Friday, October 08, 2004

Pre-"Friends" Friends: New Teen Titans #s 1-2

Here's the first in what will hopefully become periodic essays on The New Teen Titans. (I am conflicted about this, because it means just one more obstacle to finishing up those Supreme Power posts. Someday, I promise.) Today, let's return to late 1980 and examine the Titans preview and first two issues.

Before Marv Wolfman and George Perez (and editor Len Wein) got ahold of them, the Teen Titans were one of DC's most desperate attempts to be hip. DC never really gave much thought to them as "realistic" teens, but it wasn't really interested in them growing up either. They existed as DC's idea of what teen super-heroes should be like -- speaking in outdated slang, struggling with adult authority, headquartered in a disco -- and DC kept them in a sort of perpetual underage state for a couple of decades.

The previous Teen Titans series hadn't been cancelled long when Wally (Kid Flash) West decided to give up the superhero biz (in the 1978 Flash Spectacular). Dick (Robin) Grayson, already in college, was a frequent guest in Batman and Detective. Less familiar sidekicks like Speedy, Wonder Girl, and Aqualad were reduced to occasional appearances in their mentors' books. The old group was effectively gone.

A couple of years later, DC Comics Presents #26 introduced the new group in a 16-page preview insert. I'm still amazed that Wolfman and Perez crammed so much information into those 16 pages. Basically, it involves a solo Robin trying to stop terrorists at a S.T.A.R. Labs facility while being plagued by realistic hallucinations of an adventure with a new group of Teen Titans.

The main attraction for me was the art. Perez was just about everywhere in 1980 -- drawing Avengers and Justice League of America, and doing covers for books like Green Lantern and Legion of Super-Heroes. To have him on a perennial B-list feature like the Titans was unusual. While he wasn't quite into the densely-packed layouts yet, he was clearly at home with these characters and could make them move like no one else. Dick Giordano inked Perez for the special, using a thicker line than usual and thereby making the artwork that much darker and moodier. (The series' regular inker was Romeo Tanghal, who was fine except for obscuring a lot of trademark Perez detail.)

Other than Wonder Girl, who was just kind of there as Robin's guide to the hallucinations, Wolfman offered quick character sketches and diagrammed relationships: Robin's troubles with Batman; Kid Flash's love for Raven; Changeling (Gar Logan, the former Beast Boy)'s irreverence; Starfire's free spirit and attraction to Robin; and Cyborg's personal connection to the menace du jour. The only Titans who appeared in the "real" story were Robin and Raven, so it's fitting that issue #1 soon caught up with them.

Issue #1 actually opens with Princess Koriand'r (Starfire) escaping from slavery in the Gordanian Empire. Her rescue forms the backbone of #1's plot, but as with any debut issue, there's a lot of space spent introducing the players. These move quickly: Raven confirms to Robin that his dream has a basis in reality, and directs him to Wonder Girl, who's musing about her own mysterious origins. Changeling appears next, then Kid Flash, and the group (plus Raven) goes to find Victor "Cyborg" Stone. Raven then directs the assembled group to where Starfire is recuperating, and the rest of the issue involves fighting aliens. Dialogue is expository without slowing the pace, and it's helped by a good bit of humor.

Wolfman sets up the major character arcs right off, and will spend a decent amount of time on each. Robin's feud with Batman takes about 4 years to resolve. Wonder Girl's search for her past finally pays off over 3 years later. Cyborg's Ben Grimm-like frustration with his metal body is addressed before the first year ends. Raven's reasons for bringing the group together are explained in the next few issues. However, one theme emerges clearly even in these early stories: the Bad Father. Robin is struggling against Batman's control; Cyborg is angry with his scientist father for making him a freak; and Raven's father is literally a demon. (The other Titans will soon explore their own parental issues.)

The Bad Father really drives the plot of issue #2, which introduces Deathstroke the Terminator. (I'm guessing problems with both "Deathstroke" and "Terminator" led Cartoon Network to call this character by his real first name, Slade.) The book returns to supporting characters Carol Sladky and Grant Wilson, who found Koriand'r in issue #1. They're now arguing because Grant's been hanging around with thugs. (She doesn't want him to end up like his father and brother.) Grant also resents the Titans for wrecking his apartment in last issue's fight with the Gordanians. He soon finds his way to The H.I.V.E. (Hierarchy for International Vengeance and Eliminations), a mysterious group of criminal scientists. They endow Grant with Deathstroke's skills and heightened physical abilities and send him after the Titans. (Deathstroke had previously refused to accept the contract on the team.)

While Robin, Wonder Girl, Starfire, Changeling, and Kid Flash relax poolside at Gar Logan's palatial estate, Grant (now called "Ravager") attacks Cyborg. Cyborg just about gets the best of Ravager, who starts experiencing side effects from the procedure; but Deathstroke stuns Cyborg and the two assassins get away.

(The scenes at Gar's house -- actually the house of his absent adoptive father, Steve "Mento" Dayton -- are quite well-executed. When Kid Flash arrives, Perez slows time to a crawl, showing him hopping the fence, stripping off his costume, and diving into the pool, practically between eyeblinks. The teammates, all out of costume, discuss the utility of secret identities. Starfire's status as sex object is cemented when she asks why she has to wear a swimsuit, and Wonder Girl remarks "these aren't swimsuits -- they're strings with gland conditions!" Such "off-duty" interactions would become an early staple of the title, and the focus of issue #8.)

While Cyborg alerts the Titans, Deathstroke confronts the Ravager about the self-destructive nature of his new powers. If Grant overexerts himself, he'll die. Grant won't hear this, essentially calling Deathstroke a coward and saying "my father was wrong about you." The Ravager tracks the Titans to the Dayton estate (Changeling doesn't have a secret identity) and confronts them there. Deathstroke shows up soon after, but during the ensuing fight, Ravager pushes himself too hard trying to elude Starfire's energy bolts. The fight stops and Deathstroke attends to the dying Ravager. Before his death, Raven (who's been off in a demon-dimension) shows Ravager an illusion of the defeated Titans, I guess to ease his pain.

Deathstroke blames the Titans for Ravager's death. He picks up the body and leaves, and the Titans let him go out of (in Raven's words) "compassion." (This, plus Raven's illusion, was an unconventional way to end the fight. Narrative captions underscore that Grant was consumed by hate, so in a sense Raven was giving him what he wanted. The same could be said for letting Deathstroke leave. Still, it's a quasi-creepy, Spectre/Phantom Stranger-esque moment, which does little more than highlight Raven's odd sensibilities.) In an epilogue, we learn that the whole thing was engineered by H.I.V.E. -- Grant Wilson was Deathstroke's son, and when the boy died, they knew Slade Wilson would take over the contract to kill the Titans he'd initially refused. Thus, Deathstroke is now the Titans' sworn enemy.

Obviously there was a lot of plot even in these two issues. Almost immediately, NTT sought a balance between superhero action and character interplay, and issue #2 achieved it. The next four issues comprised an epic that tested the limits of that balance.

Before we get into that, a few words about Wolfman's approach to the characters. They were all teenagers in the sense they were all under 20, but they all sounded a little older than that. Dick and Wally were both in college, and Vic would have been if not for the accident which made him a cyborg. Donna was a successful photographer (although she got a stipend from Queen Hippolyta, so she didn't really need to work), Gar was the youngest, and Raven and Starfire were somewhere in between. Each character was either an established hero or someone with a naturally "mature" approach. (Changeling was deliberately immature.)

Therefore, it would have been easy for Wolfman and Perez either to adopt the pseudo-hip stylings of their predecessors, or to do a straightforward, "serious" superhero book, but they chose a middle ground. For the reasons stated above, the Titans probably couldn't sound too immature, but casting them as perfect teenaged role models wouldn't have worked either. Instead, they came off as natural as they probably could. Combined with Perez's pictures, the Titans' comfortable, familiar dialogue gave the book an across-the-board appeal.

Finally, I'm sure it's just a coincidence, but I have to get this out of my system. Looking back on these first few stories, it strikes me that the Titans' personalities can be mapped to the cast of "Friends," another group of ubiquitous young people who brought in stacks of money for their corporate patrons. There's the "good girl" (Wonder Girl/Monica), the "sexpot" (Starfire/Rachel -- one fled slavery and the other marriage), the "weird girl" (Raven/Phoebe), the "wisecracker" (Changeling/Chandler), and the "serious guy" (Robin/Ross). It's not perfect, but I think there's something to those archetypes which helped both groups achieve early success.

Altogether, these three stories were very solid, and laid a firm foundation for what lay ahead. As good as they were, the book hadn't peaked yet.

Next up: the Fearsome Five, the Justice League, and Trigon the Terrible!

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