixes a mind-controlling device on him. Zombie Cyborg throws a tree at Raven, but she teleports away. She then sends her soul-self to Blue Valley (flying there takes "minutes") to get Kid Flash. He races to New York, musing "I still haven't decided what I want -- to be Kid Flash or just plain Wally West." He's also concerned about his secret identity here, suggesting that his future decision to abandon it for his Flash career helped "integrate" his heroic and civilian lives. But that's reading too much into the intentions of two writers and two books 6 years apart, so let's move on.

Wonder Girl and Starfire get a little scene with Terry Long that doesn't amount to much plot-wise, but it establishes that Terry's 29 (i.e., at least 10 years older than Donna) and he likes shirts which expose his chest hair. (It was 1981, remember.)

Kid Flash arrives in New York and is immediately "puppetfied" by Cyborg. Wonder Girl and Starfire show up and are soon zapped as well. As usual, Perez does a good job with the fights, moving the action along through changing perspectives and varying panel layouts. As with #7, the skill invested in these action scenes helps make up for the underlying plot holes.

Raven finds Robin and Changeling at a Dayton Industries board meeting. She's been followed by the Zombie Titans, who attack. Changeling turns into a snake and wraps around Kid Flash's neck. The speedster starts spinning faster and faster, trying to throw Gar off, and eventually breaking the mind-control hold. Kid Flash then frees Starfire by spinning her at super-speed. Robin knocks out Cyborg by kneeing him in the groin (where he's unprotected? Wasn't he an athlete? Shouldn't he know to put on a cup before going to face Trigon?). Raven's soul-self frees Wonder Girl. Kid Flash tracks the vibratory signature to the Puppeteer's lair, and the Titans destroy a small army (literally) of puppets. In an appropriate nod to an old Flash story, there's a Flash puppet in the melee. The Puppeteer escapes, but a H.I.V.E. sniper has him in his sights.

Finally, while all this was going on, Deathstroke steals the Promethium plans. To Be Continued....

These three issues presented standalone stories (only last-page cliffhangers linked #8 to #9, and #9 to #10) which effectively brought closure to many Titans' subplots. Cyborg overcomes his resentment of his father, and by extension his part-mechanical status. Raven faces her fears and begins learning to enjoy life. Starfire accepts her new home on Earth. Kid Flash struggles with his desire for a normal life even as he plays a major role in defeating the Puppeteer. Just 9 issues into the book, and already the characters' inner motivations are shifting. Wolfman and Perez wanted their stars to be dynamic, not just physically, but in terms of story.

Still, as the old character beats are retired, new ones take their place -- romantic possibilities with Sarah Simms and Terry Long, Changeling's involvement in his adoptive father's company and the corresponding absence of said father, Changeling and Cyborg's developing friendship, and Starfire's concern about losing her warrior's edge. All of these would figure prominently in the coming months.

Next: More Deathstroke, older Titans, and Paradise Island!

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